Hello Girls of World War I

 “The humblest hello-girl along ten thousand miles of wire could teach gentleness, patience, modesty, manners, to the highest duchess in Arthur’s land”.

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)

 

“Hello girls” was the popular term for female switchboard operators in the US prior to World War I.  Four hundred and fifty of them were recruited to serve with the AEF in France during the Great War.  Receiving Signal Corps training, they earned the same pay as their male colleagues in the Signal Corps.  The women had to be bilingual and fluent in both English and French.  Although uniformed, and subject to Army discipline and eligible for Army decorations, they were not given veteran status by Congress until 1978.

 

 

The women were an essential part of the war effort.  They were simply swifter, about six times so, than their male colleagues who lacked their experience as switch board operators.  They were also faster than female French telephone operators in France, as Captain E.J. Wesson, who recruited the Hello Girls, noted at the time:  “In Paris, it takes from 40 to 60 seconds to complete one call. Our girls are equipped to handle 300 calls in an hour.”

The women lived up to their billing, vastly improving telephone communications as the AEF went into battle, the women often serving in areas subject to artillery fire near the front lines.  Pioneers, the Hello Girls paved the way for expanded service of American women for the much larger conflict fought just over two decades later.

 

 

Published in: on March 28, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Hello Girls of World War I  
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October 30, 1918: Pershing Opposes an Armistice

 

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General John J. Pershing was not pleased at the idea of giving an Armistice and expressed his views strongly in a letter on October 30, 1918:

 

Paris, October 30, 1918.

To the Allied Supreme War Council, Paris.

Gentlemen: In considering the question of whether or not Germany’s request for an armistice should be granted, the following expresses my opinion from the military point of view:

1.
Judging from their excellent conduct during the three months, the British, French, Belgian and American armies appear capable of continuing the offensive indefinitely. Their morale is high and the prospects of certain victory should keep it so.
2.
The American army is constantly increasing in strength and experience, and should be able to take an increasingly important part in the Allied offensive. Its growth, both in personnel and material, with such reserves as the Allies may furnish, not counting the Italian army, should be more than equal to the combined losses of the Allied armies.
3.
German man power is constantly diminishing and her armies have lost over 300,000 prisoners and over 1,000 piece[s] of artillery during the last three months in their efforts to extricate themselves from a difficult situation and avoid disaster.
4.
The estimated strength of the Allies on the western front, not counting Italy, and of Germany, in rifles is: Allies, 1,564,000; Germany, 1,134,000; an advantage in favor of the Allies of 37 percent. In guns: Allies, 22,413; Germany, 16,495; advantage of 35 percent in favor of the Allies. If Italy’s forces should be added to the western front we should have a still greater advantage.
5.
Germany’s morale is undoubtedly low, her allies have deserted her one by one and she can no longer hope to win. Therefore we should take full advantage of the situation and continue the offensive until we compel her unconditional surrender.
6.
An armistice would revivify the low spirits of the German army and enable it to organize and resist later on and would deprive the Allies of the full measure of victory by failing to press their present advantage to its complete military end.
7.
As the apparent humility of German leaders in talking of peace may be feigned, the Allies should distrust their sincerity and their motives. The appeal for an armistice is undoubtedly to enable the withdrawal from a critical situation to one more advantageous.
8.
On the other hand the internal political conditions of Germany, if correctly reported, are such that she is practically forced to ask for an armistice to save the overthrow of her present Government, a consummation which should be sought by the Allies as precedent to permanent peace.
9.
A cessation of hostilities short of capitulation postpones, if it does not render impossible, the imposition of satisfactory peace terms, because it would allow Germany to withdraw her army with its present strength, ready to resume hostilities if terms were not satisfactory to her.
10.
An armistice would lead the Allied armies to believe this the end of fighting and it would be difficult if not impossible to resume [Page 171]hostilities with our present advantage in morale in the event of failure to secure at a peace conference what we have fought for.
11.
By agreeing to an armistice under the present favorable military situation of the Allies and accepting the principle of a negotiated peace rather than a dictated peace, the Allies would jeopardize the moral position they now hold and possibly lose the chance actually to secure world peace on terms that would insure its permanence.
12.
It is the experience of history that victorious armies are prone to overestimate the enemy’s strength and too eagerly seek an opportunity for peace. This mistake is likely to be made now on account of the reputation Germany has gained through her victories of the last four years.
13.
Finally, I believe that complete victory can only be obtained by continuing the war until we force unconditional surrender from Germany; but if the Allied Governments decide to grant an armistice the terms should be so rigid that under no circumstances could Germany again take up arms.

Respectfully submitted. John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief American Expeditionary Forces.”

 

The “stab in the back” myth that the German Army had not really been beaten, and that Germany had been defeated by internal subversion, the single most important element in Hitler’s rise to power, makes Pershing’s arguments in favor of unconditional surrender appear prophetic.

