Chapter 26 A Million Men and More – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 26 A Million Men and More

In This Chapter
  • Pershing is given charge of the St.-Mihiel sector
  • The Americans clear out the St.-Mihiel salient
  • America’s contribution to the air war
  • Foch’s Meuse-Argonne Offensive takes aim at German supply lines
  • Americans fight in the Argonne Forest

America’s General John J. Pershing wholeheartedly embraced his government’s instructions that the United States Army was to remain a “distinct and independent force” and was not to be put under foreign control. This was not merely a matter of national pride. Pershing, as well as President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker, understood that American soldiers would not function well under the command of foreign officers. They were Americans, and they would serve as such.

Furthermore, the mass of the American public had only recently accepted the war and were now, in fact, enthusiastic about it—provided that American officers delivered American victories. Out of pressing necessity, Pershing had yielded to the extent of allowing certain U.S. regiments and divisions to serve within the British and French armies. The results, especially at the Second Battle of the Marne, were brilliant. By this time, however, Pershing had a force that was ready to take the field as an independent command. On July 27, 1918, he persuaded Marshal Ferdinand Foch to assign the Americans their own sector of the Western Front. Pershing’s mission was to reduce the St.-Mihiel salient, which had been thrust into the Allied lines, jutting out to the Meuse River southeast of Verdun, since 1914.

 From the Front “At exactly 1 A.M., the artillery cut loose. It seemed as if all the artillery in France had suddenly opened up. The sky was red with big flashes, the air seemed full of Empire State Expresses, and the explosion of the heavier shells made the ground tremble. It was a wonderful and awe-inspiring sight.”

—Lt. Phelps Harding, 306th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division, AEF, describing the opening of the St.-Mihiel offensive, letter to his wife, September 22, 1918

Against the St.-Mihiel Salient

Reducing the St.-Mihiel salient was an ideal assignment for the still comparatively green American Expeditionary Force. Although it was of great strategic and symbolic importance (as a long-standing German penetration into sacred French soil), the salient had been relatively quiet since the Allies had given up on taking it back in 1915.

The U.S. First Army, with the French II Colonial Corps attached to it, formally took over the sector on August 30. Just as Pershing was about to order the assault to begin, Foch suddenly reneged. From the north, British General Douglas Haig was reporting details of his assessment that the German army was at long last crumbling. Foch now wanted Pershing to divide a large part of the American forces between the French Second and Fourth armies in a grand offensive against the Meuse-Argonne sector. Once again, Pershing stood his ground—albeit with one compromise. The U.S. Army would first reduce the St.-Mihiel salient as planned and agreed, and then, immediately afterward, would be shifted to attack with the French in the Argonne Forest.

In the meantime, reeling from the Allied counteroffensives on the Marne and east of Amiens (see Chapter 25, “Second Marne”), German General Erich Ludendorff ordered a withdrawal on September 8 from the St.-Mihiel salient. It began on September 11.

 From the Front Portugal entered the war in March 1916. The Allies requested only labor battalions from the Portuguese government, which insisted on sending combat troops in the form of a 54,000- man expeditionary force to Europe and another 50,000 to colonial Africa.

Ludendorff’s plan was to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line, the highly fortified defensive position that the Germans had designed as a last-ditch, do-or-die insurance against defeat. To withdraw in this way was to yield long-held territory, but it was a move that would also preserve the German army. Pershing was determined to prevent Ludendorff from withdrawing without a fight.

Early on the morning of the 12th, 16 U.S. divisions attacked, supported by French artillery and French tanks, as well as a mixed force of American, French, Italian, and Portuguese pilots flying some 600 planes (out of 1,400 deployed) under the command of U.S. military air pioneer Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell.

The U.S. I and IV corps smashed into the south face of the salient, while the French II Colonial Corps jabbed at the salient’s nose and the U.S. V Corps closed in from the west.

 Combatants The only U.S. tank brigade to see action in World War I was led into battle during the St.-Mihiel Offensive by a young temporary lieutenant colonel named George S. Patton, a leader destined to become one of the most famous American commanders of World War II.

