Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, April 18, 2019

American Tank Operations in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

No tank is to be surrendered or abandoned to the enemy.  If you are left alone in the midst of the enemy keep shooting.  If your gun is disabled use your pistols and squash the enemy with your tracks…If your motor is stalled and your gun broken still the infantry cannot hurt you.  You hang on [and] help will come.  In any case remember you are the first American tanks. You must establish the fact that AMERICAN TANKS DO NOT SURRENDER
Lt. Col. George S. Patton, Commander 1st U.S. Tank Brigade

American Tankers with Their Renault FT-17 Tanks (IWM)

George Patton and his tankers had a major success under their belts at the St. Mihiel Salient in early September 1918, despite an alarming number of vehicles lost due to mechanical breakdowns and the muddy terrain.  Two weeks later, they would be called upon to support General Pershing's First Army in the even larger Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Here is an account of their effort in the opening of the battle from the U.S. Army Museum—

Aimed at breaking through German lines by advancing through the Meuse-Argonne sector, the campaign began on the night of the 25–26 of September with a massive Allied artillery barrage.  At 0530 on 26 September, the 344th and 345th Tank Battalions rolled out in support of the 28th and 35th Divisions, I Corps.  The bulk of the two battalions supported the 35th Division to the east of the Aire River, while Company B of the 344th and Company A of the 345th supported the 28th Division to the west.  Fierce resistance was soon met on both sides of the river, but the men of the 1st Tank Brigade were resolute.  The 28th Division’s advance was stalled by heavy machine-gun fire outside the town of Varennes, leaving the tanks without infantry support.  Unfazed, Captain Dean M. Gilfillan of the 345th Tank Battalion doggedly continued his attack.  With his tank in flames after receiving two direct hits from artillery fire, and suffering a wound from an enemy machine gun, he managed to destroy two German machine guns and gun down a number of German soldiers before abandoning his vehicle moments before it exploded.  Despite being subsequently wounded by shrapnel, he remained at his post long enough to witness a second, successful assault on Varennes.

Patton's Tanks Training at Mass Maneuvering

To the east of the Aire River, the 35th Division was checked by German forces that were strongly entrenched on a hill south of Cheppy. Here, Patton had advanced on foot to survey the situation.  Finding his tanks unable to advance over German trenches and thus come to the aid of the infantry, he ordered all available personnel to clear a path through, handing out picks and shovels and going so far as to strike one of the soldiers who was slacking.  After this was accomplished and the tanks were able to advance, Patton led a haphazard amalgamation of leaderless soldiers in a charge on the German positions, but he was cut down by German fire and had to be evacuated.  Despite their commander no longer being in the fight, the tankers rolled onward, wiping out the offending machine-gun nests on and around the hill, and in concert with remnants of the 138th Infantry Regiment, secured Cheppy. Historian Carlo D’este stated that the assault on Cheppy “…may well have been the first-ever example of tank-infantry cooperation in an offensive situation.”

Plaque at Camp Roberts, CA, Named
for Cpl. Harold Roberts, First Tank Corps
Medal of Honor Recipient, KIA 4 Oct. 1918
So it went, day after day, the Tank Corps intrepidly pushed forward, often in advance of the Infantry. First Lieutenant Harvey L. Harris wrote that “It’s surprising what they ask us to do.  Doughboys to Generals have sent us against places a battleship couldn’t capture…” and Patton later wrote that the infantry had seemed to have “…forgotten the firepower which they themselves possessed and expected the tanks to completely obliterate all resistance before they would advance.”  This success, however, came at a price.  By 3 October, fifty-three percent of the officers and twenty-five percent of the enlisted men of the 1st Tank Brigade had become casualties.  The vehicle attrition rate was also high:  the 1st Tank Brigade started the offensive with 127 Renault tanks supplemented by fourteen more on the night of 27 September.  By 3 October, the brigade had only eighty-nine operational vehicles.  These numbers were about to drop again as the offensive was resumed on 4 October.  Heavy fighting once again resulted in a staggering loss of personnel and equipment; by the next morning, only thirty tanks operable tanks remained, and by 10 October, six of seven captains in the brigade were casualties.

U.S. Tank Advancing at Recicourt, Mid-October 1918

Although Tank Corps mechanics had been feverishly working night and day to keep the tanks in fighting condition, having forty-eight tanks operable on 11 October, mechanical failures do to extended use necessitated a withdrawal of most of the tanks for servicing.  While most of the 1st Tank Brigade was withdrawn from the front, a provisional force designated the 1st Provisional Tank Company, under the command of Captain Courtney Barnard, consisting of ten officers, 148 enlisted men, and twenty-four tanks, was created on 13 October.  It was supported by the 321st Repair and Salvage Company and Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 344th Tank Battalion.  This unit went on to perform admirably (aside from the usual mechanical issues and getting bogged down in the trenches, shells holes, and other obstacles) in actions on 14 October and 1 November.

Source: Selected from "The Dawn of American Armor: The U.S. Army Tank Corps in World War I,"  Eric Anderson, U.S. Army Historical Foundation