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Meuse-Argonne Offensive: Second Phase

 

The second phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive opened on October 4, 1918 and would continue to October 28, 1918.  During this period the Americans cleared the Argonne Forest but incurred high casualties due to a reliance upon frontal assaults.  No American troops have fought better than the doughboys who slugged their way through the Meuse-Argonne, but the field generals who led them ranged from mediocre to abysmal.  As for the commander in chief, Pershing had great strengths as a commander, but skillfully directing operations was not one of them.  In that he was akin to Eisenhower in the Second World War, but his generals had not a fraction of the talent of Eisenhower’s generals.

A  German assessment of the shortcomings of the AEF in the Meuse-Argonne was all too accurate:

The initial attack was carried out according to schedule but the successive waves showed great ineptitude in following up the advance. Officers as well as men did not understand how to make use of the terrain. Instead of seeking protection when they encountered opposition they merely fell back. To crawl backward or forward on the ground or to advance in quick jumps does not seem to by understood by the Americans. They remain lying on the ground for the time being, and then just stand up again and try to advance.

Neither in mass formations nor individually do the Americans know how to conduct themselves in an attack.

The higher command, also, did not understand how to grasp quickly the new situation and exploit it to the best advantage. After the infantry had reached its objective the higher command failed. They were not familiar with the tactical principles in the use of divisions and attack units for the destruction of the enemy. It was therefor possible for the [German] Army Detachment, under the most difficult conditions, to extricate itself from its precarious situation in one night, and, with only a short distance intervening between it and the enemy, to occupy new positions of resistance…

As the Offensive went on there were improvements.  Many of the more incompetent commanders were sacked, and the officers and men learned the hard and deadly way what worked in combat and what didn’t work.  However, considering the wealth of Allied experience in combat the Americans had to draw on, there is little excuse for the AEF’s failure to benefit from this experience.

In 1989 Army historian Colonel Rod Paschall summed up the situation:

 

There was no question that the individual American soldier [in the Great War] fought, and fought well. But the types of attacks they were conducting were extremely costly. Their leaders appeared to have no concern for losses. The American assault was little more than a human wave into the face of German machine guns, a weapon that the Americans treated with contempt. Their doctrine favored the rifle, yet except for a few highly skilled marksmen their use of that weapon appeared to be little different than that of their European counterparts. They insisted on huge divisions, perhaps because the knew they did not have the officers to direct a larger number of more reasonably sized units. However, [after the slow down in the Argonne ] they were in the process of reducing the size of these organizations. Pershing was also eliminating some of his more inept general. And, most important, they were attacking. Losses or not, the Americans kept coming on.

 

 

Here is General Pershing’s report on the second phase of the Offensive:

 

 

 

At 5.30 a.m. on October 4th the general attack was renewed. The enemy divisions on the front from Fresnesen-Woevre to the Argonne had increased from 10 in first line to 16, and included some of his best divisions.

The fighting was desperate, and only small advances were realized, except by the First Division on the right of the First Corps. By evening of October 5th the line was approximately Bois de la Cote Lemont-Bois du Fays-Gesnes-Hill 240-Fleville-Chehery, southwest through the Argonne.

It was especially desirable to drive the enemy from his commanding positions on the heights east of the Meuse, but it was even more important that we should force him to use his troops there and weaken his tenacious hold on positions in our immediate front. The further stabilization of the new St. Mihiel line permitted the withdrawal of certain divisions for the extension of the Meuse-Argonne operation to the east bank of the Meuse River.

On the 7th the First Corps, with the Eighty-second Division added, launched a strong attack northwest toward Cornay, to draw attention from the movement east of the Meuse and at the same time outflank the German position in the Argonne. The following day the Seventeenth French Corps, General Claudel commanding, initiated its attack east of the Meuse against the exact point on which the German armies must pivot in order to withdraw from northern France.

The troops encountered elaborate fortifications and stubborn resistance, but by nightfall had realized an advance of 6 kilometres to a line well within the Bois de Consenvoye, and including the villages of Beaumont and Haumont.

Continuous fighting was maintained along our entire battle front, with especial success on the extreme left, where the capture of the greater part of the Argonne Forest was completed. The enemy contested every foot of ground on our front in order to make more rapid retirements farther west and withdraw his forces from northern France before the interruption of his railroad communications through Sedan.

We were confronted at this time by an insufficiency of replacements to build up exhausted divisions. Early in October combat units required some 90,000 replacements, and not more than 45,000 would be available before November 1st to fill the existing and prospective vacancies. We still had two divisions with the British and two with the French.

A review of the situation, American and Allied, especially as to our own resources in men for the next two months, convinced me that the attack of the First Army and of the Allied Armies further west should be pushed to the limit. But if the First Army was to continue its aggressive tactics our divisions then with the French must be recalled, and replacements dust be obtained by breaking up newly arrived divisions.

In discussing the withdrawal of our divisions from the French Marshal Foch and General Petain, on October 10th, the former expressed his appreciation of the fact that the First Army was striking the pivot of the German withdrawal, and also held the view that the Allied attack should continue.

Gen. Petain agreed that the American divisions with the French were essential to us if we were to maintain our battle against the German pivot. The French were, however, straining every nerve to keep up their attacks and, before those divisions with the French had been released, it became necessary for us to send the Thirty-seventh and Ninety-first Divisions from the First Army to assist the Sixth French Army in Flanders.

