World War I: The U.S. Army Overseas


Included in the orders General Pershing received from the Secretary of War before he left for France was a stipulation "to cooperate with the forces of the other countries . . . but in so doing the underlying idea must be kept in view that the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved." This was a requirement that influenced many of Pershing's early decisions in regard to the American Expeditionary Forces and was to be for long months a recurring source of contention between Pershing and Allied commanders who were nearing the end of their manpower resources.


Training and Organizing U.S. Troops


For assembling American troops, Pershing chose the region southeast of Paris. Since the British were committed to that part of the front north of Paris and since the French had achieved their greatest concentration in protection of the capital, they had tied up the Channel ports and the railroads north and northeast of Paris. By locating southeast of the city, U.S. forces would be close to the Lorraine portion of the front, a likely spot for committing an independent American force. The French had few troops there and important objectives lay within reasonable striking distance—coal and iron mines and railroads vital to the Germans. This part of the front could be served by the ports of southern and southwestern France and by rail lines less committed to French and British requirements. Pershing set up his headquarters near the source of the Marne in Chaumont.


To Pershing, the training not only of the hastily assembled 1st Division but also of the others that followed before the end of 1917 (the 2d—half Regular Army, half Marine; 26th—New England National Guard; and 42d—called the "Rainbow Division" because it was a composite of Guardsmen from many states) was seriously inadequate. Many of the men in these divisions were recruits, replacements for those pulled out to help train newly forming units.




Pershing devised an intensive training schedule for the 1st Division and planned to follow a similar program for the other three with the idea of withholding all four from active sectors until all were ready, whereupon, late in 1918, they might be committed as the nucleus of an independent American force. Reinforced by other units arriving in 1918, Pershing in 1919 could open an offensive aimed at victory.


For training in trench warfare, Pershing gratefully accepted the help of experienced Allied officers. He also followed the Allied system of setting up special training centers and schools to teach subjects such as gas warfare, demolitions, and the use of the hand grenade and the mortar. Yet in the belief that the French and British had become too imbued with trench warfare to the exclusion of the open maneuvers that eventually would be necessary to achieve victory, he insisted on additional training in offensive tactics, including detailed work in rifle marksmanship and use of the bayonet.


Not until late October 1917 did Pershing submit the 1st Division to trial experience in the line. One battalion at a time from each regiment spent ten days with a French division. The first U.S. Army casualties of the war resulted from this deployment when early in November the Germans staged a trench raid against the same battalion that had paraded in Paris. With a loss of 3 of their own men, the Germans killed 3 Americans and captured 11.


The cycle in the trenches completed, Pershing submitted the 1st Division to further training to correct the deficiencies observed at the front. Only in mid-January of 1918, Six months after its arrival in France, was the division ready in Pershing's view to move as a unit into a quiet sector of the trenches.


General Pershing had in the meantime been setting up the staff and logistical organization for managing the growing American force. Reflecting a strong similarity to the French system, his General Staff ultimately included a chief of staff, a deputy chief, and five assistant chiefs supervising five sections: G-I (Personnel), G-2 (Intelligence), G-3 (Operations), G-4 (Supply), and G-s (Training). Staffs for divisions and later for corps and armies followed a similar organization, while to fill the new staff positions Pershing set up a General Staff College with a 3-month course.


To provide logistical support, Pershing created a Line of Communications under a single commander responsible directly to him. It was organized into base sections, each with one or more ports, an intermediate section for storage and classification of supplies, and an advanced section for distribution to the zone of operations. After American units entered combat, depots in the advanced section made up supplies for each division in trains which moved to division railheads, whence the divisions moved the supplies to the front in wagons and




trucks. The designation Line of Communications was later changed to Services of Supply under command of Pershing's original chief of staff, Maj. Gen. James G. Harbord.


Pressure From French and British


Carrying out the comprehensive training program required all the determination at Pershing's disposal, for once the first exultation accompanying the arrival of American troops in France had predictably passed, practical French and British commanders saw that it would be a long time before independent American units could assume any appreciable portion of the combat burden. They began to insist almost immediately that American soldiers be fed into Allied divisions as replacements.


The Allies felt their request was logical. They had the experienced commanders and units, the necessary artillery, aviation, and tank support, but they lacked men. The American situation was the reverse. Their way, they argued, the power of the American soldier could be quickly brought to bear and hasten the victory. Yet this was reckoning without a sense of national pride that existed among both the soldiers themselves and the American people.


Pershing refused.


Although the Allied governments tried to bypass Pershing by going directly to Washington, they found the Secretary of War and the President firmly behind their field commander. When General Tasker H. Bliss, who had served briefly as the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, was sent as the American representative to the Supreme War Council, Allied governments tried this channel to break Pershing's adamant resolve; but although Bliss was inclined to be more conciliatory than Pershing, he yielded nothing on the principle of a separate American force.


The issue arose again early in 1918 when the British offered to provide the shipping to transport I50 battalions of infantry, which would be used to fill out British divisions that because of the manpower shortage had been reduced from 12 battalions of infantry to 9. After four or five months, according to the British plan, Pershing might withdraw the battalions to form them into American divisions.


This too Pershing refused, but well aware that a lack of ships was slowing the American build-up, he suggested that the British transport divisions instead. Because the same shipping that could move 150 infantry battalions could accommodate only about 3 divisions, which would mean only 36 infantry battalions, the British declined, but eventually they agreed to transport 6 divisions without equipment on the condition that Pershing outfit and train them in the British zone. Ten divisions would eventually arrive under this program.




