The French and British had already launched their attacks, and now it was time for the Americans to join it, at a place called St. Mihiel
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 170. This is our fourth episode covering the Allied offensives that ended the war, and this episode will be the first of I think 3 that will focus almost solely on the American Expeditionary Force. The American army had been growing in strength, capabilities, and confidence for over a year by September 1918 and it was finally time to turn that growth into results on the battlefield. They would launch their first large scale operation against the St. Mihiel salient, an action we will discuss in full today. The salient had been in German hands since 1914 and it was considered an important target by the French since it jutted out so deeply into their lines to the south of Verdun. This was also an important attack for the Allies since it represented the largest effort during mid-September along the front. The British and French, having been in action for over a month at Amiens and elsewhere were slowing their advances, not stopping by any means but slowing, and so it was up to the Americans to keep the pressure up. While St. Mihiel would be a huge undertaking for the AEF, it would be just a pre-cursor to their largest battle of the war, which they would launch soon after St. Mihiel and it would come to be called the Meuse-Argonne offensive. We will discuss some of the planning and preparations for the Meuse-Argonne operation today, and then we will begin to discuss the Americna attacks next episode. For now, we need to start with a discussion about how the Americans planned to fight in their first attack.
During its time in Europe the AEF had adopted some changes based on what they found in Europe. One example of this was the drastic increase in the amount of artillery that the Americans possessed. Another was the fact that Pershing adopted the French system for organizing the general staff, with five branches all created to handle specific functions, with each section led by a colonel. While they were good at learning and adapting in some ways one area where they ignored the advice of their allies was in tactics. Pershing was convinced that the French and British were doing things incorrectly. They were led by people who were were unimaginative in terms of tactics, and during the three years of war that they had experienced they had become so demoralized that they were no longer capable of launching proper attacks. Pershing wished to avoid this and instead use uniquely American tactics, or at least he thought they were uniquely American. So, listen, there are a lot of really nice things that I could say about Pershing, he seems to have done a pretty good job in a hard situation when having to construct an American army from basically nothing and lead it into battle on a foreign battlefield. But in his thoughts on tactics he was preciely the kind of wrong-minded, pig-headed, frankly stupid that had caused so many hundreds of thousands of casualties on the Western Front over the first 4 years of the war. Pershing believed that trench warfare meant that European armies were too dependent on machine guns, grenades, and artillery. This robbed them of the ability to launch true offensives becuase it weighed them down. The only way that they could be broken out of this trend was for the Americans to show them how it was done and to rely on the infantry with thei rifles and bayonets. Pershing would say that “The rifle and bayonet remain the supreme weapons of the infantry soldier,” while his Chief of Training Colonel H.B. Fiske would say that “The French do not like the rifle, do not known how to use it, and their infantry is consequenctly too dependent upon powerful artillery support.” Pershing would also believe that it was the soldier’s spirit that was the most important factor, his willingness to continue the attack. It might take an entire episode to fully tear down why these viewpoints were outdated, wrong, and would be incredibly costly in American lives. I do not really want to spend an entire episode on it though, so here is just a few statements. First of all, even the Germans knew that the Americans were not up to date with what they were doing on the battlefield. One German staff officer would say “The American soldier is courageous, strong, and clever. He is at his best in guerrilla warfare. [But] the manner in which large units attack is not up-to-date and leadership is poor.” Pershing, and his tactics, would have felt very much at home on the battlefields of 1914, being similar to the German tactics in some ways but even more similar to the French tactics at the time. The idea that the spirit of the attackers was the most important factor in an attack, what the French would call elan, could be lifted straight from a pre-war French field manual. I have gotten a few criticisms over the years for being a bit less critical of the military commanders during the war as other writers are. I have always tried to make sure I give historical subjects some benefit of the doubt when they were trying to solve problems in a situation that they, and no human, had ever experienced. However, what the Americans were doing was just stupid, so much learning and adaptation could have happened, so much information was available to them, but they just ignroed it and pushed forward. These tactics would showcase everything that was, and maybe still is, wrong with the American mindset which can best be summarized as “You do things wrong, we do things right, and no, we don’t believe you if you tell us differently.” This backwardness and arrogance would end up costing the American troops dearly.
