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U.S. troops score victory at Cantigny

U.S. troops score victory at Cantigny

In the first sustained American offensive of World War I, an Allied force including a full brigade of nearly 4,000 United States soldiers captures the village of Cantigny, on the Somme River in France, from their German enemy.

Though the United States formally entered World War I on the side of the Allies in April 1917, they were not fully prepared to send significant numbers of troops into battle until a full year had passed. By May 1918, however, large numbers of American soldiers had arrived in France, just in time to face the onslaught of the great German spring offensive.

On May 28, a day after their French allies suffered a blistering defeat on the Aisne River, a two-hour artillery barrage preceded the attack on Cantigny, located further north on the Western Front. The French army provided air cover, artillery, heavy tanks and—in an especially effective tactic—teams of flamethrowers to aid the U.S. advance through the German-held village, which was quickly overrun. The Americans took 100 German prisoners by the end of that day.

The commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), General John J. Pershing, gave the order that no inch of Cantigny was to be surrendered. Over the next 72 hours, the Americans in Cantigny endured seven German counterattacks, maintaining control of the village despite high casualties, with 200 soldiers killed and another 200 incapacitated by German gas attacks. By the time relief finally came, total U.S. casualties at Cantigny had reached over 1,000, and the soldiers were exhausted from the strain of continual shelling. As their commander, Colonel Hanson E. Ely, remembered: They could only stagger back, hollow-eyed with sunken cheeks, and if one stopped for a moment he would fall asleep.

As the first major U.S. victory, the capture of Cantigny had a threefold impact on the war effort in the spring of 1918: first, it deprived the Germans of an important observation point for their troops on the Western Front. It also lent weight to Pershing’s argument that an independent U.S. command should be maintained apart from the joint Allied command. Finally, it provided a warning to the Germans that the Americans, although recently arrived and relatively new to the battlefield, were not a force to be taken lightly.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I


Battle of Cantigny: America's Bloody Baptism in World War I

In their first major battles of World War I, American Expeditionary Force troops helped blunt multiple offensives launched by the German Army in the spring of 1918.

Here's What You Need to Know: Throughout the winter of 1917-1918, Ludendorff had worked hard to prepare German forces to defeat the Allies before the full strength of the American military might be brought to bear on the Western Front.

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.”


33g. Gettysburg: High Watermark of the Confederacy

He proposed to take the offensive, invade Pennsylvania, and defeat the Union Army in its own territory. Such a victory would relieve Virginia of the burden of war, strengthen the hand of Peace Democrats in the North, and undermine Lincoln's chances for reelection. It would reopen the possibility for European support that was closed at Antietam. And perhaps, it would even lead to peace.

The result of this vision was the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent. This was Gettysburg , where more than 170,000 fought and over 40,000 were casualties.

Lee began his quest in mid-June 1863, leading 75,000 soldiers out of Virginia into south-central Pennsylvania. Forty miles to the south of Lee, the new commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, General George Meade , headed north with his 95,000 soldiers. When Lee learned of the approach of this concentrated force, he sent couriers to his generals with orders to reunite near Gettysburg to do battle. As sections of the Confederate Army moved to join together, CSA General A.P. Hill , heard a rumor that that there was a large supply of shoes at Gettysburg. On July 1, 1863, he sent one of his divisions to get those shoes. The battle of Gettysburg was about to begin.


The carnage at the Battle of Gettysburg was brutal. After the battle, casualties from both sides littered the battlefield as survivors picked over the bodies for supplies, clothes, and shoes.

As Hill approached Gettysburg from the west, he was met by the Union cavalry of John Buford . Couriers from both sides were sent out for reinforcements. By early afternoon, 40,000 troops were on the battlefield, aligned in a semicircle north and west of the town. The Confederates drove the outnumbered Union troops to Cemetery Hill , just south of town, where Union artillery located on the hill halted the retreat.

At noon on July 2, the second day of the battle, Lee ordered his divisions to attack, hoping to crumble both sides of the Union line and win the battle. The Big Round Top and Little Round Top were nearby hills that had been left unprotected. If the Confederates could take these positions, they could surround the Union forces.