The matter of a separate American force stood for the moment with Pershing still in unqualified control, yet in view of Allied persistence and of pending developments at the front the question was bound to arise again and again.


The German Offensive, March 1918


As the year 1918 opened, two more U.S. divisions were destined for early arrival in France, but if Pershing kept to his training schedule the American presence was a long way from assertion on the battlefield. The original excitement among the French and British over America's entry into the war had given way to renewed pessimism, for the Allied position appeared less favorable than at any time since the opening battle of the Marne. To the weary French and British, President Wilson's January proclamation of a 14-point peace proposal, however statesmanlike, appeared too idealistic.


So perturbed by the shocking losses of Passchendaele was the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, that he withheld replacements to assure that his field commander, Sir Douglas Haig, would have to remain on the defensive. Nor could a French Army not yet fully recovered from the mutinies be expected to swing to the attack. The Allies appeared to have no alternative for 1918 but to hold on grimly until enough American troops arrived to assure the numerical superiority essential to victory.


Aside from the calamities of the Nivelle offensive, Passchendaele, and Caporetto, the Allies faced the prospect of sharply increased German numbers made available by the Russian defection. The number of German divisions shifted from east to west would have been even greater had the new Bolshevik government not reneged on its decision to get out of the war and had the Germans not blundered in response. The Bolsheviks had come to Brest-Litovsk in December 1917 to talk only of a peace that would restore Russia's prewar boundaries and impose no indemnities, a concept that strained German credulity. What came of the first encounter at Brest-Litovsk was neither peace nor war but a bizarre new confrontation between Germany and Russia that still tied down eighty German divisions.


Russia, said the Bolsheviks, would not make peace; neither would its forces continue the war even if the Germans still fought. In response, the German armies in the east began in February 1918 to march deeper into Russia. They marched on even after the Bolsheviks at last agreed to real peace, only to become involved eventually in guerrilla warfare against their rear. Throughout the spring and summer of I9I8 a million Germans that might have been decisive on the Western Front remained embroiled in Russia.




Within Germany, by the start of 1918, the duo of Hindenburg and Ludendorff had gradually accumulated almost dictatorial powers, with Ludendorff dominating more than ever. They decided that they had to strike early in 1918 in a final grand effort to achieve victory in the west before American manpower could be brought to bear. Germany, possibly more than France and Britain, was hurting gravely from the long war: on the home front, starvation was becoming a stark reality, and the previous summer there had been Marxist-inspired mutinies in the German Navy. The replacements going to German divisions were old men and boys.


By recalling divisions from Italy and some from the east, Ludendorff managed to assemble over 3,500,000 men on the Western Front, including 192 divisions. He planned to attack in early spring with 62 divisions along the Somme against the British, whose armies had little space for recoil before they would find themselves with their-backs on the Channel. Having split the British and French, he then would turn to defeat the French. (Map 39)


For success Ludendorff counted on numerical superiority (4 to 1), surprise, and the first mass application of new tactics developed originally in the east by Lt. Gen. Oscar von Hutier. The so-called "Hutier tactics" involved a relatively short (several hours) but intensive artillery preparation, heavy on gas and smoke, followed by a rolling barrage creeping ahead of the infantry at a predetermined rate. Organized in small battle groups built around a light machine gun, the infantry infiltrated to cut off strongpoints rather than assault them, leaving that task to others who came behind. The enemy's forward positions ruptured, the infantry advanced swiftly to overrun the enemy artillery and break into the clear. In both these phases, light artillery was attached to assault battalions, a tactical use of horse-drawn field pieces heretofore considered suicidal in trench warfare.


The new tactics put a premium on courage, stamina, initiative, and co-ordination, qualities which, for lack of time, the Germans could instill in only about two dozen specially selected divisions. These were pulled from the line, filled out with men from other divisions, and put through an intensive training program.


Despite elaborate efforts to achieve surprise, a new confidence radiating from Berlin and intelligence gathered from prisoners at the front made it clear to the Allies that the Germans were readying a major offensive. The British even determined the general strength, place, and finally the date of the attack, and they had a strong indication of the tactics the Germans would employ. But Haig, short of reserves, could do little in advance to prepare to counter the blow,

Map  39: Western Front 20 Mar-  11 Nov 1918
Map 39




while the French High Command refused to believe that if Ludendorff intended a decisive offensive he would strike the British rather than the French.


The big blow came on March 21 in a fog with the main effort against the British right wing. When night fell, the Germans had achieved a penetration along a so-mile front and were pointing toward Amiens, a communications hub on the Somme that in German hands would effectively split the French and British armies. The only question remaining was, did Ludendorff have the means to exploit his success.


If Ludendorff's success or failure depended on early commitment of Allied reserves, he had little cause for concern. Despite a mutual pledge by Haig and Petain to go to each other's aid in event of crisis, so imbued was Petain with the belief that the Germans were bound to strike a harder blow against the French that he was slow to send help. Although he gradually dispatched six divisions to the south flank of the penetration, these acted less to stem the German tide than to screen against any German turn toward Paris.


Ludendorff nevertheless was running into trouble. To broaden the penetration at the northern shoulder, he threw in 20 more divisions; but these were untrained in the Hutier tactics and failed to pierce a solid British defense. The long-fought-over terrain along the Somme slowed the advance of the main effort, and a hastily created British defensive force composed mainly of rear echelon service troops occupied old trenches east of Amiens to halt the advance on that critical city. The German divisions in the lead were becoming exhausted, and supplies failed to get forward.


