May 28, 1918

When America entered the Great War in April 1917 as an Associated Power, the United States Army was small and inexperienced in large-scale modern war.  In late May the 1st Expeditionary Division was formed, and in June it sailed for France, arriving in time to parade in France on July 4th.  It was then redesignated the 1st Division.  Unlike divisions of other powers which had been reduced to three regiments - triangular divisions - American division were still square - four regiments in two brigades, over 27,000 men.  This larger organization was intended to "sustain an offensive", to take casualties and continue the attack.  The American army was also different in its doctrine, officially rejecting French and British tactics that had evolved to deal with trench warfare and the vastly increased firepower of the machine gun and modern artillery - tactics that optimized offensive firepower and mitigated enemy firepower.  The Americans, in particular the commander of the expeditionary force, John J. Pershing, favored "open warfare" tactics that emphasized the rifleman.  Pershing had been given leeway to manage the effort as he thought fit, but he was less willing to do the same for his subordinates; he was, in fact, a micromanage.  Fortunately, the man tasked with creating training schools, Gen Robert Lee Bullard, saw merit in both American and European tactics and taught both.  Further, head of 1st Division's artillery, Gen. Summerall, recognized the greater importance of artillery in modern times, and he was innovative and open to new ideas - he pushed for twice as many guns per division as planned.  Overall, the first men shipped to France were among the best in the army, and they included Lt Col George C Marshall, the 1st Division's operations officer, and Clarence Huebner, a company commander who would rise to command the division in the next war.

Training was time consuming, and American troops were committed to quiet fronts only while the French and British pushed for the incorporation of American troops into their depleted armies.  Pershing had strict orders to fight his army as an army, under American command - except in case of emergency.  In spring 1918, such an emergency arose - the Allied situation was bleak.  Having defeated Russia, the Germans shifted troops to France, attacking the outnumbered Allies with innovative new tactics.  The March 1918 German attack pushed the British back forty miles, endangering the vital transportation hub at Amiens and pressing the British to the breaking point.  Only five days into the offensive, Marshal Foch met with Pershing, and Pershing made American divisions available to meet the crisis.  The 1st Division was pulled out of the quiet sector to be committed to battle while four other American divisions went into line in the quiet sector in order to relieve French divisions so that they could be committed to the fight.  On April 24th, the 1st Division reached the front lines, facing a German salient at Cantigny.  The war had been one of complex trench systems, but the German offensive had changed this for a time - the 1st Division arrived to find a front line that was mostly shell craters.  Another German attack toward Amiens was expected in mid May, but this did not materialize, and the Americans and the Germans both worked to improve the trenches.  Pershing wanted action, and Bullard planned an attack to take Cantigny.  Failure would be a great setback for the army - much was riding on the result.    

Lt Col Marshall studied the area, entering no man's land one morning with two other men and coming under machine gun fire.  Marshall, Summerall, and others planned an attack, a bite and hold operation.  The Americans brought up assault troops over the course of two nights, men of the 28th Regiment - a front normally occupied by four companies now held seventeen.  Additional trenches were dug for jump-off purposes.  A German raid, seeking intelligence of American plans, launched a raid very early on May 28th on the left of the American line.  No prisoners were brought back, and the Germans lost 42 of 50 men while inflicting around 50 American casualties.  No information was gained, and the attack was imminent.  A German pilot flying over American lines reported back that the Americans were planning an attack, but this report was ignored because the wireless operator had been told to ignore messages other than range finding.  A German artillery round struck a quarry sheltered on the reverse slope, an area thought to be safe, killing four and wounding 24 more out of the 150 men of Company D, 1st Engineers.  This quarry was 200 yards to the rear of the frontline.  The Germans were relieving their front line troops in the northern area of Cantigny, and the new troops were not yet settled in as the Allied bombardment began at 5:45.  Debris from the village was blown as far as 500 yards out.  Not all the artillery was American, much of it was French and withdrew as soon as practical to face a major new German offensive at Chemin des Dames.  At 6:45, the men went over the top.

Letters are the companies of the 28th Regiment.  Numbers designate panoramas.


This is the view from behind the American frontlines.  At left is what appears to be the quarry 200 yards behind the front where a direct hit killed four and wounded twenty-four.  In the fields in front of the quarry, an area now obscured by trees, men of the 28th Regiment, 1st Division were ready, and at 6:45, officers blew their whistles, and the attack began behind a creeping barrage.  The rising sun in the east reflected off the mens' bayonets as they advanced at intervals of about three or four feet between them. The 2nd Battalion had the support of ten French tanks, big Schneider types, in the advance directly on the village.  Although resistance was heavy on either side of the village, Germans in Cantigny itself largely stayed underground - many of them were persuaded to get out of their shelters by grenades and by flame throwers manned by French troops.


This a view from along the same road but much closer to the German lines.  In the panoramas, only the 1st wave companies are shown, not follow-ons.


This is the view from the south side of Cantigny village, were companies D and B attacked.  


Further south is a monument to the 1st Division.  Company B reached German trenches in this area and battled Germans from further down the trenchline, especially machine gun nests.  Company A advanced from Cantigny Woods put got pinned down in the low ground between the lines.



The village of Cantigny, rebuilt after the war, has two additional memorials.

Casualties had been remarkably low up to the point of the German trenches, but this changed once objectives were reached.  The men dug in as quickly as possible to prepare for the inevitable German counterattack.  Engineers brought forward barbed wire to protect the new trenchline.  Fortunately the Germans were lacking in available troops, and they waited for the return of the men who had been relieved from the line.  American artillery proved decisive in breaking up the scattered counterattacks when they were mounted.  Once the line became reasonably secure, some troops were pulled back to reduce losses, and eventually the front line troops were relieved.  Casualties for the battle were a little over 300 killed and 1,300 wounded for the Americans and French and 800 killed, 500 wounded, and 255 captured for the Germans.  The capture of the land around Cantigny was of minor importance in the whole scheme of the Western Front, but it did prove that the Americans were willing and able to fight - to attack the enemy and succeed.  Already the Germans had begun another major offensive south from the Chemin des Dames.  With the combat power of American troops now proven, US Army divisions were now committed along the Marne to face this new German threat.

Copyright 2017 by John Hamill

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