The USA in WW1

The USA in The First World War


By 1918 the armed forces of the European participants in WW1 were essentially exhausted. The stalemate of attritional trench warfare begun on the Western front at the end of 1914 had continued to wear down the armies of both the Central Powers and the allies of the Entente that faced them. However, a number of developments in 1917 dramatically changed the face of the war.

On April 6 1917, in response to the German policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare, America declared war on Germany. The German high command knew that this meant the inevitable defeat of German ambitions in the West once American forces reached France in large numbers.

When war was declared the American army was small with only 53,000 men of the 98,000 strong Regular Army stationed in the USA and 27,000 National Guardsmen. It lacked any recent operational experience although it’s experience in mobilising to hunt the mexican revolutionary bandit Pancho Villa in 1912 enabled it to grow quickly.

Pershing and his staff arrived in France in June 1917 with just over 14,000 men. By March 1918 that number had risen to 318,000 and by the following October it was 1,867,623, over 300,000 men more than the BEF.

The need to expand the army and the slow build up of American troops in France led the American Commander, General Pershing, to believe he would not be fully effective until 1919 at the earliest. Pershing, fully supported by President Woodrow Wilson, insisted that American forces would remain under American Command and not be committed until fully trained as an American army with its own section of front, although American Divisions were attached to both British and French formations for training purposes.

Lacking support weapons of their own the AEF had to borrow British and French tanks and French machine guns and artillery in order to operate effectively.

French Renault light tanks in use by the AEF.

On the Eastern Front the armies of Russia had virtually collapsed following the Russian revolution. The fall of the Kerensky revolutionary Government followed by the signing of the peace treaty between the Central Powers and the new Bolshevik Soviet government saw the withdrawal of Russia from the conflict and the release of some 60 Central Powers divisions for deployment elsewhere.

As a result in the Spring of 1918 the Central Powers were able to unleash a series of offensives on the Western Front designed to win the war before American forces reached France in numbers large enough to influence to outcome desired by Germany. At the very least the Germans wanted to gain enough territory to bargain for a better peace.

Sometimes called the Kaiserschlacht this series of linked attacks consisted firstly of an attack on the Somme on 21st March, the second in the North (The Lys offensive) on the 9th of April and the third on the Aisne between 27 May and the 4 June. Fought using new small unit tactics devised by General Hutier and with co-ordinated air and artillery support these attacks gained considerable initial success and swept the Germans towards Paris, taking Albert, Montdidier, Soissons and Chateau Thierry..

The allied response was to form a single command under the French. At the same time, recognising the urgency of the situation, Pershing immediately put his troops at the disposal of the new Allied Command. The first US Division of the American Expeditionary Force to reach combat readiness was, appropriately enough, the 1st Inf. Div which it’s commander, Major General Robert L Bullard, formally reported to Marchal Foch as ready for combat on April 12th 1918.

On April 20th the 1st Div entered the line and assumed command of the area between French IX Corps (45 Div) and French VI Corps (162 Div). Opposite the small village of Cantigny’. (See below for an account of this action).

Subsequently the American forces were instrumental in blocking the German thrust towards Paris through Chateau Thierry, before taking on a 40 mile front and first fighting through the St Miheal salient before taking over a section of the Meuse Argonne front until the end of the war.

At Ypres two American Divisions ( 27th and 30th ), attached to the BEF for training, became operational and fought side by side with British forces as part of the British 4th Army in the operations towards Lille. A memorial to them stands on the Ypres to Kemmel road.

On the Somme sector elements of the 33rd Division (131st Regiment, Illinois National Guard), attached to the British 47th Division for training, took part in the Australian action at Hamel, and the Battle of Amiens, fighting on the North bank of the Somme, in the Chipilly Ridge area, during which Cpl Jake Allex won the Congressional Medal of Honour.

The AEF sustained about 320,000 casualties; 53,402 battle deaths, 63,114 non combat deaths (1) and 204,000 wounded, a reflection of the lack of experience common in all the armies of the First World War as early combat experience bacame a “hard knocks” way of making up for the unavoidable lack of training in the hastily raised citizen armies.

