By March 1918, it appeared that Germany was gaining the upper hand in its fight against allied forces during World War I.
The Russian army on the Eastern Front had collapsed, allowing about a million soldiers from Germany and other Central Powers nations who had been engaged there to move against British, French, Canadian, and a small contingent of U.S. forces on the Western Front.
The German Spring Offensive, March through June 1918, was designed to win the war before U.S. troops arrived in substantial numbers, said Air Force Lt. Col. Mark E. Grotelueschen.
And the Germans nearly succeeded, said Grotelueschen, who authored the U.S. Army Center of Military History World War I pamphlet “Into the Fight: April-June 1918.”
By April 1, the Germans had 26 percent more soldiers than all the allied force, and had captured more territory than they had since the war started in 1914. By May 27, they came within 35 miles of Paris. More than a million people fled the French capital and the British contemplated an evacuation of the continent.
(U.S. Army photo by Travis Burcham)
When the Spring Offensive began March 21, there was just one American division, the 1st Infantry Division, at the line of trenches that marked the front line. The other divisions — the 2nd, 42nd and 26th — were still in their final phase of training by the French in a quiet sector away from the front.
In May and June, around 460,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines poured into France to bolster the war effort, he said.
Battle for Cantigny
On April 17, the 1st Infantry Division marched toward Cantigny, in northern France. Before their march, Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, gave them a pep talk that left a lasting impression, Grotelueschen said.
Pershing said in part: “You are the finest soldiers in Europe today. … Our people today are hanging upon your deeds. The future is hanging upon your action in this conflict.”
Among those soldiers listening intently to Pershing was Lt. Col. George C. Marshall, the future Army chief of staff, who would later lead the Army through World War II, Grotelueschen said.
During the division’s first few weeks, there were no German infantry attacks, Grotelueschen said. But that didn’t mean it was a safe zone.
The artillery fire was nearly continuous and often included mustard gas, he said. Enemy aircraft adjusted artillery fire and occasionally bombed and strafed the American positions.
The battle for Cantigny lasted from May 28-30. It was the first American attack ever to use airplanes, tanks and flamethrowers, in addition to mortars and artillery — what is today referred to as combined arms warfare.
It was also the first American-led battle of the war, with the other participants being French troops, Grotelueschen said.
The bulk of the fighting was done by soldiers of the 28th Infantry Regiment. They suffered 941 killed or wounded, while the German toll was around 1,500.
“In the gruesome calculus of an attritional war, the fledgling AEF had done what it needed to do. It had killed and wounded more of the enemy than it had lost,” Grotelueschen noted, adding that it “showed friend and foe alike that Americans will both fight and stick.”
The Cantigny battle would become a theme for the months to follow until the end of the war, Nov. 11, 2018, he said. “The inexperienced Americans helped stop German attacks with tenacious defense; proved able to push the Germans back at various points along the line; and, with rare exceptions, held on to whatever terrain they seized.”
Defense of Chateau-Thierry
(U.S. Army photo by Travis Burcham)
On May 31, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division began arriving in the vicinity of the Chateau-Thierry in northern France.
House-to-house fighting ensued. At one point, the French thought that the Germans would capture the city, so they blew up the main bridge across the Marne River, leaving some American forces stranded on the other side.
The U.S. soldiers put up a brave counterattack, making a “critical contribution to the massive French effort to stop the Germans,” who were now within artillery shelling distance of Paris, Grotelueschen said.
Philippe Petain, commander of the French army, wrote a special citation for the U.S. 7th Machine-Gun Battalion, he said. It read in part: “In the course of violent combat, particularly the 31st of May and the 1st of June, 1918, it disputed foot by foot with the Germans the northern outskirts of Château-Thierry, covered itself with glory, thanks to its valor and its skill, costing the enemy sanguinary losses.”
While the 1st and 3rd Infantry Divisions were engaged in battle, the 2nd Infantry Division, made up of a conglomeration of Army and Marine regiments, was arriving in the vicinity of Lucy-le-Bocage, also in northern France.
Some of the most brutal fighting of the war was done by U.S. Marines in a forest known as Belleau Wood June 6-26.
“The allies were desperate not merely for good news, but especially for reassurances to the tired French and British forces that the Americans had entered the fight at last,” Grotelueschen said. “For their part, the Germans could not ignore the fact that in those battles the rookie 2nd Infantry Division (had) severely damaged regiments from four experienced German divisions. The tide was turning.”
This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @usarmy on Twitter.