By the end of March, Ludendorff's offensive had bogged down. He had achieved a brilliant tactical victory—an advance of forty miles in eight days, 70,000 prisoners, 200,000 other Allied casualties; but strategically the result was empty. He had failed either to destroy the British armies or to separate them from the French, and he had taken as many casualties as he had inflicted, most of them in the highly trained shock divisions, losses he could not replace.


Unity of Command


A combination of the crisis and of Petain's dilatory response to Haig's pleas for help also harmed German chances of ultimate victory. Although Haig himself had vitiated an earlier attempt to create a 30-division reserve for the Supreme War Council by pleading inability to spare his quota, he was so shaken by the crisis on the Somme that he volunteered to subordinate British troops around Amiens to a Frenchman, General (later Marshal of France) Ferdinand Foch. As an instructor in prewar years at the École de Guerre, Foch




had established a reputation as a military theorist and earlier in the war had successfully co-ordinated British, French, and Belgian operations in Flanders. Out of this agreement to subordinate all troops around the Amiens salient to Foch grew a broader understanding to subordinate, first, all British and French troops on the Western Front, then, later, all Allied forces.


The Allies at last had a unified command, even though they qualified it with weakening provisos: one that Foch had only "strategic direction" while "tactical control" remained with national commanders, another that each national commander could appeal a decision of the supreme commander to his home government. These qualifications, in theory, sharply diminished Foch's authority; but through military acumen, determination, and force of personality, Foch would make the arrangement work.


The Lys Offensive, April 1918


Ludendorff, meanwhile, clung to a belief that with another blow he could shatter the British armies. This time he chose a point a few miles north of the Amiens salient along the Lys River in Flanders, close by the scene of the bloody British offensive known as Passchendaele. Now he had 35 divisions.


Following an intensive bombardment, mainly with gas shells, eight German divisions attacked early on April 9 along the south bank of the Lys and quickly took advantage of the collapse of a Portuguese division to plunge five miles past the last of the trenches into open country. The next day other divisions attacking along the north bank of the Lys also achieved a penetration.


By the fourth day of the attack, the British were in serious danger. Putting the new unified command to a test, Field Marshal Haig called on Foch for help, but having long observed the tenacity of the British soldier on defense, Foch was convinced Haig could hold without involving reserves that could be better saved for a counteroffensive once the Germans had exhausted their resources. Although Haig fumed, Foch would agree to send only a few divisions.


Haig at that point issued what became known as his "backs to the wall" order: "There is no other course open to us but to fight it out.... With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end."


As the British soldier responded nobly, hungry German troops often slowed their attack to forage for food. In the end, Ludendorff had no choice but to call off the offensive. As April drew to a close, he held another vulnerable




salient that included the Passchendaele Ridge but little else of tactical importance, this at a cost to the British of 305,000 casualties of all types but to the Germans even more, 350,000.


The first major action involving an American division had developed in the meantime far from the flaming Somme and Lys on a quiet sector in Lorraine, not far from the town of St. Mihiel. Here the 26th Division on April 20 came under a heavy bombardment, followed by a German attack in regimental strength aimed at seizing the village of Seicheprey. Boxing in the defenders with artillery barrages, the Germans took the village, only to lose it in the afternoon to a U.S. counterattack. The Germans held on to a nearby wood through the day, but American riflemen, cut off and scattered early in the fighting, regrouped to regain their positions the next day. The Germans left behind 160 dead, but they took 136 prisoners and inflicted 634 casualties.


During these weeks, General Pershing came under renewed pressure from the British and French to make up losses in Allied divisions with individual American replacements. While Pershing at the height of the crisis on the Somme had offered to place U.S. troops at Foch's disposal, he had been thinking only of the existing crisis while remaining faithful in the long run to the concept of an autonomous American army. Long and sometimes tempestuous were the arguments, voluminous the cables between Allied capitals, but in the end Pershing would go only so far as to agree that infantry and engineers of the divisions being transported in British shipping might be brought to France ahead of their artillery. Allied commanders, including Foch, finally endorsed the principle of forming as soon as possible an independent American force.


The Aisne Offensive, May 1918


As these arguments proceeded, the front was for a few weeks relatively quiet. It was a quiet before a storm, for Ludendorff was determined to persist in his struggle in Flanders to pin the British armies against the Channel.


To draw off Allied reserves from Flanders, Ludendorff decided on a diversionary attack against the Chemin des Dames, an elongated, commanding ridgeline northeast of Paris covering Soissons. Although this was the sector where Pétain had feared attack in March, with no attack forthcoming he had progressively thinned the defense. So imbued with the natural strength of the position was the local commander that he had neglected to erect a defense in depth, concentrating his men instead on the forward slope of the Chemin des Dames. In the face of heavy bombardment combined with the Hutier tactics, he was 1nviting disaster.




It was not long in coming. Although forewarned by an American intelligence analysis that an attack was in the offing, the French refused to heed the signs until the day before the attack was to begin. All the French troops could do in the time remaining was to stand warily at their posts while Foch belatedly began moving reserves.


With 17 divisions forward and 13 in follow-up reserve, the Germans attacked early on May 27 behind a barrage by close to 5,000 guns. German infantry plunged quickly over and beyond the Chemin des Dames, jumping the Aisne and Vesle Rivers, and gaining up to 20 miles in the first 24 hours.