Born in California in 1885, Patton graduated from West Point and served with General Pershing during the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916 (see Chapter 20, “ ‘He Kept Us Out of War’ ”). Pershing chose Patton to accompany him to France as his adjutant and headquarters commandant; however, Patton soon grew restless with this staff job and volunteered for a combat assignment with the fledgling U.S. tank corps. After completing tank training himself, Patton was assigned to create a light-tank training school in France for Americans. Patton created a training program and then recruited and trained two battalions of tank crews.

Patton led his tanks into battle against the St.-Mihiel salient in the fall of 1918, supporting the infantry attack. Although he was enthusiastically praised by the commanders of the units he supported, Patton was reprimanded by his superior, Samuel D. Rockenbach, because he had not taken time to send him sufficient progress reports.

Rockenbach ordered Patton to remain in headquarters henceforth and to direct his operations from there. The instructions failed to sink in. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Patton went over the top with the other doughboys in an infantry assault. Shortly before noon on September 26, he was wounded by machine gun fire, which sidelined him from combat for the remainder of the war. Instead of another reprimand, Patton received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Patton went on to develop the U.S. Army’s armored (tank) operations during the early months of World War II and commanded an important desert combat training center in California. He led victorious forces in North Africa and Sicily, and then in the spectacular breakout of the Third Army from the beaches of Normandy; through France, Belgium, and Luxembourg; and into Germany. Patton was fatally injured on December 9, 1945, in a freak automobile accident near Mannheim, Germany. He died on December 21.

The battle raged for 36 hours, but the outcome was never in serious doubt. The Germans had been taken totally by surprise. More than 15,000 surrendered, also delivering to the Americans some 250 guns. U.S. casualties numbered about 7,000 killed and wounded.

The salient was now completely cleared of the enemy. Not only was this a great morale boost for the French, but it also eliminated a long-standing threat to an Allied movement in the Champagne region. Moreover, it demonstrated the complete competence of the American army—a lesson lost on neither friend nor foe. With nearly half a million men involved, it was the largest United States military operation since the Civil War.

American Eagles

On April 6, 1917, the day President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, the air arm of the United States military consisted of about 200 obsolete planes and 1,200 officers and men. Of these personnel, no more than 60 were fliers—either pilots, observers, or aerial gunners. In 1917, the nation in which the airplane had been born at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, back in 1903 was virtually a nonstarter in the race to control the skies.

With entry into the war, many Americans entertained romantic fantasies about what they called a “cavalry of the clouds.” Even before April 1917, a group of intrepid American fliers had joined the French air corps as the Lafayette Escadrille (see Chapter 19, “Winged Knights”), and their exploits, while of little military significance, thrilled those on the U.S. homefront.

 From the Front U.S. aircraft companies managed to produce 7,000 planes during World War I—a stunning achievement given the fact that, in the spring of 1917, there hardly was any American aircraft industry at all—but it fell far short of the 22,625 aircraft called for. Of the 7,000 produced, fewer than 1,200 saw service in Europe—and most of these were used strictly for training purposes.

Soon a frenzy for aerial warfare gripped the American popular imagination as ferociously as the rising fever for the war itself. Congress responded. On July 21, 1917, it voted—after less than an hour of debate—$640 million dollars for aviation. At the time, it was the largest appropriation in United States history. With this money, American industry was to build 22,625 airplanes and 44,000 engines (the engines wore out more rapidly than the planes)—all by the end of 1918. As for the American air arm, it was to be expanded from its present virtual nonexistence to 345 combat formations, a force of thousands of men and machines.

Of course, it was delusion on a mass scale. How were all these planes to be produced? Where would all the new pilots come from? There were no answers to these impossible questions. By the end of 1917, United States factories had produced only 529 planes, licensed copies of the ungainly British De Havilland DH-4. The record was better for production of a brand-new American-designed “Liberty engine,” 2,390 of which had been turned out by the end of 1917.

