First American Battle of the War


American troops go “over the top” at Cantigny.

May 28 1918, Cantigny–The Americans had been in the war for over a year, and in the front lines for over seven months, but never beyond quiet sectors of the front.  Delays stemming from Pershing’s insistence on keeping American forces together as a cohesive army meant that (beyond a handful of engineers who happened to be in the area) the Americans did not participate in the defense against the major German offensives of March and April.  Eventually, seeing the need for the Americans to do something, if only to boost Allied morale, Pershing allowed the 1st Division to be deployed near Cantigny, on the southern flank of the German salient created by Operation Michael.  If the Germans made another push towards Amiens, the Americans would attack on their flank.  Such an offensive never came, but the Americans went forward with plans for a more limited attack–taking a small German salient centered around the town of Cantigny.

The American plan for the battle was drawn up by the division’s assistant chief of staff, Lt. Col. George C. Marshall, and called for a heavy preparatory artillery fire, followed by a rolling barrage to cover the infantry advance.  Once the infantry had secured the town, the artillery would continue counter-battery efforts so that the infantry could dig in and hold the town without molestation from German artillery fire.  Although all the attacking infantry would be American, they did not have enough heavy weaponry to do it themselves, and would thus rely on artillery, a dozen tanks, and flamethrowers provided and manned by the French.  A day before the attack was schedule to go forward, however, the Germans attacked and broke through on the Aisne, leaving the French scrambling for reinforcements.  It was decided that the attack on Cantigny would go ahead, but the French would pull their forces out after the town was taken in the early morning; the Americans would be on their own to defend against any counterattacks.

The bombardment began at 5:45 AM on the 28th, and the infantry attacked an hour later.  Although they suffered significant casualties in areas where the German machine guns had not been knocked out, the Americans were able to secure the German front line and the town of Cantigny as planned within two hours.  The German survivors in the basements of the destroyed town itself surrendered or were killed by the French flamethrowers.  Although the withdrawal of the French artillery soon thereafter meant that the Americans took heavy casualties to German fire, they were not subjected to an organized German counterattack until nearly 6PM, by which time they had been able to successfully entrench beyond Cantigny.

Although overshadowed by the ongoing German offensive on the Aisne, the American victory at Cantigny was an important moral victory for the Americans and their allies–the Americans were coming, and they could defeat the Germans in battle.  It came at a heavy cost, however; over a third of the Americans participating in the battle were wounded, and another 199 were killed.

Today in 1917: Allies Decide to Depose King Constantine of Greece

Today in 1916: Austrians Capture Asiago
Today in 1915: Germany Issues Unapologetic Note on Lusitania to US

Sources include: Matthew J. Davenport, First Over There; Andrew Carroll, My Fellow Soldiers.