WWI Centennial: Americans Victorious at Belleau Wood

Georges Scott, Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Georges Scott, Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 311th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JUNE 6-JULY 1, 1918: AMERICANS VICTORIOUS AT BELLEAU WOOD

“I am writing this—I have force to write this—because I am full of brandy. I am crying hard inside. It is more terrible than any one has written or told.” So began a letter dated June 12, 1918, from Elmer Harden, an American soldier volunteering with the French Army, to his mother. “The battle is still raging on a front of many miles. We are progressing foot by foot," He continued. "It is awful and I’m strangled by the affection in me for my poor comrades—for all the world. It is too awful. Tonight—tomorrow? How can anyone live in this hell?"

Harden’s wrenching letter echoed the feelings of tens of thousands of American soldiers experiencing their baptism of fire in the dramatic days of mid-June 1918. German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff had unleashed his fourth great offensive, Operation Gneisenau, and U.S. Marines and U.S. Army divisions—“devil dogs” and “doughboys”—fought to drive the Germans back from the Marne River in the Battle of Belleau Wood, from June 6-July 1, 1918. By late June the small forest was in Allied hands, and the Americans had proved their fighting mettle to the world (above, an illustration from Collier’s depicting U.S. Marines fighting at Belleau Wood).

OPERATION GNEISENAU

Operation Gneisenau (named for August von Gneisenau, a famous Prussian field marshal) was Ludendorff’s attempt to restore the momentum of his stalled third offensive, Blücher-Yorck, also known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. The movement had conquered a large amount of territory between Reims and Soissons, northeast of Paris, but failed to achieve its main goal of forcing the Allies to draw reinforcements from their reserves north of the Somme, in preparation for a renewed German attack on British forces there.

Map of the Western Front, June 6-July 1, 1918
Erik Sasse

The twin salients created by the tactical successes of Operation Michael in March 1918 and Blücher-Yorck in May held out the alluring possibility of a pincer movement on Paris by the German Seventh and Eighteenth Armies. At the same time, they were an enormous extension of the length of the German lines, threatening to overtax dwindling German manpower. Thus it was imperative to conquer the counter-salient held by the Allies in between, in order to shorten the German lines, seize control of the rail hub of Compiègne—key to sustaining the German supply system in the recently conquered areas—and maybe even set the stage for an advance on Paris.

In the first phase of Gneisenau the German Eighteenth Army would attempt to shatter the right flank of the French Third Army to prepare for a second phase, Hammerschlag (Hammer Blow), against the French Tenth Army, planned for two days later. Together, Ludendorff hoped the two phases would breach the French line, isolating the French First and Third Armies south of the Somme and capturing Compiègne; as in the previous offensive, he also hoped the threat of a breakthrough here would force the French to draw reinforcements from their reserve force behind the British armies in Flanders. At this point he could turn his attention to Paris or return to his original plan of smashing the British, now largely cut off from their French allies.

Gneisenau began at 12:50 a.m. on June 9, 1918, with another massive barrage by 2,276 guns firing 1.4 million shells in the first day alone, about a third of them containing various types of poison gas. Once again, the Germans made successful use of the pioneering Pulkowski method advocated by gunnery officer Georg Bruchmüller—a new mathematical technique that targeted artillery without the need to first “register” them to get the range (essentially practice shots which gave away the element of surprise).

However, this time around the German opening bombardment wasn’t as effective as previous ones, because surprise was now impossible. It was obvious to the Allies where the German blow would fall, and after the bitter experience of the first three German offensives, Allied commander-in-chief Marshal Ferdinand Foch made sure that all the generals under his command obeyed his order to pull most of their troops back from the frontline trenches, holding them in reserve or withdrawing even further in order to stage counterattacks later, in line with the new doctrine of “defense in depth.”