Despite the wildly unrealistic expectations and the inevitable bitter disappointments, volunteers poured in for U.S. Army flight training. Eight Schools of Aeronautics were established to teach flight theory to the volunteers. Successful cadets were then assigned to a primary flying field for basic flight training. After this, advanced flight training was carried out, sometimes at U.S. bases but more often overseas in aviation schools staffed by British, Canadian, French, and Italian pilot instructors. The first unit to become operational was the 103rd Aero Squadron, which commenced operations on February 18, 1918, having absorbed fliers from the Lafayette Escadrille and its English equivalent, the British Flying Corps.

The U.S. Air Service gradually built up in Europe, spending most of 1917 through the late spring of 1918 in relatively quiet sectors, gaining valuable flying experience. By July of 1918, the Air Service had reached a high level of competence.

 From the Front On March 11, 1918, Lieutenant Paul F. Baer of the 103rd Aero Squadron scored the nation’s first air combat kill of World War I. Baer not only survived the war, but he also became an ace with eight confirmed victories.

Billy Mitchell

Just before the St.-Mihiel offensive, the U.S. Air Service entered the period of its most intensive expansion. William “Billy” Mitchell, son of a United States senator from Wisconsin, got a college education and then enlisted in the First Wisconsin Infantry at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. By 1912, he had obtained a coveted assignment to the Army’s General Staff, but he relinquished this post in 1915 to transfer to the aviation section of the Signal Corps, which controlled the Army’s infant aviation program. After flight school at Newport News, Virginia, Mitchell got his wings in 1916 and, later that year, was sent to Europe to observe air combat in World War I. Thus, Mitchell was already on-site when the United States entered the war in April 1917. He was appointed air officer of the American Expeditionary Force and was promoted to lieutenant colonel in June. In May 1918, he became air officer of I Corps with the rank of colonel and was the first senior U.S. officer to fly over enemy lines.

Mitchell combined great technical, tactical, and organizational skills with a vivid flair for leadership. He commanded a mixed force of Allied pilots and aircraft during the St.-Mihiel offensive, combining ground attack, bombing, and air-to-air combat missions with a force of 1,400 aircraft. It was the largest single concentration of air power in World War I, and it demonstrated just what air support of ground action could do. Following St.-Mihiel, the role of air power in the last six weeks of the war assumed major proportions, with American fliers taking a significant part in the action.

 Combatants After his success during the St.-Mihiel Offensive, William Mitchell (1879–1936) emerged as one of the leading commanders of World War I. Promoted to brigadier general, he was appointed to command the combined air services for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and led a massive formation of bombers against targets behind enemy lines on October 9.

After the war, in 1919, Mitchell was named Assistant Chief of the Air Service and embarked on a controversial campaign to create a United States Air Force separate and independent from the Army. He went beyond this to advocate unified control of military air power rather than a division of control between the Army and the Navy. Both proposals were stoutly resisted by the military establishment.

The outspoken Mitchell had a volatile temperament, which frequently created friction with those in higher command. In particular, he outraged Navy officials with a boast that the airplane had made the battleship obsolete. To demonstrate this point, in 1921, he bombed the captured German dreadnought Ostfriesland, which his planes sank in an astounding 21.5 minutes. As a result of this demonstration, the Navy began development of the aircraft carrier as an offensive weapon—a fact that would prove the salvation of the American cause in the Pacific during World War II.

Mitchell relentlessly campaigned for enlargement of the present Army Air Corps and creation of an independent Air Force. Frustrated superiors caused his demotion to colonel and reduced his command authority. Undaunted, Mitchell took his campaign public, issuing on his own authority many statements to the press, not a few of which were provocative and inflammatory. When the Navy dirigible Shenandoah crashed in a thunderstorm on September 3, 1925, Mitchell went to the papers with accusations of War and Navy Department “incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the National Defense.” In response to these accusations, Mitchell was court-martialed for and convicted of insubordination in December 1925. Sentenced to five years’ suspension from duty without pay, he resigned his commission on February 1, 1926, continuing to speak out as a civilian from his Middleburg, Virginia, home until his death a decade later.

Among the visionary Mitchell’s predictions was his early, and entirely unheeded, assessment of the Japanese threat to Pearl Harbor. He is considered the founding father of the U.S. Air Force.