The beginning of planning for the attack at St. Mihiel began in mid-June when Petain and Pershing met to discuss a possible American offensive. When looking over the map of the front Pershing became a bit fixated on the St. Mihiel salient. His hope was that by quickly eliminating the salient, and hopefully trapping large numbers of German troops and supplies within it, the Americans could then create a hole in the front that would allow them to advance all the way to Metz. Metz was a critical rail center, and a very valid target, but it was also a huge stretch goal and would have represented an advance of well over 50 kilometers. No, that advance is not going to happen. The salient was heavily fortified by the Germans, they had been in these positions for several years, and so the Allies planned to bring an almost overwhelming superiority in material. There would be 660,000 men involved, 550,000 being Americans and 110,000 French. These would then be facing just 75,000 German defenders, giving an advantage of 6 to 1 in terms of manpower. The Allies also brought all of their new tools of war, over 260 light tanks, 150 to be operated by Americans, over 3,000 guns, and 1,400 aircraft would all be used over the front. This meant that the Germans would be at an even greater disadvantage in the air and in the artillery. The plan was to use this material advantage to try and trap the German troops in the salient. The American Fifth Corps would attack against the Western face of the salient while the Fourth and First Corps would attack the southern side. The French would use their corps of troops to attack near the nose of the salient in the hopes that this would keep the Germans occupied and in place.
The German defenders were named Army detachment C and they were commanded by Lieutenant General Georg Fuch. Fuch’s men were not of the highest quality, with the soldiers in the salient being generally older and less able than the troops that had been sent north to participate in the german attacks. It was however an open secret that the Americans would be launching an attack against the salient an this gave the Germans time to plan their response. Instead of rushing troops into the salient to defend it the Germans instead began preparing to pull out. Fuch’s knew that his men, heavily outnumbered as they were sure to be, and low on morale and supplies were vulnerable in the exposed salient and so orders were sent out on September 11th to begin the process of abandoning the salient. The German troops were ordered to bring with them everything of military value, and if something could not be moved it would be destroyed. The movement had started, but was very far from completion when the Americans attacked the next day on September 12th.
While the Americans had spent months building up and preparing for the attack against St. Mihiel on August 30th Foch believed that the plan should be changed. Foch belived that the American effort should not be used against St. Mihiel but instead should be saved for a few weeks to join in a general offensive that he was planning. A critical piece of this new plan was that Foch wanted to break up the American army to spread its divisions and Corps into the British and French areas of the front to assist in the attacks. This would include a reduction of the St. Mihiel operation or its complete cancellation. Pershing would say “Marshal Foch, you may insist all you please. But I decline absolutely to agree to your plan. While our army will fight wherever you may decide, it will not fight except as an independent American army.” Foch and Pershing would argue over this for two hours without coming to an agreement. They would then have another meeting with Petain involved and there they would determine a compromise plan that Foch would still agree to. This compromise would be as follows, the St. Mihiel attack would go ahead almost entirely as planned. But the Americans had to take over more of the front, extending their area of responsibility to north of the Argonne fortest. Then, once the St. Mihiel operation was complete they would shift all of the available American troops to the north and attack in the Argonne. This would require a huge amount of effort, and relied on the ability of the Americans to rapidly shift troops along the line in a similar way that the Germans had done several times in early 1918, but the GErmans had a lot more experience in performing these movements, the Americans had none. While he understood at lead some of the problems that were going to be caused by these decisions Pershing was still confident, saying that “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.”