Union troops under Colonel Joshua Chamberlain arrived just in time to meet Confederate troops charging up the hill to Little Round Top. In some of the most ferocious fighting of the battle, Chamberlain's 20th Maine held on to Little Round Top and perhaps saved the Union from defeat.

Lee was determined to leave Pennsylvania with a victory. On the third day of battle, he ordered a major assault against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge . Confederate batteries started to fire into the Union center. The firing continued for two hours. At 3 p.m., 14,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of General George Pickett began their famous charge across three-quarters of a mile of open field to the Union line.

Few Confederates made it. Lee's attempt for a decisive victory in Pennsylvania had failed. He had lost 28,000 troops &mdash one-third of his army. A month later, he offered his resignation to Jefferson Davis, which was refused. Meade had lost 23,000 soldiers.

The hope for Southern recognition by any foreign government was dashed. The war continued for two more years, but Gettysburg marked the end of Lee's major offensives. The Confederacy tottered toward its defeat.

The Gettysburg Address Exhibit
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
-Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address.

This famous speech, given at the dedication of the cemetery in which the casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg were buried, is one of the best-known orations the world, translated in 28 different languages. The Library of Congress, home to two of the five original drafts of the address, provides this exhibit, which has not only the translations and images of the drafts, but original copies of Lincoln's invitation to speak and the only photograph known to exist of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.


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.

This article is part of our extensive collection of articles on the Great War. Click here to see our comprehensive article on World War 1.

This article is from the book The Yanks Are Coming! A Military HIstory of the United States in World War I © 2014 by H.W Crocker III. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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Contents

The Western Front comprised the fractious borders between France, Germany, and the neighboring countries. It was infamous for the nature of the fight that developed there after almost a full year of inconclusive fighting, the front had become a giant trench line stretching from one end of Europe to the other. [1]

The Battle of Liège was the first battle of the war, and could be considered a moral victory for the allies, as the heavily outnumbered Belgians held out against the German Army for 12 days. From 5–16 August 1914, the Belgians successfully resisted the numerically superior Germans, and inflicted surprisingly heavy losses on their aggressors. The German Second Army, comprising 320,000 men, crossed into neutral Belgium in keeping to the Schlieffen Plan, with the ultimate goal of attacking France from the north. Liège was key strategically as it held a position at the head of a pass through the Ardennes, which made it the best possible route into the heart of Belgium itself. [2]

The city was surrounded by a ring of 12 heavily armed forts, garrisoned by 70,000 men under the command of Gérard Leman. A night attack on 5 August was repulsed with heavy losses to the Germans, to the extreme surprise of the supremely confident German army. [ citation needed ] The next day, rather than confront the forts in battle, the German commander Erich Ludendorff attacked the city through the back, through a break in the line of fortresses that the Belgians had intended to fortify, but never did so. Although they succeeded in capturing the city, the Germans knew that they could not continue advancing troops into Belgium without first breaking down the forts. Aided by 17-inch Howitzers, the Germans finally succeeded in bringing down the forts on 16 August. [2]

The unprecedented Belgian resistance seriously prolonged the opening German assault at the outbreak of World War I, allowing France and Britain time to organize themselves and a defense of Paris. In addition, it was an important moral victory for the Allies.

Battle of the Frontiers Edit

The early French initiative, to capture territory lost to the Germans in the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War, which France started, was played out in a series of frontier battles between the Germans and the French, known collectively as the Battle of the Frontiers. The battles at Mulhouse, Lorraine, the Ardennes, Charleroi, and Mons were launched more or less simultaneously, and marked the collision of the German and French war plans, the Schlieffen Plan and Plan XVII, respectively. [1] [3]

The Battle of Mülhausen was the opening attack by the French against the Germans. The battle was part of a French attempt to conquer the province of Alsace, which had been lost as a consequence of having lost the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, as it had a majority of ethnic Germans. A French force under General Louis Bonneau detached from the French First Corps and invaded the frontier on August 8, 1914. Opposing them was the German 7th Division. The capture of the area, preordained by the French Plan XVII, was to boost national pride—and to provide a guard force for the flank of subsequent invasions. [4]