Eddie Rickenbacker

Although the 103rd Aero Squadron was the first American air unit to become operational, and although the First Aero Squadron had been the first U.S. unit to arrive in France, it was the 94th Aero Squadron, called the “Hat-in-the-Ring” Squadron, after its distinctive insignia, that would become the most famous of U.S. air units. Its first enemy kill was achieved on March 29, 1918, by the most celebrated member of the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron, Edward Vernon “Eddie” Rickenbacker, whom we met in Chapter 19.

Rickenbacker was soon put in command of Flight One of the 94th Aero Squadron, which found itself pitted against the so-called Flying Circus formed by Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s celebrated Red Baron and the most prolific ace of the war. Richthofen notched 80 confirmed kills before he himself was shot down and killed on April 21, 1918. His crack unit continued to fight on, however, and in encounters with them, Eddie Rickenbacker became an ace after he downed his fifth plane on May 30.

Already a national hero as a result of his early success, Rickenbacker scored his most spectacular victory on September 25 when he single-handedly attacked seven enemy planes, shooting down two. For this action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Before the war was over, Rickenbacker would become America’s top ace, with 26 victories to his credit.

 Words of War A flight was the basic tactical unit in the Army Air Service, consisting of at least four aircraft.

The exploits of the Richthofens and Rickenbackers made headlines and captured the public imagination. Indeed, it was important to dominate the skies over the Western Front battlefields, for the air was the new “high ground” of combat, the perspective from which troop movements were most visible. And so, pilots contested one on one for control of the sky in the aerial duels known as dogfights. Nevertheless, of greater military importance than the duels between aces were ground attack and bombing missions, which could wreak havoc on supposedly “safe” rear-area positions, including headquarters, rail lines, and roads.

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

The St.-Mihiel Offensive was completed in 36 hours, after which Pershing immediately marched the entire U.S. First Army, without rest, 60 miles to the Verdun area to participate in Foch’s great Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Foch had a simple plan. The French and American armies would drive forward from the Verdun region toward Mézières, a key German rail junction and supply depot. While this was underway, the British would attack between Péronne and Lens, with the objective of controlling the rail junction at Aulnoye. Foch was determined not merely to hammer away at enemy troops, but to destroy or control their lifelines along the Western Front. Neutralize the two rail junctions at Mézières and Aulnoye, he reasoned, and the Germans would be cut off from the rear.

Pershing’s first achievement was the efficient shifting of the half-million men of the First Army by night, complete with tanks and guns, over poor railroads and even worse roads, to maneuver his troops into position for the attack that would initiate the offensive. This was in a region that straddled the Meuse Valley, taking in the Argonne Forest on the left and the Aire Valley, as well as the heights, on either side of the Meuse River.

Arranging his First Army three corps abreast, Pershing commenced the attack at 5:25 on the morning of September 26. To Pershing’s left was the French Fourth Army, which joined in the attack. Opposing the Franco-American force was a German army group under Max von Gallwitz and another commanded by the Crown Prince. In contrast to the sloppy defenses encountered at the Second Battle of the Marne, the German Meuse positions were extremely well-prepared. Three heavily fortified lines were contoured to rugged and heavily wooded terrain, which alone would be sufficient to slow any attacker.

The initial advance was very rapid, but it slowed greatly within the Argonne Forest and before the village of Mountfaucon, to which the Germans had rushed reinforcements. After penetrating the first two German lines, the American drive flagged along the line between Apremont and Brieulles by October 3.

 From the Front The phrase “Lost Battalion” was coined by a magazine journalist, and it caught on. Actually, more than a single battalion was involved in the incident—a machine gun battalion plus other units of the 77th Division—and these units were not “lost,” but cut off from the main part of the division. Nevertheless, the episode is extraordinary.

The Lost Battalion

World War I was a war with many heroics but few individually celebrated heroes. One episode the press did seize on, however, was the ordeal of the so-called Lost Battalion.

