Tagged: WWI

The First Battle of Ypres

With the German failure at the First Battle of the Marne, both the Allies and the Germans began “The Race to the Sea” with each army moving north from Paris in an attempt to outflank each other, all the while leaving a line of trenches to their rear. The race came to an end at the Flemish city of Ypres (pronounced “ee-priss”), near the channel coast.

The French Army was overextended occupying the trenches all the way to the Swiss border so the inevitable battle was fought by the Belgian Army which had just recently escaped the capture of Antwerp, a single French army, and “The Old Contemptibles” of Sir John French’s British Expeditionary Force (Kaiser Wilhelm made an offhand comment that he would “destroy French’s contemptible little army”, the name stuck.) The highly trained and experienced British Expeditionary Force was comprised of all volunteers, seasoned veterans from colonial campaigns, and reinforced by tough Indian troops.

In mid-October 1914, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Sir John French, and German Field Marshal Erick Von Falkenhayn all came to the same conclusion: this was the last chance to maneuver before winter set in and the trenches solidified. Both sides attacked.

On 19 October 1914, the Allies struck first and ran directly into German troops staging in their assault positions. The two sides hammered at each other for a month. The First Battle of Ypres was characterized by failures of command and control, leadership, logistics, fratricide, and tactics. It was confusement of the highest order. The First Battle of Ypres was the wake up call that 19th century systems could not keep up with 20th century warfare. Veterans on both sides referred to it as “The Battle” for the rest of their lives, including a young Austrian corporal in the German Army, Adolf Hitler, who received the Iron Cross 2nd Class during the battle for rescuing a comrade under fire.

The British, Germans, Belgians and French were spent by the middle of November. Von Falkynhahn had done the Kaiser’s bidding and destroyed the Old Contemptibles, but he had not broken through. British veterans of “The Battle” were disbanded and they formed the cadres for a larger British Expeditionary Force with Lord Kitchener’s “New Armies”. The battle cost the four armies nearly 300,000 casualties, or almost 9,000 a day. The British, Belgian, Canadian, German, Indian, and French soldiers spent the rest of the cold and wet maritime winter in the brown, barren, and bleak moonscape around Ypres digging the trenches that became a symbol of what they would call “The Great War”.

The next spring the soldiers were greeted with what would become another of the First World War’s symbols: the poppy flower. In those Flanders’ fields, the first flower to bloom every year is the poppy. In May 1915, the shattered fields around Ypres were a sea of blood red poppy flowers. Canadian Lt Col John McCrae was inspired by the sight to write the hauntingly beautiful poem “In Flanders Fields” that would come to define the war. It begins:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…”

Taxi S’il Vous Plait! The First Battle of the Marne

Germany’s plan in the event of war with both Russia and France in the beginning of the 20th century was to defeat France with the Schlieffen Plan and then concentrate on Russia. The Schlieffen Plan was named for the former German Chief of Staff Count Alfred Schlieffen. The idea was to let the French advance in the south and then seize Paris unexpectedly from behind from along the Channel coast. First, German armies on the left in the south would fix French forces in Alsace/Lorraine and the Saar, and even allow them to advance. Using this as a hinge, the Germans on the right in the north would swing like a door through Belgium, then along the channel coast, then finally down around the concentration of French forces and seize Paris from behind. On his death bed in 1913, just before the First World War, Schlieffen’s last words were, “Keep the right wing strong!” (The attack through Belgium and along the Channel coast.)

Unfortunately for Germany, the egos of the various German commanders couldn’t accept their roles. The prestigious commands were obviously on the right (those that were to seize Paris). These went to two very competent, but not very ambitious commanders: Generals Karl Von Buelow and Alexander Von Kluck. The commander on the left wing, i.e. the one who was supposed to let the French advance so they would be encircled by the right wing, was a very ambitious and out spoken Erick Von Falkynhahn. Finally, the commander in East Prussia, the stately Paul Von Hindenburg who was pulled out of retirement for the job of facing the Russians, also had an outsized influence on the Schlieffen Plan.

