This is the anniversary of America's first offensive operation of the First World War. It involved the recapture of a tiny village in the western Somme sector named Cantigny. In April 2000, historian, novelist and a friend of ours, Thomas Fleming wrote this appreciation of the battle for American Heritage magazine.
|Doughboys of the 1st Division at Cantigny with a French Schneider Tank
In May 1918 the 1st Division was rushed north of Paris to help the French and British contain the two great German offensives of that deadly spring. As these German drives ran out of steam, the Americans demanded a chance to demonstrate what they could do on the offensive. Finally they got a one-regiment show, aimed at capturing the ruined village of Cantigny, which sat on top of a ridge opposite the 1st Division’s lines. As the attack approached, McCormick came down with the Spanish flu and had to be half carried to a meeting with General Pershing, where the field-grade officers were exhorted to prove the prowess of the AEF—or else. McCormick reeled back to his dugout and commanded his batteries from a field telephone beside his cot.
The French gave the Americans 12 heavy Schneider tanks, a flame-throwing unit, and no fewer than 37 batteries of additional artillery. Unintentionally, the Germans were also cooperating. They were planning another offensive, this time against the French on the Chemin des Dames, some 40 miles south of Cantigny. They needed their crack 30th Division for this drive and withdrew it from the Cantigny lines, replacing it with the 82d Reserve Division, which was full of overage veterans, teenage recruits, and assorted other flotsam, including railway guards.
|Aerial Photo of the Cantigny Battlefield
On 27 May the storm troopers struck on the Chemin des Dames with annihilating force. The French 6th army evaporated. The French artillerymen preparing to bombard Cantigny said they would stay for a day. Then they were heading south to try to stop the Germans before they reached the Champs-Élysées. The Americans decided to attack anyway.
At dawn on 28 May 1918, a torrent of steel came down on the somnolent companies of the 82nd Reserve Division. After an hour of fearful punishment, the Doughboys of the 28th Infantry Regiment went over the top and captured 255 men. American casualties were fewer than 100.
The next morning the French, eager for a gleam of success, trumpeted this tiny American victory in their newspapers, and the headlines echoed around the world. That same day, the French artillery and tanks departed, leaving the Americans dangerously under-gunned and without air support.
Now it was German artillery that came cascading down, and the Yanks were dug into open slopes. By the time the 28th was relieved, on 31 May, it had lost 45 officers and 1,022 enlisted men. The German 82nd had taken a worse beating, though, with 1,408 casualties on the very first day.
|French Flamethrower Team with Doughboys in Cantigny's Ruins
For Pershing and his staff, the little clash had vast significance. “I am...going to jump down the throat of the next person who asks, 'Will the Americans really fight?’” Pershing said. Cantigny had not only banished the amalgamation hoodoo but also proved to McCormick and his fellow Americans that they could stand up to Europe’s veterans. No matter that the veterans were third-rate soldiers; that is history’s judgment. Cantigny’s importance to the Doughboys was a matter of memory, an equally important realm for those who seek to understand history.