The following article on the Battle of Cantigny is an excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
It was one thing for Congress to declare war—which it did on 6 April 1917 against Imperial Germany, adding Austria-Hungary on 7 December. It was quite another for America’s armed forces to wage it. Wilson’s former strict neutrality—and pacifist politicos who believed preparedness was provocative—had helped ensure that America’s war fighters were short of nearly everything but courage. The shortage included men. Though Americans rallied round the flag and damned the Kaiser, relatively few followed that up by marching down to the recruiting sergeant, at least at first. Neither the president nor the Congress had any idea how many men might be needed; some, indeed, thought the United States need only supply aid and perhaps some naval support to the embattled Western allies. Military delegations from Britain and France soon put paid to such minimalism. The war machine in Europe needed men—and America was far wealthier in young men, even if they were not yet uniformed, than it was in military material.
The regular Army was 127,000 strong, backed by 67,000 National Guardsmen in federal service and another 100,000 National Guard troops controlled by their respective governors. In terms of numbers, the United States was on par with the military strength of Portugal; in terms of supplies and training for trench warfare, and modern warfare in general, the American Army was hardly prepared at all. It was an army better suited to the wars of the past—fighting Apaches or Filipino insurgents—than the new, modern warfare of artillery and machine guns now being waged by the massive veteran armies of Europe. France and Britain weren’t looking for one hundred thousand Americans to join the Western Front—they wanted a million men, at least for starters, and they wanted them fast, before the German armies of Ludendorff and Hindenburg crashed through the Western Front.
This apparently modest army would fight its first offensive battle in the Battle of Cantigy; by doing so American announced to the world that America was a military power to be reckoned with.
BUILDING AN AMERICAN ARMY: PRELUDE TO THE BATTLE OF CANTIGNY
Given the task of forming and leading this army was the newly appointed (as of 10 May 1917) commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Major General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, a veteran of the Indian wars and the Spanish-American War and most recently commander of the campaign against Pancho Villa. Pershing was charged with building a division that could embark for France in June. Wilson and Pershing agreed on another item: American troops would not be fed piecemeal, or “amalgamated,” into the French or British armies—however hungry they were for immediate reinforcements—but remain separate and distinct, under their own officers. This was the military corollary of President Wilson’s insistence that the United States had entered the war not as an Allied Power but as an “associated” power. To Wilson, there was still such a thing as a man too proud to be an ally. For Pershing, a different, more readily admirable, martial pride was involved.
Although there was a wave of enlistments in the days immediately after Congress declared war, to put a sufficient number of men in uniform and behind rifles—of which there was inevitably a shortage—the Wilson administration resorted to conscription, the president signing the Selective Service Act into law on 18 May 1917. By the end of the war, the Army had more than 3 million men, more than 2 million of whom had been drafted.
Not all Yanks, however, were created equal. A shocking number of conscripts were deemed unfit for service (about a third). But those who eventually landed in France had an electric effect on the population. The American soldier was big, he was confident, and as he gained experience of the “wind-pipe slitting art,” he became sardonic. What he lacked in training he made up for in élan, something the French, of all peoples, could well appreciate.
First to arrive were Pershing, his staff officers, and a smattering of sergeants and other ranks, a grand total of 187 men, including Lieutenant George S. Patton and a former race car driver named Eddie Rickenbacker, now a sergeant and a chauffeur for the general. Pershing met with General Philippe Pétain, the new commander in chief of the French army who had just averted disaster on the Western Front. In April 1917, his predecessor, General Robert Nivelle, had launched a massive offensive, deploying some 1.2 million soldiers and 7,000 artillery pieces, with which he promised to break the German line within forty-eight hours. More than three weeks later, he had gained 70 square miles at a cost of some 187,000 men. He had achieved no breakout, no rush to victory; instead, it was the long-suffering poilus who broke, with mutiny flaming through the French divisions. Nivelle was relieved, and “on the day when France had to choose between ruin and reason,” as Charles de Gaulle wrote, “Pétain was promoted.” Pétain was a friend of the common soldier and had been an open critic of Nivelle’s plan. He believed in fighting firepower with firepower and in protecting the lives of his men. He made a personal inspection of the front lines, visiting nearly every battalion, reassuring the poilus that he would not waste their lives in futile offenses, he would clean up the trenches, he would give them more generous leave; and now he could also promise them that help—in the form of American doughboys—was on the way.