When the war started, the Russians mobilized much more quickly than expected and the proud Hindenburg refused to abandon East Prussia. So he essentially bullied the Chief of Staff, Helmuth Von Moltke the Younger (the Elder was his uncle who won the Franco Prussian war in 1870) for more forces. Naturally, they needed to come from Falkynhahn for the Schlieffen Plan to work. But Von Moltke was not his uncle. At the mere suggestion of giving up troops, Von Falkynhahn threw a fit, so Von Moltke the Younger took them from Buelow on the right wing, Moreover, Von Falkynhahn couldn’t contemplate the possibility of letting the French advance into his territory: It would look like he was losing in the newspapers. So instead of defending as per the Schlieffen Plan, he attacked… and kept attacking… and kept winning… and winning some more. Von Falkynhahn insisted that Von Moltke reinforce success, not Von Buelow who couldn’t even reach the sea without over extending himself (thanks to Hindenburg). More importantly though, Falkenhahn’s success pushed the French back – towards Paris.

Despite Schlieffen’s dying words, the German right wing was so weak that in the beginning of September, 1914, instead of attacking Paris from behind (north), Von Buelow and Von Kluck could only attack it from the front (east). Von Moltke still thought this would be good enough to seize Paris, except that Falkynhahn was too successful. Von Falkynhahn had basically bulled his way through the horrible terrain of the Ardennes forest, and was now spent. The French facing him were then in a perfect position to be sent to face Von Kluck and Von Bulow, a short cab ride away.

On 5 September 1914, the French commandeered 600 Parisian taxi cabs in a desperate attempt to move troops to the front along the Marne River in order to save Paris from the Germans. In actuality, only about 6000 French soldiers were ferried to the front in cabs, but afterwards hundreds of thousands would claim it. For the next week, more than one million British and French fought 1.5 million Germans to a standstill in the First Battle of the Marne. By 12 September, the German advance was stopped and Paris was saved. Over the next month, the front was solidified, and millions of soldiers dug their trenches. The war of maneuver was over , and the war of attrition began. The front line, which extended from the North Sea to Switzerland, wouldn’t change significantly for another four years.

The Battle of Heligoland Bight

The British Navy was bored. The British Army just won a “great” victory on the continent against the advancing Germans at Mons. (But they were forced to retreat when the French on their flank fell back, 250 miles.) The stalwart British Army was the talk of the court and newspapers, while the Navy… patrolled the North Sea.

On 25 August, 1914, two British commodores were sitting around over a glass of whiskey just thinking shit up, because that’s what field grade officers do when they’re bored. They devised a plan to ambush one of Germany’s destroyer flotillas. They would send three submarines to surface off of Heligoland Blght, deep in German territorial waters. German destroyers would have to respond. Waiting for them would be the commodores’ own destroyers and a few cruisers. It would be a cracking good time.

Three days later on the 28th, the submarines surfaced, were spotted, the Germans responded, and the British flotillas ambushed them. It went exactly as planned, except that the late summer North Sea fog reduced visibility to two miles. The clean and orderly “Crossing of the T” envisioned by the commodores turned into a melee in the fog, consisting of a dozen separate duels. The Germans immediately sortied a light cruiser force. The British risked losing the battle altogether.

Fortunately, there were other bored British naval officers. At a dinner party on the 26th, Adm Beatty heard of the plan from First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who just approved it. Beatty wanted in on some of the action too. He wired forward to Scapa Flow to get his ships ready, and then raced back to the port. But he didn’t tell anyone.

Just as the chaotic battle was beginning turn against the British, a beautiful sight emerged from the mist: Admiral Beatty’s six heavy cruisers and six big battlecruisers. Commodore Tyrwitt would remark “they looked like a line of elephants amidst a pack of wild dogs”. And the Germans, to continue the animal metaphors, “scattered like cockroaches”. In minutes the battle was over. The Germans had three cruisers and a destroyer sunk, and seven more ships heavily damaged, almost all by Beatty. And the British had one cruiser and two destroyers slightly damaged.

In an age of dozens upon dozens of giant dreadnaught battleships on each side, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, a very minor action by small ships, had outsized influence over the war. As the British celebrated, Kaiser Wilhelm was convinced by the battle that the British could not be defeated at sea, and ordered that the German High Seas Fleet be kept in port except by his express permission. The war at sea from then on would be fought by German U-Boats and not by German battleships.