At this time the First Army was holding a front of more than 120 kilometres; its strength exceeded 1,000,000 men; it was engaged in the most desperate battle of our history, and the burden of command was too heavy for a single commander and staff. Therefore, on October 12th, that portion of our front extending from Port-sur-Seille, east of the Moselle, to Fresnes-en-Woevre, southeast of Verdun, was transferred to the newly constituted Second Army with Lieut. Gen. Robert L. Bullard in command, under whom it began preparation for the extension of operations to the east in the direction of Briey and Metz.

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September 26, 1918: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive Begins

 

The Offensive opened with a six hour bombardment, brief by Great War standards.  In the three hours prior to H hour the Americans fired off more munitions than both sides fired off in the four years of the American Civil War.   Ten American divisions, approximately 260,000 men, advanced along with 700 tanks.  The attack is largely initially successful with some 23,000 German troops captured, with American advances up to six miles.  Here is General Pershing’s report on the first four days of the Offensive:

 

Following three hours of violent artillery fire of preparation, the Infantry advanced at 5.30 a.m. on September 26th, accompanied by tanks. During the first two days of the attack, before the enemy was able to bring up his reserves, our troops made steady progress through the network of defences. Montfaucon was held tenaciously by the enemy and was not captured until noon of the second day.

By the evening of the 28th a maximum advance of 11 kilometres had been achieved and we had captured Baulny, Epinonville, Septsarges, and Dannevoux. The right had made a splendid advance into the woods south of Brieullessur-Meuse, but the extreme left was meeting strong resistance in the Argonne.

The attack continued without interruption, meeting six new divisions which the enemy threw into first line before September 29th. He developed a powerful machine-gun defence supported by heavy artillery fire, and made frequent counter-attacks with fresh troops, particularly on the front of the Twenty-eighth and Thirty-fifth Divisions.

These divisions had taken Varennes, Cheppy, Baulny, and Charpentry, and the line was within 2 kilometres of Apremont. We were no longer engaged in a manoeuvre for the pinching out of a salient, but were necessarily committed, generally speaking, to a direct frontal attack against strong, hostile positions fully manned by a determined enemy.

By nightfall of the 29th the First Army line was approximately Bois de la Cote Lemont-Nantillois-Apremont – southwest across the Argonne. Many divisions, especially those in the centre that were subjected to cross-fire of artillery, had suffered heavily. The severe fighting, the nature of the terrain over which they attacked, and the fog and darkness sorely tried even our best divisions.

On the night of the 29th the Thirty-seventh and Seventy-ninth Divisions were relieved by the Thirty-second and Third Divisions, respectively, and on the following night the First Division relieved the Thirty-fifth Division.

The critical problem during the first few days of the battle was the restoration of communications over “No man’s land.” There were but four roads available across this deep zone, and the violent artillery fire of the previous period of the war had virtually destroyed them. The spongy soil and the lack of material increased the difficulty. But the splendid work of our engineers and pioneers soon made possible the movement of the troops, artillery, and supplies most needed. By the afternoon of the 27th all the divisional artillery, except a few batteries of heavy guns, had effected a passage and was supporting the infantry action.

The initial stage can be rated a success, but with grave deficiencies shown in American training and leadership and hence the pause for reorganization and to replace the initial attacking divisions.  The Offensive would resume on October 4, 1918.

 

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The Beginning of the Rise of George C. Marshall

 

 

A century ago George C. Marshall, an acting Colonel on the Operations Staff of the American Expeditionary Forces, was finishing up a military miracle, overseeing the movement of 400,000 American troops to participate in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  Marshall had first come to the notice of General Pershing on October 3, 1917 when Pershing was severely dressing down officers of the First Division after he had viewed what he regarded as a fouled up training exercise.  Major Marshall, the Operations Officer for the Division, interrupted Pershing and reminded him of the problems the First Division was laboring under. Pershing, instead of taking umbrage, listed carefully to what the young Major had to say, and on future visits to the First Division would take Marshall aside for the “straight scoop” on what was going on with the Division.  Pershing had Marshall eventually transferred to the Operations Staff of the AEF and after the War made him his aide.  Marshall, who would be Chief of Staff of the Army during World War II, remarked in an interview in 1957 that he never encountered an officer more willing to accept constructive criticism than Pershing.  Like many an American officer who rose to fame in World War II, Marshall’s service in World War I taught him many important lessons, and not the least important was the willingness to listen to subordinates who were giving him information to help solve the myriad of military conundrums that any conflict kicks up.

Published in: on September 24, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Beginning of the Rise of George C. Marshall  
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Prelude to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

 

 

 

 

A century ago the United States First Army, personally commanded by General John J. Pershing, was deep in preparation for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest battle in American history that the American public  today knows virtually nothing about.  In his report on the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, General Pershing wrote about the preparations for the campaign:

The definite decision for the Meuse-Argonne phase of the great Allied convergent attack was agreed to in my conference with Marshal Foch and General Petain on September 2nd. It was planned to use all available forces of the First Army, including such divisions and troops as we might be able to withdraw from the St. Mihiel front.

