World War One: St. Mihiel and Blanc Mont Ridge (Marine Brigade)

Between July 25th and September 12th, the Marine Brigade had only 15 casualties. The men spent ten days in a quiet section of the front around Marbache in the Moselle valley and trained for the next round.

The Allies gathered strength. Foch became a Marshal of France and planned a massive offensive along the entire Western Front. Pershing finally got his American army- The U.S. First Army- and, preliminary to Foch’s offensive, prepared to wipe out the four year old bulge in the front at St. Mihiel, where the Germans had pushed out from the fortress city of Metz on the Moselle River. For two years, there had been little fighting there.
Meanwhile, to the northwest, French and American divisions kept pounding away until, by August 6th, exactly two months after the earlier offensive began at Belleau Wood, the line between Reims and Soissons had been hammered straight. The American soldiers carried the heaviest load and took 50,000 casualties.

Still further north, two days later, the British tore open the enemy line. The stricken German High Command called it a “Black Day” for Germany. Germany’s leaders decided the war must be ended, and the Kaiser ordered the politicians to sue for peace. Later, some Germans might rant that they had been “stabbed in the back,” but in fact they had been broken on the battlefield.

To clip off the St. Mihiel salient between the Meuse and Moselle rivers- the last salient in the Western Front-Pershing had 10 divisions of his own army and six French divisions. Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell, USA, commanded 1,400 supporting airplanes.
When the Germans realized that the salient in front of Metz was going to be hit hard, they began pulling back to their Hindenburg line positions. They had barely started retreating when at 1 A.M. on September 12th, the roaring bombardment of 3,000 guns began; and after four hours, behind a rolling barrage, came the troops.
In the sector of the U.S. 2nd Division, again at full strength the 3rd Infantry Brigade led the attack, with the 5th Marines supporting the 9th Infantry on the right and the 6th Marines following the 23rd Infantry on the left. Resistance was slight. At the end of the second day, the Marine Brigade took over the line, fought forward and stood off counterattacks from the Hindenburg Line. Casualties were comparatively light because of the heavy artillery barrage and because the enemy was already falling back when the Marines advanced; the Brigade had 132 dead and 574 wounded. And the persistent St Mihiel salient had disappeared.

The Germans expected Pershing to go on to Metz, but even before the St. Mihiel attack was finished, reserve troops were moving north to the area between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest, where Foch wanted to deliver the hardest blow.
The American First Army stood from the Meuse west to the Argonne; the French Fourth Army was west of the forest. Facing the Americans, the Germans had built elaborate defensive positions in great depth; and they controlled the heights on both flanks, the bluffs east of the Meuse and the tree-covered hills of the Argonne on the left. This American sector was at the southern end of the great offensive that Foch opened on September 26th against the main German defensive system from the Meuse all the way to the North Sea.

Although the American First Army outnumbered its opponents eight to one, the enemy’s stubborn, shrewd defense and the difficult terrain that Foch had chosen made the Meuse-Argonne battle an epic slugging match. The Germans stayed to fight, and the American soldiers knocked their heads against the enemy’s wall in the most bullheaded fashion-at the cost of thousands of lives. Not until the U.S. 2nd Division finally took Blanc Mont Ridge to the south on October 5th did the Germans start withdrawing.
Meanwhile, back of the German lines, the generals and politicians were groping for a way out of the war; and on October 4th they sent President Wilson a cable asking for an armistice. But the young men on both sides continued to die.

At the beginning of the great offensive, the U.S. 2nd and 36th Divisions were turned over to the French Fourth Army, commanded by the distinguished General Henri Gourand, a French “Marine” who had lost an arm at Gallipoli. Pershing was still fighting with Foch to keep the American Army intact, and the release of these two divisions to the French was a compromise.

Lejeune Also had to battle French pressure to break up his brigades to support the French divisions. He insisted that the 2nd Division fight as a unit and told Gouraud if his division were not divided, it would take Blanc Mont Ridge, which dominated the Arnes Valley in Champagne and was the key to the French Four Army’s front. Winning the ridge would free the city of Reims. The 2nd Division was assigned to take the ridge.
On the cold, starlit night of October 1-2, the Marine Brigade occupied a 2 mile section of the front just north of Somme-Py. The desolate, white chalk, war gutted land was ripped by trenches, shell holes, concrete fortifications and tangle wire. IN the far distance the towers of Reims were barely visible. The next night, the Marines occupied the so-called Essen Trench, as the Germans withdrew.

At 5:50 A.M. on the gray, misty morning of October 3rd, the French and Americans attacked. With the Marines on the left and the 3rd Brigade on the right, the two 2nd Division brigades were to converge on the pine-covered Blanc Mont Ridge, commanding the scene. The 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines led the 4th Brigades attack, accompanied by a battalion of French tanks. By 8:30 A.M., the 2nd Battalion captured the German main line of resistance, except for the western slope of Blanc Mont Ridge.