The German infantry went over the top at 4:20 a.m., led as usual by battalions of stormtroopers employing infiltration techniques to break up the enemy’s defenses—but this time the Germans found the French already falling back and regrouping beyond the range of the German heavy artillery. By the late afternoon of the first day, the Germans had advanced up to 6.5 miles in places, a substantial gain by the standards of trench warfare but less than in Operation Michael or Blücher-Yorck; they had also taken only 5000 prisoners, much fewer than the first day’s bag on previous occasions.

The offensive continued to lose momentum on the second day, June 10, as some artillery was transferred from the German Eighteenth Army to the Seventh Army for the Hammerschlag attack, and French divisions began to arrive from other parts of the Western Front. But, crucially, none of these reinforcements came from the French reserve forces behind the BEF, as Foch judged (correctly) that he didn’t need to weaken the front’s northern sector in order to fend off the Germans in the middle. As a result, Allied defenses remained strong in the north, and Foch retained a large reserve force that he could employ in a swift counterattack following future German offensives.

The situation was still serious for the Allies on June 10, as the French 53rd Division disintegrated under German pressure, making it impossible to stage a planned counterattack. But the next day the French began to push back, as Foch authorized the newly appointed Tenth Army commander general Charles Mangin (nicknamed “The Butcher” for his alleged disregard for casualties during Verdun and the Nivelle Offensive) to mount a counterattack against the western flank of the German offensive, about 10 miles northwest of Compiègne. Henri Desegneaux, a French officer, took part in the audacious French assault on German positions near the village of Courcelles-Epayelles on June 11, 1918:

“The enemy has seen our movements and is firing for all he is worth. The whole plain is showered with 105s and 150s. We can clearly distinguish three successive barrages … We think we must be dreaming. Is it possible that they have ordered the division to attack under such conditions? On we go, however, stopping occasionally to check on the men and to inspect the horizon … We are in the thick of the barrage, clods of earth are flying in all directions, fire and smoke swirl around us, we hasten to cross this wall. Swear words ring out everywhere, men stop, killed or wounded, but there is no stopping, we go on and on, we have to get through at any cost.”

As the battle unfolded, Desegneaux noted another example of an all-too-common tragedy of the First World War, as French wounded were left to die by comrades pulled away by the tide of battle:

“We move off again. We have difficulty in advancing through these huge cornfields, and from now on we do nothing but stumble across the wounded. They are abandoned here, amid the tall blades of corn, helpless. Those who can walk, flee towards the rear; those wounded in the leg, the stomach, or even more seriously patch themselves up while waiting for help. Help; when will it come? The regiment has moved on, will they find them in these huge fields, lying among the tall corn? How many are going to end up dying through lack of attention and will rot where they fell!”

Desegneaux also witnessed the arrival of French tanks, which occasionally made impressive advances but still suffered from the same shortcomings as their British counterparts. He watched in awe as French planes were outgunned by the Germans, who had once again achieved temporary air superiority in this sector:

“Suddenly, a shout: the tanks! They are big Saint-Chamonds, monstrous masses of iron, rumbling up the road in broad daylight. What a sight! The Boches concentrate all their guns upon them; it’s a deluge of fire. Some are destroyed on the spot, some are set on fire, some stagger along, trying to reach the plain, only to be blown up further on, others succeed in crossing the lines only to be brought to a crushing halt 100 meters later. In a quarter of an hour, it’s all over; this day will have cost us 37 out of the 40 tanks which were escorting the division. As soon as our tanks are no more, our attention turns to the sky, a swarm of German planes are attacking ours, about 10 in number. It’s a massacre. The guns chatter; our planes are outnumbered 10 to one. Five of ours are shot down immediately. We forget everything happening up front. With a lump in our throats, we watch these planes come crashing down in flames to the ground.”

