Lafayette, we are here. Part II.

September 26, 2008, 12:11 pm

Continuing his thrilling tale of yesteryear, David Silbey carries forward his epic This Day in History….

The American plan was flawed from the beginning. First, the attacks were spaced too closely together in time. To be successful, offensives in 1918 had to be complex, highly-planned and rehearsed, and heavily supplied. There was plenty of time to plan, supply, and train for the St. Mihiel assault, but not for Meuse-Argonne. American units would have to be pulled out of the St. Mihiel attack, have their casualties replaced, and retrain for the Meuse-Argonne, in the space of about ten days. This was simply not enough time. Second, the attacks were spaced too closely in distance. St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne were next to each other on the front, supplied by the same road network. Even worse, that road network ran through Verdun, the site of near continuous fighting in 1916-17. Heavily damaged and only partially repaired, the roads were simply not up to the task of supplying two major assaults. At the attack on Amiens in August, 1918, the British had built up a stockpile of 6 million artillery shells in the weeks prior, and fired all of them and more during the attack. The Americans would not be able to do the same.

The attack on St. Mihiel pushed off on September 12th. It was a spectacular success. Within four days, the Americans had captured all their targets, 15,000 German POWs, and 400 artillery pieces. The victory raised the stock of the Americans, and Pershing, in the eyes of the French. French President Raymond Poincare visited the salient to congratulate the U.S. forces, though it should also be noted that he owned a small chateau in the liberated territory. Only some skeptical voices within French military intelligence pointed out that the Germans had actually been in the middle of evacuating the salient at the moment of the American attack, and thus had been unprepared to fight resolutely in defense. Given this, American casualties had been worryingly high, with 4,500 dead. “Open warfare” had succeeded, but at some cost.

Going agley.


The turnaround for the next attack turned into chaos. A traffic jam stretched back miles from the Meuse-Argonne line, carrying the critical supplies and men. Tens of thousands of trucks vied for space with 90,000 horses and mules pulling wagons. Some of the artillery got into place only hours before the shelling was due to start, at 11:30 PM on September 25th. That night 2700 guns started firing the artillery barrage, while roughly 600 tanks idled behind the lines and about 800 airplanes waited for light to take off. In the front trenches, infantry regiments sat, prepared for H-Hour, 5:30 am, when they would assault the German lines.

The enemy entrenched.

Let us pause for a moment and examine the challenge of their task. In front of them lay a sophisticated defensive system, consisting of trenches and strong points and barbed wire and artillery and machine guns. Allied to that system the German defensive doctrine, which specified exactly how German units should react to an attack. The doctrine, defense in depth, had come out of the hard lessons of 1916. There, at the Battle of the Somme, the Germans had defended their trenches by concentrating most of their troops in the front lines. That, they discovered, made them susceptible to the overwhelming barrage of British artillery fire, unlike anything the Germans had seen before. The “storm of steel,” (stahlgewittern) as the Germans called it, had inflicted heavy casualties. Thus the Somme, while a disaster for the British, had also been a disaster for the Germans. The result was a new doctrine. The front lines would be held lightly by forces that were only expected to slow down an attack. Behind the front lines would be the artillery, which would hammer attackers, and the Eingreif (counterattack) units. The latter, in the case of a successful assault, would launch an immediate counterattack (der Gegenstoss) before the victors could get settled in their gains. If that immediate counterattack did not work, the reserve German forces would build up to a deliberate counterattack (der Gegenangriff) a few days later. The idea was to spare the German defenders from the artillery barrage while enabling them to recover any lost terrain. The new defensive strategy worked well. The French Nivelle offensives of Spring 1917 (named after the French commander Robert Nivelle) failed catastrophically because Nivelle, not understanding the new German methods, put his faith in overwhelming French artillery bombardments slaughtering the defenders. It was the unfortunate French poilus who died by the hundreds of thousands for his error. A British assault at Passchendaele in fall 1917 met the same fate, made even worse by the soupy mud created by an unprecedented rainfall in September and October.

General Henry “Bite” Rawlinson.

But even as the German doctrine succeeded, a counterdoctrine began to develop. The two main proponents of this new doctrine were British Generals Henry Rawlinson and Herbert Plumer. “Bite and hold” assumed that the Germans would mount a counterattack as soon as a British assault showed signs of success. Their idea was explicitly to provoke that counterattack. The British would bite off the front of the German defensive system, and then immediately turn it into a defensive position of their own. The British would thus be ready for a German counterattack, and, Rawlinson and Plumer hoped, hold that assault off while inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans. After a few weeks, during which the Germans would reorganize their defensive system with a new front line, the British would repeat the process. No more breakthroughs to Berlin; instead, steady, if slow, progress.

General Herbert “Hold” Plumer.

The way to defend against this, of course, was to push heavy concentrations of German defenders up to the front lines. That, however, would bring them within the range of British artillery units, who would be only too happy to slaughter them as they had at the Somme. “Bite and hold” worked well at the Battle of Messines Ridge in August 1917 when a British attack, commanded by Plumer, captured a large chunk of the German defensive lines with relatively low casualties. It had worked again at Amiens in August 1918, when Rawlinson’s attack had cracked the entire German defensive line. In a sense, “bite and hold” was the antithesis of “open warfare.” British infantry went into battle heavily weighed down, carrying extra ammunition, equipment, and weapons so that they could set up a defensive perimeter quickly. Soldiers at Amiens had carried a larger load than those at the Somme. But at Amiens, they were escorted across the battlefield by a creeping barrage of artillery fire that kept German heads down, and hundreds of tanks working to suppress German machine guns. There was no possibility that they could break out into the open terrain behind the defensive system and advance quickly. It simply was not possible.

The Americans scoffed at this blinkered mentality and asserted that they would handle it differently at Meuse-Argonne. They would break into the German lines, and then expand outward, pushing the Germans before them into the open terrain behind the trench system. Pershing’s objective for the first day of the attack was the main German railhead at Sedan, forty or so miles behind the lines. Such a distance was otherworldly in a war where advances were measured in yards, not miles. The British and French winced when they heard the Americans’ confidence; it reminded them of their own confidence in 1914. Haig and Foch worried that Pershing had planned another Somme or Passchendaele, one that would end in sanguinary failure.

They were right, and wrong.

to be continued….

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