American troops were eager to meet the challenge, though some of the initial arrivals had never even fired their weapons. Pershing would not be rushed; the men must be trained; and he was unimpressed by the British and French instructors available to him; he thought they taught tactical defeatism. American soldiers, he argued, should be riflemen and fight a war of mobility—not hide in trenches, ducking artillery rounds. Through the fall and into the winter—a harsh one for which they were unprepared, reviving historical memories of Valley Forge—they trained for a war of rifle-led firepower.
Men of the 1st Division began moving into a quiet sector of frontline trenches in northeastern France on 21 October 1917. The first American-fired artillery shell was sent crashing into the German lines two days later, though the sector remained relatively quiet. It was a week before an American soldier was wounded (a lieutenant on the twenty-eighth, a private on the twenty-ninth). Prior to the Battle of Cantigy, the first real action was at Artois on 3 November 1917 when a German artillery barrage was followed by a trench raid that captured eleven Americans, killed three, and wounded another five. Small beer by Great War standards, but for the doughboys it marked the beginning of serious engagement with the enemy. The war became real to the folks at home as well. The three American dead were noticed in papers across the country. They became heroes in their hometowns. In the grim toll of the Great War, they were statistics.
On 21 March 1918, German Gen. Ludendorff launched an offensive with which he meant to win the war. He knew he had miscalculated the effectiveness of German U-boats to stop the Americans. The Americans had now amassed six divisions in Europe, about 325,000 men, with more on the way. Germany, Ludendorff recognized, must seize immediately on its advantage in defeating Russia; it must fall on the Western Front with a scythe, dividing the British from the French; it must open a gap for a massive and final German invasion leading to French capitulation. Unless the German army could do that, the game was up. Ludendorff thought he had the men—and the new tactics—to make it work. He would not waste time with lengthy artillery barrages; instead they would be relatively short, concentrated, and of unsurpassed ferocity. Allied lines would be penetrated by fearsome storm troops armed with light machine guns, flamethrowers, and other havoc-wreaking weapons. Gains made by the storm troopers would be followed up by masses of infantry, supported from the air. A cousin of Ludendorff’s, General Oskar von Hutier, had employed these tactics with immense success on the Eastern Front.
Ludendorff had his Western divisions trained to inflict them on the French and the British.
Ludendorff’s offensive, codenamed Michael, was directed at the British along a fifty-mile front stretching south from Arras to La Fère on the Oise River in northeastern France. Under a cloud of poison gas, the Germans hit the Limeys—with General Hutier’s Eighteenth Army, on the southern end, making by far the biggest gains, more than nine miles the first day—eventually driving forty miles into France, effectively crippling the British Fifth Army of General Sir Hubert Gough. The French government once again prepared to evacuate itself from Paris, as booming long-range artillery shells came raining toward the capital.
But by 9 April 1918, the Allied lines had stabilized; the crisis seemed to have passed. Ludendorff then launched a second grand offensive, this time on Flanders, farther to the north, on a line extending slightly above Ypres in Belgium, to destroy the British army and isolate the French. British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig issued his famous rallying cry to his troops that though their backs were to the wall, they had to fight it out—to the last man if necessary—lest they be driven to the sea and the war be lost.
Pershing had hoped to amass a well-trained million-man army before hurling his doughboys against the enemy, but circumstances had changed. His best-trained troops took up positions in the line. Their first major action took place south of Ludendorff’s offensives, in what was supposed to be relatively quiet Lorraine, northeastern France, at the blown-out village of Seicheprey. Two companies from the 26th “Yankee” Division, formed from New England National Guard units, held the town. The division was newly arrived at the sector, having just replaced the American 1st Division, which was moving north, to where the action was hot—though the New Englanders found Seicheprey hot enough. They engaged in small skirmishes with the Germans, the fights growing in size as the Yankees frustrated German attempts to capture prisoners for interrogation (though the Germans got a few), and inflicted embarrassing losses on the Kaiser’s troops, who were rightly proud of their professionalism, military intelligence, and ability to infiltrate Allied lines almost at will.