Although this was to have been but a diversionary attack, Ludendorff was too elated by the breakthrough, too tempted by the open road to Paris to bring it to a halt. Three days later, on the last day of May, his troops would reach the Marne at Château-Thierry, less than fifty miles from the French capital, almost as close as Moltke had come in 1914.


Under pressure of this new crisis, General Pershing again went to Foch, this time to offer 5 American divisions to be used along the Marne as Foch deemed necessary. By the night of May 31, the machine gun battalion of the 3d Division, moved up swiftly in trucks, was in position to help French troops hold the bridge site over the Marne at Chateau-Thierry, and the rest of the division was on the way to help hold the river line. The next day the 2d Division (which included a Marine brigade) took up defensive positions north of the Marne and west of Château-Thierry astride the main highway to Paris.


Despair gripped not only the French stragglers falling back from the front but also the Allied High Command. What they could not know was that again Ludendorff was overextended, that he could strike in earnest for Paris only after broadening the wings of his narrow salient and bringing up supplies and reserves.


For two days Ludendorff's advance troops beat vainly against a hastily dug American line. At last they desisted, but the infantrymen and marines of the 2d Division would give them no rest. Beginning on June 6, the 2d Division attacked in costly but intrepid strikes against Belleau Wood and the villages of Bouresches and Vaux. Although this fighting would continue for three weeks, it was apparent from the first that the sudden, dramatic introduction of a new force had brought Ludendorff's thrust to a halt. For the Americans it was a costly debut—9,777 casualties, including 1,811 dead—but, the moral effect on both sides was great.


The moral effect was all the more pronounced because of another action that antedated the 2d Division's achievement, the first offensive by an American division in the war. It began as a preliminary to a planned French counterattack




against the Amiens salient, a counterattack that because of Ludendorff's breakthrough to the Marne failed to come off. It was an attack by the 1st Division against the village of Cantigny on commanding ground near the tip of the salient.


Supported by American and French artillery and by French tanks, one regiment took the village in a swift maneuver early on May 28, then held on grimly as counterattack followed counterattack into the next day. The Americans lost 1,607 men, including 199 killed, but in the process they achieved a victory presaging greater events to follow.


The German Offensive, June 1918


Conscious of this new force entering the battle, conscious too of the necessity to maintain the initiative if ever the British armies were to be broken, Ludendorff wanted to pull back from the highly vulnerable Marne salient, but the effect on German morale would have been too adverse. Denied use of these troops for renewing the offensive against the British in Flanders, he decided on still another diversionary attack. By taking ground that might serve as a buffer for a railroad passing through Soissons, Ludendorff would improve supply into the Marne salient and at the same time pose a new threat to Paris that would, he hoped, pull Allied reserves from Flanders.


Ludendorff on June 9 sent one army westward from Soissons, another southward from the south flank of the Amiens salient between the towns of Noyon and Montdidier. As the two thrusts joined, they would merge the Amiens and Marne salients into one big, less vulnerable bulge in the line and release divisions to move to Flanders.


Yet this time there was no surprise and this time the French were ready with a defense in depth. They held the Germans to a tortuous advance of nine miles, then stopped them with counterattacks. By the fifth day, the attack had run its course.


A Growing American Force


As a temporary lull settled over the front, General Pershing on July 4 announced that a million Americans had arrived in France. Nine divisions had had some combat experience, mainly in quiet sectors; 2 others were completing their training; and 8 more had recently arrived. The total was 19, each one double the size of an Allied or German division.


In June Pershing had created three corps headquarters. The I Corps under Maj. Gen. Hunter Liggett first took responsibility for a sector near Château-




Thierry, while the II Corps under Maj. Gen. George W. Read controlled the 27th and 30th Divisions that were destined to fight through the rest of the war with the British. The III Corps under Maj. Gen. Robert L. Bullard had yet to enter the line.


With 250,000 U.S. troops arriving every month, the effect of the American presence on Allied troops and the French population was stimulating, electric. Winston Churchill saw it this way:


The impression made upon the hard-pressed French by this seemingly inexhaustible flood of gleaming youth in its first maturity of health and vigour was prodigious. None were under twenty, and few over thirty. As crammed in their lorries they clattered along the roads, singing the songs of a new world at the tops of their voices, burning to reach the bloody field, the French Headquarters were thrilled with the impulse of new life.... Half trained, half organized, with only their courage, their numbers and their magnificent youth behind their weapons, they were to buy their experience at a bitter price. But this they were quite ready to do.


For all the influx of new strength, no one yet saw any quick ending of the war, any indication that the Germans might have only one more offensive left in them.


The Last German Offensive, July 1918


The meager gains of Ludendorff's diversionary attack in June having failed either to secure the railroad at Soissons or to draw Allied reserves from Flanders, Ludendorff planned yet another diversionary attack before returning to the offensive in Flanders. A month in preparation, the new offensive began on July 15, one army driving southeast from the Marne salient, another attacking south from positions east of the city of Reims, a total of 52 divisions. Meeting on the Marine, the two armies were to cut a sizable segment from the Allied line and in the process solve the supply problem in the Marne salient by taking the railroads at Reims.


