We are pleased and privileged to welcome back David Silbey, who has suspended his campaign so he can provide us a truly outstanding This Day in History. Many, many thanks, David.
On this day in 1918, the United States launched an attack against the German trenches in the Meuse-Argonne region of northern France. It was the largest American effort since the Civil War; in absolute numbers it was the largest operation the United States had ever undertaken.
For all that, it was a sideshow to the larger war. After the stagnation of 1916-1917, 1918 had become the year of resolution. The Germans, fresh from their victory over the Russians, had transported hundreds of thousands of soldiers back from the eastern front to the western. They knew that they had a limited amount of time to take advantage of the numbers, before millions of freshly-trained American soldiers arrived in France in late 1918 and 1919. General Erich von Ludendorff, the German Supreme Commander, threw the dice with a series of massive offensives starting in March. For a moment, the Germans broke through and the war looked like it might end before the Americans could make a difference. The crisis was serious enough that the American commander, General John J. Pershing, unbent from his insistence that American units would fight only as part of an American army under an American commander, and began sending divisions piecemeal to shore up the French and British lines. The American reinforcements, resolute defense by the French and British troops, and general exhaustion on the German side enabled the Entente to hold its lines. By late May 1918, the Supreme Entente commander, General Ferdinand Foch, was thinking about large-scale counterattacks.
Foch envisioned a series of hammer-blows all along the German lines. His hammers were to be the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army, strengthened by further injections of fresh American troops. General Pershing flatly refused. The emergency was over, he argued, and in any counterattack, American troops would fight as a single army, responsible to an American commander, not a foreign one. President Woodrow Wilson, Pershing’s commander, had been insistent that “the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved.” Pershing aimed to carry that order out to the letter. Foch fumed and argued but he had no leverage. America had come into war not as an ally, but as an “associated power,” fighting against the Germans, but not necessarily for the British or French. That meant that Foch could not order Pershing to do anything; he could only ask. At a meeting, Foch demanded to know whether Pershing was willing to see the defenders pushed back to the River Loire, south of Paris itself. Pershing responded that he did not care where the Americans fought, only that they fought as a unit.
To this rule, he made only one exception. The 369th (Colored) Regiment would fight with the French. The “Harlem Hellfighters,” as they came to be known, fit uneasily in a largely racist Army uncomfortable with the notion of blacks as combat soldiers. The 369th had not been allowed to participate with New York’s 42nd National Guard Division, the “Rainbow” Division, because, it was explained to the 369th’s commander, “black is not a color in the rainbow.” In France, Pershing felt that the 369th could be dumped on the French, with their experience commanding “colonial” troops.
Foch’s misgivings about this were not merely related to the difficulties it created in planning. He was also concerned that the Americans had little experience of trench warfare and would thus find fighting on the Western Front hard going. Foch needed the Americans to carry their weight, and he wasn’t sure that they could. The airy pronouncements from American officers that they would break out of the stagnant trench warfare that the Europeans had allowed themselves to be mired in and return to a more chivalric “open warfare” reassured Foch not all. It sounded identical to the assertions of French officers in the pre-war era. The French had discovered in 1914-15 that assertions, like men, died easily in the mud and blood of the Western Front. Machine guns respected no-one’s chivalry. The British and French had painfully learned, over the course of three years, how to mount effective assaults against heavily-defended trench systems. But to Pershing, trench warfare simply reflected Old World incompetence. The strapping sons of the New World had arrived, and they would show the Europeans how to do it. Pershing was wont to make such pronouncements in staff meetings with Foch and General Douglas Haig, the BEF commander. It remains a mystery that one or both of them did not punch him squarely in the mouth as a result, but that can perhaps be laid to Haig’s dour Scottish phlegmatism and Foch’s sense that France, wearied by the slaughter of millions of her young men, needed the Americans more than the Americans needed the French.
Pershing got his way. The Americans would fight as a single army, though the units that had been sent as reinforcements during the German spring offensive would stay with the French and British. Foch rewrote the plan to put the Americans far out on the right of the British and French lines. Their job would be to reduce two salients, bulges in the defensive line, to ensure that the main French assault would not have Germans on its flanks. The first of these, the St. Mihiel salient, would be attacked on September 12th. After reducing this, the Americans would immediately turn to an attack in the Meuse-Argonne, about 20 miles to the east. There, as part of a larger assault, the Americans would cover the flank of the main French assault. The second attack would be much larger, initially comprising about 240,000 American soldiers, essentially the entire AEF. The attack was scheduled to start with an artillery bombardment at 11:30 PM September 25th. The next morning, the American infantry would go “over the top” and into the assault.
to be continued….