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

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Map Series #11: Capturing St. Juvin

From Infantry in Battle, a volume of case studies for future U.S. Army infantry officers produced under the direction of Col. George Marshall—

The book uses simple but highly informative maps to help drive its lessons home. The map below shows the original concept for the capture of the fortified village of St. Juvin, just northeast of the Argonne Forest (dotted line), the original attack directly north that failed, and how the correct solution was found by an officer not bound by old thinking and rules. Here is the St. Juvin map and the accompanying text from Infantry in Battle

THE ART OF WAR has no traffic with rules, for the infinitely varied circumstances and conditions of combat never produce exactly the same situation twice. Mission, terrain, weather, dispositions, armament, morale, supply, and comparative strength are variables whose mutations always combine to form a new tactical pattern. Thus, in battle, each situation is unique and must be solved on its own merits.

It follows, then, that the leader who would become a competent tactician must first close his mind to the alluring formula that well-meaning people offer in the name of victory. To master his difficult art he must learn to cut to the heart of a situation, recognize its decisive elements and base his course of action on these. The ability to do this is not God-given, nor can it be acquired overnight; it is a process of years. He must realize that training in solving problems of all types, long practice in making clear, unequivocal decisions, the habit of concentrating on the question at hand, and an elasticity of mind, are indispensable requisites for the successful practice of the art of war.

The leader who frantically strives to remember what someone else did in some slightly similar situation has already set his feet on a well-traveled road to ruin.

After the capture of St. Juvin (in the distance) this bridge was completed across the Aire just south of the town. It shows how challenging a river crossing under fire would be.

On October 14, 1918, the U. S. 77th Division attacked the Germans north of the Aire River near St. Juvin. The hostile positions in this vicinity were strong, particularly against an attack from the south. Feeling certain that the German barrage and defensive fires were registered south of St. Juvin and the Aire River, the division commander planned to take the village by envelopment from the east and southeast, while one regiment made a frontal demonstration from the south. He decided that, under cover of darkness, troops could cross the Aire well to the south unobserved. This operation would require movement in the zone of the 82d Division on the right, but the position of the 82d facilitated this maneuver. Therefore the 77th Division order specified: 

By maneuvering with its right in the area of the 82d Division it (the 77th Division) will attack St. Juvin from the south and the east. Unfortunately, this idea of maneuver was not reproduced in the orders of the lower echelons, the troops being sent "straight against St. Juvin from the south," the direction that the division commander had particularly wished to avoid for the real attack.

The 1st Battalion of the 306th Infantry, which the division commander had expected to be directed against St. Juvin from the east, attacked straight from the south with the unfordable Aire between it and its objective. The hostile barrage and murderous machine-gun fire from the slopes north of the Aire swept through the assaulting units in a wave of destruction. The attack stopped. At noon the situation was such that the division commander believed a serious repulse inevitable.

At this time the commanding officer of the 306th Infantry concluded that there was no chance of success if the attack continued along these lines. Therefore, after the failure of the frontal effort, this regimental commander, acting on his own initiative, directed the rear elements of his regiment to cross the Aire east of Marcq and make a flanking movement against St. Juvin. This maneuver was carried out, and the town, the hostile position, and 540 prisoners were captured.

In his memoir "Memories of the World War" Division Commander Major General Robert Alexander, emphasized the fact that the attack, as launched at first, was merely frontal. It failed. Not until the regimental commander, acting on his own initiative, ordered troops to cross the Aire and strike the hostile position in flank, was success achieved.

This division commander states that "evidently the malign influence of trench-warfare doctrine, which in all cases depended upon a barrage and a straight push behind it," still controlled the minds of some of his subordinates. From beginning to end, the World War is studded with major and minor reverses that resulted from attempts to apply methods that were successful in one situation to another situation.

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