The French quickly captured the border town of Altkirch with a bayonet charge. Bonneau, suspicious of the little German resistance, was wary of a carefully planned German trap. However, under orders the next day he advanced to Mülhausen, capturing it with little effort, for the Germans had already abandoned it. [4]

In France, the conquering of the German city Mülhausen, without a fight, was celebrated greatly. However, with the arrival of German reserves from Straßburg, the tides were turned, and the Germans mounted a counter-attack on nearby Cernay. Unable to mount an all-encompassing defense, and unable to call on reserves of his own, Bonneau began a slow withdrawal from the region. Support troops hastily sent by the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre arrived too late to prevent Bonneau from retiring. Joffre was immensely angry with Bonneau, charging him with a "lack of aggression" and immediately relieving him of command. Realizing the psychological magnitude of the loss, he assembled a force, led by Paul Pau, which tried unsuccessfully to recapture the province. [4]

The invasion and recapture of Lorraine formed one of the major parts of the French pre-war strategy, Plan XVII. The loss of Lorraine (and Alsace see above) to the Prussians in the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War was seen as a national humiliation by the public and military alike, and was at the forefront of their minds for the next war against the Germans. [5]

The battle was initiated by the French First and Second armies. The First, led by General Auguste Dubail, intended to take Sarrebourg, whilst the Second, led by General Noel de Castelnau, intended to take Morhange. Both towns were well fortified, and the task of defending them fell to Crown Prince Rupprecht, who had overall control of the German Sixth and Seventh armies. [5]

Rupprecht adopted a strategy in which he would fall back under the French attacks, then counter-attack once he lured the French all the way to his fortifications. As the French army advanced, it met stern resistance in the form of German artillery and machine-gun fire. Army Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke authorized a more aggressive tactic soon after, and on August 20, the German army started to roll back the French. Caught by surprise and without the assistance of entrenched positions, the Second Army was pushed back quickly, eventually into France itself. A gap was exposed between the forces in Mulhouse and those in Lorraine the forces in Mulhouse were withdrawn to keep the gap from being taken advantage of by the Germans. [5]

Diverging from the Schlieffen Plan, Rupprecht received reinforcements and attacked the French line near the Trouée de Charmes however, through the use of reconnaissance aircraft, the French spotted the German buildup, and were able to build an adequate defence. Thus the German gains were minimized, and were eradicated by a following French counter-assault on the 25th. Fighting continued there until the end of August, and quickly ground into a stalemate and trench warfare. [5]

The Battle of Ardennes, fought between 21 and 23 August 1914, was another of the early frontier battles, conducted during the first month of the war. The battle was sparked by the mutual collision of French and German invasion forces in the lower Ardennes Forest. [6]

The pre-war French strategy expected German forces in the area to be light, and the French light, rapid firing artillery was expected to convey an advantage in forested terrain over the bigger German guns. Instead, it became increasingly apparent to all of the commanders in the region that a significant enemy presence was gathering, for the Germans had planned an offensive through the area. [6]

The sets of armies joined battle on both sides. General Pierre Ruffey's Third Army to the south and Fernand de Langle de Cary's Fourth Army to the north, fighting Germany's Fourth, led by Duke Albrecht, and Fifth army, led by Crown Prince Wilhelm. [6]

The German troops started moving through the forest on 19 August. Conditions worsened, and by the time the two armies met, the forest was covered in a deep fog, resulting in the two forces stumbling into one another. At first, the French took the Germans as a light screening force however, in reality the French were heavily outnumbered. The first day of the battle consisted of light skirmishes the main battle did not begin until 21 August. [6]

According to the pre-war French strategy document, Plan XVII, German forces in the area were only expected to be light, with French light, rapid-firing artillery proving advantageous in a wooded terrain such as that found in the Ardennes. However, what emerged was totally opposite the French eagerly charged at German positions in the woods, and were mowed down by machine-gun fire. The French armies retreated hurriedly in the face of superior German tactical positioning, and the Germans chased them all the way back into the French border. In addition to losing a key strategic position, the French forfeited iron resources in the region as well. [6]

The Battle of Charleroi, another of the frontier battles, was an action taking place 12–23 August 1914. The battle was joined by the French Fifth Army, advancing north towards the River Sambre, and the German Second and Third armies, moving southwest through Belgium. The Fifth army was meant to join the Third and Fourth armies in their attack through the Ardennes. However, this plan was put into effect assuming the Germans were not considering an assault further north, through Belgium—which was the German plan all along. Charles Lanrezac, commander of the Fifth Army, was strongly against the idea, fearing an attack from the north. However Joseph Joffre, chief-of-staff, rejected any such idea after much persuasion, Lanrezac finally convinced him to move the Fifth Army northwards.