In the assault, two Marines of the 78th Company performed acts of bravery that earned them the Medal of Honor. Chicago-born Private John J. Kelly, running through the American artillery barrage, attacked a machine-gun nest, killed the gunner with a grenade, shot another German with his pistol and brought eight members of the crew back as prisoners. Corporal John H. Pruitt, a native of Fayetteville, Arkansas, saw his fellow Marines falling before the fire of two German machine guns, attacked the two guns, destroyed them and killed the two gunners. Then he captured 40 Germans in a nearby dugout. Shortly afterward, while sniping at the enemy, Pruitt was mortally wounded by shellfire. He died the next day, his twenty-second birthday. Kelly and Pruitt were the last of only six men of the Marine Brigade to win the Medal of Honor in World War I.

Because the French had been unable to move up on the Marines left, the 1st Battalion , 6th Marines, and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 5th Marines had to extend to the left and the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines was ordered to help the French eliminate the machine-gun complex called the “Essen Hook.” Captain LeRoy P. Hunt’s 17th Company finally killed and captured the “Hook’s” detachment of 100 Germans. Hunt received the Navy Cross.

The Germans doggedly held the western tip of Blanc Mont Ridge; and later in the afternoon, the French commanders ordered the 2nd Division to attack again. The 23rd Infantry advanced another two kilometers; but the 5th Marines, who had been designed to lead the Marine Brigade’s attack, received the order too late, and Lejeune postponed their attack until morning. The delay was costly. The Germans heavily reinforced the Blanc Mont ridge.

October 4th was the bloodiest day of the war for the Marines. The 5th Marines led the way and took a beating. Young Major Henry L. Larsen of Denver led his 3rd Battalion forward some two kilometers before it was enfiladed from both sides by machine-gun fire and had to retreat. All three battalions of the 5th Marines now came under heavy fire from virtually every side. They hung on, struggling forward, their ranks cut up by shrapnel and machine-gun bullets. Major George Hamilton’s 1st Battalion fought with bayonets and clubbed rifles. The hardest hit companies were down to two dozen men; the 1st Battalion to hardly had more than hundred. In the days fighting 1100 Marines were killed or wounded, most of them from the 5th Marines. The Germans still held part of Blanc Mont Ridge.

At 6:30 A.M. the next day, Major George Shuler’s 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines assaulted the German strongpoint on Blanc Mont ridge and captured 205 of the enemy and 65 machine guns. Catching the Germans in the dugouts, where they had fled from the pre-attack artillery barrage, the battalion suffered no casualties.

That afternoon, the 6th Marines, with the 2nd Battalion leading, tried to move toward St. Etienne-â-Arnes beyond the ridge, but the battalion had only 300 men left, and a strong machine-gun defense stopped them at the edge of the woods southeast of the town.
October 6th saw more heavy fighting, and the 2nd Division’s depleted frontline units were relieved during the night. Early on the eight, army units attacked; and the 6th Marines 76th Company, commanded by Captain Macon C. Overton, occupied St. Etienne. On Overton’s right, the 75th Company was reduced to a handful of enlisted men led by Sergeant Aralzaman C. Marsh. Marsh held his ground against a German Counterattack that evening. The last Marine unit, the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, with less than 300 men now left, was relieved on October 10th. The German armies east of Reims were in retreat to the Aisne River. The men of the two Marine regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion received their third citation for gallantry from the French, entitling them to wear the green and scarlet cord of the fourragère on their left shoulder. In a week of continuous combat, the Marine Brigade had lost 494 dead and 1,864 wounded.

One of the wounded was the 1st Sergeant Daly. Lejeune called the wiry little sergeant “the outstanding Marine of all time.” Born on November 11, 1873, Daly had been anewsboy in New York City’s Park row and enlisted for the Spanish-American War but saw no action then. The only enlisted Marines ever to wi the Medal of Honor for two separate actions- at Peking and Haiti- he wa awarded the Navy Cross and Army Distinguished Service Cross for heroism at Belleau Wood, where he put out an ammunition dump fire and singlehandedly captured a machine-gun nest with grenades and a automatic pistol. When Daly arrives home after the Armistice, reporters asked him how he had won his DSC. Daly explained “I was out there pickin’ pansies for my gal in Brooklyn one day” when a car full of brass hats drove up and they pined a medal on him. He was the sergeant who had asked the marines if they wanted to live forever; he died in his bed in Glendale New York, at age sixty-three.

Now, in France, the 2nd Division was ordered to rejoin the American First Army in the Argonne Forest and the final battel of the war.

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

SOURCE: The U.S. Marine Corps Story
BY: J. Robert Moskin
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan

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