Mangin’s counterattack was ultimately halted by enemy resistance, but it did force German Eighteenth Army commander general Oskar von Hutier to transfer two army corps to the army’s right flank in order to hold off the French, foreclosing any possibility of continuing its main effort further east. On June 12, Desegneaux was on the scene at Courcelles:

“I am at the northern edge of the village, the road is littered with bodies. It’s unbelievable. There’s a blown-up tank which is lying across and blocking the road. Inside are two burnt corpses, black, unrecognizable. Further on, bunches of men, legs twisted and mangled, or with gaping holes in their bodies, their eyeballs dangling out of their sockets, half their jaws missing, with terror written all over them. We can’t take them away, they are too numerous … All we can do is cover them with lime and then with a sheet or a blanket. We pick them up in mounds; but there are still more and more of them … Further on, I fall into a pool of coagulated blood, it stinks. There’s a dug-out beside it which has served as a first-aid post. The bodies are piled there in heaps, it’s awful—we are forced to move on.”

By June 12, Operation Gneisenau was stalled, just as it was supposed to be converging with the other arm of the pincer movement, Operation Hammerschlag, the westward attack by the German Seventh Army from the area near Soissons in the southern salient. In fact, Hammerschlag fared even worse: Once again, the French withdrew most of their forces before the German offensive began in the early morning of June 12, and Foch, no longer facing the threat of a real pincer movement, was free to transfer reinforcements to the French Tenth Army. Meanwhile, the French Third Army continued to counterattack the German Eighteenth Army further north, disrupting the planned advance and spelling the end of Gneisenau. By June 13, Ludendorff decided to call off both attacks. Germany’s fourth desperate bid for victory had failed.

BELLEAU WOOD

For the first time on the Western Front, U.S. troops played a key role in the overall Allied strategy to halt the German onslaught, with a hard-fought victory against enemy troops on the southern flank of the German Seventh Army at Belleau Wood. Although this was just one action among many in the Allied defensive strategy, by stopping the Germans and then driving them out of Belleau Wood, the U.S. Marines threatened the enemy’s position on the Marne and raised the prospect of further attacks against the Seventh Army’s southern flank. The battle continued long after Ludendorff called off Gneisenau, with the last Germans expelled from the small forest by July 1, 1918.

The American attacks were led by the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division, which included 9500 Marines in the 4th Marine Brigade. They faced heavily entrenched German troops armed with machine guns in the woods, the village of Bouresches, as well as on a small rise (Hill 142) to the west. On taking over the defense of the area in early June, one Marine officer, Captain Lloyd Williams, famously disregarded French advice to retreat, exclaiming, “Retreat, hell, we just got here!”

After establishing a defensive line south of the woods, the Americans shifted to the offensive on June 6, 1918, employing “open warfare” tactics in the form of massed rushes against German positions—exactly the sort of tactics the European combatants had abandoned following the bitter experience of trench warfare. However, the fresh American troops, eager to demonstrate their courage, disregarded very heavy casualties as they mounted attack after attack, eventually engaging the tired and demoralized troops in fierce close quarters combat with rifles, pistols, and bayonets, turning the woods into a slaughterhouse (below, U.S. Marines in a shell hole in Belleau Wood in April 1919). Before one particularly bloody attack, gunnery sergeant Dan Daley encouraged his Marines with the rhetorical question: “Come on, you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?”

U.S. Marines in a shell hole at Belleau Wood, WWI
Collection of Adolph B. Miller/COLL1068, United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite major losses, by June 11 the Marines had reclaimed most of Belleau Wood. But the Germans clung tenaciously to the northern edge of the forest for several more weeks, resulting in nightmarish, chaotic combat characterized by hand-to-hand fighting, grenade duels, and bayonet rushes between shell holes and shattered tree trunks. Finally, the arrival of French field artillery helped dislodge most of the last German defenders from the woods by June 26, and the Marines completed mopping up and straightening the new defensive line by July 1. The battle had cost the lives of 1000 Marines plus another 4000 wounded—meaning more than half of the force fell in battle.