The First ANZAC Day

ANZAC Day 1916

On 25 April 1916, the first anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, the British Commonwealth commemorated the Australian and New Zealand troops that fought and died on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey during the First World War. The original commemoration set the format that we still follow today: the day’s activities started off with a dawn parade (to signify the traditional time of the landing) and sunrise mass, followed by a boozie coffee breakfast, a mid morning non-denominational service with a two minute moment of silence, with sports, a bit of gambling, and a march in the afternoon.

The Naval Order of 24 October 1918 and the Kiel Mutiny

By late October 1918, the Allied victories during Hundred Days Offensive tore huge gaps in the Hindenburg Line on the Western Front and the German Army conducted a fighting retreat to shorten their lines and hopefully reestablish a defense. The Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved and with it Germany’s food and oil supply. Morale plummeted among both the military at the front and the civilians at home. Erich von Ludendorff knew he needed to “restore the valor” of the military in order to stop the Allied offensive and gain an acceptable negotiated peace. To convince the retreating German Army that this was truly the “Endkampf” or “Final Battle”, a valiant sacrifice was needed, one worthy of emulation. The German High Seas Fleet would provide that sacrifice.

Without approval by the government (because it would certainly be denied) and despite vehement objections by the Chief of the German Admiralty, Adm Reinhard Scheer, Ludendorff issued the Naval Order of 24 October 1918 to the commander of the High Seas Fleet Adm Franz von Hipper. Hipper was warned of the order two days before and began concentrating the fleet at Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven. The concentration itself was break from the norm which didn’t bode well for the sailors.

The High Seas Fleet last saw serious action at the Battle of Jutland two years before and had sortied only three times since then, conspicuously returning to port without engaging any Allied ships each time. After the Battle of Jutland, the High Seas Fleet was no match for the British Grand Fleet, especially after the addition of four American battleships, so it sought to avoid contact with their British adversary. However, that did nothing for the morale of the average German sailor who toiled under bad conditions and ruthless discipline while conditions at home and news from the front grew steadily worse.

Rumors swirled below decks as to the reason for the concentration. On 29 October 1918, the crews’ worst nightmares were confirmed: The German High Seas Fleet was to sortie and engage the British in a decisive battle that could only end with their glorious destruction. That night, several crews of the capital ships at Schillig Roads refused orders to weigh anchor and some began sabotaging equipment and machinery. Sailors on shore leave refused to return to their ships and had to be forcibly returned. Mass insubordination occurred on at least seven ships. It took three days, and loyal sailors from torpedo boats, U-boats and minesweepers, before control was restored. Nevertheless, Admiral Hipper ordered the operation cancelled. Ludendorff was cashiered by the Kaiser when he learned of the Wilhelmshaven mutiny. The most mutinous squadron, the Third Naval Squadron, was ordered to return to Kiel in order to isolate them from the rest of the High Seas Fleet.

Kiel was not an optimal choice for the mutineers’ ships to harbor. Kiel had a long history of socialist and workers’ agitation stemming from the Russian Revolution of the previous year. The addition of the crews of the mutinous ships to the city proved to be the spark needed for open rebellion. Mass demonstrations and riots were organized and soldiers, sailors, and workers’ councils took over the ships and the city. Imprisoned mutineers were freed, but the demands for “Peace and Bread” were not forthcoming. German troops resorted to firing into the protesters which only enflamed the crowds and caused many soldiers to desert and join the mutineers. By 3 November, red flags replaced the Imperial German ensign on the fleet’s masts. On the 4th Kiel was controlled by more than 40,000 workers, sailors, and soldiers and the mutiny had spread back to Wilhelmshaven. That evening, their leaders met at the Kiel Union House and formed a ruling council. The council issued demands for a “social, liberal, and democratic” political system.

The successful Kiel Mutiny inspired countless other mutinies, revolts, and defections on the Western Front and in the town and cities behind the frontlines, and quickly spread as far south Munich by the 7th. On the 9th, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. Almost immediately, a democratic republic was announced, and 30 minutes later its first vote turned the nascent democratic republic into a socialist republic, which tore the country apart. The German Revolution continued until the Weimar Republic was established in August of 1919. Peace talks with the Allies commenced on the 10th, the day after the Kaiser abdicated, and an armistice ending the fighting began at 11 am on 11 November 1918.