However, by the time the Fifth Army arrived, units of the German Second Army were already in the area. Joffre authorized an attack across the Sambre, predicting that the German force had 18 divisions, comparable to Lanrezac's 15, plus another 3 British reinforcements (the British Expeditionary Force). However, Lanrezac predicted much higher numbers, closer to the actual number—32 German divisions. He preferred to wait for reinforcements, however that same day the Germans attacked across the river and established two beachheads, neither of which fell despite several French counterattacks.

The next day, the main attack began the fighting carried on through the day, and into the next. The French centre suffered severe losses and retreated but the west and east flanks both held their ground. However, the retreat of cavalry divisions to the far west exposed the French west flank. With news of his situation, and the fact that his flanks could give and be completely enwrapped, Lanrezac ordered a general retreat into northern France.

The French town of Maubeuge was a major fort on the French side of the border. With a junction of no fewer than five major railway lines, it was recognized as a key strategic position by both sides hence the construction of 15 forts and gun batteries ringing it, a total of 435 guns, and a permanent garrison of 35,000 troops. These were further bolstered by the choosing of the town as the advance base of the British Expeditionary Force. However, when these and the French Fifth Army retreated following the events at Charleroi, the town was cut off from allied support, and subsequently besieged on August 25. The German heavy artillery succeeded in demolishing the key forts around the city, and General Joseph Anthelme Fournier, in command of the garrison in the city, surrendered to the Germans some 13 days later. [7]


Battles - The Battle of Cantigny, 1918

The first sustained American offensive of the war, although a minor action in itself, the Battle of Cantigny was fought on 28 May 1918, the second day of the great German offensive comprising the Third Battle of the Aisne.

A regiment of the American 1st Division (some 4,000 troops), under Major-General Robert Lee Bullard, captured the village of Cantigny, held by the German Eighteenth Army commanded by von Hutier and the site of a German advance observation point, strongly fortified.

Aiding the attack, the French provided both air cover in addition to 368 heavy guns and trench mortars, plus flamethrower teams. The advancing American infantry were preceded into the village by twelve French tanks following a two-hour advance artillery barrage.

In taking the village the Americans expanded their front by approximately a mile. A minor success, its significance was entirely overshadowed by the battle underway along the Aisne, some fifty miles to the north-west.


Defense against German counterattacks [ edit | edit source ]

The first German counterattack, a small attack at 08:30 against the extreme right of the new American position, was easily repulsed, but German artillery bombarded the 28th Infantry for most of the day. At 17:10 the first large-scale counterattack took place, and a battalion of the 26th Infantry commanded by Major Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was used to reinforce a weak spot in the American line. Another German counterattack at 18:40 was also repulsed by a combination of artillery and Infantry defensive fire. A series of counterattacks the next morning were also defeated by both American regiments, and the position held.

The Americans reduced the salient and expanded their front by approximately a mile. A minor success, its significance was overshadowed by the battle underway along the Aisne. The U.S. forces held their position with the loss of 1,603 casualties including 199 killed in action they captured 250 German prisoners. Matthew B. Juan, a Native American war hero, was killed during this battle.

The American success at Cantigny assured the French that American divisions could be entrusted in the line against the German offensive to take Paris. The victory at Cantigny was followed by attacks at Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood in the first half of June.