Belleau Wood was a milestone for the U.S. in the First World War, demonstrating America’s fighting mettle and earning it the respect of its French and British allies, who now understood that the great republic across the ocean intended to play a decisive role in the war. It was equally dispiriting for the Germans, as ordinary soldiers began to suspect that official propaganda—portraying Americans as an undisciplined, polyglot rabble—was far off the mark. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, transcribed a letter taken from the body of a dead German soldier at Belleau Wood, dated June 21, 1918. It gave a sense of the terrible privations, including hunger, experienced by German soldiers:

“About 400 of us are lying around here. We have one corner of the woods and the American has the other corner. This is not nice, for all of a sudden he rushes forward and one does not know it beforehand … Here one lies day and night without a blanket, only with a coat and a shelter-half. One freezes at night like a tailor, for the nights are fiercely cold. I hope that I will be lucky enough to escape from this horrible mess, for up to now I have always been lucky. The enemy sweeps every evening the whole countryside with machine guns and rifle fire, and then artillery fire … At present our food is miserable. We are now fed upon dried vegetables and marmalade and when at night we obtain more food it is unpalatable. It is half sour and all cold. In the daytime we receive nothing.”

Gibbons also transcribed a captured German intelligence report, based on interviews with captured American soldiers:

“The majority of the prisoners took as a matter of course that they have come to Europe to defend their country. Only a few of the troops are of pure American [Anglo-Saxon] origin; the majority is of German, Dutch, and Italian parentage, but these semi-Americans, almost all of whom were born in America and never have been in Europe before, fully feel themselves to be true born sons of their country.”

The nickname “devil dogs” (in German, teufelshunde or Höllenhunde, “hell hounds”) was supposedly bestowed on the Marines by German soldiers in recognition of their ferocity and zeal in this and earlier battles; the term is first mentioned in American newspapers April 1918, but some historians consider the alleged German origins apocryphal. The French government renamed Belleau Wood “the Marine Brigade Wood” in honor of its liberators, and today a fountain with a statue of a “devil dog” commemorates the battle (below).

A U.S. Marine drinking from devil dog fountain
Lance Cpl. Seth H. Capps, a member of the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon, drinks out of Devil Dog Fountain following the 93rd anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood, May 30, 2010.
Cpl. Bobby J. Yarbrough, United States Marine Corps // Public Domain

As always, American soldiers enjoyed engaging in the long-standing rivalry between the Army and Marine branches, and veterans were quick to remind newcomers of their “newbie” status. Vernon Kniptash, a soldier from Indiana with the 42nd Division, also known as the Rainbow Division because it included troops from dozens of states, noted in his diary on June 20, 1918:

“The 77th Div., the first draft division to reach France, is going to relieve us. They hail from little old New York and that’s all they talk about … They landed here in April and from the way they blow about themselves it would lead us to believe that they’ve been over here ever since the war started. The Rainbow boys told ‘em a few things to help ‘em out but they knew it all, didn’t need any pointers, said they could take care of the Bosche alright. Last night a long column of them, four regiments, passed our station on the way up to the trenches for the first time. They tried to kid us but didn’t have much luck. They yelled, “Fall in line and fight for your Uncle.” I called back, “You fellows ought to have come over when the soldiers did,” and they shut up like a clam. They went up singing but it’s an easy matter to sing on the first time up.”

TRYING CONDITIONS

American soldiers also faced the same trying conditions that their European counterparts had suffered over the previous four years. In June 1918 Robert J. Patterson, an American officer, noted the discomfort of ordinary American soldiers aboard French troop trains, which were in fact just repurposed open-air cars for transporting horses (below, members of the U.S. Army Air Force’s 147th Aero Squadron in Toul, France, in May-June 1918):

“The crowding of the soldiers into the cars beats anything I had ever seen. Each freight car was supposed to hold 40 men, which was fitting them in very tight; but in fact most cars held 50. None could lie down, and many could not even sit down on the floor. The choice places were in the doors, where men could sit and hang their legs out. The officers were fairly comfortable in compartments on ordinary French passenger cars. We were on the train three days."