Ludendorff called this the Friedensturm—Peace Offensive. That was a mistake, for should failure occur in an offensive associated with such a grandiose aim, the German soldier would be in no condition to recover from the despair that was bound to follow. The slackening of discipline among troops too long denied all but the barest necessities had first emerged in the Lys offensive, but it had become even more apparent during the drive to the Marne as many men deserted the battle to loot wine cellars in the champagne country around Soissons. Weak from malnutrition, the soldiers were peculiarly susceptible to an influenza epidemic that swept the trenches in June and was to keep recurring into November. On the eve of each new offensive, hundreds were deserting to the enemy.




A wave of desertions combined with information gleaned from aerial photographs, observation posts, and patrols told the French what was coming, when, and where. East of Reims, the French commander, whose troops included the 42d U.S. Division, elected to pull the bulk of his men from the forward trenches, leaving only outposts in what was known as a "sacrifice line." While the vacated positions absorbed the German artillery bombardment, the French laid down a counterbarrage. As German troops battered by shellfire neared the "sacrifice line," French and American troops fell back to an intermediate position. After repeating the delaying tactics, French and Americans again withdrew, this time to a main line of resistance. At this third line they held. By noon of the first day the issue was no longer in doubt.


Anxious to deny any German foothold across the Marne, the French opposite the other prong of the German attack had opted against these tactics. Here German gains were greater—up to four miles beyond the Marne at some points—and a French division, occupying a re-entrant formed by a bend in the river, folded, leaving four attached American companies of the 28th Division in a desperate plight. Most of these men were killed or captured. Yet the 3d Division on the French left held, its 38th Infantry, beset on three sides, executing such a steadfast defense that the regiment earned a nickname, "Rock of the Marne."


By noon of the second day, Ludendorff recognized that this prong of his attack also had been blunted. He called off the offensive.


Allied Counteroffensive


Even as the Germans were preparing what turned out to be their last offensive, General Foch had been assembling Allied divisions to launch a counteroffensive directed at first toward a limited objective—cutting the highway reading from Soissons to Chateau-Thierry, the main supply route of German troops in the Marne salient—but with the certainty that, if successful, the attack would be extended to erase the entire salient. In the forefront of the attack were two U.S. divisions—the 1st and 2d—operating under a French corps command.


A heavy rain fell as the troops moved to their jump-off positions the night of July 17, providential, as it turned out, since it helped conceal Allied preparations. After only a short but intensive artillery preparation early on the I8th, Allied infantry moved to the attack from near Soissons in the north to Château-Thierry in the south. In the corps with U.S. divisions, 350 French tanks early




took the lead. When night fell, the two armies had advanced in some places up to five miles.


Although these two U.S. divisions were soon relieved by French and British units, the drive continued and expanded to the east, bringing in the 3d, 4th, 26th, and 28th Divisions and eventually the 32d, 42d, and 77th Divisions, and headquarters of the I and III Corps. The Germans began abandoning their Marne salient, though deliberately and in good order, retiring to successive defensive positions all the way to the Vesle River with the Chemin des Dames at their backs.


A Separate American Army


As the Allied drive came to a halt at the end of the first week of August, new hope of victory stirred in the ranks. The drive had carried no more than 20 miles, but the results were infinitely more important than the amount of territory regained. The counteroffensive had eliminated the threat to Paris spoiled Ludendorff's cherished ambition of striking a deathblow in Flanders, and so dimmed German chances of victory that even Ludendorff could no longer hope for more than a stalemate. Furthermore, the initiative had passed to the Allies, whose fresh force had proven beyond doubt (though at a cost of 50,000 casualties) its ability on the offensive. In the bid to win before the Americans could intervene in force, Ludendorff had failed.


As this counteroffensive (sometimes called, in conjunction with the last German offensive, the Second Battle of the Marne) neared an end, General Pershing pressed his case for an independent American army and a separate




sector of the front. Foch was sympathetic, for a separate American force fitted in with plans he was formulating to eliminate three other German-held salients on the front. British and French together were to reduce the Amiens salient, then the British would erase the Lys salient while the Americans eliminated another salient in Lorraine that had stood for four years and took its name from a town at the tip, St. Mihiel.


With Pershing himself as commander, headquarters of the First Army officially opened on August 10. The new command encompassed the I and III Corps and 19 U.S. divisions.


As demonstrated earlier in making American units available to Allied armies, Pershing for all his adamant resolve to create an independent American force never objected to allowing some U.S. divisions to fight under Allied command; he objected instead to the use of American troops as individual replacements or in small increments to fill out depleted Allied units. Even as he formed the First Army he left the II Corps and its two divisions with the British, while he allowed several other divisions to serve under French command.


The one division whose employment violated Pershing's principle was the 93d, which had only infantry regiments without trains or artillery. This was a Negro division, one of only two organized and sent to France during the war, although thousands of other Negroes served overseas in the Services of Supply. The 93d's regiments were assigned to the French, reorganized according to French tables, and used as integral parts of French divisions. The other Negro division, the 92d, served in the First Army.




The Somme Offensive


As Pershing was forming the First Army, French and British armies under Haig launched converging attacks from the northwest and southwest against the Amiens salient. They achieved as much surprise as had the Germans against the Chemin des Dames. Using 300 tanks in the lead, ten British divisions, including Australians and Canadians, scored a swift breakthrough, brushing aside German units in rout, gaining seven miles in the first few hours, and making of August 8, in Ludendorff's words, a "black day" for the German Army.