During the assault on the Argonne Forest, the 77th Division had fought for seven days without rest until, on October 2, it came to a standstill before the heavily defended Ravine de Charlevaux. With great difficulty, the First and Second Battalions of the 308th Infantry and elements of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion advanced into the ravine and, under heavy machine-gun fire, made it across the ravine floor and partway up the slope. The troops established a position about 300 yards long and 60 yards deep on a steep, rocky hillside encumbered with thick undergrowth. Runners communicated with the American rear, but this line of communication was soon severed.

As night fell in the thick woods, German voices were heard on the left, and glimpses of German soldiers were seen. Cut off from the main body of the 77th Division, Major Charles W. Whittlesey, commanding this advance force, deployed his 550 men in a square, with his nine machine guns on the flanks, where they could sweep the valley.

Throughout the night, the enemy voices grew louder. Suddenly, the Americans were subjected to a rain of hand grenades. After this fierce assault there was a pause, during which Whittlesey ordered a counterattack. This fended off another grenade attack, but soon, the Germans opened up with their machine guns.

Whittlesey and his 550 men were besieged. Whittlesey sent out small patrols to probe for weak spots, and he dispatched runners to try to renew communications with the rear. It was to no avail, and these forays served only to reduce the already small number of defenders.

The troops had carried few rations with them, anticipating no problems with supply. Now the food was running low. None of the men had overcoats or blankets. Ammunition was also dwindling. There was no doctor to treat the wounded, and first aid supplies were so scarce that the medics removed bandages from the dead to reuse them on the wounded. When the water ran out, men began to venture down to the bottom of the ravine to fill their canteens at the stream. But the Germans had trained their machine guns on this area and opened fire against the thirsty. Whittlesey issued orders forbidding anyone to venture to the stream.

Continually under German fire, the “Lost Battalion” experienced a new horror on October 4 as a barrage of friendly artillery fire came down on the men.

World War I combined the latest developments in technology—tanks, aircraft, and radio—with some of the most primitive techniques of war: the trench and the horse-drawn wagon. Now, in desperation, Whittlesey turned to the primitive. For centuries, armies had used trained carrier pigeons to send messages from point to point. The major released the last carrier pigeon his unit had, a bird named Cher Ami, with a message giving their position and telling the artillery to cease firing.

 Words of War A carrier pigeon is a bird trained to carry messages in a small capsule fastened to the bird’s foot.

Incredibly, Cher Ami made it through the barrage. The shelling stopped—then was resumed, this time falling where it was supposed to: on the Germans.

The ordeal of the Lost Battalion stretched into six days. Allied planes attempted to drop supplies, but these always fell too far beyond the American position and went straight into enemy hands. As the days and nights crawled by, the Germans shouted phony commands in English in an effort to deceive the defenders into showing themselves. These attempts failed, and the shouting back and forth soon degenerated into curses and insults punctuated by machine gun and rifle fire.

 From the Front Of the original 550 men of the “Lost Battalion,” 194 walked out with their major. Another 199 had been wounded, and 111 had been killed. The unit had endured 104 hours under fire, without food or medical attention.

On October 7, the Germans abruptly ceased fire. Through an afternoon gone suddenly silent, an American private bearing a white flag stumbled toward the Lost Battalion’s position. He told his commanding officer that he had been captured when he went out to retrieve one of the food baskets dropped by an airplane. The private delivered a message from the German commander to Whittlesey, appealing in “the name of humanity” for his surrender. Later, the press circulated a story that Whittlesey indignantly replied with a three-word sentence: “Go to hell.” In fact, he made no reply—nor did he send back the message bearer, who was thus saved from incarceration in a POW camp.

With nightfall, the German assault resumed, but by 7 P.M. elements of other American units began to arrive. Soon the position was generally reinforced, the Germans were forced out, and Whittlesey was allowed to withdraw.

An American Hero: Sergeant York

American action in the Argonne Forest produced another remarkable story, that of Alvin C. York. York was a Tennessee backwoodsman who had been a hard-drinking hell-raiser in his early youth, but he had then allowed himself to be converted to the Church of Christ in Christian Union, a conservative congregation fundamentally opposed to drinking—and to war. York petitioned his draft board for deferment on religious grounds as a conscientious objector, but he was refused.