Remembering victory in Europe -- V-E Day, May, 1945

Col. Gen. Gustaf Jodl, German Chief of Staff under the Dontiz regime, (center with back to camera) signs the unconditional surrender document in the War Room, SHAEF, Reims, France, on May 7, 1945. Courtesy of 1st Division Museum at Cantigny Park, Wheaton

Brig. Gen. George A. Taylor, assistant commanding general, First Division, and interpreter Capt. Carl Oelze look on as Lt. Gen. Fritz Benicke, commander of German forces near Elbogen, Czechoslovakia, signs the surrender of all troops and equipment under his command on May 7, 1945 Courtesy of 1st Division Museum at Cantigny Park, Wheaton

An African-American rifle platoon in March 1945. Courtesy of 1st Division Museum at Cantigny Park, Wheaton

"The Mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945, Eisenhower."

With that simple statement, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, announced the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Europe.

The 1st Infantry Division, whose history we present at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, played a significant role in achieving the victory.

There is much we should recall about that moment 70 years ago.

The Nazi surrender took place in Reims, France, on May 7. There was an immediate cease-fire, but the surrender did not take effect until just before midnight on May 8. This allowed time to get the word to units of both sides and to allow Allied forces to conclude operations in favorable positions.

A formal surrender ceremony took place in Berlin on May 9. In Russia, therefore, V-E Day is marked as May 9.

Adolf Hitler did not surrender. He and his wife of a single day, Eva Braun, committed suicide on April 30 in his bunker under the Reich Chancellery in the center of Berlin as Soviet forces closed in.

Hitler designated Adm. Karl Donitz, commander of the German navy, as his successor because of all Hitler's henchmen, he considered Donitz the most reliable Nazi. Donitz managed the unconditional surrender of all German forces and then joined other top Nazis in prison. He was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for war crimes.

Most German forces fought on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. In 1945, the Soviet front against Germany consisted of some 7 million troops in at least 35 armies and ran 800 miles from Finland to the Black Sea.

Soviet forces began a massive offensive on Jan. 12, 1945, that did not stop until it reached Berlin.

Germany deployed about 2 million soldiers against the Soviets, compared to some 700,000 on her western front.

The Soviet campaign to take Berlin, from April 14 to May 7, 1945, included 2.5 million soldiers 6,250 tanks and combat vehicles and 41,600 artillery pieces. It would result in more than 360,000 casualties.

Nevertheless, the U.S. and western Allied efforts were decisive. They fought Japan cleared the Atlantic of German submarines cleared the Mediterranean of all Axis forces stifled Germany with strategic bombing that destroyed the German air force and landed in Normandy, France, in June, 1944, forcing Germany into an unwinnable two-front war.

At the same time, American industry supplied vital Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union. From October 1941 to June 1944, the Soviets received nearly 11,000 aircraft, 4,900 tanks and 263,000 other vehicles -- enough to outfit 18 American armor divisions. American-built trucks, locomotives, rolling stock and aircraft carried half of all Soviet military supplies during its last offensives.

The Allied ground campaigns against Germany were smaller but by no means trivial. The Western Allies were continuously on the offensive from January to May 1945.

The record of the 1st Infantry Division illustrates this reality. After its heroic stand in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, the Big Red One counterattacked through the West Wall fortifications on the German border in January 1945 defended the Roer River line for most of February attacked across the Roer to seize Bonn, Germany, cross the Rhine River at Remagen, and expand the Remagen bridgehead in March attacked north to help surround German forces in the Ruhr pocket in March and April attacked to clear the Harz Mountains of enemy forces in April marched 150 miles to the Czech border on April 30 and, on May 5, attacked to seize Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia. They were doing so when word of the surrender reached them on May 7.

This fighting was just as hard and dangerous as any.

Our memory of the war rests on the iconic battles of 1944: the Normandy landings and the Battle of the Bulge. These obscure the earlier Mediterranean campaigns and diminish the following campaigns within Germany.

U.S. Army battle casualties in Europe in June 1944, when Rome fell and the Allies landed in Normandy, totaled 39,000, of which 9,000 were killed in action. This compares with 69,000 total casualties in January, 1945, of which 10,000 were killed in action and with 41,000 total casualties and 8,000 dead in April, 1945, the last full month of the war.

Such strong German resistance is difficult to explain. After the failed assassination attempt against Hitler in July 1944, the Nazi regime imposed a reign of terror against defeatist behavior. Widespread knowledge of Nazi crimes, memories of the Versailles Treaty after World War I and the Allied commitment to unconditional surrender made some Germans fear a brutal peace and occupation.