U.S. Air Force personnel on the Western Front, World War I
U.S. Air Force photo, National Museum of the Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most American soldiers were still ignorant of the rules of trench warfare, and in many cases had received minimal training before being rushed into service. One sergeant with the 42nd Division—supposedly one of the better-prepared units in the U.S. Army—remembered encountering a shocking lack of preparation in some companies:

“While giving a short talk on the necessity of strict obedience, I was floored by one of the boys, who spoke for his four or five companies, that, although they were anxious and eager to do exactly what I said, if they didn’t, it would be because they didn’t understand, as their service and training was of the most meager. They had fired a service rifle about ten times, that is, about ten rounds. They had never fired a live hand grenade … They didn’t know what a rifle grenade looked like, and, to make it complete, had never had bayonet instruction.”

And still more were coming, with 278,664 American troops embarked for Europe in June, and another 308,350 in July, most of them aboard British or American ships escorted by the Royal Navy. As always, the sea journey presented its own miseries. Emmet Britton, an American officer, described the common woe of seasickness in a letter home dated July 1, 1918:

“The air was foul and 95 of the men were sick, and quite often we shipped a sea through the open hatchway, so there was about 6 inches of water all over. It seemed like one of Gustave Dore’s pictures of the Inferno with a flickering half-light showing the tossing, writing figures of close-packed men, suffering bodily discomforts and mental unrest. For none of them were allowed to remove a single garment, though it was stifling hot and the slept with their life-preservers on.”

It was probably little comfort to ordinary people, but conditions were even worse on the other side, as the food shortages resulting from the Allied blockade and wartime disruptions reached crisis proportions. German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers and civilians faced starvation, provoking widespread food strikes in big cities and talk of revolution. Evelyn, Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in the German countryside, confided in her diary in June 1918, “The food question is always the most important topic of the day. The less there is of it, the more do we talk of it … We ourselves have little to eat but smoked meat and dried peas and beans, but in the towns they are considerably worse off.” And Clifford Markle, an American medical officer held captive in Germany, recorded one heartbreaking encounter at the government-run restaurant where he worked in July 1918:

“Food conditions were extremely critical at this time. One example of the scarcity of food may be obtained from the following incident. A young girl, 14 years old, whose sister was a waitress in the restaurant, came into the kitchen weeping bitterly. Her sister asked her why she was crying. The little girl told her that she had had nothing to eat for three days, as she had been ill and so could not work in the dynamite factory, where she was employed, and therefore had no money to buy food tickets. If one didn’t work, one didn’t eat in Germany. The German woman who was cooking in the kitchen at the time heard the girl’s pitiful story, and told her to sit down at the table. The cook then gave her bread, potatoes, and bean soup … Of course, the rest of us had a little less to eat that night, but we did not mind, for the little girl needed it so much more than we did.”

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

WWI Centennial: Americans Attack the St. Mihiel Salient; the Flu Turns Deadly

Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 318th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here and buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 12-16, 1918: AMERICANS ATTACK THE ST. MIHIEL SALIENT; THE FLU TURNS DEADLY

“Something is going to happen,” wrote Katharine Morse, an American volunteering as a canteen worker, in her diary on September 9, 1918. “We have been used to seeing the French Army go by … But now, by day, by night, it is the Americans who are passing through… Coming home from the canteen in the evening one hears the heavy rattle that means artillery on the move, and standing by the road-side peering through the darkness one can just discern horses and caissons, slat wagons, supply wagons, and, looming ominously in the dim light, the formidable bulk of the great guns.”

Morse was right. Three days later the U.S. First Army launched its biggest American offensive of the war so far, a pincer movement coordinated with French forces to liberate the St. Mihiel salient—the triangular strip of German-occupied territory jutting into free France south of Verdun, with the village of St. Mihiel at its apex on the River Meuse.

