America in WWI Part II

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If America’s army required months and months to prepare for battle, its navy did not. On May 4, 1917, just twenty-eight days after the United States declared war, six American destroyers dropped anchor in Queenstown Harbor on the southern coast of Ireland. They and the others that followed would provide needed protection to the merchant ships sailing to and from Britain. Heavier naval firepower arrived in December. Five battleships of the United States Navy, all commanded by Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, joined the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. Significantly, they served under British command and were present when Germany’s High Seas Fleet surrendered.

The U.S. Navy’s role in the First World War is overshadowed by that of Pershing’s army. For most Americans the image of the conflict is that of soldiers in trenches surrounded by mud and barbed wire. The navy’s contribution receives little notice. Even less is given to Admiral William S. Sims, who throughout the war was in charge of American naval operations in Europe.

In addition to dispatching destroyers and battleships to England, America’s navy established a special task force consisting primarily of cruisers that escorted the ships transporting the AEF to France. The navy also provided its air service to the war effort. This comprised some five hundred aircraft distributed among twenty-six naval air stations located in Britain, France, and Italy. And, rather remarkably, the navy sent five very heavy, large naval guns mounted on railroad cars to France, where, in the Allied offensives of September 1918, they pounded German positions near Soissons.

One other achievement of America’s navy in World War I deserves mention. As part of the effort to stymie German submarines, the Royal Navy proposed to lay a barrier of mines from northern Scotland across the North Sea to southern Norway. This would seal off the northern perimeter of the North Sea (a similar barrier was to be laid down across the English Channel near Dover). The project would deny the U-boats free access to the Atlantic Ocean. This was to be an enormous undertaking. Two factors initially delayed its start: the Royal Navy had few ships to spare, and, perhaps more important, British mines were defective. Enter the United States Navy. In June 1918, it began laying its own mines. In total, the Americans put 56,571 mines into the water. Britain’s navy laid 13,546. Together, they were strung along an underwater belt some two hundred miles long. Jellicoe’s successor, Admiral David Beatty, opposed the project. He said it would hinder operations of the fleet and consume resources better spent elsewhere. He had a point. The barrier, the Northern Barrage, to use its customary name, accounted for the destruction of only six U-boats.

Most German submarines operated in the waters around Great Britain and in the Mediterranean. Few made war patrols to North America. One that did was U-156. On July 19, 1918, off the coast of Long Island, the cruiser USS San Diego sunk, having struck a mine laid by the German submarine. The cruiser was the only major American warship lost in World War I.

The AEF’s first test of combat had come in late May. Assigned to the French First Army, the U.S. Army’s 1st Division was given the task of taking Cantigny. This was a small village on a ridge near Montdidier, a town some sixty miles north of Paris. The ridge enabled the Germans to observe what was taking place to the south and west of their positions. Planning the attack was the division’s Operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall. Well-conceived and twice rehearsed, the plan had the division’s 28th Infantry Regiment directly assaulting the town supported by artillery, tanks, and flamethrowers provided by the French.

The attack began early in the morning of May 28, 1918. By noon, the village was in U.S. hands. The Germans counterattacked several times, and the battle became what author David Bonk has called “a desperate slugging match.” Showing notable determination, the men of the 28th held on, despite the premature withdrawal of the French artillery. When the battle was over, the regiment had sustained more than nine hundred casualties. More importantly, Cantigny remained under U.S. control.

The town itself was of no overall strategic value to the Allies. But the fight for Cantigny was important. It demonstrated that the AEF could plan and execute a division-level operation. It also showed that, despite their inexperience, individual American soldiers would do just fine in battle. French and Britain commanders were uncertain how Pershing’s soldiers would respond to the ordeal of battle. So too were German commanders, who tried to convince their troops and themselves that Americans were no match for well-disciplined and battle-tested German soldiers. The fight for Cantigny put to rest such nonsense. For Foch and Haig it was reassuring. For Ludendorff it was cause for concern. For General Pershing and his troops, and for the folks back home in the United States, it was a signal that, once fully deployed, the AEF would have soldiers to be reckoned with.