Inducted, York demonstrated extraordinary skill as a marksman during basic training. It was no surprise because York had long hunted wild turkey in the Tennessee hills. Officers in the 82nd Division were eager for the talented York to serve wholeheartedly, and they succeeded in persuading him that the United States was engaged in nothing less than a holy war.

At the height of the confused fighting in the thick Argonne Forest, York and his patrol, like the Lost Battalion, found themselves cut off and under fire behind the enemy lines. York’s company had been ordered to take a position called Hill 240, one of three hills dominating a valley. From the ridge of these hills, German machine gunners raked the American troops.

“I could see my pals getting picked off until it almost looked like there was none left,” York later recounted.

York was sent with a detachment of 16 men and a sergeant to outflank the machine gunners. This they did, barging into the small headquarters of the German machine gun battalion. The Germans, surprised while at breakfast, instantly surrendered. But then the machine gunners on another hill shouted something, the prisoners instantly dropped to the ground, and a burst of machine gun fire killed a half-dozen men of York’s detachment.

York himself was left out in the open.

“There wasn’t any tree for me, so I just sat in the mud and used my rifle, shooting at the machine gunners,” he said.

To the former pacifist York, it was much like a familiar backwoods turkey shoot: “Every time one of them raised his head, I just tetched him off.”

A squad of a half-dozen Germans charged York’s position, but the Tennessean calmly “tetched” each of them off before any had run 30 feet. Drawing on instinct, he fired on the line of troops from rear to front so that they wouldn’t run for cover at the sight of a man falling in front of them.

 Voices of Battle “What you did was the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe.”

—Marshal Ferdinand Foch to Alvin C. York, as he personally decorated him with the Croix de Guerre

York had killed perhaps 20 Germans, while all the time shouting for them to surrender. At last, an English-speaking major offered to do just that if York would stop killing his men.

York and the seven other surviving members of his detachment marched out with 132 prisoners. For this, the backwoodsman received the Medal of Honor, the French Croix de Guerre, and a one-step promotion from private first class to sergeant.

 From the Front Alvin York became a national hero and, on his return to the United States in 1919, was given a tumultuous welcome. New Yorkers even renamed the uptown stretch of Avenue A as York Avenue in his honor. Lucrative offers poured down on him from all quarters. The unassuming York turned most of these down, except for a few propositions that raised money for education and other public services in the Tennessee hills to which he returned.

Argonne Under Control

By October 4, no room was available for maneuver through the dense Argonne. Pershing now had no choice but to pour men into a costly series of dead-on frontal assaults. It took until the end of October for Pershing to penetrate through most of the third—and final—German line of defense. During this time, French Premier Georges Clemenceau grew so impatient that he moved to have Pershing relieved of command. Marshal Foch, however, was at the front, and he understood what Pershing was up against in the Argonne. He also saw clearly that the Germans were throwing everything they had against him, rapidly exhausting all their reserves. In terms of geography, Pershing may have been moving slowly, but he was using up the German army in the process. Foch refused to support Clemenceau’s bid to remove the American general.

The first 11 days in November culminating in the Armistice saw the U.S. Army racing, now in the open, through the last German positions in the Meuse Valley. The U.S. First Division was about to take Sedan on November 6 when higher command ordered a halt. The honor of conquering that city, it was decreed, must be French. Only this would blot out the stain that had endured since the humiliating defeat at this place during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

On November 10, the U.S. Second Army, under General Robert Lee Bullard, launched an attack in its drive toward the village of Montmédy, only to break off the next day at 11 A.M. sharp—the hour of Armistice, the end of the Great War.

The Least You Need to Know
  • General Pershing persuaded Marshal Foch to assign independent control of the St.-Mihiel sector to the U.S. Army.
  • American forces cleared out the St.-Mihiel salient, which had endured since 1914, in 36 hours.
  • In support of the St.-Mihiel Offensive, U.S. Colonel Billy Mitchell commanded the greatest air operation of the war, using a force of some 1,400 planes.
  • American forces played a key role in the highly successful Meuse-Argonne Offensive, aimed at severing German rail and supply lines.
  • Combat in the Argonne Forest produced two American legends—the “Lost Battalion” and Sergeant Alvin C. York.