Long a thorn in the side of the Allies, the Germans’ possession of the St. Mihiel salient gave them a bridgehead over the Meuse and denied the Allies full use of the important Paris-Nancy-Metz rail line, impeding movement of troops and supplies. However, like Lorraine and the Vosges Mountains to the southeast, this part of the front had been relatively quiet ever since a disastrous French attempt to liberate the salient early in the war.

Following a series of stunning Allied victories in July and August, when the doughboys proved their fighting spirit at Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, and the Second Battle of the Marne, and while the British crushed the Germans near Amiens, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch and U.S. commander John “Black Jack” Pershing turned their attention to the St. Mihiel salient—an obvious next target, although there was some disagreement about strategy.

Western Front, September 1918
Erik Sass

On one hand, Pershing proposed a massive offensive by up to 20 U.S. divisions from First Army, followed by an immediate attack across the Franco-German frontier to capture Metz, which would deliver a major blow to German morale. Foch countered that this was too ambitious, in part because the Germans almost certainly knew the attack was coming while many U.S. troops were still untested. He instead proposed a limited attack, with 13 American divisions and eight French colonial divisions converging on the village of Vigneulles from north and south, followed by redeployment of U.S. forces under French commanders for a general offensive further west.

Determined to keep American troops under American commanders, Pershing refused Foch’s broader plan outright. This resulted in a compromise that was, paradoxically, even more ambitious than those previously discussed. After conquering the salient with Foch’s proposed limited operation, the U.S. First Army would stay together and immediately redeploy 60 miles northwest to launch a new offensive against the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne region, west of Verdun, in late September. Meanwhile, the planned U.S. Second Army would concentrate along the frontier for an eventual attack on Metz, as Pershing still hoped to execute.

“THE VERY HEAVENS SEEMED TO BE ON FIRE”

Although loose lips among inexperienced doughboys had already given away the coming attack, the Americans still did their best to at least keep the enemy guessing about precisely when and where it would fall. That meant another round of night marches to evade German aerial reconnaissance, typically made by exhausted doughboys in miserable conditions. “The rain was pouring and everyone got drenched. Carried ammunition all night of 10th and 11th until everyone was broken down. Raining and black as pitch each night,” Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote in his diary on September 10, 1918. On September 12 Hanes noted, “No rations for men or feed for horses was sent up with us so we had to live on what we could pick up for about two days.”

To top it off, like their peers in European armies, the American soldiers carried a backbreaking amount of equipment. Emmet Britton, an American soldier, described a doughboy’s typical shelter and kit, which he carried in addition to a rifle, ammunition, grenades, gas mask, entrenching tools and other equipment:

“Each man carries one-half of a shelter tent, one pole, and five pins. This shelter half is a piece of canvas six feet by four feet, and forms the outside of the roll a man carries. To make up a roll the shelter half is spread on the ground, the one blanket is laid on it and inside of the blanket are placed the poles and pins, the one suit of underwear, and three pairs of socks, which make up all of a man’s outfit with the exception of the toilet articles which include one comb, one tooth brush, one piece of soap, one razor and one shaving brush. Add to that one can of bully beef and eight pieces of hardtack and you have the contents of a man’s pack.”

In another vain attempt to maintain the element of surprise, the Americans also replicated the recent Allied practice of foregoing a prolonged preliminary bombardment, in favor of a short, incredibly intense barrage just before the infantry went “over the top.” At 1 a.m. on September 12, 1918, around 3000 artillery pieces (most of them on loan from the French) opened up with some of the fiercest shelling of the war, firing a stupendous 1.1 million shells by 5 a.m, for an average rate of around 76 shells per second. One awestruck American soldier noted in his diary:

“At about 1 a.m. one of the most terrible barrages I have yet witnessed begins. The noise is deafening. The sky as light as day, words of mine can never describe the scene … The very heavens seemed [to] be on fire, the light of the bursting shells and the roar of the countless guns produced an unearthly uproar and tumult of noise so great that men had to shout into each other’s ears in order to be heard and understood.”

