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

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Importance of the St. Mihiel Salient, Then and Now

The German Observation Post Atop Montsec Dominated the Southern Face of the Salient.
Today It Is the Site of an American Monument.

The reduction of the St. Mihiel Salient, on the southeast flank of Verdun was the first victory of  a full American Army during the Great War. This is how four years of battling in this unique feature of the Western Front  is encapsulated in most histories of the war. However, it was back in 1914, when the sector—neglected by the French which was advancing farther north in the Ardennes and south  of Nancy and, thus, was freely occupied by German forces—began playing a  significant role in how all the fighting unfolded from the English Channel to the Swiss border.  

On the Left Is the Location of the Salient and Its Approximate Shape for Most of the War.

Fort de Troyon, Overlooking the Meuse River Played a Critical Role in the
1914 Battle of the Marne.

The struggle in the salient would be a critical aspect of the Battles of the Marne, the most important battle of the First World War. Subsequently, the salient would be the site of intense fighting for the rest of the war, much of which is neglected in English-language sources on the war. The thrust into the Western Front, however, presented both an ongoing threat to Verdun, a potential sally port for a deeper penetration into the French rear, while almost fully disabling the French rail system in eastern France. Also, occupation of the salient allowed Germany to exploit one of France's leading steel-producing areas around the town of Briey.

This constant struggling for advantage in the salient turned it into something of an open space museum to WWI-style warfare, with forts, trenches, bunkers, mining craters, sites of trench raids, and countless cemeteries and memorials. Furthermore, thanks to the work of the American Battle Monuments Commission staff (which included a Major Dwight D. Eisenhower),  visitors with a car or bicycle can follow the post-trench, open warfare of 1918. (I always took my tour groups along the path of the George Patton-led first tank attack in American history.)

German Trench at Bois Brûlé Near Apremont Defended Against 
the U.S. 1st and 26th Divisions During 1918.
 It Can Still be Visited Today.

When the AEF arrived in 1917, it was no accident that General Pershing saw this was the singular area in France that his forces could play a major, possibly decisive, role. Your editor has come to believe through his research and site visits that this mostly forgotten 150-square-mile section of the Western Front was—from its creation in the fall of 1914—the overlooked key for the Allies to drive the invading German forces out of France and Belgium. It offered the Allies the best opportunity for breaking the German Army's communication, supply, and rail networks, and for directly and more immediately threatening the German homeland. Advances launched from the Flanders-Somme or the Champagne-Verdun lines allowed the Germans too much territory for defense-in-depth for a strategic withdrawal as they did at the Somme in 1917. By 1918, both Pétain, commander of the French Army, and American commander Pershing had both come to understand the opportunity the Lorraine region offered. Generalissimo Foch, chief strategist for the Allies, however, was surprisingly late in grasping the opportunity. Until the very last month he preferred to pursue a broad advance across the entirety of the Western Front.

American Forces Advancing, September 1918

Things clarified toward the end, however. Had the Armistice not come, the Allied revised plan was for a three-army (two American, one French) attack on 14 November, centered out of the Woëvre Plain (the former St. Mihiel Salient). This was simply a shorter route to Germany for the Allies to take (American forces were already just 50 miles from the Rhine, while the British, in the west, were near Mons, triple the distance) and gave them opportunities for completely severing the enemy's communications at its hinge, cutting off his forces in the west. Fortunately, for those who might have died in that cancelled attack, it was not needed.

M. Hanlon

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