With Pershing having successfully safeguarded his St. Mihiel attack, it would begin on September 12th. 3,000 guns would fire over a million shells in just 4 hours before the attack began at 5AM. When the infantry went forward they encountered very few Germans, and were very easily able to make it through the barbed wire that existed and into the first line of German positions. On the eastern side of the salient they penetrated 6 miles on the first day, a tremendous advance by first world war standards, but it would be in some ways anti-climatic, even with the success, but the Americans did not know that quite yet. The Germans had started evacuating the day before, an operation called Plan Loki, and they were destroying bridges, roads, and any supplies that they could not bring with them. The units began to pull out right before the Americans attacks, and this helped the Germans in some ways since it allowed them to be far more prepared to remove their artillery from the salient. It would however have some downsides, due to the disorganization caused by the units pulling back from the front more Germans were captured than would have otherwise have occurred. The American would end the first day with the two pincers of American troops meeting at the village of Hattonchatel which was roughly in the middle of the original salient. Here, the American troops had a great view of all of the fire and smoke that was caused by the German demolition teams as they moved out of their positions. The attack would continue for a few more days, but by the end of that first day the only thing that was left to do was mopping up. By September 14th, just two days after it had begun, the American advances were over, then the front settled back down, just without the salient existing.
In this quick action the Americans and French lost about 7,000 men. The Germans lost 17,000, 13,000 of them being prisoners. The Allies were also able to capture around 450 artillery guns, which probably would have been much higher if the Germans had not started to leave right before the attack. Overall, the operation was a successful, if not a hard earned one, and the offensive was officially declared complete on September 16th. The Americans initially did not know that the Germans had moved out of area of the attack, instead they just thought they had done very well. One of these Americans was Douglas MacArthur, yes, that Douglas MacArthur, and he would say this of the action “Our advance had been so rapid the Germans had evacuated in panic. There was a German officer’s horse saddled and equipped standing in a barn, a bettery of guns complete in every detail, and the entire instrumentation and music of a regimental band.” Once the truth of the matter was known som would question whether this was a battle at all.
In the overall picture of the war, the St. Mihiel offensive was not greatly critical to the outcome, it would instead be overshadowed by what came next. If the Americans were to launch what was to come next they first had to shift virtually their entire army north by over 60 miles in the span of just 2 weeks. That may not seem like a very large distance, but there were only 3 roads and three light railways to move the tremendous amount of supplies and weapons that were required to launch another offensive. There were half a million men, 3,000 guns, 90,000 horses and over a million tons of supplies. Moving them amount of stuff took a colossal amount of effoert and coordination. The columns of horses and wagon and trains were joined by over a thousand motorized trucks and while while would prove to be enough for the supplies it did not prevent the need for most of the infantry to walk, while loaded down with heavy packs, for most of the distance. During this move, which would have been at least a challenge for every army, a problem would begin to show its ugly head that would be far more severe during the extended fighting in the Argonne. When the Americans had arrive din Europe they brought with them an organizational structure that was slightly different than the European armies at the time, the most noticeable of these difference was that the Americna divisions were twice as large as the European divisions of 1918. The American divisions would have been large even in 1914, but over the course of the war due to manpower problems and just organizational considerations the German, French, and British had all reduced the manpower count of their divisions by up to 25%. The Americans did not make this same adaptation and it would cause problems around support and logistics as they grappled with how to move the amount of supplies required to keep a division in the field up to the front. It would be problematic on the road from St. Mihiel and it would almost bring the Meuse-Argonne operation to a halt.