Yet the slow, ponderous tanks could not long sustain such a pace, and horse cavalry was of no use when the enemy stiffened. Coming against a strong German stand in old trenches dating from 1915, Haig paused, shifted the emphasis of his attack farther north, then in a methodical campaign gradually pushed the Germans back. By the end of August the Germans were retiring into the positions whence they had begun their big March offensive, the Hindenburg Line. The Amiens salient, like that on the Marne, was a thing of the past. Meanwhile, other British units helped by the U.S. II Corps with the 27th and 30th Divisions had almost finished erasing the Lys salient.


On the German side, the events of 8 August had cast a pall over the High Command. "We have nearly reached the limit of our power to resist," said Hindenburg. "The war must toe ended." When Ludendorff agreed, Wilhelm II instructed his Foreign Secretary to find a way out of the war, but the underlying idea was to retain as much as possible of the territory that the German armies had conquered. Under such a condition, there was little real hope for peace.


The St. Mihiel Offensive


As the British drive progressed, General Pershing and his staff shifted divisions to Lorraine. Their goal was to push beyond the St. Mihiel salient to seize Metz or at least to cut the highway running from Metz all the way to Antwerp, the enemy's main line of lateral communications. When Foch saw the plan, he was so enthusiastic that he increased the French participation from 4 to 10 divisions.


Foch's endorsement of the American plan preceded the British success in pushing the Germans into the Hindenburg Line. Planning an early attack along the Somme to break that line, Marshal Haig suggested to Foch that instead of attacking toward Metz the Americans should be employed from




positions west of Verdun to attack northward toward Mézières along the French-Belgian frontier northeast of Reims. Such an attack would serve not only to cut the enemy's railroad but also to converge with the British attack.


Seeing in Haig's proposal a possibility of victory before the year was out, Foch endorsed the idea. Presenting it to General Pershing, he directed that once the St. Mihiel salient was eliminated the American objective should be changed from Metz to Mézières. In the drive on Mézières, Foch was to employ two armies, one wholly American under Pershing, the other Franco-American under French command.


Foch's proposal for a Franco-American army under French command appeared to Pershing as a threat to the long-sought independent American force which he had so recently achieved. He insisted that, while the American army "will fight wherever you may decide, it will not fight except as an independent American army." Foch declined to press the issue.


Reducing the scope of the attack on the St. Mihiel salient to nine U.S. and five French divisions, Pershing and his staff began to prepare two offensives to be mounted within 23 days in areas 40 miles apart. That was something no single army had yet attempted on the Western Front.




The Germans, fortunately, were to make the task easier. Conscious of the vulnerability of the St. Mihiel salient and of a major Allied offensive in the making, they began to pull out of the salient two days before Pershing planned to attack.


Under Pershing's plan, a French corps was to press the tip of the salient while the V Corps under Maj. Gen. George H. Cameron, in its first combat action, hit the west flank. Meanwhile General Liggett's I Corps and the IV Corps under Maj. Gen. Joseph T. Dickman, also new in the line, was to attack the south flank, the two American thrusts to meet in the center of the salient at the town of Vigneulles. French and British provided the bulk of the artillery support—3,000 guns—while the only tanks available were 267 light French Renaults. Although the French furnished many of the tank crews, others were Americans of the 304th Tank Brigade, commanded by Lt. Col. George S. Patton, Jr. An Allied air force controlled by an exponent of air power, Col. William Mitchell, consisted of almost 1,500 planes (600 piloted by Americans), the largest concentration of aircraft yet assembled.


Following a four-hour artillery bombardment, the tank-infantry advance began before daylight on September 12. Most of the tanks fell victim early to mechanical failure or mud, but they were hardly needed. Resistance was from the first surprisingly moderate, particularly on the southern flank where the Germans had already thinned their forward troops as a step in the general withdrawal. By nightfall of the first day a gap of only ten miles separated the two converging American forces.


When Pershing learned that roads leading out of the salient were filled with withdrawing Germans, he urged continued attack through the night to block all escape routes. A regiment of the 26th Division pushed swiftly from the west to enter Vigneulles two hours after midnight, there to be joined soon after dawn by a regiment of the 1st Division.


This first victory of the war by an American army netted 15,000 prisoners at a cost of only 7,000 casualties. It was so easy that some have referred to it as the action in which the Americans relieved the Germans, but the observation fails to take into account that the Germans had begun to pull back because they dreaded what was coming.


The Meuse-Argonne Offensive


Even as Pershing had been preparing and launching this first big American attack, Foch's original plan had been growing by bounds. No longer was the offensive to be confined to a British strike along the Somme and an American




drive on Mézières. The new plan also included a Belgian-British-French attack along the Lys and French attacks in between British and Americans. It was to be a grand assault all along the front—said Foch: "Tout le monde à la bataille!". The aim was to cut the enemy's rail line at Mézières and Aulnoye, the latter in front of the British, and thereby force the Germans to retire inside their frontier before winter set in. For the offensive Foch had 220 divisions—160 in line, 60 in reserve. They included 42 of the big American divisions, although some of these had only recently arrived and Pershing would be forced to cannibalize others to obtain replacements. Ten American divisions would still serve with British and French armies.


Assisted by the French Fourth Army on the left, the American attack was to begin first, on September 26. It posed a tremendous logistical effort involving rapid transfer of some 800,000 men, 200,000 French moving out of the new American sector west of Verdun, and 600,000 Americans moving in. That it was completed in secrecy and in time for the jump-off was attributable in large measure to the planning of a young officer on Pershing's staff, Col. George C. Marshall. Again the British and French furnished most of the artillery and tanks (190 French lights) and some of the 800 aircraft supporting the attack.