The Army was to break through the enemy’s successive fortified zones to include the Kriemhilde-Stellung, or Hindenburg Line, on the front Brieulles-Romagne sous Montfaucon-Grandpre, and thereafter, by developing pressure toward Mezieres, was to ensure the fall of the Hindenburg Line along the Aisne River in front of the Fourth French Army, which was to attack to the west of the Argonne Forest.

A penetration of some 12 to 15 kilometres was required to reach the Hindenburg Line on our front, and the enemy’s defences were virtually continuous throughout that depth.

The Meuse-Argonne front had been practically stabilized in September, 1914, and, except for minor fluctuations during the German attacks on Verdun in 1916 and the French counter-offensive in August, 1917, remained unchanged until the American advance in 1918. The net result of the four years’ struggle on this ground was a German defensive system of unusual depth and strength and a wide zone of utter devastation, itself a serious obstacle to offensive operations.

The strategical importance of this portion of the line was second to none on the western front. All supplies and evacuations of the German armies in northern France were dependent upon two great railway systems – one in the north, passing through Liege, while the other in the south, with lines coming from Luxemburg, Thionville, and Metz, had as its vital section the line Carignan-Sedan-Mezieres.

No other important lines were available to the enemy, as the mountainous masses of the Ardennes made the construction of east and west lines through that region impracticable.

The Carignan-Sedan-Mezieres line was essential to the Germans for the rapid strategical movement of troops. Should this southern system be cut by the Allies before the enemy could withdraw his forces through the narrow neck between Mezieres and the Dutch frontier, the ruin of his armies in France and Belgium would be complete.

From the Meuse-Argonne front the perpendicular distance to the Carignan-Mezieres railroad was 50 kilometres. This region formed the pivot of German operations in northern France, and the vital necessity of covering the great railroad line into Sedan resulted in the convergence on the Meuse-Argonne front of the successive German defensive positions.

The distance between “No man’s land” and the third German withdrawal position in the vicinity of the Meuse River was approximately 18 kilometres; the distance between the corresponding points near the tip of the great salient of the western front was about 65 kilometres, and in the vicinity of Cambrai was over 30 kilometres.

The effect of a penetration of 18 kilometres by the American Army would be equivalent to an advance of 65 kilometres farther west; furthermore, such an advance on our front was far more dangerous to the enemy than an advance elsewhere.

The vital importance of this portion of his position was fully appreciated by the enemy, who had suffered tremendous losses in 1916 in attempting to improve it by the reduction of Verdun. As a consequence it had been elaborately fortified, and consisted of practically a continuous series of positions 20 kilometres or more in depth.

In addition to the artificial defences, the enemy was greatly aided by the natural features of the terrain. East of the Meuse the dominating heights not only protected his left but gave him positions from which powerful artillery could deliver an oblique fire on the western bank.

Batteries located in the elaborately fortified Argonne forest covered his right flank, and could cross their fire with that of the guns on the east bank of the Meuse. Midway between the Meuse and the forest the heights of Montfaucon offered perfect observation and formed a strong natural position which had been heavily fortified.

The east and west ridges abutting on the Meuse and Aire River valleys afforded the enemy excellent machine-gun positions for the desperate defence which the importance of the position would require him to make. North of Montfaucon densely wooded and rugged heights constituted natural features favourable to defensive fighting.

When the First Army became engaged in the simultaneous preparation for two major operations, an interval of 14 days separated the initiation of the two attacks. During this short period the movement of the immense number of troops and the amount of supplies involved in the Meuse-Argonne battle, over the few roads available, and confined entirely to the hours of darkness, was one of the most delicate and difficult problems of the war.

The concentration included 15 divisions, of which 7 were involved in the pending St. Mihiel drive, 3 were in sector in the Vosges, 3 in the neighbourhood of Soissons, 1 in a training area, and 1 near Bar-le-Due. Practically all the Artillery, Aviation, and other auxiliaries to be employed in the new operations were committed to the St. Mihiel attack and therefore could not be moved until its success was assured.

The concentration of all units not to be used at St. Mihiel was commenced immediately, and on September 13th, the second day of St. Mihiel, reserve divisions and Army Artillery units were withdrawn and placed in motion toward the Argonne front.

That part of the American sector from Fresnes-en-Woevre, southeast of Verdun, to the western edge of the Argonne Forest, while nominally under my control, did not actively become a part of my command until September 22nd, on which date my headquarters were established at Souilly, southwest of Verdun.

Of French troops, in addition to the Second French Colonial Corps, composed of 3 divisions, there was also the Seventeenth French Corps of 3 divisions holding the front north and east of Verdun.

At the moment of the opening of the Meuse-Argonne battle, the enemy had 10 divisions in line and 10 in reserve on the front between Fresnes-en-Woevre and the Argonne Forest, inclusive. He had undoubtedly expected a continuation of our advance toward Metz. Successful ruses were carried out between the Meuse River and Luneville to deceive him as to our intentions, and French troops were maintained as a screen along our front until the night before the battle, so that the actual attack was a tactical surprise.

Pershing had insisted that the American forces had to fight as a unit and not be used merely to reinforce the operations of the British and the French.  Now the AEF had its chance, but against German defenses in extremely rugged terrain, and a vital area that the Germans would attempt to hold at all costs.  The AEF was about to have a classic baptism by fire.

