WWI Centennial: America’s Fighting Debut
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 309th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.
MAY 27-JUNE 6, 1918: AMERICA'S FIGHTING DEBUT
Following the failure of Germany’s first two offensives in March and April 1918, which conquered a large amount of territory but fell short of the hoped-for breakthrough, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff unleashed Blücher-Yorck on May 27, 1918—his third desperate bid to smash Allied forces using divisions freed up by the victory on the Eastern Front before American troops began arriving in France in large numbers. Once again, Ludendorff achieved almost total surprise with his choice of target, raising the terrifying possibility of an advance on Paris. But once again, this short-term success was undone by Ludendorff’s own opportunism, while the dreaded event had finally come to pass: the Americans were here (top, U.S. Marines resting near Belleau Wood).
Blücher-Yorck was originally planned as a diversionary attack, pitting the German First and Seventh Armies, later joined by the Eighteenth Army, against the French Sixth Army along the Aisne River near Soissons and Reims. The Germans hoped to force the French to move reserve forces back south of the Somme, setting the stage for a final crushing blow against the overstretched British armies in Flanders, now deprived of French support. However, after its stunning initial success, it was quickly upgraded to the main offensive, reflecting Ludendorff’s new ambition to exploit the two adjacent salients (the other held by the Second and Eighteenth Armies) as the launching point for a giant pincer offensive converging on Paris.
Like the first two German spring offensives, Blücher-Yorck began with a brief but incredibly ferocious bombardment, using the Pulkowski method, a new mathematical system which targeted enemy positions without having to “register” the guns first, preserving the element of surprise. That was followed by an infantry attack using cutting-edge infiltration tactics, spearheaded by stormtroopers armed with machine guns, grenades, mortars, and flamethrowers.
As luck would have it, the center of the line was held by five tired, understrength British divisions, ironically moved to the French Sixth Army for a rest after hard fighting in the first two German offensives. Ludendorff had another piece of good fortune courtesy of French Sixth Army commander general Denis Auguste Duchene, who kept most of his troops in frontline trenches, contrary to the new doctrine of “defense in depth,” which called for positioning most defenders further back in rear trenches, from which they could stage counterattacks after the initial enemy advance lost its momentum (below, French soldiers man a machine gun).
At 2:30 a.m. on May 27, over 5600 German artillery pieces opened up a mind-bending barrage according to the new tactics pioneered by gunnery officer Georg Bruchmüller, hitting different zones of the Allied lines along the Chemin des Dames ridge, scene of the disastrous French offensive in spring 1917. The carefully planned sequence was meant to neutralize enemy artillery, cut off communications and reinforcements, and destroy enemy strongholds. German artillery fired 2 million shells in the first four hours alone, for an average of about 139 shells per second, pulverizing British and French positions.
At 4:20 a.m., 23 German divisions went over the top, following a double creeping barrage of high explosives and gas shells, forcing any remaining defenders to take shelter until the attackers were upon them. The German advance was led by battalions of stormtroopers who penetrated deep into Allied defenses all along the front, severing communications, isolating enemy units, and forcing the defenders into a chaotic retreat, leaving gaps that the following waves of German infantry widened even further.
By the end of the first day the Germans had advanced up to 12 miles, another huge advance by the standards of static trench warfare, exceeding even the most optimistic expectations. This stunning progress immediately prompted Ludendorff to abandon his overall plan, calling for a second offensive against the British in Belgium and Picardy, and instead focus on the Aisne attack as the main thrust. But Ludendorff was falling into a now well-established pattern, committing precious reserves and artillery to a subsidiary attack without plausible plans for follow-through. Distracted by local success, he frittered away more of his dwindling manpower on an advance which, however impressive, failed to achieve strategic goals and instead simply added to the territory that the Germans had to defend (below, a British soldier takes aim). Lack of artillery also prevented the German from advancing on both flanks of the main attack.
