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