 

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September 12, 1918: First Army Attacks at Saint Mihiel

 

The First United States Army launches its first offensive on September 12, 1918 against the salient of St. Mihiel.  The attack force consisted of three US corps and a French corps.  By the time the battle ended on September 15, the Allies had captured the salient and inflicted 22,500 casualties on the Germans while sustaining 7,000 casualties.  Here is General Pershing’s report on the battle:

At the first operation of the American army the reduction of the salient of St. Mihiel was to he undertaken as soon as the necessary troops and material could be made available. On account of the swampy nature of the country it was especially important that the movement be undertaken and finished before the fall rains should begin, which was usually about the middle of September.

Arrangements were concluded for successive relief of American divisions, and the organization of the First American Army under my personal command was announced on August 10th, with La Fertesous-Jouarre as headquarters. This army nominally assumed control of a portion of the Vesle front, although at the same time directions were given for its secret concentration in the St. Mihiel sector.

The force of American soldiers in France at that moment was sufficient to carry out this offensive, but they were dispersed along the front from Switzerland to the Channel.

The three Army Corps headquarters to participate in the St. Mihiel attack were the First, Fourth, and Fifth. The First was on the Vesle, the Fourth at Toul, and the Fifth not yet completely organized. To assemble combat divisions and service troops and undertake a major operation, within the short period available and with staffs so recently organized, was an extremely difficult task.

Our deficiencies in artillery, aviation, and special troops, caused by the shipment of an undue proportion of infantry and machine guns during the summer, were largely met by the French.

The reduction of the St. Mihiel salient was important, as it would prevent the enemy from interrupting traffic on the Paris-Nancy Railroad by artillery fire and would free the railroad leading north through St. Mihiel to Verdun. It would also provide us with an advantageous base of departure for an attack against the Metz-Sedan Railroad system which was vital to the German armies west of Verdun, and against the Briey Iron Basin which was necessary for the production of German armament and munitions.

The general plan was to make simultaneous attacks against the flanks of the salient. The ultimate objective was tentatively fixed as the general line Marieulles (east of the Moselle) – heights south of Gorze-Mars la Tour-Etain.

The operation contemplated the use on the western face of 3 or 4 American divisions, supported by the attack of 6 divisions of the Second French Army on their left, while 7 American divisions would attack on the southern face, and 3 French divisions would press the enemy at the tip of the salient. As the part to be taken by the Second French Army would be closely related to the attack of the First American Army, Gen. Petain placed all the French troops involved under my personal command.

By August 30th, the concentration of the scattered divisions, corps, and army troops, of the quantities of supplies and munitions required, and the necessary construction of light railways and roads, were well under way.

In accordance with the previous general consideration of operations at Bombon on July 24th, an Allied offensive extending practically along the entire active front was eventually to be carried out. After the reduction of the St. Mihiel sector the Americans were to cooperate in the concerted effort of the Allied armies.

It was the sense of the conference of July 24th, that the extent to which the different operations already planned might carry us could not be then foreseen, especially if the results expected were achieved before the season was far advanced. It seemed reasonable at that time to look forward to a combined offensive for the autumn, which would give no respite to the enemy and would increase our advantage for the inauguration of succeeding operations extending into 1919.

On August 30th, a further discussion with Marshal Foch was held at my headquarters at Ligny-en-Barrois. In view of the new successes of the French and British near Amiens and the continued favourable results toward the Chen in des Dawes on the French front, it was now believed that the limited Allied offensive, which was to prepare for the campaign of 1919, might be carried further before the end of the year.

At this meeting it was proposed by Marshal Foch that the general operations as far as the American Army was concerned should be carried out in detail by:

(a) An attack between the Meuse and the Argonne by the Second French Army, reinforced by from four to six American divisions.

(b) A French-American attack, extending from the Argonne west to the Souain Road, to be executed on the right by an American Army astride the Aisne and on the left by the Fourth French Army.

To carry out these attacks the 10 to 11 American divisions suggested for the St. Mihiel operation and the 4 to 6 for the Second French Army, would leave 8 to 10 divisions for an American Army on the Aisne. It was proposed that the St. Mihiel operation should he initiated on September 10th and the other two on September 15th and 20th, respectively.

The plan suggested for the American participation in these operations was not acceptable to me because it would require the immediate separation of the recently formed First American Army into several groups, mainly to assist French armies. This was directly contrary to the principle of forming a distinct American Army, for which my contention had been insistent.

An enormous amount of preparation had already been made in construction of roads, rail-roads, regulating stations, and other installations looking to the use and supply of our armies on a particular front. The inherent disinclination of our troops to serve under Allied commanders would have grown and American morale would have suffered.

My position was stated quite clearly that the strategical employment of the First Army as a unit would be undertaken where desired, but its disruption to carry out these proposals would not be entertained.

A further conference at Marshal Foch’s headquarters was held on September 2nd, at which Gen. Petain was present. After discussion the question of employing the American Army as a unit was conceded. The essentials of the strategical decision previously arrived at provided that the advantageous situation of the Allies should be exploited to the utmost by vigorously continuing the general battle and extending it eastward to the Meuse.