The Kiel Mutiny and the uprisings it inspired gave rise to the “Stab in the back” legend that the German Army was not defeated on the battlefield in the First World War but by civilian agitators at home. German Nationalists and National Socialists promulgated the patently false legend later in the 1920s, which combined with the denouncement of the onerous (to Germans) clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, caused significant political gain for them, leading directly to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War.

The Battle of St Mihiel

With the success of the British offensive at Amiens, Gen John “Blackjack” Pershing requested an American-led offensive against the salient at St Mihiel. The reduction of the salient would prevent the Germans from shelling the newly liberated Amiens rail line and significantly ease Allied logistical problems. Foch approved, but as the unexpected success of the Amiens offensive began to unfold, told Pershing to plan for a general offensive by the end of September, and scrap the St Mihiel. The general offensive from the Meuse-Argonne would make the St Mihiel salient untenable and an offensive unnecessary. Pershing disagreed, mostly because the St Mihiel salient spilt the American forces. As they stood, only the southern American troops would be under American army command for the general offensive; the northern troops would fall under French command. If the St Mihiel salient was reduced Pershing could feasibly construct an American army group of two American armies, commanded by himself, which would put him on par with Haig and Foch. He enlisted the help of France’s greatest American advocate, Marshal Petain to make it happen. Petain and Pershing argued that if the troops in the St Mihiel salient were captured, they would be unavailable to defend against the general offensive two weeks later. Furthermore they assured Foch that the St Mihiel offensive would not affect or delay the general offensive from the Meuse-Argonne two weeks later. Foch relented, and approved the first American led army level offensive of the Great War.
 
On 10 September 1918, two American corps attacked the flanks of the salient while a French corps under American command attacked the apex. Pershing was not going to let this attack fail and secured an overwhelming amount of support in terms of tanks, artillery and planes. Despite the fact that the St Mihiel salient was not overrun since the Germans captured it in 1915 and the Germans built it into a fortress, the Americans made good progress. The Germans put up stubborn resistance but more out of habit than anything else. They had been ordered to withdraw to shorten the line on the 8th of September, but took their time. On 12 September, America’s premier division, the 1st US Infantry Division, drove from the south and linked up with the 26th “Yankee” US Infantry Division (of Sgt Stubby fame), which closed the pocket.
 
At a cost of 7,000 casualties, Pershing inflicted 17,000, mostly captured, and secured his flanks for the upcoming general offensive. The Allied logistics were eased considerably by the shortening of the line and the push east. Most importantly, Pershing, his commanders, and his staff gained invaluable experience for the larger and more complex general offensive that was to occur at the end of the month.

The Battle of Amiens: “A Black Day in the History of the German Army”

In 1815, Emperor Napoleon I returned from exile on the island of Elba and retook power in France. For the next 111 days the fate of Europe hung in the balance, until he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. “The Hundred Days” determined the future of Europe for the next century.
 
103 years later, the fate of Europe again hung in the balance. By August 1918, the “Kaiserschlacht” or the German Spring Offensive was contained and the British Expeditionary Force was no longer threatened with isolation. The threat to Paris ended with the French and American defense at the Battle of Chateau Thierry, and then the German salient was rolled back with the Franco/American victory at the Battle of Soissons. But the German Army was still full of fight and heavily reinforced with victorious troops from the Eastern Front. The Germans prepared for local Allied counterattacks, but expected to handily throw them back. They would then wait out the rest of the year while U-boats starved Britain into submission. In the spring of 1919, Germany’s conquered territories in the East would allay the shortages on the German home front and provide the necessary supplies to defeat the exhausted French and inexperienced Americans.
 