The terrain over which the advance was to pass was studded with natural and man-made obstacles. From high ground east of the Meuse River, which formed the right boundary for the attack, and from densely wooded high ground of the Argonne Forest in the left of the attack zone, German eyes could look down on much of the battlefield; and in the center, between the forest and the river, the Germans held a hogback ridge replete with fortified spurs and stone-walled villages. The Germans had established three lines with trenches, barbed wire, deep dugouts, and concrete fighting posts, while a fourth was under construction farther back. Particularly formidable were strongpoints at Montfaucon, Cunel, and Barricourt.


In a sector approximately twenty miles wide, Pershing massed three corps, each to employ two divisions forward, one in reserve. With a superiority in men of 8 to 1, he hoped to make the ten miles through the first three German positions in one sustained drive.


The infantry began to advance before daylight after a 3-hour artillery bombardment. Achieving surprise, they caught the Germans with only four divisions in the line. General Bullard's III Corps on the right pushed five miles through both the first and second German positions, but General Cameron's V Corps in the center ground to a halt before the bristling defenses of Montfaucon, and General Liggett's I Corps on the left could advance little more than a mile through the thick, almost trackless Argonne Forest.




During the next few days, the troops plodded slowly forward, at last carrying Montfaucon and putting the V Corps through the second German line, but progress amid the trees and dank ravines of the Argonne Forest still was slow. Flanking fire from east of the Meuse and from uncleared portions of the Argonne harried units on the right and in the center. Most of the supporting tanks succumbed to the usual troubles of mud and mechanical failure. Congestion and muddy roads hampered resupply. Most serious of all was the inexperience of the troops, for having used his experienced divisions in the St. Mihiel salient Pershing had had to withhold them from the first assault. Units got lost, message traffic broke down, some commanders failed.


Any hope that an advance by the French Fourth Army on the left might unhinge the Germans in front of the U.S. troops went for naught, for the French were making no more rapid gains. As September came to an end, Pershing had no choice but to pause to reorganize.


Elsewhere on the Western Front, progress was, with one exception, not much more encouraging. The Belgian-French-British effort on the Lys bogged down in rain and mud, as had every offensive in that region, while the French in the center of the Allied line were not to begin their attack until British and Americans on their flanks had driven deep enough to threaten the Germans opposite them with entrapment. Only the British along the Somme provided any indication of decisive success, scoring a deep penetration of the Hindenburg Line with the help of the 27th and 30th Divisions of the U.S. II Corps. The penetration was soon expanded to create a gap all the way through the fortifications, but the effort left British troops temporarily spent.


Despite the disappointing progress of the grand offensive from an Allied viewpoint, it was enough to start a collapse within the German High Command. On September 28, Ludendorff mused at such length on the miseries besetting him that he worked himself into a rage, foamed at the mouth, and fell to the floor. That evening he called on Hindenburg. The situation, the two agreed, was infinitely worse than in August when they had first urged the kaiser to seek peace, advice that had produced no results. They had no alternative now but to agree to surrender all conquered territory in the west and try to negotiate a peace on the basis of President Wilson's Fourteen Points.


On October 4 the German chancellor cabled Wilson asking for an armistice. Without informing the Allied governments, Wilson answered with a request for clarification. The German chancellor replied on October 12 that the Germans agreed to all Fourteen Points; but by this time word of the peace feeler had reached the French and British, who for their part were in no mood to accept Wilson's unilateral actions. Furthermore, Ludendorff himself had recovered




from his convulsive fit, had seen that the Allied offensive had imposed no rout, and had come to believe the Germans could get terms that would allow them to withdraw behind their own frontier, reorganize their armies, and resist any peace proposals they deemed unacceptable.


Yet events were taking place that were destined to tie Ludendorff's hands and harden Wilson's resolve. Not the least of these were continued fierce German resistance and the revelation, in those areas where the Germans were forced to retire, of wanton destruction and a barbaric disregard for human life more flagrant than those excesses of 1917 when they had left behind a wasteland in retiring into the Hindenburg Line.


On the Meuse-Argonne front, Pershing's First Army renewed its offensive on October 4 after inserting experienced divisions into the line, but during the brief pause in operations Ludendorff had brought in reinforcements. The fight to clear the rest of the Argonne Forest and pierce the third German line progressed no more swiftly than before.


In the Argonne a "lost battalion', of the 77th Division was surrounded for five days before other troops could break through to free 194 survivors out of an original 600. In the Argonne, too, an American patrol took about 75 Germans by surprise and was herding them toward the rear when German machine gunners opened fire, killing and wounding 9 out of 17 in the patrol. When a German lieutenant led a charge aimed at the survivors, Pfc. Alvin C. York, a Tennessee sharpshooter, cut down 15 Germans one by one until at last surviving members of this group too surrendered. When a count could be taken, it revealed that York had captured 132 of the enemy.


To dispense with the troublesome German flanking fire from heights on the other side of the Meuse, General Pershing broadened his attack to include the east bank. To control that phase, Pershing created the Second Army under General Bullard. Relinquishing command of the First Army to General Liggett, Pershing himself moved up to the level of army group.


Despite the added strength on the east bank, the fight continued slow and costly, for Ludendorff looked on the offensive as such a threat to the vital railroad through Mézières that he eventually committed 27 of his reserve divisions to this sector. Some help developed on the left when on October 5 the U.S. 2d Division, attacking with the French, captured high ground known as Blanc Mont, prompting a slow German withdrawal before the Fourth Army back to the Aisne River. On the 10th, the I Corps finally cleared the last of the Argonne Forest, but bitter fighting continued through the rest of the month for the fortified hills between the forest and the Meuse. Not until the last day of October was the third German position broken all along the line.