As in the first two offensives, the German advance triggered mass refugee movements by terrified peasants, stirring memories of the long columns of fleeing families in the first years of the wars (below, refugees). Mildred Aldrich, an American author who was living in retirement in a small village near the Marne, confided in a letter home, “I sit trembling for fear of a panic again. I cannot blame these poor people. They are as loyal as possible, but our roads are being crowded with refugees flying from the front. It is a horrid sight.”
Their problems were compounded by widespread looting by supposedly friendly soldiers, according to Avery Royce Wolf, an American ambulance driver in the French Army, who noted:
“Allied troops invariably pillage the homes of the French civilians through which they pass while retreating. I suppose that this action is condoned by the theory that nothing of value should be left behind for the enemy and perhaps that is as it should be … But it certainly is difficult to comprehend the extent of the depredations committed by the Allied troops in the houses of their own compatriots … Hundreds of refugees returned to their firesides to find them lying in an incredible mess, full of needless filth, contents of bureaus and chests dumped recklessly on the floor, dishes, pictures, mirrors, and furniture ruthlessly smashed to bits, mattresses disemboweled, odds and ends of clothing and linen strewn on the floor, heedlessly tramped on by the feet of their own brave defenders.”
The following days brought no respite for the Allies, as the Sixth Army fell back in disarray, and the Germans advanced with surprising speed across a series of parallel river valleys including the Marne—the scene of the dramatic Allied victory at the beginning of the war. Now detailed German planning paid off, as dozens of temporary bridges (built and brought forward before the attack in total secrecy) were rushed into the battlefield, enabling the rapid German advance across multiple river obstacles (below, French soldiers pass resting British soldiers).
As decimated French and British divisions fell back, the new Allied supreme commander, French generalissimo Ferdinand Foch, rushed reinforcements to the Sixth Army as well as the neighboring French Tenth Army and Fifth Army, barely holding the line near Reims and Soissons (in fact the latter was briefly evacuated and occupied by German troops for less than a day). Now American troops made their first major contribution to the fight, as the American 2nd and 3rd Divisions hurried forward to help stem the German tide on the Marne River just 20 miles from Paris, aided by the Allied superiority in motor vehicles, in one of the first major uses of motorized infantry. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, accompanied some of the American reinforcements to the battlefront:
“At four o’clock on the morning of May 31st, the Marine brigade and regiments of United States infantry, the 9th and the 23rd Regulars, boarded camions, 20 to 30 men and their equipment in each vehicle. They were bound eastward to the valley of the Marne. The road took them through the string of pretty villages 15 miles to the north of Paris. The trucks loaded with United States troops soon became part of the endless traffic of war that was pouring northward and eastward toward the raging front. Our men soon became coated with the dust of the road. The French people in the villages through which they passed at top speed cheered them and threw flowers into the lorries.”
Gibbons also noted the continuous flow of wounded returning from the battlefield, as well as columns of smoke in the distance, the telltale signs of the German advance (below, wounded French and British soldiers):
“On the broad, paved highway from Paris to Meaux, my car passed miles and miles of loaded motor trucks bound frontward. Long lines of these carried thousands of Americans. Other long lines were loaded down with shell and cartridge boxes. On the right side of the road, bound for Paris and points back of the line, was an endless stream of ambulances and other motor trucks bringing back wounded. Dense clouds of dust hung like a pall over the length of the road. The day was hot, the dust was stifling … To the west and north another nameless cluster of farm dwellings was in flames. Huge clouds of smoke rolled up like a smudge against the background of blue sky.”
By June 6 the momentum had dissipated, thanks in part to the growing American presence at the front. U.S. Marines were assigned the task of blocking the road to Reims at Belleau Wood, a name that would soon enter the American military pantheon of heroic battles, with particular significance in the mythos of the Marines. The Battle of Belleau Wood, lasting from June 1-26, 1918, was America’s first major engagement in the First World War, as doughboys and “devil dogs” (a popular nickname for the U.S. Marines) stemmed the German tide along the Marne River after the fall of Château-Thierry (below, Belleau Wood after the fighting).