Unexpectedly, on 8 August 1918, the British Third and Fourth Armies assaulted the German lines at Amiens. The Germans in the Amiens’ sector saw none of the indicators that the Allies planned to attack there: No noticeable build up, no lengthy artillery preparation, nothing. Meticulous British staff work got the entire Canadian Corps, nearly 40,000 men, trained, rehearsed and in their assault positions with Germans completely ignorant of their whereabouts. Tactical and operational surprise was complete. The British had learned the lessons of the past year, and put them all in effect for offensive at Amiens. Radio deception, sound ranging, photo graphic reconnaissance, pin point artillery targeting, rolling barrages, platoon and company rehearsals, engineers and labor battalions for road repair, and the inclusion of more than a thousand tanks in the assault all contributed to what Gen Ludendorff called, “A black day in the history of the German Army.”
 
The Canadians, Australians, and British troops split the front wide open. German casualties were high, and most notable was the number of surrendered Germans. The German Army was tired and the morale of the divisions that had been on the Western Front for the last three years was extremely low. They surrendered en masse. Only the German divisions recently transferred from the East could be relied upon. The offensive stalled when attacking troops outran, not their supplies as was usual for the last three years, but their artillery support. Nonetheless, the British offensive at Amiens was a success beyond the wildest expectations of Sir Douglas Haig and Ferdinand Foch, the British and French commanders. The Battle of Amiens was the opening move of the Allied general offensive on the Western Front. Ferdinand Foch expected the general offensive to end the war by the spring of 1919. He was wrong.
 
The Allied offensive in the autumn of 1918, like Napoleon’s attack into Belgium in 1815, is known to history as “Hundred Days Campaign” and like its predecessor a century before, changed the face of Europe for the next one hundred years.

The Battle of Belleau Wood

During the May conference of Allied leaders, Gen. Pershing made his feelings on the integration of the American troops into British and French formations exceptionally clear when he told Gen Foch, the Supreme commander of the Allied armies, that he was willing risk the Allies “being driven back to the Loire” instead of any amalgamation. Pershing was sympathetic to the threat of the German Spring offensive, but he and his staff felt that the Allied sense of imminent doom was overblown. Pershing had already sent three regiments of the 93rd US (African-American) Infantry Division to the French (since his Southern troops wouldn’t train with them) where they acquitted themselves well. In May of 1918, the Americans had only five divisions sufficiently trained and properly equipped to fight in the trenches: the 1st which was committed to conduct the first American offensive of the war at Cantigny, the 2nd and 3rd whom were regular formations, with the 2nd “Indianhead” Division a composite of regular US Army and Marine Corps brigades, the 26th “Yankee” Division of New England National Guard units which was still recovering after being mauled by the Germans at Seicheprey in April, and finally the 42nd “Rainbow” Division known so for consisting of National Guard units from across the country.
 
Just as the 1st Division was consolidating its position at Cantigny on the night of 29/30 May, the Germans launched Operation Blücher-Yorck, known to history as the Third Battle of Aisne. The German assault was the next phase of their Spring Offensive and was intended to prevent any Allied reserves from affecting their main effort to isolate the British further north. In two days the Germans drove the French over the Aisne and Vesle Rivers, and were driving hard for the Marne, which was as close to Paris as they were in 1914, four years earlier. In spite of his previous reluctance, Pershing offered the two divisions training closest to the Marne, the 2nd and 3rd, to the French. Pershing wanted them to operate as an American corps, but he had neither the time to train a corps’ staff nor a general to command it (The 1st ID’s commander, MG Robert Bullard, was the only real choice at the time and he was needed at Cantigny). So the 2nd and 3rd U.S. Infantry Divisions went into the line under French command, along the Paris-Metz highway about forty miles northeast of the French capital.
 
Like their cavalry predecessors on the old American Frontier, they arrived just in the nick of time.
 
On 31 May, a machine gun battalion from 3rd Infantry Division transported by trucks arrived at Chateau-Thierry just in time to prevent the Germans from seizing the main bridge over the Marne River there. This stand forced the German momentum west where the 2nd Infantry Division replaced the defeated French units. The 2nd was a composite unit that consisted of one US Army brigade of the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments, and a US Marine brigade of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments. On 2 June, the Germans broke through on the Marine’s left and the division reserve of the 23rd and one battalion of Marines quickly marched the intervening ten km and went directly into a counterattack. The tenuous line was restored by dawn. The Americans moved into a 20 km line , the first ten of which from Chateau-Thierry to Vaux, was held by the 3rd, with the 2nd to their west. The Marine Brigade’s sector included a small forest, Belleau Wood.
 