Allied strategic bombing may have stimulated defiance. Top Nazi political and military leaders were lavishly bribed. Some Germans still believed in Hitler's ability to work a miracle.

After Hitler's suicide, Donitz prolonged the war to allow as many Germans as possible to get away from the Soviets and surrender to the western Allies.

Because of the heavy casualties in Europe and the Pacific in 1945, the United States nearly ran out of people for its military, forcing the U.S. Army to ease racial segregation. By February, 1945, the need for infantry replacements was so great that African Americans in support units were asked to volunteer for retraining as infantry. More than 2,500 agreed -- many were then demoted to private and private first class, the ranks of the riflemen they would become.

After a few weeks training, the new replacements were sent by platoons (under white officers) to front-line divisions who could reject them -- and some did. Not the 1st Infantry Division. The assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. George Taylor, personally welcomed all three platoons and briefed them on the division's history and standards before they each joined one of the three infantry regiments.

All three platoons performed well. In the 26th Infantry, the black platoon was continuously engaged from March 12 to May 8. It soon showed an "increase in confidence and training … (and took its) … full share of this almost continuous fighting and maneuvering."

The platoon assigned to the 16th Infantry had 30 men wounded and nine killed in action. White platoons "like[d] to fight beside them because they laid a large volume of fire on the enemy."

The platoon with the 18th Infantry was employed "in an identical manner to any other rifle platoon" and its record "was very satisfactory … (it) can most certainly be considered a battle success."

As Allied troops moved into Germany, their discovery of Nazi concentration camps offered undeniable proof of the Holocaust. Eisenhower visited one such camp near Ohrdruf, Germany, on April 12, 1945. Newsreels and magazines spread the horrible images at home, encouraging public support for the international tribunal that would try the top Nazis at Nuremberg.

On May 6, 1945, units of the 1st Infantry Division liberated small camps at Zwodau and Falkenau an der Eger in Czechoslovakia. Zwodau was a slave labor camp housing some 1,000 starving women prisoners.

At Falkenau, only about 60 male prisoners survived. Here, Cpl. Samuel Fuller of the 16th Infantry Regiment, later a renowned film director, made his first film: a 16 mm black-and-white documentary of the leading citizens of Falkenau being compelled to dress and properly bury the emaciated corpses in the camp.

As the war ended, U.S. soldiers had to care for millions of civilians, many of whom were stateless persons expelled from their homes by the Nazis or Soviets. The numbers were staggering. The Allies captured some 7 million German soldiers. They also aided approximately 6 million non-German forced laborers 2 million freed Allied prisoners of the Germans 3 million eastern Europeans fleeing the Soviets 1 million concentration camp survivors and an unknown number of wounded German soldiers recovering in military hospitals.

The displaced individuals alone represented some 52 nationalities housed in more than 900 camps. The demand for transportation, construction, food, water, medicine, sanitation supplies and so on was insatiable. One commander in the 1st Division, alarmed at the wear and tear on his trucks, protested that the passenger load for each truck should be limited to 50 people.

Heavy on GIs' minds was concern they might be shipped from Europe to fight against Japan. The headquarters of the U.S. First Army did move to the Pacific Theater and many other smaller units did as well.

The Manhattan Project, of course, was completely secret and no one knew whether the atomic bomb would work. Therefore, Allied military planners envisioned an invasion of Japan for 1946 that would call for a landing force of 29 U.S. divisions (compared to 11 Allied divisions that landed in Normandy). This huge and hugely unpopular shift from Europe to the Pacific did not take place because the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August forced the Japanese to surrender in September, 1945.

World War II was a global disaster. Roughly 60 million people died as a direct result of the war -- 25 million Soviets (16 million of them civilians) 15 million Chinese 6 million Poles 3 million Japanese 9 million Germans and many other nationalities.

The U.S. suffered more than 500,000 military deaths, as did the United Kingdom. The United States emerged undamaged within our territory and became the leading power for decades, but the world faced problems of unprecedented magnitude sufficient to intimidate the fledgling United Nations: ruined cities, collapsing empires and colonial governments, civil wars, new dictatorships, atomic weapons.