All the Allied armies were to be employed in a converging action. The British armies, supported by the left of the French armies, were to pursue the attack in the direction of Cambrai; the centre of the French armies, west of Rheims, would continue the actions, already begun, to drive the enemy beyond the Aisne; and the American Army, supported by the right of the French armies, would direct its attack on Sedan and Mezieres.

It should be recorded that although this general offensive was fully outlined at the conference no one present expressed the opinion that the final victory could be won in 1918. In fact, it was believed by the French high command that the Meuse-Argonne attack could not be pushed much beyond Montfaucon before the arrival of winter would force a cessation of operations.

The choice between the two sectors, that east of the Aisne including the Argonne Forest, or the Champagne sector, was left to me. In my opinion, no other Allied troops had the morale or the offensive spirit to overcome successfully the difficulties to be met in the Meuse-Argonne sector and our plans and installations had been prepared for an expansion of operations in that direction.

So the Meuse-Argonne front was chosen. The entire sector of 150 kilometres of front, extending from Port-sur-Seille, east of the Moselle, west to include the Argonne Forest, was accordingly placed under my command, including all French divisions then in that zone.

The First American Army was to proceed with the St. Mihiel operation, after which the operation between the Meuse and the western edge of the Argonne Forest was to be prepared and launched not later than September 25th.

As a result of these decisions, the depth of the St. Mihiel operation was limited to the line Vigneulles-Thiaucourt-Regnieville. The number of divisions to be used was reduced and the time shortened. Eighteen to 19 divisions were to be in the front line. There were 4 French and 15 American divisions available, 6 of which would be in reserve, while the two flank divisions of the front line were not to advance.

Furthermore, 2 Army Corps headquarters, with their corps troops, practically all the Army Artillery and Aviation, and the First, Second, and Fourth Divisions, the first two destined to take a leading part in the St. Mihiel attack, were all due to be withdrawn and started for the Meuse-Argonne by the fourth day of the battle.

The salient had been held by the Germans since September, 1914. It covered the most sensitive section of the enemy’s position on the Western Front; namely, the Mezieres-Sedan-Metz Railroad and the Briey Iron Basin; it threatened the entire region between Verdun and Nancy, and interrupted the main rail line from Paris to the east.

Its primary strength lay in the natural defensive features of the terrain itself. The western face of the salient extended along the rugged, heavily wooded eastern heights of the Meuse; the southern face followed the heights of the Meuse for 8 kilometres to the east and then crossed the plain of the Woevre, including within the German lines the detached heights of Loupmont and Montsec which dominated the plain and afforded the enemy unusual facilities for observation.

The enemy had reinforced the positions by every artificial means during a period of four years.

On the night of September 11th, the troops of the First Army were deployed in position. On the southern face of the salient was the First Corps, Maj. Gen. Liggett, commanding, with the Eighty-second, Ninetieth, Fifth, and Second Divisions in line, extending from the Moselle westward.

On its left was the Fourth Corps, Maj. Gen. Joseph T. Dick-man, commanding, with the Eighty-ninth, Forty-second, and First Divisions, the left of this corps being opposite Montsec. These two Army Corps were to deliver the principal attack, the line pivoting on the centre division of the First Corps.

The First Division on the left of the Fourth Corps was charged with the double mission of covering its own flank while advancing some 20 kilometres due north toward the heart of the salient, where it was to make contact with the troops of the Fifth Corps.

On the western face of the salient lay the Fifth Corps, Maj. Gen. George H. Cameron, commanding, with the Twenty-sixth Division, Fifteenth French Colonial Division, and the Fourth Division in line, from Mouilly west to Les Eparges and north to Watronville.

Of these three divisions, the Twenty-sixth alone was to make a deep advance directed southeast toward Vigneulles. The French Division was to make a short progression to the edge of the heights in order to cover the left of the Twenty-sixth. The Fourth Division was not to advance.

In the centre, between our Fourth and Fifth Army Corps, was the Second French Colonial Corps, Maj. Gen. E. J. Blondlat, commanding, covering a front of 40 kilometres with 3 small French divisions. These troops were to follow up the retirement of the enemy from the tip of the salient.

The French independent air force was at my disposal which, together with the British bombing squadrons and our own air forces, gave us the largest assembly of aviation that had ever been engaged in one operation. Our heavy guns were able to reach Metz and to interfere seriously with German rail movements.

At dawn on September 12th, after four hours of violent artillery fire of preparation, and accompanied by small tanks, the Infantry of the First and Fourth Corps advanced. The infantry of the Fifth Corps commenced its advance at 5 a.m.

The operation was carried out with entire precision. Just after daylight on September 13th, elements of the First and Twenty-sixth Divisions made a junction near Hattonchatel and Vigneulles, 18 kilometres northeast of St. Mihiel.

The rapidity with which our divisions advanced overwhelmed the enemy, and all objectives were reached by the afternoon of September 13th. The enemy had apparently started to withdraw some of his troops from the tip of the salient on the eve of our attack, but had been unable to carry it through.