The next day the Germans attacked through Belleau Wood to cut the Metz-Paris highway and seize the Marne River crossings further south and west. The French in Belleau Wood collapsed. Just beyond the woods were some grain fields where the Marine Brigade, under artillery fire, dug-in using their bayonets and hands (This is the original reason American infantrymen are issued entrenching tools). The French ordered the Marines to dig in further to the rear, but the commander of the Marine Brigade, Army BG James Harbord countermanded the order and told the Marines to “hold where they stand”. Nonetheless, the retreating French urged the Marines to fall back. One defiant Marine company commander, Cpt Lloyd W. Williams, retorted “Retreat? Hell, we just got here”. From their shallow foxholes, the soldiers and Marines fought off continuous German attacks for the next two days, particularly through the grain fields in front of the Marines.
The German-held Belleau Wood stuck into the Allied lines and provided an excellent staging area for attacks to the south and west, and moreover was one free from Allied observation. A deliberately prepared German attack from the Wood would inevitably be successful, and thus it needed to be retaken. The French 167th Division was tasked to cut the roads leading into the woods from the north, while the 2nd US Division, specifically the Marine Brigade, cleared Belleau Wood.
 
On the morning of 6 June 1918, the Marine assault on Belleau Wood began with American and French artillery shattering the formerly picturesque hunting preserve while a Marine battalion assaulted Hill 142 to prevent enfilading fire into the French assault that began simultaneously to the north. Unfortunately, only two companies were prepared to assault on time and they paid dearly for the third’s tardiness. Furthermore, Belleau Wood was an obvious target for an Allied counterattack. And the poor American reconnaissance, which consisted solely of the 6th Marine Regiment’s intelligence officer sneaking into the German lines, a courageous act of limited usefulness borne of desperation to know something, anything, of German strength in the Wood, failed to identify a newly arrived and well dug-in veteran infantry regiment.
 
The two Marine companies assaulted directly into the teeth of the German defenses. Only the Marines’ tenacity prevented the attack from failing just after it began. The stunned Germans inflicted setbacks and casualties on the Americans that would have sent equivalent French or British assaults back to their trenches in abject defeat. In one’s and two’s junior officers and NCOs rallied the broken elements of the two companies and continued the assault or held fast against the relentless German counterattacks, until the rest of the battalion arrived. Nevertheless, Hill 142 changed hands several times that day, and was only secured late that afternoon after nearly 14 hours of continuous fighting, much of it hand to hand.
The rest of the Marine Brigade began the main assault on Belleau Wood at 1700. Unfortunately the grain fields were as deadly to American as they were to the Germans previously. Advancing in well-ordered lines, the Marines were initially massacred. But again they persisted into devastation that hitherto would have sent Allied soldiers scurrying back in retreat. Of note was Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, already a twice honored Medal of Honor recipient for actions during the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Haitian Insurgency, yelled “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” to the pinned down men of his machine gun company. Any American penetration, no matter how small, was subject to an immediate German counterattack. Hand to hand fighting raged all along the edge of Belleau Wood into the night. When the sun rose the next day, the Marine’s had a toehold but at a horrible cost, over 1000 casualties – the most the Marines had sustained in a single day in their history up to that point.
 
The Germans weren’t going to give up Belleau Wood without a fight. It was essential to successful continuous advances toward Paris. Throughout June 1918, parts of five different German divisions fought the Marines of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments in a desperate bid to recapture Belleau Wood or at least prevent the capture of it in its entirety from the slow and costly, but unrelenting, Marine advance. Throughout the next three weeks the Marines assaulted the German defenses in Belleau Wood five more times and the Germans counterattacked just as many, with one actually colliding with a simultaneous Marine assault. The Germans flooded the area with mustard gas on several occasions. One German private wrote home to his mother, “We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.”
 
