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