The British in the meantime had renewed their offensive, driving forward inexorably as the Germans fell back grudgingly from one prepared position to another. It was in this section that much of the evidence of German destruction and barbarity was found.


At the same time, continuing activities of the U-boats also helped to crystallize Allied resolve. On the 10th, a submarine torpedoed a passenger steamer off the coast of Ireland with a loss of 300 lives. A few days later another U-boat sank an Irish mail boat taking the lives of 520 passengers, mostly women and children.


Affected by the public outcry over these incidents, President Wilson made clear in his reply to the second German note that the Allied military leaders would set the terms of the armistice, that there was no other way to deal with a government that persisted in illegal and inhumane acts. The note concluded that if the United States had to deal "with the military masters and the monarchial autocrats of Germany now, or if it is likely to have to deal with them later in regard to the international obligations of the German Empire, it must demand, not peace negotiations but surrender."


Confidence restored, Ludendorff called on his government to reject the terms; but the government was by this time listening to the voices of a disillusioned people, the noise of riots in the streets, and to the threat of Marxist revolution. On October 27 the kaiser dismissed Ludendorff, who repaired in disguise to Sweden, and events strode swiftly toward a climax. The German naval commander tried to take the High Seas Fleet to sea in a last bid for glory, but the crews mutinied and brought the ships back into port with revolutionary flags flying. Revolutionary councils formed among the soldiers in the trenches. Bulgaria in late September had already dropped out of the war; Turkey followed on October 30; Austria-Hungary on November 3. On November 6 Ludendorff's successor, General Wilhelm Groener, urged the government to conclude an armistice within three days or face chaos.


All along the front, meanwhile, the Allied armies had renewed their offensives in what became a general advance. In the far north two U.S. divisions—the 37th and 91st—fought with the Belgian-French-British force under the Belgian king. Haig's British troops entered their objective of Aulnoye on November 5, while the French armies maintained steady pressure against the German center.


Beginning on the first of November, the U.S. First Army renewed the attack with the V Corps in the center driving six miles the first day to take heights just south of the fourth German line near Barricourt. This feat assured success of the whole operation, for it prompted German withdrawal behind the Meuse. On November 5 the III Corps forced a crossing of the Meuse, and




three days later American troops held high ground overlooking the city of Sedan, a few miles east of Mézières, and brought the lateral railroad under artillery fire. There the advance stopped as Marshal Foch shifted the American boundary eastward to allow the French the honor of retaking Sedan, scene of a disastrous French defeat in 1870.


The Meuse-Argonne was the greatest battle yet fought by the U.S. Army. Almost 1,250,000 American troops had participated during the course of the offensive. Casualties were high—120,000 of all types—but the results impressive. Until the last, this battle had worried German commanders most; unlike other sectors of the front, here they had little space short of a vital objective that they could afford to trade for time.


The German Surrender


Under pressure of continuing Allied attack and of public agitation at home, the Germans early on November 8 sent delegates to a railroad siding in the Compiègne Forest west of Soissons to discuss armistice terms. The next day the kaiser abdicated, fleeing to the Netherlands in exile, and the Germans proclaimed a republic.


Under terms of the armistice, the Germans were to withdraw from all occupied territory, including Alsace and Lorraine; retire all armies to the east bank of the Rhine; provide the Allies with bridgeheads beyond the Rhine; and relinquish specific amounts of military equipment that would preclude their continuing the war.


The fighting ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918.


Men died right up to the last, but finally, after more than four grim years, it was over. Of the men of all nations in uniform, more than 8,500,000 died, and total casualties exceeded 37,500,000, a price that would forever invite criticism of the way commanders on both sides fought the war. American casualties alone totaled 320,710.


So ended the first adventure of the United States in departing from its traditional policy of noninvolvement in European affairs. That the nation could make such a decisive contribution in so short a time hardly could have been conceived in advance.


That there would be mistakes, blunders, shortcomings under such a rapid expansion and commitment was perhaps inevitable. Until mid-1918, for example, when separate replacement training camps were at last established, units both in the United States and overseas had to be broken up to provide replace-




ments. This practice was damaging to morale and damaging too in that it sent many poorly trained men into the lines. So close did the American supply system in France come to breaking down that in the summer of 1918, under threat of intervention from Washington, Pershing had to exert special efforts to rescue it. Pershing himself was overburdened with command responsibilities—theater, line of communications, and tactical. The dependence on the Allies for air, artillery, and tank support, however inevitable in such a rapid deployment, did nothing for efficiency on the battlefield. On the home front some Americans vented their hostility on other Americans for no more valid reason than their ancestry.


Yet countless other things were done effectively. The nation handled conscription with minimum friction and without disruption of the economy. The Army expanded with almost incredible speed while still maintaining efficiency. The Navy performed invaluable service in defeating the submarine and, with British help, in getting the Army safely overseas. Although the war ended before American industry could demonstrate its full wartime potential, the record, with some exceptions, was impressive nevertheless.


Most important of all, the nation and its Army had provided a force that reached embattled Europe in time to rejuvenate flagging Allied fortunes and provide sufficient advantage to assure victory for the Allied side.

page updated 27 April 2001

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