The terribly reckless fellows of the 4th (Marine) Brigade of the 2nd U.S Infantry Division finally cleared Belleau Wood on 26 June 1918, despite everything an entire German corps could throw at them. That afternoon, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, whose men finally emerged from the east end of Belleau Wood, sent a succinct message to the brigade commander,
 
“Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely”
 
The Germans would be back, but not anytime soon. Later, the French officially renamed Belleau Wood to “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” or “Wood of the Marine Brigade”. The Germans reportedly referred to the Marines at Belleau Wood as “Teufelhunde” or “Devil Dogs”. Though this is still unconfirmed by any official historical documentation, it didn’t stop the United States Marine Corps from adopting the moniker wholesale and unconditionally. After the battle, Pershing stated “the Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy.” He also said of the battle,

“The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.”

The Battle of Cantigny

When the Germans started the Kaiserschlacht, the 1918 Spring Offensive with the troops released by victory against the Russians on the eastern front, Gen Pershing was under immense pressure by the British and French to get American troops into the trenches in number. The British wanted the Americans as replacements for Allied casualties. The Commonwealth commanders wanted smaller American formations i.e. battalions and brigades, to augment British and French divisions, just as they were doing. The French just wanted the Americans to enter the lines in any form whatsoever despite any deficiencies in training, though they supported Pershing’s views. As commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Pershing was under explicit instructions from President Wilson that Americans would fight under their own flag and in their own formations, and not as part of another national army. To this end, Pershing told the French that the Americans wouldn’t be ready to assume a portion of the front until late 1918, or more probably 1919.

In mid-April 1918, only five American divisions were trained to the point where they would be effective in the trenches, despite hundreds of thousands of Americans arriving in France each month. Under pressure from the French, Pershing relented and the American troops were placed at the seam between the British and French armies just south of Amiens and just north of Paris. Previously in the war, whenever the inexperienced American troops took over part of the line, they were specifically targeted by the Germans, with predictable results. With rare exceptions, the Germans had their way with the novice doughboys, and the British and Canadians had no respect for the soldierly prowess of American troops. According to many a British officer, American soldiers may have been good at subjugating Indian tribes, but they were a detriment to the continuity and contiguousness of the front on a modern battlefield.

The French recommended a small American counterattack to exhibit the battle prowess and state of American training. The attack would take some pressure off the British, who were suffering from the bulk of the Spring Offensive, and announce to the world that the Americans were finally capable of offensive operations. Of the five available divisions, Pershing chose his favorite, the 1st, to make the assault. The selected objective was a small German salient around the town of Cantigny, which sat on high ground that offered the Germans excellent observation of the surrounding area.

The commander of the 1st US Infantry Division, Maj Gen Robert Bullard, chose the 28th Infantry Regiment supported by two companies of the 18th, with machine guns, artillery and engineers from the division troops to conduct the attack. Lieutenant Colonel George Marshall (you might have heard of him) wrote the 34 page operations order detailing the movement, rolling barrage schedule, and the general scheme of maneuver. The Americans rehearsed the attack for three weeks prior. The Germans spotted the two American companies that arrived in the trenches a day early. They pounded them with artillery. Nevertheless, the 28th went “over the top” at dawn on 28 May 1918.

The French were wedded to a successful American assault. They didn’t want to squander the immense advantage that America gave the Allies in men and material if the British were knocked out of the war, which was the aim of the Spring Offensive, and would result in the Americans taking over their portion of the front. A successful American attack would put them in the line that much faster, and most importantly, where the French wanted. So the French supported Bullard’s assault on Cantigny with prodigious amounts of artillery and transport. With the copious amounts of French support, the 28th secured their assigned trenches and dugouts, and cleared the cellars of Cantigny of Germans. That night there was a great celebration in Pershing’s headquarters.

The German artillery wasn’t to disrupt the American attack, it was to presage Operation Blücher–Yorck, the third phase of the Kaiserschlacht. The German operation aimed straight at Paris in order to pull Allied troops away from assisting the British farther north. All along the front, French units demanded support. The French artillery and the dedicated resources to the 1st US Infantry Division disappeared on the night of 28/29 May. Overnight, Cantigny became solely an American operation.