Belleau Wood was the first encounter with the awful reality of trench warfare and open warfare for thousands of American soldiers. E.A. Wahl, a Marine private, recalled the progress to the front, followed by the beginning of incredibly fierce fighting at Belleau Wood, in a letter home:
“We sought shelter everywhere, falling flat on our faces as we heard shells come screeching down. That was our only protection. We just had to lie flat wondering if the next was going to get us. One shell landed about 15 feet from me and exploded. I heard a scream at the same time and looked up. It had landed in a hole where two chaps from another company were lying. Several of us rushed over to the spot and pulled them out. They were horribly cut up, but not dead … I can’t begin to describe my state of mind—you will just have to imagine it. We were getting our first real taste of the horrors of war. At dusk we fell into single file and started down a road toward the lines. Dead and wounded were liberally distributed along the road. Shell-shock victims acting like crazy men were being led to the rear by comrades. I will never forget that first trip through the pitch darkness of tangled woods down to our first positions. Bullets whistling around snipping off tree branches, big shells screaming and crashing in all directions, stumbling into shell holes and over fallen trees, taking about three hours to reach our positions—it tested one’s endurance to the limit … The whole 16 days was just a nightmare of this sort of business—attacks and counter-attacks. I cannot describe it.”
Like millions of European soldiers before them, the American soldiers were shocked by their own heavy losses but also horrified by the massive casualties they inflicted on the enemy, forcing them to acknowledge their foes’ bravery. Gibbons described American artillery exacting a bloody toll on the German attackers on June 2, as the French fell back and Americans manned the first line, with artillery directed by French aerial observers, along a 12-mile stretch of front:
“The Germans advanced in two solid columns across a field of golden wheat. More than half of the two columns had left the cover of the trees and were moving in perfect order across the field when the shrapnel fire from the American artillery in the rear got range on the target. Burst after burst of white smoke suddenly appeared in the air over the column, and under each burst the ground was marked with a circle of German dead.”
John Lewis Barkley, an American soldier who was later decorated with the Medal of Honor, recalled American machine guns felling rows of advancing Germans trying to capture bridges over the Marne near Château-Thierry:
“The columns weren’t stopped by the machine gun bullets. But everywhere, as they came on, men were left squirming on the ground. I could see the officers quite clearly. They allowed no break in that steady stream. Every gap was filled up at once. And the column moved on. Moved to certain death at the bridges. They were brave men, those German soldiers. I was learning that early.”
Barkley had his own very personal encounter with inflicting death as a sniper during the Battle of Belleau Wood, when he killed a German officer. “Perhaps he was young, and had a girl at home like mine. Or a mother who wrote him the kind of letters my mother wrote me. I tried to stop thinking about it,” Barkley wrote. “There wasn’t anything to do but to get over it … After a while I got so that it didn’t disturb my mind either.”
Fierce fighting cut a swathe through American ranks, with the Marines suffering especially steep losses. Gibbons, who was wounded shortly afterwards, described the events of June 6, when the U.S. Marines attacked German positions along the eastern edge of Belleau Wood:
“At five o’clock to the dot the Marines moved out from the woods in perfect order, and started across the wheat fields in four long waves. It was a beautiful sight, these men of ours going across the flat fields toward the tree clusters beyond from which the Germans poured a murderous machine gun fire. The woods were impregnated with nests of machine guns, but our advance proved irresistible. Many of our men fell, but those that survived pushed on through the woods, bayoneting right and left and firing as they charged … The fighting was terrific. In one battalion alone the casualties numbered 64 percent officers and 64 percent men … I was with the Marines at the opening of the battle. I never saw men charge to their death with finer spirit.”
On the other side, the first encounter with American fighting spirit was surprising and demoralizing for German soldiers and civilians, who had been assured by government propaganda that the Americans were undisciplined rabble, and in any event, would never arrive in sufficient numbers to make a real contribution to Allied combat power. German soldiers also contended with hunger and miserable physical conditions, as the Allied “starvation blockade” strangled the Central Powers. Wartime dislocations disrupted agriculture and made food shortages even worse.
Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat then living in the German countryside, wrote in her diary in June 1918:
“My nephew Norbert, who is 19 years of age, has just been staying with us. He is on leave, having been through the whole of the Western offensive. His descriptions of it are terrible. For six days and nights, he says, they lay in the front trenches, with nothing to eat but what they found in the English trenches on the first day … He told me … that the Americans are daily becoming a more serious asset to the enemy, as each day more troops are pouring in, all fresh and well equipped, a contrast to the tired-out troops opposing them.”
Back on the home front, the mounting death toll, combined with diminishing prospects of victory, was pushing German civilians to the breaking point. The demoralization was reinforced by letters from soldiers at the front as well as soldiers home on leave. Blücher recorded the impact of these reports amid the Blücher-Yorck offensive:
“Gebhard’s two nephews have just written home. They say that no words can describe the horrors of what they have been through. They write that they are almost dying of starvation. They say they advanced so rapidly that no provisions could reach them, and their division was five days and nights fighting incessantly without food or even sleep at all, and those of their companies who were not killed or wounded died of exhaustion, and it is only by a miracle that they themselves are left to tell the tale. Their letter ends with the significant words: ‘Send us some food somehow, as quickly as you can, or we shall also die.’ Here in Krieblowitz, the peasants and village people receive the news that sometimes one, sometimes even two, of their sons have been killed on the same day. It has been a wholesale slaughter of late.”
Princess Blücher also transcribed a letter from her maid’s husband, who wrote from the front at Laon, about 20 miles northeast of Soissons. “It is indescribably awful here in Laon. We live in the midst of an incessant hail of bullets. The men on each side of me were both killed yesterday, and I expect my turn to come any day,” she recorded. Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, described the gruesome scenes along the road to Chaudun on June 3:
“Seasoned fighting men that we are, we can’t help being shaken at the sight of all these bodies which have been torn to pieces, and then cut up over and over again; friend and foe, white and black, all jumbled together. It is also very hot, and the stink of the corpses is more than one can bear, but we have no time to bury the dead now.”
Above all, the fighting in May-June 1918 led to the widespread realization that the Americans were now present in Europe in large numbers, intended to take part in combat, and were formidable fighters, at least in some cases (below, a map of the American Expeditionary Force’s logistics network in France). In May 1918 alone, 245,945 U.S. soldiers crossed the Atlantic to France, followed by another 278,664 in June, bringing the total number in France to around 1 million by mid-summer. Blücher noted the stark change in attitudes between the winter of 1917 to the summer of 1918:
“The offensive is taking on more and more the character of a race between Hindenburg and America, and people are beginning generally to perceive the terrific consequences of their fatal mistake in allowing America to come in. Every one is force admit that it is America now that is keeping on the war. How foolishly they laughed at the idea two years ago!”
Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, also recorded signs of plunging morale in June 1918, including a gloomy conversation with an officer:
“‘How are things at the front?’ he asked me. ‘I don’t think they are going very well,’ I replied. I told him that the English were greatly superior in terms of aircraft and artillery, and certainly also in terms of foodstuffs, and that in my opinion the Americans would tip the balance. ‘Yes,’ said the officer, ‘you have the same opinion as I do.’ This was the first time I had found an officer who was willing to say that Germany would lose the war.”
On the Allied side, America’s fighting debut was met with elation, especially among Americans themselves, as many expressed pride and relief at this vindication of American manhood (not to mention the bravery of thousands of women serving as nurses, ambulance drivers, and canteen workers, often exposed to enemy fire). Marian Baldwin, an American chief nurse volunteering at a British field hospital, noted in her diary on June 7, 1918, “The Sammies are right in the ‘thick of it’ now and doing better, especially the Marines, even than was expected of them. It’s all very wonderful and these days makes one prouder than ever of being an American.”