The American Expeditionary Forces Were Major Heroes During World War I
By Warfare History Network
via The National Interest web site
As the fateful day drew to a close, the exhausted soldiers of the German 25th and 82nd Reserve Divisions huddled in their trenches. It was May 30, 1918, and for the past two days the Germans had battled elements of the American 1st Division for control of the small village of Cantigny and its environs. Before them the virgin ground had been churned, the town shot up, and its cemetery turned into a ghoulish battlefield of broken headstones and protruding coffins.
While the Americans had given ground, they had not broken, and they had repulsed every assault the experienced Germans mounted. Over the course of the battle, the Americans had whittled the 82nd Reserve Division down to 2,500 effective personnel. The Battle of Cantigny, the first major assault of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) on the Western Front in World War I, proved that Americans “would both fight and stick,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard, commander of the 1st Division.
The drubbing had been delivered by the 28th Infantry, later reinforced by elements of the 18th Infantry. The Battle of Cantigny began at 4:45 am on May 28. After a 90-minute artillery barrage, the Yanks advanced with three battalions arrayed along a front of 11/2kilometers. Machinegun companies protected each flank. The Americans overran most German forward positions within the first 10 minutes, although the fighting in Cantigny itself came down to flamethrowers, hand grenades, and bayonets. By 8 am the Yanks were digging in, with the 2nd Battalion occupying Cantigny and the 3rd Battalion deployed to the south.
“The success of this phase of the operation was so complete, and the list of casualties so small, that everyone was enthusiastic and delighted,” wrote Colonel George Marshall, who planned the attack. “[However], trouble was coming thick and fast.”
That afternoon, the French withdrew their supporting artillery to deal with a new German offensive. At the same time, German 210mm guns pounded the American positions and tore up the communications wires carefully laid by the 28th Infantry’s engineers. The German counterattack began in the evening and continued into the next morning. The German commander in chief, General Erich Ludendorff, had ordered that the American positions around Cantigny be utterly destroyed for the same reason AEF commander General John J. Pershing ordered that it be held at all costs. “For the 1st Division to lose its first objective was unthinkable and would have had a most depressing effect on the morale of our entire Army, as well as those of our Allies,” wrote Marshall.
The Germans pushed the 2nd Battalion out of its forward positions and into Cantigny proper. To the south, the 3rd Battalion held firm, delivering deadly rifle and machine-gun fire into the attacking Germans. American artillery also seriously disrupted the German attack. However, German artillery, which had survived due to ineffective American counterbattery fire, inflicted heavy losses on the Americans. As a result, the 28th Infantry’s commander, Colonel Hanson E. Ely, was forced to bring his only two reserve companies forward. The Germans launched a second counterattack on the morning of May 29, but this was broken up once more by American rifle and machine-gun fire. German commanders realized that the Americans were probably advancing no farther and halted the attacks, content to harass instead. When the 28th Infantry was pulled off the line on May 30, it left more than 1,000 of its number on the battlefield.
The assault had been of the utmost importance to Pershing. Days before the attack, the men of the 18th Infantry had been withdrawn to the rear area. They meticulously planned and rehearsed the assault against an exact replica of the German defenses in and around Cantigny. In these maneuvers, Pershing’s idea of open warfare was emphasized as was staff work and above all maintaining communications between the front and headquarters. This extensive planning and preparation were typical of Pershing.
Read the entire article on The National Interest web site.
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