As the 1st Division’s fight at Cantigny came to a close, the AEF’s 3rd Division was moving into action. Ludendorff’s May offensive, code named Blücher, had seen some success with the Germans reaching the Marne. The French, dispirited by their enemy’s advances, asked General Pershing for assistance. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Black Jack put aside his objection to amalgamation and lent the 3rd Division to the French. They ordered it to Château Thierry. This was (and still is) a lovely little town on the Marne River, where today an American military cemetery resides. At Château Thierry the Americans held fast and Ludendorff’s troops advanced no farther.

Not far from Château Thierry, to the west, were two villages, Bouresches and Belleau. In between them stood a small forest. It was called Belleau Wood. In June 1918, it witnessed a fierce battle, one that for the United States of America would become legendary.

That same month, still needing to slow the German advance, Foch requested additional American help. However, he planned not just to halt the German drive. Foch planned to counterattack and wanted some of Pershing’s troops to participate. The AEF responded by lending Foch the 2nd Division, which the French deployed to Belleau Wood. This unit was unique in the American Expeditionary Force in that two of its four infantry regiments, comprising the 4th Brigade, were U.S. marines, not soldiers of the U.S. Army.

The 4th Brigade’s first task was to stop a German attack, which it did. The story is told that a retreating French officer said to an American that with the Germans advancing, he and his men should fall back. “Retreat, hell,” replied the marine, “we just got here.”

The second task assigned to the marines was to clear Belleau Wood of Germans and hold on to it. On June 6 they attacked. Their artillery was insufficient, their tactics flawed. But as the marines crossed a wheat field full of red poppies, their determination and courage were in full view. The attack succeeded, although the cost was high. The brigade’s casualties that day totaled 1,087. The fight would continue for twenty more days, and at times the marines took no prisoners, and neither did the Germans. It was kill or be killed.

Toward the end of the struggle for Belleau Wood, the 2nd Division’s other brigade, the one consisting of two army regiments, went into action. It was ordered to capture the nearby town of Vaux. Quite competently, the brigade took control of the town, for its effort suffering 300 dead and 1,400 wounded. This battle at Vaux received little attention. In 1918—and even today—what captured the spotlight was the marines at Belleau Wood.

By the standards of the First World War, the engagements of Belleau Wood and Vaux were small affairs. In total, the casualty count for the U.S. 2nd Division showed 1,811 men dead and 7,966 wounded. For the armies of France, Great Britain, and Germany, these were numbers unlikely to raise alarm. For the AEF 9,777 in one division was a stiff price. It illustrated that inexperience on the battlefield costs lives. Nonetheless, Vaux and Belleau Wood were victories. As did Cantigny, the two battles bode well for the Allied cause.

The next occasion in which the AEF went into action involved far more men than had fought at Vaux and Belleau Wood. Once the German spring offensive came to a halt, Ferdinand Foch was keen to strike back. He wanted to recover territory lost to the Germans, and he also wanted to damage Ludendorff’s army, which he believed by then to be under considerable stress. He directed Pétain to prepare a plan of attack, which the French army’s commander in chief did. The plan included substantial participation by the Americans.

Two U.S. divisions, along with a French Moroccan unit, spearheaded the attack. They were part of the French Tenth Army. Pershing had once again agreed to allocate American units to Pétain’s forces. Three other AEF divisions were assigned to the French Sixth Army, while a further three were part of the force held in reserve. Ultimately, some three hundred thousand American soldiers were involved. The attack, along a twenty-five-mile front in the vicinity of Soissons, began on July 18. It was over by August 2. Approximately thirty thousand Germans were taken prisoner. Such was the success that afterward the Kaiser’s son wrote his father that the war was lost.

This battle is usually referred to as the Second Battle of the Marne. One key result of this battle was Ludendorff’s decision to call off a major attack against the British in the north. The German commander had hoped once and for all to crush Field Marshal Haig’s forces in France. That had been the decisive victory Ludendorff had designed his spring offensives to achieve.