We captured nearly 16,000 prisoners, 443 guns, and large stores of material and supplies. The energy and swiftness with which the operation was carried out enabled us to smother opposition to such an extent that we suffered less than 7,000 casualties during the actual period of the advance.

During the next two days the right of our line west of the Moselle River was advanced beyond the objectives laid down in the original orders. This completed the operation for the time being and the line was stabilized to be held by the smallest practicable force.

The material results of the victory achieved were very important. An American army was an accomplished fact, and the enemy had felt its power. No form of propaganda could overcome the depressing effect on the morale of the enemy of this demonstration of our ability to organize a large American force and drive it successfully through his defences.

It gave our troops implicit confidence in their superiority and raised their morale to the highest pitch. For the first time wire entanglements ceased to be regarded as impassable barriers and open-warfare training, which had been so urgently insisted upon, proved to be the correct doctrine.

Our divisions concluded the attack with such small losses and in such high spirits that without the usual rest they were immediately available for employment in heavy fighting in a new theatre of operations.

The strength of the First Army in this battle totalled approximately 500,000 men, of whom about 70,000 were French.

Published in: on September 12, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on September 12, 1918: First Army Attacks at Saint Mihiel  
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Victory in 1918

A century ago  the initiative had clearly swung to the Allies on the Western Front.  Launching multiple small offensives, the Allies were driving the Germans back producing soaring Allied morale and plummeting German morale.  The German army remained formidable, but both Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch and British Commander Douglas Haig began to think that victory could be achieved in 1918.

The optimism of the Allies was reflected in General Pershing’s Order of the Day on August 27, 1918:

 

It fills me with pride to record in general orders a tribute to the service achievements of the 1st and 3rd Corps, comprising the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, 28th, 32nd, and 42nd Divisions of the American Expeditionary Forces.

You came to the battlefield at a crucial hour for the Allied cause. For almost four years the most formidable army the world has yet seen had pressed its invasion of France and stood threatening its capital.

At no time has that army been more powerful and menacing than when, on July 15th, it struck again to destroy in one great battle the brave men opposed to it and to enforce its brutal will upon the world and civilization.

Three days later, in conjunction with our allies, you counter-attacked. The Allied armies gained a brilliant victory that marks the turning point of the war. You did more than to give the Allies the support to which, as a nation, our faith was pledged. You proved that our altruism, our pacific spirit, and our sense of justice have not blunted our virility or our courage.

You have shown that American initiative and energy are as fit for the tasks of war as for the pursuits of peace.

You have justly won unstinted praise from our allies and the eternal gratitude of our countrymen.

We have paid for our success with the lives of many of our brave comrades. We shall cherish their memory always and claim for our history and literature their bravery, achievement, and sacrifice.

This order will be read to all organizations at the first assembly formations following its receipt.

PERSHING

Published in: on August 27, 2018 at 11:59 pm  Comments Off on Victory in 1918  
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July 15, 1918: Second Battle of the Marne Begins

 

On July 15, 1918, the Germans began what would be their final offensive on the Western front in World War I.  The attack on the French Fourth Army east of Reims was stopped on the first day by fierce French in depth resistance.  The attack on the Sixth Army west of Reims fared better, making a breakthrough across the south bank of the River Marne.  Reinforced by British forces and 85,000 American troops, the French Sixth Army brought the German  offensive to a grinding halt on July 17.

 

 

The Germans had shot their bolt and now it was time for the Allies to launch a counteroffensive with twenty-four French divisions, four British divisions, two Italian divisions and eight American divisions.  (The American divisions were twice the size of British and French divisions and thus were the equivalent of sixteen French divisions.)  The counter-offensive was a complete success capturing 800 artillery pieces, 30,000 German troops and inflicting an additional 139,000 German casualties.  French observers highly praised the American troops for their elan and their willingness to accept high casualties in order to take ground.  German reports noted defects in American attacks due to inexperience, but also routinely mentioned that the Americans fought with great tenacity and courage.  Here is an extract from General Pershing’s report on the battle:

 

 

The enemy had encouraged his soldiers to believe that the July 15th attack would conclude the war with a German peace.

Although he made elaborate plans for the operation, he failed to conceal fully his intentions, and the front of attack was suspected at least one week ahead.

On the Champagne front the actual hour for the assault was known and the enemy was checked with heavy losses. The 42nd Division entered the line near Somme Py immediately, and five of its infantry battalions and all its artillery became engaged.

Southwest of Rheims and along the Marne to the east of Chateau-Thierry the Germans were at first somewhat successful, a penetration of eight kilometres beyond the river being effected against the French immediately to the right of our 3rd Division.

The following quotation from the report of the Commanding General 3rd Division gives the result of the fighting on his front:

Although the rush of the German troops overwhelmed some of the front-line positions, causing the infantry and machine-gun companies to suffer, in some cases a 50 per cent loss, no German soldier crossed the road from Fossoy to Crezancy, except as a prisoner of war, and by noon of the following day (July 16th) there were no Germans in the foreground of the 3rd Division sector except the dead.