Hanes, the American artillery officer, left a similar account of stunning contrasts:

“You can never imagine the amount of noise made when the artillery opens up in one of these drives. It had been raining for two days steadily and we were all wet and muddy from head to foot. I had fallen down on an average of every 10 minutes for the two days as the ground was so slick I couldn’t stand. My men had been carrying ammunition to the guns for two of the blackest nights you have ever seen when suddenly everything was made light by the blazing of hundreds of guns all over the sector. We poured thousands of shells into the bloody rascals for about four hours and then started our barrage for the Infantry to advance under. They say it was a dandy and it certainly did the work as the Infantry met very little resistance and took thousands of scared and bewildered prisoners. One German officer was found dressed in his dress uniform, bag packed and orderly, waiting with him to surrender.

As it happened, the majority of the German forces occupying the St. Mihiel salient, who had plenty of warning about the impending attack, managed to withdraw just as the offensive was launched—in many cases retreating within view of the advancing doughboys. Altogether the advancing Americans captured around 13,000 German prisoners, a middling number for a major First World War battle. Thus the St. Mihiel offensive counted as an American victory, but one that fell short of Allied expectations (below, American troops in liberated St. Mihiel).

Entering St. Mihiel, World War I
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although only a few hundred French light tanks were available for the St. Mihiel offensive, the advancing infantry were supported by the largest concentration of air power ever assembled to date. At least 1500 Allied planes scoured the skies, attacked enemy forces on the ground, and harried German lines of supply and communication to the rear. Eddie Rickenbacker, the most successful American ace of the war, described carrying out a ground attack against the retreating Germans:

“Guns, stores, and ammunition were being hauled away to safety with all possible speed … One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Boche 3-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway. Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped away from his seat and started running for the ditch. Halfway across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets! All down the line we continued our fire—now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks.”

Although the St. Mihiel offensive was a relatively easy “walkover” by the blood-soaked standards of the First World War, it was some American soldiers’ first introduction to battle, and many were clearly horrified by the gruesome sights they encountered. One soldier described the carnage wrought by German defensive shelling of the advancing troops:

“A large shell had made a direct hit upon four boys. All were dead. Limbs were mangled, bodies were torn. It was a sight revolting beyond description. Of one of my comrades I could only find small fragments of his poor body. None were larger than my hand … with the exception [of] his head, jerked completely from body. The powder-blackened face of a young Jewish boy stared immobile into eternity. Nearby was his hand which had been popped off at the arm just [at the] back of the wrist.”

Others however found themselves becoming hardened to horrors of war. Lieutenant Phelps Harding noted his acclimation to gruesome sights in a letter to his wife recounting the advance. “We passed dead men of both armies, but many more Boche than Americans,” he wrote. “I was surprised at the indifference I felt toward dead Americans—they seemed a perfectly natural thing to come across, and I felt absolutely no shudder go down my back as I would have had I seen the same thing a year ago.”

Conditions continued to be extremely challenging, as the supply service struggled to keep up with the advancing troops and American troops scrambled to redeploy to the Meuse-Argonne front for the next planned offensive. On September 22 Hanes recorded an excruciatingly slow advance. “The distance was only about seven kilometers but we were on the road about seven hours making it on account of the terrific traffic jams. The rain poured all night and the wind blew a gale. This is the most horrible night I have ever had,” he wrote.

On the other side, St. Mihiel was another nail in the coffin of German morale. Although the occupying troops had withdrawn successfully under fire, there was no way for the German high command to cover up the plain fact of another retreat before superior enemy forces.

Ominously, both German officers and rank-and-file troops were now eager to be taken prisoner for the short remaining duration of the war. Some likely reasoned that there was no point in sacrificing their lives for a lost cause. In a letter home dated September 19, Hanes wrote, “the prisoners as they came back seemed to be very well satisfied. Some of the infantrymen said, when they captured them, they shook hands with each other, laughed, and seemed to be most pleased that they had been captured.”

Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, may have been describing the same surrendering officer recounted by Hanes: “One German major was found with his kit all packed up, his arms folded, waiting to go to prison camp. He was furious with his high command... So, in high dudgeon and righteous indignation, he made no effort to escape.” And a German intelligence report from September 1918 noted an informant’s warning, based on conversations with ordinary soldiers, that there was no doubt “these men wanted to find out about the best way to get taken prisoner without any risk and attracting attention, and how to act as a prisoner in order to be treated well.”

INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC BECOMES EVEN DEADLIER

The first phase of the misnamed Spanish flu, which emerged in spring 1918, had been extremely virulent but relatively benign. The epidemic killed only a small proportion of those who became ill. However, in fall 1918, the second, far deadlier phase began with simultaneous outbreaks among troops in transit camps in Boston, Massachusetts; Brest, France; and Freetown, Sierra Leone—all within a few weeks in early and mid-September. The first report in Boston noted high mortality among wounded soldiers arriving back from Europe for medical treatment in the U.S. on September 5, 1918.

It’s unclear what caused the flu epidemic to suddenly become so deadly, but scientists speculate the virus may have undergone a “genetic recombination event,” in which two different strains of the virus infect the same cell and then swap DNA, creating a strain that is even more virulent and dangerous.

By some estimates, the flu may have killed as many as 100 million people around the world, far more than the war itself. While it ravaged combatant and noncombatant nations alike, its impact was worst in war-torn Europe. Contemporary accounts leave a frightening picture of rapid, widespread infection leaving whole communities powerless. Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer with the French Army, wrote home in October:

“This disease is certainly quick and deadly in its effect and creates a panic among those who have it, as they die frequently in three or four days. My chauffeur is just recovering. He was so scared, two days ago, when I went to see him the hospital, lest he die in France, that he was almost speechless. Four friends of one of the French officers in my office dined together last week, and now two are dead and buried."

Morse, the American volunteer, remarked on the incredible speed of the epidemic. “Curiously enough, it hit the camp all in a heap after dinner,” she recalled. “Thirty percent of the boys, the two officers, the building detail, and myself were all laid low between one and six o’clock.” Richard Wade Derby, an American medical officer, noted that the flu accounted for the vast majority of hospital admissions: “The evacuations mounted to four or five hundred a day, of which only a fifth were battle casualties.”

The flu was especially devastating for Germany, now at the limits of its manpower and suffering severe shortages of food and fuel. In October 1918, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, wrote in her diary:

“Whilst depicting the last agony of the country at large, one is apt to forget the sufferings of the individual, but what the war is not destroying in human life, the terrible grippe epidemic is carrying off. One hears of whole families dying out in a few hours, and it is an extraordinary fact that most of the victims are young girls and women. An uncanny idea, death thus restoring the balance between men and women for life.”

After devastating the cities, the flu epidemic swept through the countryside, according to Blücher:

“There is hardly a family that has been spared. From our housekeeper at Krieblowitz I hear that the whole village is stricken with it, and the wretched people are lying about on the floors of their cottages in woeful heaps, shivering with fever and with no medicaments or anyone to attend them. The doctor from Canth is unable to come, as he is absolutely overworked, having the whole district to look after, his colleague being already dead of the grippe. I wired at once to the Convent of the Grey Sisters at Breslau, asking them to send a nurse, which they did immediately, and I heard this morning that from the moment of her arrival she only had three hours’ sleep for the next 48 hours, there were so many people to attend to.”

At a major Berlin department store, Blücher heard the following horrifying detail, reminiscent of medieval Europe’s Black Death:

“They told me that hundreds of their staff were at the moment laid up with the grippe, and that 70 of their girls had died last week of it. Herr B——, who has just arrived from Hamburg and lunched with us today, says it is like the plague there, 400 people dying in one day; and as they have not coffins enough to put the corpses in, they have used furniture vans to carry them to the cemetery … We are returning every day nearer to the barbarism of the Middle Ages in every way.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER