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The EK1

St. Mihiel, 12 - 16 September 1918.
By September 1918 both the Marne and the Amiens salients had been eliminated. The one remaining threat to lateral rail communications behind the Allied lines was the St. Mihiel salient near the Paris-Nancy railway line. After the transfer of the 1st Army HQ from La Ferté-sous-Jouarre in the Marne region to Neufchateau on the Meuse in mid August planning began for the reduction of the salient. The new HQ was just to the South of St. Mihiel. On the 28th of August the first echelon of the 1st Army HQ moved closer to the front and took up quarters at Ligny-en-Barrois.
American units from all over France assembled in the area of the salient. In total 14 American and 4 French divisions were assigned to the 1st Army for the task. The Americans had enough infantry and machine gun units but lacked artillery, tank, air and other support units. The French supplied the artillery, tanks and aircraft needed for the operation and half of the gun crews needed to man them.

As Pershing got ready for his first independent offensive Foch began to question the necessity of the operation in the planned size. Wanting to exploit the successes gained in the Aisne-Marne and Amiens sectors he pondered the possibility of dividing the American forces into three groups. The first group would attack the salient at St. Mihiel. The second and third groups would be used to the east and west of the Argonne forest. Pershing put his foot down. The 1st Army would not be divided. After a heated argument a compromise was reached. The St. Mihiel offensive was to be seen as preperation for a larger Meuse-Argonne offensive to be launched in September. Pershing was to accomplish the task in 3-4 days, using a minimum of force and his troops were to be ready to play a major part in the Meuse Argonne Offensive.

The St. Mihiel offensive was launched on the 12th of September and consisted of three blows.

Two American Corps struck the main blow on the Southern edge of the salient. I Corps was on the right wing, its divisions were in line (right to left) 82nd, 90th, 5th then 2nd . The 78th Division was in reserve. They covered the front from Pont-a-Mousson on the Moselle river to Limey. To their left was the IV Corps, its divisions (right to left) 89th, 42nd then 1st. The 3rd Division was in Reserve. Its front extended from Limey to Marvoisin.

A secondary blow was struck against the west face of the salient, along the heights of the Meuse from Mouilly north to Haudimont. It was carried out by the V Corps , its units (right to left) the 26th Division, the French 15th Colonial Division, and the 8th Brigade, of the 4th Division in line. The rest of the 4th division was in reserve.
A holding attack was made against the apex to keep the enemy in the salient. It was made by the French II Colonial Corps. Its units (right to left) the French 39th Colonial Division, the French 26th Division, and the French 2d Cavalry Divisiion.
In First Army reserve were the American 35th, 80th, and 91st Divisions.

There were over 650 000 men involved in the offensive. 550 000 Americans and 100 000 Allied troops. In support of the attack the First Army had over 3,000 guns (1 500 manned by American Gunners), 400 French tanks, and 1,500 airplanes. The Airplanes were directed by Colonel William Mitchell and was a veritable foreign legion composed of British, French, Italian, Portuguese, and American units. It was to be the largest single air operation of the war. American squadrons flew 609 of the airplanes, which were mostly of French or British manufacture.

Defending the salient was German "Army Detachment C,". It had eight divisions and a brigade in the line and the remains of two divisions in reserve. The Germans, desperate for troops in other sectors had begun to withdraw from the salient the day before the offensive began. The bulk of the German artillery had already left their positions and was on the way to the rear by the time the attack began. The advances on the 12th of September were so dramatic that Pershing ordered his commanders to speed up the advance. By the morning of the 13th the 26th Division moving from the west, had met up with the 1st Division which had advanced from the east. All objectives in the salient had been captured and Pershing called a halt to the offensive to prepare for the looming Meuse Argonne offensive.

The operation had netted 16 000 prisoners at a cost of 7 000 casualties. The salient had always been a potential staging area for attacks on Nancy or Verdun, but at this point in the war it is unlikely that the Germans would have been able to mount an operation in this sector. Most importantly it improved Allied rail communications and opened the door for a possible offensive striking towards Metz or the Iron region at Briey.

Above: The Meuse Argonne sector on the 4th of October 1918

Meuse-Argonne, 26 September - 11 November 1918.

Marchal Foch had developed plans for a major offensive along the entire Western Front that would have the Germans out of France by winter and out of the war by Spring 1919. Towards the end of August 1918 he presented these plans.

The month of August had already seen Allied victories. Operations were already active between the Moselle and Meuse, between the Oise and the Aisne as well as on the Somme and Lys rivers. Foch believed the Germans were still capable of avoiding immediate defeat if they engaged in an orderly retreat, evacuating or destroying material and communications as they went. To avoid this Foch wanted a juggernaut offensive that would prevent a step by step pull back. His gamble paid off. Foch was a master at second guessing German intentions. Once the offensives started the Germans played into his hands. With acute supply problems the Germans could not bring themselves to destroy the stockpiled supplies in the rear areas. The Armies would have to hold the line in order to save the stores.

Foch's great offensive was planned to begin in the last week of September and called for a gigantic pincers movement with the objective of capturing Aulnoye and Mézières, the two key junctions in the lateral rail system behind the German front.

Lose of either of these junctions would hamper seriously the German withdrawal. Despite grumbling from the English that they lacked the necessary manpower, a chiefly British army was assigned the teak of driving toward Aulnoye. The A.E.F. was designated for the southern arm of the pincers, the thrust on Mézières. Simultaneously the Belgian-French-British army group in Flanders would drive toward Ghent, and the French armies in the Oise-Aisne region would exert pressure all along their front to lend support to the pincers attack.

Pershing decided to strike his heaviest blow in a zone about 20 miles wide between the Heights of the Meuse on the east and the western edge of the high, rough, and densely wooded Argonne Forest. This is difficult terrain, broken by a central north-south ridge that dominates the valleys of the Meuse and Aire Rivers. Three heavily fortified places (Montfaucon, Cunel, and Barricourt) as well as numerous strong points barred the way to penetration of the elaborate German defenses in depth that extended behind the entire front. This fortified system consisted of three main defense lines backed up by a fourth line less well-constructed. Pershing hoped to launch an attack with enough momentum to drive through these lines into the open area beyond, where his troops could then strike at the exposed German flanks and, in a coordinated drive with the French Fourth Army coming up on the left, could cut the Sedan- Mézières railroad.

The task of assembling troops in the concentration area between Verdun and the Argonne was complicated by the fact that many American unite were currently engaged in the St. Mihiel battle. Some 600,000 Americans had to be moved into the Argonne sector while 220,000 French moved out. Responsibility for solving this tricky logistical problem fell to Col. George C. Marshall, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 (Operations), First Army. In the ten-day period after St. Mihiel the necessary troop movements were accomplished, but many untried divisions had to be placed in the vanguard of the attacking forces.

On the 20-mile Meuse-Argonne front where the main American attack was to be made, Pershing disposed three corps side by side, each with three divisions in line and one in corps reserve. In the center was the V Corps (from right to left the 79th, 37th, and 91st Divisions with the 32nd in reserve), which would strike the decisive blow. On the right was the III Corps (from right to left the 33rd, 80th, and 4th Divisions with the 3rd in reserve), which would move up the west aide of the Meuse. On the left was the I Corps (from right to left the 35th, 28th, and 77th Divisions with the 92nd in reserve), which would advance parallel to the French Fourth Army on its left. Eastward across the Meuse the American front extended in direct line some 60 miles; this sector was held by two French Corps (IV and II Colonial) and the American IV Corps in the St. Mihiel sector. Pershing had available to support his offensive nearly 4000 guns, two-thirds manned by American artillerymen; 190 light French tanks, mostly with American personnel; and some 820 aircraft, 600 of them flown by Americans.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive falls into three phases. During the initial phase (26 September-3-October) the First Army advanced through most of the southern Meuse-Argonne region, captured enemy strong points, seized the first two German defense lines, and then stalled before the third line. Failure of tank support, a difficult supply situation, and the inexperience of American troops all contributed to checking its advance.

In the second phase (4-31 October) the First Army, after the inexperienced divisions had been replaced by veteran units, slowly ground its way through the third German line. The enemy was forced to throw in reserves, drawn from other parts of the front, thus aiding the Allied advances elsewhere. In the face of a stubborn defense, American gains were limited and casualties were severe, especially as a result of the newly devised enemy tactic of attacking frontline troops with airplanes. First Army air units retaliated with bombing raids which broke up German preparations for counter attacks. By the end of October the enemy had been cleared from the Argonne and First Army troops were through the German main positions. Two notable incidents of this phase of the campaign were the fight of the "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Division (2-7 October), and the feat of Corp. (later Sgt.) Alvin C. York, who single-handedly killed 15 Germans and captured 132 on 8 October.

In mid-October the organization of the Second Army was completed, at Toul in the St. Mihiel sector, to provide means for better control of the lengthening American front and solutions of the diverse tactical problems that it presented. Pershing assumed command of the new army group thus formed.

Before the third and final phase (1-11 November) of the offensive got under way, many of the exhausted divisions of the First Army were replaced, roads were built or repaired, supply was improved, and most Allied units serving with the A.E.F. were withdrawn. On 1 November First Army units began the assault of the now strengthened German fourth line of defense. Penetration was rapid and spectacular. The V Corps in the centre advanced about six miles the first day, compelling the German units west of the Meuse to withdraw hurriedly. On 4 November the III Corps forced a crossing of the Meuse and advanced northeast toward Montmédy. Elements of the V Corps occupied the heights opposite Sedan on 7 November, thus finally accomplishing the First Army's chief mission-denial of the Sedan- Mézières railroad to the Germans. Marshal Foch, at this juncture, shifted the First Army left boundary eastward so that the French Fourth Army might capture Sedan, which had fallen to the Prussians in 1870. American units were closing up along the Mouse and, east of the river, were advancing toward Montmédy, Briny, and Metz, when hostilities ended on 11 November.

The First Army suffered a loss of about 117,000 in killed and wounded. It captured 26,000 prisoners, 847 cannon, 3,000 machine guns, and large quantities of material. More than 1,200,000 Americans had taken part in the 47-day campaign.

To go to the page on US Divisions operating independantly of the 1st Army go HERE

To return to the main US in WW1 page go HERE