American Army field hospital inside ruins of church. France. 1918. Library of Congress

The Meuse Argonne cemetary at Romagne in 1919 Photo American Battle Monuments Commission

The calm and dignity of the cemetery today. Photo American Battle Monuments Commission

[1] These statistics are drawn from a recent wortk published by the Congressional Research Service ( American War and Military Operations

Casualties: Lists and Statistics, 2010). The figures given for “combat” and “non combat” deaths are suspect since around a third of casualties in the allied armies in WW1 are normally deaths. Either the AEF was composed of incredibly clumsy soldiers with high survival rates in combat, or these figures are just not correct. It is possible that a distinction is being made between those dead in combat and those dying later as a result of combat, but this is not clear from the text. I would find the total of all deaths about right, and have drawn the attention of the Congressional Research Service to this as a possible error.

CANTIGNY 28 MAY 1918 The 28th Inf Regt go over the top, 0645 hrs 28th May 1918


On April 20th the 1st Div entered the line and assumed command of the area between French IX Corps (45 Div) and French VI Corps (162 Div). Opposite the small village of Cantigny, near Montdidier. The three Bns of the 18th Inf Regt took up positions on the left and three Bns of the 16th Inf Regt took position on the right. Their shared front was approximately 1½ miles.

The Americans were trained but raw. Writing on May 8th Gen Bullard’s Chief Of Staff says:

“For the same number of troops engaged on our Corps front American losses are from two to four times as great as those of the French. There is but one conclusion, it is that our men, either from ignorance or carelessness, are not taking cover.”

As soon as they had gone into the line the Division’s staff proposed an attack. A successful American attack was vital to both American and Franco British morale. The Americans had been in France for almost a year without taking a significant part in the war. They were regarded by the Germans as afraid to fight and had, indeed, done less than well when a Bn taking part in battle acclimatisation had been attacked by the Germans in the St Mihiel sector the previous January.

The attack proposed by the Americans on May 10th was rightly regarded as far too ambitious by the French, intending as it did, to commit all 4 of the 1st Div’s Inf Regts. Objectives included the retaking Montdidier. French experience led them to believe the proposed objectives unobtainable and they had real concerns that failure would leave too few 1st Div troops to resist inevitable German counter attack.

The attack

On May 12th General Vandenberg, the Commander of the French X Corps responsible for the American deployment , proposed a modified plan to attack to Bullard. He suggested a smaller attack using less troops with the objective of taking Cantigny. In a loose minute to Gen Bullard he leaves the door open to cover a failure and retreat by referring to the proposed attack as “analogous to a powerful raid”. He went on to say he proposes support enough to enable:

“a complete and easy success and in particular to confirm the confidence of the staff of 1st Inf Div, which it has already shown in it’s daily work with the French staff”.

The French offered that support in the form of 4 Bns of heavy Arty (A Bn is equivalent to our modern British Arty Regt). including 280mm, 220mm 155mm and 240mm guns. About 250 guns of all calibres are eventually detailed in support of the attack. These guns will provide a bombardment from H-1, much of it mustard gas on the German rear areas.

Additionally the French provided a Bn of trench artillery, 12 Schneider medium tanks of the French 5th Tank Group, A platoon of Schilt flame throwers and 12 French machine guns firing from the left flank of the attack for 24 hours.

Men of “B” Bn 28th Inf Regt advance on Cantigny with French Schneider tank support.

At 06:45 the three Bns of the 28th Infantry Regt. crossed the start line. In addition to his weapon each man carried a shelter half (Like a British army ground-sheet) 220 rounds of SAA, two hand grenades, one rifle grenade, one Bengal flare, four sand bags, two days rations, two water bottles (At least 4 pints), a marking panel, a pick or shovel and a clip of Chauchat ammunition. (The Chaucat was an Inferior French LMG) The first line advanced 50m behind a “walking” artillery barrage and advanced at 50m a minute. The French artillery barrage worked perfectly and the German defenders were forced into their dugouts. The advance was further supported by 64 machine guns commanded by Lt Col Frank Bowen firing from Bn HQ. These later went on to provide excellent on call SOS fire.

“C” Bn in the North bypassed Cantigny and consolidated to block inteference from the North.

“B” Bn,, supported by the twelve Schneider tanks of Captain Noscereau’s Fifth Group, and the three Schilt flame-thrower teams cleared Cantigny village itself. Those Germans in dugouts not killed by grenades were incinerated or suffocated by the flame teams. The tanks moved to the North edge of the village to cover against counter attack while the Americans dug in.
Two companies of “A” Bn advanced to the South of the village. The remaining company giving fire support for the attack from the right flank. At 0655 the Div HQ reported: “Cantigny reached on right, line going forward on left”. At 0704 “2nd and 3rd lines advancing in Pl columns. Right flank seems to be bringing back 100 prisoners”

It later becomes clear that the Germans only realised that an attack was under way when the tanks and men of B Bn arrived in Cantigny itself.