This is not to say that the war should not have been fought. VE-Day meant the end of Hitler's vision of a global empire based on racial superiority, slavery, dictatorship and genocide.

Hitler believed in Weltherrschaft -- Germany's right to conquer the globe. He and his criminal regime planned a series of wars of conquest: the Sudetenland, Poland, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and so on.

World domination was to be complete by 1950. Within Europe, Hitler intended to annex Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. He would make puppet states of Great Britain, southern France, Spain and Portugal. The Tyrol region of Italy, northern Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania would be part of the German empire, as would Poland and the Soviet Union east to the Ural Mountains.

All of this would be renamed "Germania" and ruled from Berlin. Africa would be divided among Italy, Germany and a pro-Nazi Afrikaner government. His ally Japan would conquer the Pacific, China, the far eastern USSR and the western U.S. and Canada. They would divide South America.

Within Germania, population control would begin with the extermination of the mentally and physically handicapped and all Jews, among other unwanted groups. Racial purity would be achieved with racial qualifications for marriage and the forced sterilization of the unqualified. Racially acceptable children in the occupied lands would be kidnapped and returned to Germany to be raised by Nazi couples.

Women's rights would be suppressed in order to maximize the birthrate, set by projections of future army divisions. Men of the elite SS were to have multiple wives. German veterans who married would be given farm lands in the east and the former occupants would be expelled, enslaved and exterminated.

Hitler and the Nazis implemented these plans before and during the war. He believed in his vision to his death.

In Asia, a Japanese vision was only less horrific by degrees. Even a war as damaging as World War II was not worse than a future under the Axis powers.

VE-Day ended Hitler's vision and we should be forever grateful to the GIs, sailors, Marines and airmen who bore the heaviest cost of the victory. It did not end the potential for similar visions to arise again from values not just different from ours but antithetical to ours.

Our memory of VE-Day should rekindle our commitment to our country's best ideals and to a vision of the same for all people.


U.S. troops score victory at Cantigny - HISTORY

American wounded being evacuated

The Battle of Argonne Forest was part of what became known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the last battle of World War I . It was a massive attack along the whole line, with the immediate goal of reaching the railroad junction as Sedan. The US had over 1 million troops now available to fight. While the US troops were not battle tested, the introduction of over 1 million well armed troops into a battle that had exhausted armies for four years would prove decisive.

Commanding US troops was General Pershing. Responsible for the logistics was Colonel George Marshall. The American offensive began on September 26th, 1918 North of Verdun. It began like all World War I battles with a massive artillery attack. The American forces had mixed results in the first stage of the battle that lasted until October 3rd. German resistance was strong, but the sheer numbers of the Americans slowly forced the German back. Meanwhile the French and British troops to the North were having similar success, slow but steady advances. By the end of the second stage of the battle which lasted from October 6th to 26th the American forces had advanced over 10 miles and cleared the Argonne Forest.

In the final stage of the battle which lasted until the Armistice of November 11, 1918 American forces advanced on Metz, while French forces conquered the goal of the campaign Sedan. The Americans suffered 192,000 casualties in the battle including 26,277 killed. The French suffered 70,000 casualties, while the Germans had 126,000 casualties among them 56,000 prisoners.


As explained in the Logistics in World War II, an Army publication, an active duty soldier earned one point for each month of service, whether domestic or overseas. Earning combat awards such as a battle star or medal provided an additional five points. Dependent children under 18 added another 12 points to the parent's total. Service time for the purpose of ASR score system started on Sept. 16, 1940.

The ASR score system was revamped again in September 1945 because too many experienced veterans were going home and leaving the younger soldiers to wind down the operations in Europe after the end of World War II. All European units were re-designated as Occupational, Redeployment or Liquidation Forces. Occupational Forces consisted of volunteers and the troops with the lowest scores. According to the WWII point system, troops with scores between 60 and 79 ASR points were classified as Liquidation Forces. Those with the highest scores and troops designated for return to the U.S. were considered Redeployment Forces.


Watch the video: Cantigny (January 2022).