On this occasion a single regiment of the 3rd Division wrote one of the most brilliant pages in our military annals. It prevented the crossing at certain points on its front, while on either flank the Germans who had gained a footing pressed forward. Our men, firing in three sections, met the German attacks with counter-attacks at critical points and succeeded in throwing two German divisions into complete confusion, capturing 600 prisoners.

The Marne salient was inherently weak and offered an opportunity for a counter-offensive that was obvious. If successful, such an operation would afford immediate relief to the Allied defence, would remove the threat against Paris and free the Paris-Nancy railroad.

But, more important than all else, it would restore the morale of the Allies and remove the profound depression and fear then existing.

Up to this time our units had been put in here and there at critical points, as emergency troops to stop the terrific German advance. In every trial, whether on the defensive or offensive, they had proved themselves equal to any troops in Europe.

As early as June 23rd and again on July 10th at Bombon, I had very strongly urged that our best divisions be concentrated under American command, if possible, for use as a striking force against the Marne salient.

Although the prevailing view among the Allies was that American units were suitable only for the defensive, and that at all events they could be used to better advantage under Allied command, the suggestion was accepted in principle, and my estimate of their offensive fighting qualities was soon put to the test.

The selection by the Germans of the Champagne sector and the eastern and southern faces of the Marne pocket on which to make their offensive was fortunate for the Allies, as it favoured the launching of the counter-attack already planned. There were now over 1,200,000 American troops in France, which provided a considerable force of reserves.

Every American division with any sort of training was made available for use in a counter-offensive.

General Petain’s initial plan for the counter-attack involved the entire western face of the Marne salient. The First and Second American Divisions, with the First French Moroccan Division between them, were employed as the spearhead of the main attack, driving directly eastward, through the most sensitive portion of the German lines, to the heights south of Soissons.

The advance began on July 18th, without the usual brief warning of a preliminary bombardment, and these three divisions at a single bound broke through the enemy’s infantry defences and overran his artillery, cutting or interrupting the German communications leading into the salient.

A general withdrawal from the Marne was immediately begun by the enemy, who still fought stubbornly to prevent disaster.

The First Division, throughout four days of constant fighting, advanced 11 kilometres, capturing Berzy-le-Sec and the heights above Soissons and taking some 3,500 prisoners and 68 field guns from the 7 German divisions employed against it. It was relieved by a British division.

The Second Division advanced 8 kilometres in the first 26 hours, and by the end of the second day was facing Tigny, having captured 3,000 prisoners and 66 field guns. It was relieved the night of the 19th by a French division.

The result of this counter-offensive was of decisive importance. Due to the magnificent dash and power displayed on the field of Soissons by our First and Second Divisions the tide of war was definitely turned in favour of the Allies.

Other American divisions participated in the Marne counter-offensive. A little to the south of the Second Division, the Fourth was in line with the French and was engaged until July 22nd. The First American Corps, Maj. Gen. Hunter Liggett commanding, with the Twenty-sixth Division and a French division, acted as a pivot of the movement toward Soissons, capturing Torcy on the 18th and reaching the Chateau-Thierry-Soissons road on the 21st.

At the same time the Third Division crossed the Marne and took the heights of Mont St. Pere and the villages of Charteves and Jaulgonne.

In the First Corps, the Forty-second Division relieved the Twenty-sixth on July 25th and extended its front, on the 26th relieving the French division. From this time until August 2nd it fought its way through the Forest de Fere and across the Ourcq, advancing toward the Vesle until relieved by the Fourth Division on August 3rd.

Early in this period elements of the Twenty-eighth Division participated in the advance.

Farther to the east the Third Division forced the enemy back to Roncheres Wood, where it was relieved on July 30th by the Thirty-second Division from the Vosges front. The Thirty-second, after relieving the Third and some elements of the Twenty-eighth on the line of the Ourcq River, advanced abreast of the Forty-second toward the Vesle.

On August 3rd it passed under control of our Third Corps, Maj. Gen. Robert L. Bullard commanding, which made its first appearance in battle at this time, while the Fourth Division took up the task of the Forty-second Division and advanced with the Thirty-second to the Vesle River, where, on August 6th, the operation for the reduction of the Marne salient terminated.

In the hard fighting from July 18th to August 6th the Germans were not only halted in their advance but were driven back from the Marne to the Vesle and committed wholly to the defensive.

The force of American arms had been brought to bear in time to enable the last offensive of the enemy to be crushed.

 

Published in: on July 15, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on July 15, 1918: Second Battle of the Marne Begins  
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Joseph Girard

 

When I was a boy and I first saw the film Sergeant York, I wondered if John J. Pershing, who was still alive in 1940, had played himself in the scene in which Sergeant York is presented with the Medal of Honor.  It was an honest mistake.  Joseph Girard portrayed Pershing, as he had many times, due to his uncanny resemblance to Pershing.  The role was not credited in the film.  Girard was ten years younger than Pershing and would die in 1949, one year after the General.  Girard appeared in more than 280 films.

Pershing called Sergeant York “The greatest civilian soldier of the war.”  Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander in chief of the Allied Forces said of York:  “What York did was the greatest thing accomplished by any soldier of all the armies of Europe”.

 

Published in: on June 11, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Joseph Girard  
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