French flame thrower team watched by AEF soldiers, clear cellers in the ruins of Cantigny

The doughboys of the 1st Division cleared the objective and reached the agreed line of exploitation on time. The attack took just ten minutes to reach it’s objective. Up to this point there had been few casualties (between 60/80 up to H+1 ½ according to the American official history) and no real enemy activity. The French tanks reached the line of exploitation and supported the attackers as they dug in

By the time the tanks left the men of the 28th Regt were well enough prepared to face and defeat the first and most determined counter attack by about 1 Bn of German troops at 0915, just 2 ½ hours after they have left their trenches.This attack came from the direction of the Bois de Framicourt but wsas broken up by support MG fire with heavy German casualties. Capitain Noscerou’s tanks, having supported the consolidation phase left as arranged at approximatelt H+2.

The French Schneider medium tank, known to its crews as “the mobile crematorium”.

The 1st Div Intsum for May 27/28 claimed 180 prisoners including 3 officers, with own losses slight.The Americans counted between 275 and 300 dead within their lines after the action and believed that up to 775 were killed in the six or seven counter attacks over the 48 hours after the assault on Cantigny.

The final German counter attack was broken up at 0530 on May 30th. (The number of attempted counter attacks is not clear some may have been broken up while still at their FUPs[1] out of sight of the Americans) After this it is believed that the German 271st and 272nd Regiments which garrisoned Cantigny were unfit for further offensive operations.

The 28th Infantry Regt remained holding Cantigny until the night of the 31stst June when the sector was handed over to the 16th Inf Regt. During this time the 28th Regt had lost a total 1,603 casualties of which 199 were killed. It is interesting to contrast these casualty rates with the much higher casualty rates of British units on the Somme only 20 months earlier.[2] May/1

The AEF continued to hold Cantigny until handing over the sector to the French. In the 73 days that the 1st Division was in the line sustained a total of almost 5,200 casualties. Today a memorial to the AEF 1st Division (still The Big Red One) stands on the road outside Cantigny at the furthest point of their advance. In the centre of Cantigny is a monument erected by the US Government to commemorate the first large offensive action by an AEF Division in WW1.

[1] Forming Up Point – a relatively safe area behind a Start Line in which units assume attack formation.
[2] The British of course were attacking prepared positions with poor communications with artillery and shells which would not adequately breach wire.

The American Battle Monuments Commission memorial in Cantigny village.

Points of note:

The Tank support at Cantigny. There have been suggestions that the tank force provided by the French returned to their own lines too soon once the attack was complete and the attack force was consolidating, thus leaving the AEF in the lurch.
The American official history shows the tanks left exactly on schedule and as agreed. The Schneider tank was, by 1918, both mechanically reliable and a reasonable performer across country. Built on an unmodified Holt tractor chassis it was useful to support assaults but vulnerable to shell. Weighing around 13 tons the Schneider had a short barrelled 75mm gun with a limited arc of fire and two machine guns. It had a crew of 6 and was known, in a rare flash of French humour, as “The mobile crematorium”. The French organised these tanks in Bns of 72 fighting tanks and three radio tanks. As a stationary target on the Limit of Exploitation the Schneider would have been neither use nor ornament and given it’s vulnerability to shell fire the withdrawal of this support at this point was prudent.

The quality of the German opposing Formation. The original German formation holding Cantigny was the 30th Inf Div, a high calibre regular Infantry Formation. By the time of the AEF attack they had been replaced by the 82nd Reserve Inf Div. Both were part of Von Hutier’s 18th Army. Von Hutier was the auther of the so called “Von Hutier tactics” which were used so successfully in the KaiserSchlacht. This doctrine postulated breakthrough led by small groups of troops armed with assault weapons led by highly motivated NCOs supported by co-ordinated air and artillery support bypassing strong points and consistently moving forward. While this became the basis for the successful Wehrmacht infantry tactics in WW2 , and the basis for today’s British Infantry tactics, there is no evidence that the 82nd were trained in them. I can find no evidence, however, to back up the suggestion which has been made elsewhere that the 82nd were composed of sub standard reservists. Reservists they may have been but they were battle hardened and classified as Grade 2 on the French scale of German fighting efficiency which went from 1 (best) to 4 (worst).