When the St. Mihiel attack was over Pershing and his staff immediately shifted gears and began preparing for the Meuse-Argonne attack. While the army struggled to move the distance to be ready the staff officers had to do all of their planning during that same period. Their objective to to push through the German positions in the Argonne forest to reach the railway that linked Metz and Lille. This was a critical railway for the Germans, with four separate tracks. To reach this objectives the Americans would have to advance 24 miles, no small feat, but before they could even begin to approach that number they also had to make it through the 6 miles of the Argonne. The primary attack would not go through the heart of the forest but would instead flank it on either side, with the Americans on the right and the French on the left. Pershing was looking beyond even the distance objective of the railway and instead to Sedan, 40 miles behind the lines. For this task he would have three Corps of American troops, 16 divisions total, and then trops from the French 4th army. This represented a combined total of over 800,000 men either on the front or in reserve. They would be joined by over 4,000 guns and enough shells to keep them more than busy. These troops would once again drastically outnumber the German defenders, of which there were only 125,000. This meant that the Allies had an infantry advantage of over three to one, but in every other respect they once again had a larger advantage, and this time they would need every advantage they could get because the geography of this area of the front heavily favored the defending Germans.
The American General Hugh A. Drum would say this about the area that the American troops were about to attack into “This was the most ideal defensive position I have ever seen or read about. Nature had provided for flank and crossfire to the utmost in addition to concealment.” The Argonne, in this region, was a hilly and heavily forested area. It was all overseen by the Montfaucon in the center, which rose above the surrounding and was a critical area that the Americans would have to capture. The ground was bad enough, but the Americans would also be working their way through a funnel, with the attack starting at the wide end of the funnel and then slowly being compressed by the River Meuse on one side and the rivers Aire and Aisne on the other. These rivers would slowly squeeze the American advance onto a narrower front as they moved forward.
On top, and inside of these wooded hills the Germans had time to build very solid defenses. Due to the proximity of the critical rail lines behind the front the Germans had build up a 12 mile deep series of fortifications. They had more than enough time to complete these defenses since they had first occupied the Argonne back in 1915 and they had been busy for the next three years improving their positions. During these years they had build almost an endless series of dugouts, trenches, and strong points. All of these would then be interconnected by more trenches. The strong points were manned by machine guns, positioned to provide maximum damage. In total there were 4 lines of defenses, with three major and 1 minor set. All were provisioned with copious amounts of barbed wire and they had even taken the tiem to clear out firing lanes for the positions to make them even stronger. There was also a concerted effort to use the terrain to its maximum utility, this included using the terrain to funnel attackers into even worse areas where they could be trapped in places like ravines, where barbed wire and machine guns could be concentrated. It was truly a nightmare to try and attack these positions. To make matters worse for the Allies the Germans once again had a pretty good idea that an attack was going to happen. Most of this information came from French and American prisoners who were captured and then discussed the preparations for the attack. These prisoners could not provide perfect information, and this caused the German General Gallwitz to not trust the information that was provided. He believed that the Allies were preparing to attack in the area, but he also believed that it would not fall so close to the Argonne. Instead, the German belief was that the French would attack further out to the west, along the Aisne river, while the Americans moved directly towards Metz. This caused Gallwitz to keep his primary force of reserve closer to Metz, which would slow their arrival once the fighting started.
The plan to deal with these defenses was to not attack them directly, with the goal of the attack to move around the forest, the French on the left and the Americans on the right. The Americans planned to advance in three stages. The first stage would cover the distance between the front lines and what had been identified as the primary German positions, which were called the Kriemhilde Stellung. This required, critically, for the advance to move past Montfaucon and to outflank the Germans there so that they would be forced to retreat. At the same time other troops would also attack up the Aire River Valley. both of these moves would then force the Germans to begin to retreat along the entire area of the attack. The kicker for all of this was that Pershing expected all of this to happen in no more than a day and a half. His entire plan was really based on speed, and he would tell his generals to attack and keep attacking no matter what happened, it was the only way to keep up with the time table. After the first phase was complete the attack would continue along similar lines, with another advance of about 10 miles which would take the Americans to the Meuse, and then from there they would continue over the river to take the Meuse Heights from the Germans. That was, the plan, a quick strike deep into German lines. I hope you will join me next episode when we discuss why this quick strike would actually last for the rest of the war.