On 20 April, the Germans, hoping to expose American inexperience, walloped Seicheprey with artillery. Sturmtruppen then burst among the New Englanders with weapon barrels spewing flame and lead, driving the doughboys out—though only temporarily. The Yankee division counterattacked and retook Seicheprey. But the Germans had scored the propaganda victory they wanted, at least for domestic German consumption: the troops the British were counting on to save their bacon were schwein well and truly ready for the slaughter.
The New Englanders of the 26th Division thought differently. They were not shaken by the experience, they were exhilarated by it. They had met the enemy and seen him off—a test of their mettle and a preview of the big show to come. Yes, they had been taken by surprise—but the Germans had crept in under cover of fog, and German artillery had ravaged the American 26th Division’s communications. Yes, the 26th had suffered the worst casualties so far for the American Army—more than 650 men, including 136 taken prisoner—but the division had been outnumbered five to one, fought back hard, and recovered its ground in a counterattack. The Germans had hit them with everything they had, and what was the result? Aye yuh, the Yanks were back where they started, still holding the ground at Seicheprey. American newspapers treated the action at Seicheprey as proof of the hard-as-flint New England spirit. Pershing and his generals thought its temporary loss an embarrassment that needed to be expunged, and looked for a chance to strike back—not with the New England troops but with the 1st Division farther north.
At the end of the Flanders offensive, Ludendorff’s armies had moved another twenty miles forward, but the British had regrouped, dug in, and were waiting for the next German lunge. Also digging in was the Big Red One, the American Army 1st Division. It was the best-trained division Pershing had to put an American marker against Ludendorff—and it was a division that Ludendorff targeted for special attention by German artillery. The division took the place of two French divisions at Montdidier in northern France and was charged with launching the first American offensive of the war, meant to distract Ludendorff when he made his next major assault on the Allied line.
THE BATTLE OF CANTIGNY: AMERICA TAKES THE OFFENSIVE
When that assault failed to materialize on the Allied schedule, Pershing and Pétain found an objective for an American attack: Cantigny, a village on high ground that needed to be denied to German artillery spotters who were sending death and destruction into the American lines. The Battle of Cantigny would be led by the six-foot-two, 220-pound former West Point football player Colonel Hanson Ely, a man as physically imposing as he was militarily efficient. He would have the 28th Infantry Regiment at his command.
Though he trained his men well and prepared to make up for a lack of numerical superiority with surprise, speed, and massive firepower (including tanks), the Battle of Cantigny started badly. On the night of 24–25 May 1918, one of his lieutenants of engineers, carrying maps of the American positions, lost his way in no-man’s-land and was captured (and, unknown to Ely, killed) by the Germans. On 27 May, the day before Ely’s planned assault, Ludendorff’s third great offensive, Operation Blücher-Yorck, came crashing toward the Marne with an apparent objective of Paris, though the actual plan was to draw French armies to the frightened defense of their own capital, and away from the British. As a diversion from that giant feint, the Germans raided the Americans in front of Cantigny.
The Americans repelled the raids against them and went ahead with their own assault. American-manned artillery pieces under the command of General Charles P. Summerall opened up before dawn, and at 6:40 a.m. on 28 May, Ely’s units rolled forward led by French tanks. Flame-throwing Americans burnt the Germans out of their defensive positions, and the Battle of Cantigny ended quickly and with relative ease. The doughboys braced themselves for the inevitable counterattack.
It started that afternoon with a heavy German bombardment, against which the Americans had little defense because they had scant artillery of their own. The French artillery that was to support them had to be rushed away to meet the new threat on the Marne. By evening, the combination of German shells and machine gun fire had made Ely’s position tenuous. But the Americans held nevertheless. They might have been battered to pieces, but they refused to give ground to the German infantry. For three days Ely and his men held on against earth- (not to mention nerve-) shattering bombardment and counterattacks, before it was deemed safe to send in a relief column and pull the 28th Regiment out.
In the Battle of Cantigny, the regiment had endured nearly 900 casualties (the division as a whole suffered more than 1,600), but in doing so it had demonstrated to the Germans—and to the French—that the Americans were no callow soldiers, but aggressive in attack and stubborn in defense.
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