In the days prior to the Cantigny attack “normal business” was regarded as quiet . On one day of this, 25th May, the AEF units opposite Cantigny fired 17000 rounds of SAA and withstood around 3000 shells of all kinds including Yperite (Mustard gas) and Sneezing Gas (Probably diphenylchlorarsine). Cantigny was certainly no publicity stunt pushover.

Use of flame throwers. First notably used in modern times by the Germans against the British at the Hooge crater on the Ypres salient in 1915 the flame thrower was in use by all combatant armies in 1915. The Platoon of flame throwers from the French army advanced into Cantigny with the second wave of B Bn to clean out any remaining bunkers. The original cumbersome and only slightly mobile French designs had been superseded by the excellent Schilt one man flame thrower designed by Capt. Schilt.(Allegedly a member of the Paris Fire Brigade). This was a highly effective weapon superior to any other of its type at the time. With a range of 10-15m and up to 30 firings per fill it would have been devastating against the cellars and dugouts in which the Germans were sheltering.. Those not incinerated by the flame would have been suffocated by the lack of oxygen brought about by the use of the weapon in a confined space.

German defenders mistakes. The Germans underestimated the Americans will to fight. On the 27th May Karl Feltpoch, a cpl from the 3rd Bn of the 83rd Reserve Div who had been taken prisoner during a trench raid declared to his interrogator that his raiding party was given no special practise because the raid was against the Americans and “would be easy”. When the preparatory bombardment started many Germans took to their bunkers assuming it was in retaliation for a trench raid against the French 45th Div some three days earlier. It did not seem to occur to them that the Americans might attack. It was the official German assessment that the power of resistance of the AEF was “slight”. The Commander of the German XXVI Reserve Corps to Von Hutier explaining the failure at Cantigny blamed failure of his artillery spotting aircraft radio and failure by young company commanders to properly organise counter attacks. This document is a classic example of shuffling ones feet while trying to explain you have underestimated your enemy.

Air Support. General Pershing, in his official account of the action, mentions French aviation support used in this attack as only one artillery spotting aircraft, used for target spotting and fire correction. Though not equipped with radio this aircraft provided timely information by dropping messages over the French artillery positions.

American lessons learned. The Americans left the attacking force in the front line for 48 hours. The internal communications between Company Commanders and Bn HQ’s and between Bn HQ’s and Regt HQ show a state of mind which frequently borders on panic. The Americans recognised from this action that attackers must be relieved by fresh troops quickly once an attack is complete.


The AEF action at Cantigny was undoubtedly undertaken for a political as well as a military purpose but it is a mistake to underestimate the achievement of the 28th Inf Regt and the 1st Div of the AEF. Cantigny was well supported and the Germans made an error of judgement but the AEF troops not only took Cantigny but held it against determined German resistance. The Germans were not poor quality troops and were battle hardened. At Cantigny they learned not underestimate the Americans who may not have been experienced but learned quickly and went on learning at Bellaeu Wood, Chateau Thierry and the Argonne. Anyone visiting Cantigny today who thinks that the AEF 1st Division monument was easily earned would be making a very big mistake indeed.

The 28th Infantry Regt remained holding Cantigny until the night of the 31st May/1st June when the sector was handed over to the 16th Inf Regt. During this time the 28th Regt had lost a total 1,603 casualties of which 199 were killed.

The 1st Division monument outside Cantigny today.

The AEF action at Cantigny was undoubtedly undertaken for a political as well as a military purpose but it is a mistake to underestimate the achievement of the 28th Inf Regt and the 1st Div of the AEF. Cantigny was well supported and the Germans made an error of judgement in assuming the AEF would not attack, but the AEF troops not only took Cantigny, they then held it against determined German counter attacks. The Germans were not poor quality troops, as is sometimes said, and were battle hardened. At Cantigny they learned not to underestimate the Americans, who may not have been experienced but learned quickly, and went on learning at Bellaeu Wood, Chateau Thierry and the Argonne. Anyone visiting Cantigny today who thinks that the AEF 1st Division monument was easily earned would be making a very big mistake indeed.

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