Meanwhile, Sir Douglas had planned an offensive of his own, one to which Foch as Supreme Commander readily agreed. On August 8, the British Army attacked near Amiens. Among the assault troops were Canadians and Australians, whom the West Point Military Series account of World War I says were “generally regarded as the finest infantry fighters on the Allied side.” The outcome was a stunning success for British arms. Haig’s losses were light, suggesting that the British, at last, had mastered the art of trench warfare. German losses were substantial. Some seventy thousand troops were out of action. Of these, thirty thousand had surrendered without much of a fight. In his memoir, Ludendorff, who offered to resign after the battle, termed August 8 “the black day of the German army.”

The British victory at Amiens was one of the more decisive battles of the First World War, but not because of territory gained or men lost. Rather, it was important because of its psychological impact on the Germans. After Amiens the German high command realized that defeat was now likely. For Germany, the war was lost once its generals believed the war was lost. After their drubbing by the British in August 1918, that’s exactly what they began to believe.

Two days after the British launched their attack from Amiens, the American Expeditionary Force established a new combat organization. Previously, the AEF had organized divisions as its primary fighting units. As we’ve seen, these went into battle as components of various French armies. By August, however, the number of American divisions had increased so as to warrant a larger combat unit. On August 10, 1918, the First American Army was brought into being. It was comprised of fourteen divisions organized into three corps. Its commander was John J. Pershing, who remained in charge of the AEF, of which First Army became the principal American combat unit.

By early October, the number of American soldiers justified the establishment of the U.S. Second Army. Its commander was Major General Robert Lee Bullard, who had been in charge of the 1st Division at Cantigny. By then, First Army had a new commander. He was Hunter Liggett, also a major general. Both Liggett and Bullard reported to Pershing, who then was at the same level as Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and General Philippe Pétain, each of whose command encompassed several separate armies. Above Haig, Pétain, and Pershing was the supreme commander, Ferdinand Foch.

In early September Foch had been content to have Allied troops conduct limited offensives along the entire Western Front. For the AEF this meant the elimination of the St. Mihiel salient.

In military terminology, a salient is a wedge, a protrusion in the battle line often shaped like an arrowhead. In 1914, the Germans had created such a wedge sixteen miles deep into the French lines, with the tip of the salient at a small town well to the east of Paris. Several times, the French army had attempted to eliminate it. Each time the army had failed.

The St. Mihiel salient was in the American sector of operations. Not surprisingly, General Pershing decided to have his First American Army remove the wedge. Initially, he planned to have the army continue on to Metz, then a heavily fortified German stronghold. Such a move, if successful, would have had strategic consequences, threatening the position of all German forces on the Western Front. Foch, however, intervened. He wanted Pershing to abandon the attack on St. Mihiel and strike northwest into the Meuse-Argonne rather than northeast towards Metz. The Supreme Commander also wanted to insert a French army into the attack and place some of the American troops under French command. Pershing reacted strongly to both proposals, and the conversation between the two commanders became heated. The net result was a compromise. The American army would move against the salient but not proceed beyond it. And it would do so with fewer troops. But, acceding to Foch’s desires, the American First Army, with a large number of soldiers, then would advance into the Meuse-Argonne, striking northwest as the supreme commander wished.

The attack on the salient began on September 12 with an artillery barrage from 3,010 guns. Then, seven U.S. infantry divisions struck from the east. One American division attacked from the west, while French units advanced at the tip. In total, five hundred thousand American soldiers went into battle along with one hundred thousand French troops. Within two days, the salient was reduced. Pershing’s men took thirteen thousand prisoners and captured a large number of enemy guns. American casualties numbered approximately seven thousand.

Among the artillery pieces employed were the fourteen-inch naval guns. Mounted on railroad cars, they shot a projectile up to twenty-three miles and, if on target, were devastating to the enemy. The challenge, of course, was in correctly aiming the gun and properly gauging the ballistics of the projectile. At first the gunners had difficulty in hitting some of their targets. Help came from a young army captain. Edwin P. Hubble, who understood mathematics and the science of trajectories, provided the solutions. He later became an astronomer of note, winning a Nobel Prize. When in 1990 the American space agency, NASA, placed a powerful telescope in low earth orbit, the instrument was named for Dr. Hubble.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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