The German counterattack started shortly thereafter, and the 28th screamed for more support. Several requests to pull back to the original 27 May start lines were sent. All were refused: American national pride and the fate of the American Expeditionary Force was on the line with this single battle. The 28th had to hold, and Pershing needed to assure that that happened with just American resources. The Americans had relied on French support since they landed in the country 11 months before. No more – the Americans were on their own.

For two days and nights the novice 1st US Infantry Division slugged it out at Cantigny with waves of German attackers. The final German assault came at dusk on 30 May. The next morning, Cantigny was still in American hands, albeit tenuously. Nonetheless, the amateur Americans proved they had what it took to fight, and prevail, on the Western Front. There would be no more talk of amalgamating the American troops into the French or British armies. They had received their baptism of fire. The 1st US Infantry Division, soon to be known as “The Big Red One” from their distinctive shoulder patch, proved they could stand their ground in the face of the best the veteran Germans could throw at them. The Americans had finally entered the First World War in earnest.

With a few limited exceptions, the Allied offensives on the Western Front were all failures. The naïve, but enthusiastic, American army inoculated with the bloody and hard won experience of the Allied failed efforts, would soon go on the offensive… and surprise the hell out of the Germans.

The Harlem Hellfighters and Black Death

In late April 1918, the German troops opposite the French in the Argonne Forest began a series of trench raids and reconnaissance patrols in preparation for the third phase of the Spring Offensive – Operation Blücher–Yorck, whose objective was Paris. The Germans were surprised to find not French troops but African American soldiers of the 369th US Infantry.

Formerly known as the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, the 369th was re-designated when they got to France in the First World War. The 369th was recruited primarily from Harlem, where 50,000 of New York’s 60,000 African Americans lived. When they landed in France on New Year’s Day 1918, the regiment was assigned supply, labor and support jobs because many of the American regiments from the South refused to train with them. When the Germans launched their Spring Offensive in March, the French were in need of men to fill their trenches. However, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, was under orders from President Wilson that American troops were to fight together, and not used as replacements for British and French casualties. Pershing recognized that because of the discrimination, it would be difficult to assign the 369th to an American division. By assigning the 369th to the French, under the strict provision that they fight as a regiment, Pershing was assisting his distressed French allies and getting the 369th into the fight, while still adhering to the letter of Wilson’s orders, if not the spirit.

In early April 1918, the 369th was assigned to the 16th French Infantry Division. Because American equipment would be difficult to get in the French army, the 369th turned in all of their American equipment, except their uniforms, and drew French equipment, including weapons. They were then assigned to partner, man for man, with a French regiment for three weeks of grueling training behind the front. In the mid-April 1918, the 369th took their place in the trenches opposite the Germans.

On the night of 15 May, a 24 man German patrol crept through No Man’s Land opposite the 369th. In a small listening post to the front of the American trenches, Pvts Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts heard the distinct clip of wire cutters. Johnson told Roberts to run back to the trenches to warn the rest. Just as he departed the first German grenades landed. Johnson was wounded by shrapnel in the hip and back, but Needham was nearly killed. Johnson threw his own grenades. Then as the Germans charged, he shot three with his French rifle, the last with muzzle directly in the chest of the German. Johnson then noticed two Germans trying to carry off Needham. With no time to reload (the French Labille Rifle only had a three-round magazine), Johnson pulled his US Army issue bolo knife, essentially a Filipino machete, disemboweled one German, and then sunk the heavy blade into the skull of the other. By this point the rest of the German patrol arrived, so Johnson attacked them too. His aggressiveness and ferocity surprised them. In the ensuing melee, Johnson suffered 21 separate wounds, but drove the Germans off and saved Needham.

The German patrol stated later that they had been assaulted by “Black Death”, and the name showed up in propaganda specifically directed at Johnson. The name stuck.

The French awarded both Johnson and Needham the Croix de Guerre, the first American soldiers to receive the honor in the First World War. Over the 191 consecutive days of combat the 369th fought in, their French partner referred to the unit as the “Harlem Hellfighters”. That name stuck too.

The Harlem Hellfighters hold the honor of having served the most time in combat of any American unit in the First World War. President Obama awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor to Henry Johnson on 2 June 2015. The medal was received by the New York National Guard, as there was no next of kin.