Key point: The fight was difficult and was rude introduction to the horrors of modern war. But the Americans did well and would soon launch a large offensive.
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 Force (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.
When America entered the conflict, Pershing’s first task was to prepare the AEF for modern war. The Americans desperately needed training and organization. The U.S. Army had spent the last two generations fighting imperial wars. In 1917, most of the U.S. Army was stationed on the Rio Grande. Pershing, of course, had become famous for his chase of Poncho Villa in Mexico and before that, for fighting the Moros in the Philippines. America’s occupation of the islands in 1898 had led to a four-year insurgency. Before the war with Spain, the small American army had spent a generation subduing Indians in the American West. Bullard had ridden in the Geronimo campaign.
The U.S. Army had a deep institutional memory of the American Civil War. Bullard grew up in Alabama hearing stories from veterans of the siege of Vicksburg. Lt. Gen. Hunter Liggett, who would eventually command 500,000 men in the American First Army, in 1907 went on a staff ride in Virginia with a former Confederate cavalry general. Pershing himself harkened back to the American Civil War when considering the means by which the AEF would be raised. In his memoirs he made reference to “the evils of the volunteer system in the Civil War, with appointment of politicians to high command” and noted that because of battles such as Vicksburg and Petersburg “Americans were no strangers to trenches.”
To build the AEF, Pershing established an operation and training staff and personally oversaw its direction. The staff developed a school system on the British model, which had impressed Pershing. A general staff college with a three-month curriculum was founded as were schools to teach the use of new weapons developed over the course of the war. These included schools for machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and hand grenades.
Pershing also approved of the British method of trench warfare. “They taught their men to be aggressive and undertook to perfect them in hand-to-hand fighting with the bayonet, grenade, and dagger,” he wrote. British and French officers lectured at the American schools. Despite the advent of these modern weapons, Pershing insisted that an infantryman was, at his core, a rifleman.
“My view was that the rifle and bayonet remained essential weapons of the infantry,” he wrote. Intense rifle training fit into Pershing’s view of aggressive, offensive warfare. An AEF training pamphlet declared in part, “All instruction must contemplate the assumption of a vigorous offensive. This purpose will be emphasized in every phase of training until it becomes a settled habit of thought.” Pershing believed that in three years of trench warfare Allied troops had become too defensive and abandoned offensive warfare.
Pershing was determined that the AEF would not fall into the same trap of relying upon around-the-clock artillery bombardment and modern specialty weapons. Rather, Pershing preached open warfare. In Pershing’s style of war, American divisions would force their way through German positions into the open areas in their rear. From there the Doughboys would fight a battle of maneuver aimed at outflanking and destroying German formations. Pershing insisted that, “Instruction in this kind of warfare was based upon individual and group initiative, resourcefulness, and tactical judgment.” Although the AEF troops would learn the art of trench warfare, Pershing was adamant that they strive for open warfare. To this end, the Doughboys were to learn combat skills that they would need to participate in offensive operations. In Pershing’s thinking, the war would be won by American riflemen.
Despite Pershing’s emphasis on open warfare, AEF divisions would still have to puncture German defenses. To punch through, Pershing formed American divisions into behemoths with four infantry regiments, an artillery brigade of three regiments, an engineering brigade, and an independent machine-gun battalion. In all, American divisions numbered 28,000 men, roughly the size of an Allied corps. An American brigade—two infantry regiments and a machine-gun battalion—numbered 8,500 men, which by that point in the war was larger than most Allied and German divisions. American rifle companies were tactical mammoths numbering 250 officers and men divided into four platoons. In Pershing’s plans, the AEF would eventually number three million men in 80 divisions. He envisioned the AEF gradually taking on the burden and bearing the brunt of the war. To that end, Pershing planned for an AEF attack into Alsace-Lorraine with the goal of pushing into Germany and destroying German industrial capacity in the Rhine and Saar valleys.
When America entered the Great War, both the French and the British proposed schemes that would see American troops integrated into their armies. One French memo, quoted by Pershing, actually called for Americans to enlist in the French Army. The British proposed the same system in a memo to Pershing: “If you ask me how your force could most quickly make itself felt in Europe, I would say by sending 500,000 untrained men at once to our depots in England to be trained there and drafted into our armies in France.”
A furious row ensued in which Pershing simply refused to accede to the Supreme War Council’s wishes. Foch insisted, in Pershing’s words, that “the war might be over before we were ready.” To which Lloyd George added, “Can’t you see that the war will be lost unless we get this support?” Pershing held out and won. While the Abbeville Agreement, as it was named, called for more American infantry to be shipped across the Atlantic, it also stated, “It is the opinion of the Supreme War Council that, in order to carry the war to a successful conclusion, an American army should be formed as early as possible under its own commander and under its own flag.”