WWI Centennial: The French and Americans Advance On a Broad Front

H.D. Girdwood, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
H.D. Girdwood, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 314th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JULY 26-AUGUST 5, 1918: FRENCH AND AMERICAN ADVANCE ON BROAD FRONT

In the two weeks following the fatal failure of Operation Marneschutz-Reims and the pivotal Battle of Chateau-Thierry from July 18-22, 1918, the climactic Second Battle of the Marne saw the German Seventh and Ninth Armies conduct a fighting withdrawal from the Marne salient under continuous pressure from the French Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and Tenth Armies. Beginning with the French Tenth Army’s opening surprise counter-attack on July 18, French and American infantry went into battle supported for the first time by hundreds of tanks and coordinated air support, pioneering the combined arms tactics that would come to dominate much of 20th-century warfare.

Map of the Western Front, July 1918
Erik Sass

The retreat gave up territory previously conquered by the Germans during Operation Blücher-Yorck, from which they had threatened Paris, boosting morale among the Allies and sending German confidence to new lows. After months of doubt, American fighting prowess at Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry helped reassure French and British political leaders that the worst was over. With more Americans arriving every day, shifting manpower ratios meant the Germans no longer enjoyed numerical superiority on the Western Front. The total number of active German divisions fell from 251 in May to 239 in July (American divisions were twice the size of European divisions, while most German divisions were understrength or second-class “trench” rather than “attack” divisions). The Franco-American victory in the Second Battle of the Marne set the stage for a second Allied offensive near Amiens, mounted by the British Expeditionary Force on August 8—a devastating blow which German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff remembered as “the black day of the German Army.”

Graph of Allied divisions in World War I July 1918
Erik Sass

The Second Battle of the Marne was many American troops’ introduction to modern mass warfare, as they pushed the Germans back from the Marne River and across its northern tributaries, the Ourcq and Vesle. They converged on the town of Fère-en-Tardenois, with support from French heavy artillery (the Americans were also armed with French field artillery in the form of the famous 75-millimeter field gun). Elmer Sherwood, an American soldier with the 42nd (Rainbow) Division, described the savage fighting, a return to the incredibly bloody opening days of the war:

“It is open warfare, every man for himself out there. The Germans have the advantage of being on the defensive and they use their machine guns almost exclusively, raking the fields with them, but we are always advancing and destroying them. Our artillery has difficulty in keeping up with the advance but we make short work of the machine guns when we get up. Of the 75 batteries, sometimes a gypsie gun (single) is sent up with the infantry and it fires into the Boche positions.”

American troops often outran their own supply lines, leaving them with little to eat besides emergency rations and whatever they could forage from the ruined countryside. American units experienced the attrition typical of the fiercest fighting during the First World War. Sherwood noted on July 27:

“I have talked to some doughboys from the front lines. Three fellows asked where they could find a kitchen; had had nothing but a box of hard tack for four days. Their capt and two lieutenants were killed and 90 percent of their company had been put out of action.”

Like their European peers before them, the Americans encountered countless scenes of horror across the shattered landscape. Sherwood described the aftermath of battle at Chateau-Thierry:

“I saw an American today lying there and one of his legs was 50 feet away. A German with half his face blown away lay there, black now and rotting with maggots pouring from his wound, and in his discarded coat was found his picture as he had once been, a big fine-looking youngster, pictures of his folks were there too. Could any thing be more terrible? But it is common these days.”

Sherwood later wrote in his diary that “the odor of dead things permeated the atmosphere everywhere.” Another doughboy recalled how, near the front where the American 26th and 42nd Divisions were engaged, “I probably saw a thousand or more of our American soldiers with every conceivable kind of wound—some with legs or arms blown away, some with eyes shot out, many with chins gone, others with every muscle in their bodies shaking as with palsy, shell-shocked, some with bodies burned by gas so badly that they were black” (below, U.S. Marines with gas masks). And an American sergeant surveying the aftermath of fighting at the River Ourcq on August 3, 1918 noted, “I have seen more dead Americans in this little time than I ever did before in all my life, and the smell was so bad that nearly all of the men put handkerchiefs over their faces.”

World War I marines with gas masks, July 1918
U.S. Marine Corps Archives, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Many of the American troops movements were conducted at night, in hopes of maintaining secrecy, and with it the element of surprise. But, as always, night marches presented their own array of unique miseries. On August 4, 1918 Vernon Kniptash, another soldier the 42nd Division, wrote in his diary:

“Since the last writing things have been more or less a nightmare and I don’t remember any of the events in the order in which they occurred. It’s been days of fighting and nights of hiking. We just can’t keep up with the Bosche; he’s retreating so fast. A night hike is terrible. The roads are jammed with traffic and when the column does move it’s a nail-like affair. A kilometer an hour is good time. You walk 10 minutes and then you’re held up for 20. It’s sure aggravating, to say the least. Men are continually getting lost from their organizations and there’s confusion everywhere.”

Robert Patterson, an American soldier in the 77th Division, also deplored the endless night marches as American troops moved up to the front:

“These moves in the dark were to avoid observation by enemy airplanes. All night marches are alike. At the start the men are in high spirits, singing, laughing, and cracking jokes. By midnight the gaiety begins to die down, and by two or three o’clock it has vanished. The only sound then is the shuffle of feet and curses at the stones and ruts in the road. If it is raining, nothing is more cheerless than a night march.”

As bad as things were for ordinary Allied soldiers, they were even worse for their enemies. German troops faced severe food shortages and the demoralizing consequences of defeat, in addition to the influenza epidemic now sweeping their tired, undernourished ranks. There was now a widespread recognition in Germany that government propaganda portraying Americans as undisciplined rabble, incapable of fighting, was far off the mark. Evelyn, Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in the German countryside, wrote in her diary in July 1918:

“Another discussion touched on the extraordinary way in which Germany has always underrated the importance of the danger coming from America, almost the whole country making fun of and laughing at the idea of an American army … I wonder why they did not listen to the few wise people who perceived the danger of the American intervention in all its sinister meaning, as it is now proving to be the final undoing of Germany.”

On July 29, 1918, the German officer Herbert Sulzbach lamented in his diary that the Marne River seemed especially unlucky for the Germans, having delivered two historic defeats:

“It’s the Marne down there, yes, the Marne, that’s done this to us once again! It began down there with the loss of Chateau-Thierry, then it moved up to Fère-en-Tardenois, and now here. We feel terribly depressed and filled with pain at having to give up all that ground which was so dearly paid for, all the more since we held the line here so brilliantly. My God, we thought July was going to be different!”

On August 1 Sulzbach added, “really and truly, after these last few days, and particularly after the last 24 hours, I feel completely at the end of my tether. You really can’t call this the human race any more.” Two days later he expressed feelings of exhaustion and despair, undoubtedly shared by millions of young men his age across Europe:

“Four years of war have thus been spent in the field. By degrees I’ve reached the age of 24, and the splendid years of one’s youth are being spent on this mad business of killing. The finest time our lives is tearing away from us. Now and then you have your somber thoughts—no wonder after these 48 months.”

Of course, it wasn’t just German soldiers grappling with fear and despair. A generation of young men and women had been forced to stare death in the face every day for four long years, with psychological effects that would linger and shape the course of 20th-century history. Eric Evans, an Australian soldier, wrote in his diary on July 25, 1918:

“Today I have rewritten my letters to Mother, Father, and Dot to be posted in case of my death. I’m sending them to London this time. I feel quite heavy-hearted somehow now. God grant the letters will never be of any use. I am far from ready to die and have far too much to live for … I am as ready as I ever will be and yet no man is ever totally ready to enter into a duel with death and his own emotions.”

The war had also left an existential divide between veterans and civilians that would prove to be one of the most significant social and political divisions in post-war Europe. John Tucker, a British soldier, reflected on civilians’ failure to understand soldiers’ experiences, even at this late stage of the war, predicting that the gap would remain forever. “I found it irritating to mix with civilian men, feeling that those who had been in the [civilian] services were a different breed, with nothing in common with me,” he wrote. “They did not belong to the great brotherhood and could not possibly understand us.”

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

qingwa/iStock via Getty Images
qingwa/iStock via Getty Images

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard." Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

The Kansas Shoe Salesman Responsible for Veterans Day

Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The reason we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11th dates back to 1918, when an armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed that essentially ended World War I. The first Armistice Day was celebrated the following November 11th.

World War I was billed as the war to end all wars, but of course it didn't. So by the 1950s, with so many American men and women veterans of World War II and the conflict in Korea, some thought the term "Armistice Day" was outdated.

A new day

There's a shoe salesman from Emporia, Kansas, who probably isn't in many history books, but he deserves at least a paragraph. In the early 1950s, a gentleman by the name of Alvin King thought Armistice Day was too limiting. He had lost family in World War II, and thought all American veterans of all wars should be honored on November 11th. So he formed a committee, and in 1953 the city of Emporia, Kansas, celebrated Veterans Day.

Ed Rees, Emporia's local congressman, loved the idea and took it to Washington. President Eisenhower liked King's idea, too. In 1954, Eisenhower formally changed November 11th to Veterans Day and invited some of Emporia's residents to be there when he signed the bill. King was one of those invited, but there was one problem: he didn't own a nice suit. His veteran friends chipped in and bought him a proper suit and paid his way from Kansas to the White House.

In 2003, Congress passed a resolution declaring Emporia, Kansas to be the founding city of Veterans Day.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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