Washington, December 17th, 1919.
On July 15th, the German launched his fifth and last great offensive. The attack was made simultaneously on both sides of Reims, the eastern corner of the salient he had created in the Aisne drive. To the east of the city he gained little. On the west he crossed the Marne, but made slight progress. His path was everywhere blocked. In this battle 85,000 American troops were engaged -- the 42nd Division to the extreme east in Champagne, and the 3rd and 28th to the west, near Chateau-Thierry.
The turning point of the war had come. The great German offensives had been stopped. The initiative now passed from Ludendorff to Marshal Foch, and a series of Allied offensives began, destined to roll back the German armies beyond the French frontier. In this continuous Allied offensive there may be distinguished six phases or major operations in which the American Expeditionary Forces took part. In four of the six operations, the American troops engaged were acting in support of Allied Divisions and under the command of the generals of the Allies.
The moment chosen by Marshal Foch for launching the first counter-offensive was July 18th, when it was clear that the German Champagne-Marne drive had spent its force. The place chosen was the uncovered west flank of the German salient from the Aisne to the Marne. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, 28th, 32nd, and 42nd American Divisions, together with selected French troops were employed. When the operation was completed (August 6th) the salient had been flattened out and the Allied Line ran from Soissons to Reims along the Vesle.
Two days later the British struck at the Somme salient, initiating an offensive which, with occasional breathing spells, lasted to the date of the Armistice. American participation in this operation was intermittent. From August 8th to 20th, elements of the 33rd Division, which had been brigaded for training purposes with the Australians, were in the line and took part in the capture of Chipilly Ridge. Later, the 27th and 30th Divisions, which served throughout with the British, were brought over from the Ypres sector and used in company with Australian troops to break the Hindenburg line at the tunnel of the St. Quentin Canal (Sept. 20th-Oct. 20th).
In the meantime, simultaneous assaults were in progress at other points on the front. On August 18th, General Mangin began the Oise-Aisne phase of the great Allied offensive. Starting from the Soissons-Reims Line, along which they had come to rest August 6th, the French armies advanced by successive stages to the Aisne, to Laon, and, on November 11th, were close to the frontier. In the first stages of this advance, they were assisted by the 28th, 32nd and 77th American Division, but, by September 15th, all of these were withdrawn for the coming Meuse-Argonne offensive of the American Army.
The day after the opening of the Oise-Aisne offensive, the British launched the first of a series of attacks in the Ypres sector, which continued, with some interruptions, to the time of the Armistice and may be termed the Ypres-Lys offensives. Four American divisions at different times participated in this operation. The 27th and 30th were engaged in the recapture of Mount Kemmel, August 31st to September 2nd. The 37th and 91st were withdrawn from the Meuse-Argonne battle and dispatched to Belgium, where they took part in the last stages of the Ypres-Lys offensive (Oct. 31st to Nov. 11th).
With the organization of the American First Army on August 10th under the personal command of General Pershing, the history of the American Expeditionary Forces entered upon a now stage. The St. Mihiel (Sept. 12-16) and Meuse-Argonne (Sept, 26-Nov. 11) offensives were major operations planned and executed by American generals and American troops.
The Battle of St. Mihiel.
The first distinctly American offensive was the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient carried through from September 12th to September 15th, largely by American troops and wholly under the orders of the American Commander-in-Chief. In the attack, the American troops were aided by French colonial troops who occupied the left face of the salient. The Americans were also aided by French and British air squadrons.
The attack began at 5 A.M., after four hours of artillery preparation of great severity, and met with immediate success. Before noon, about half of the distance between the bases of the salient had been covered and the next morning troops of the 1st and 26th Divisions met at Vigneulles, cutting off the salient within twenty-four hours from the beginning of the movement.
Two comparisons between this operation and the Battle of Gettysburg emphasize the magnitude of the action. About 550,000 Americans were engaged at St. Mihiel; the Union forces at Gettysburg numbered approximately 100,000. St. Mihiel set a record for concentration of artillery fire by a four hour artillery preparation, consuming more than 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition. In three days at Gettysburg, the Union artillery fired 33,000 rounds.
The St. Mihiel offensive cost only about 7,000 casualties, less than one-third the Union losses at Gettysburg. There were captured 18,000 prisoners and 443 guns. A dangerous enemy salient was reduced, and American commanders and troops demonstrated their ability to plan and execute a big American operation.
The object of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, said General Pershing in his report of November 20th, 1918, was "to draw the best German divisions to our front and to consume them." This sentence expresses better than any long description not only the object, but also the outcome of the operation. Every available American division was thrown against the enemy. Every available German division was thrown in to meet them. At the end of 47 days of continuous battle, our divisions had consumed the German divisions.
The goal of the American attack was the Sedan-Mezieres railroad, the main line of supply for the German forces on the major part of the western front. If this line were cut, a retirement on the whole front would be forced. This retirement would include, moreover, evacuation of the Briey iron fields, which the Germans had been using to great advantage to supplement their iron supply. The defense of the positions threatened me, therefore, of such importance as to warrant the most desperate measures for resistance. When the engagement was evidently impending, the Commander of the German Fifth Army sent word to his forces, calling on them for unyielding resistance and pointing out that defeat in this engagement might mean disaster for the Fatherland.
On the first day, the 26th of September, and the next day or two after that, the lines were considerably advanced. Then the resistance became more stubborn. Each side threw in more and more of its manpower until there were no more reserves. Many German divisions went into action twice and not a few three times, until, through losses, they were far under strength. All through the month of October the attrition went on. Foot by foot the American troops pushed back the best of the German divisions. In November the last stage of the offensive began. The enemy power began to break. American troops forced their way to the east bank of the Meuse. Toward the north they made even more rapid progress, and, in seven days, reached the outskirts of Sedan and out the Sedan-Mezieres railroad, making the German line untenable.
In the meantime (October 2nd to 28th) our 2nd and 36th Divisions had been sent west to assist the French who were advancing in Champagne beside our drive in the Argonne. The liaison detachment between the two armies was, for a time, furnished by the 92nd Division.
In some ways the Meuse-Argonne offers an interesting resemblance to the Battle of the Wilderness, fought from May 5th to 12th, 1864, in the Civil War. Both were fought over a terrain covered with tangled woods and underbrush. The Wilderness was regarded as a long battle, marked by slow progress against obstinate resistance with very heavy casualties. Here, the similarity ends. The Meuse-Argonne lasted six times as long as the Battle of the Wilderness. Twelve times as many American troops were engaged as were on the Union side. They used in the action ten times as many guns and fired about 100 times as many rounds of artillery ammunition. The actual we weight of ammunition fired was greater than that used by the Union forces during the entire Civil War. Casualties were perhaps four times as heavy as among the Northern troops in the Battle of the Wilderness.
The Battle of the Meuse-Argonne was beyond compare the greatest ever fought by American troops, and there have been few, if any, greater battles in the history of the world. The operations may be summarized in the following data: days of battle, 47; American troops engaged 1,200,000; guns employed in attack, 2417; rounds of artillery ammunition fired, 4,214,000; airplanes used, 840; tons of explosive dropped by planes on enemy lines, 100; tanks used, 324; miles of penetration of enemy line, maximum, 34; square kilometers of territory taken, 1550; villages and towns liberated, 150; prisoners captured, 16,059; artillery pieces captured, 468; machine guns captured, 2864; trench mortars captured, 177; American casualties, 120,000.