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.

Robert Friend, One of the Last Surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Dies at 99

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

One of the remaining original members of the Tuskegee Airmen—the first group of African-American pilots to serve in the U.S. military—passed away on Friday. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Friend was surrounded by family and friends when he succumbed to sepsis at 99 years old on June 21, according to CNN. His passing follows that of Dr. Granville Coggs, another Tuskegee veteran who died in May.

The Tuskegee Experience, an Army Air Corps program designed to train African-American pilots for combat, was established in 1941 by the Roosevelt Administration. The group, soon to become known as the Tuskegee Airmen, would eventually lead more than 15,000 air attacks during World War II and helped to persuade President Truman to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.

Born in South Carolina but raised in New York City, Friend took an interest in aviation while observing Zeppelin aircraft and constructing model planes. According to the Los Angeles Times, Friend himself flew 142 missions during the war, and would later see action in Korea and Vietnam.

His first wife's likeness can be seen in the form of the famous "Bunny" painting found on the side of the restored P-51 Mustang he once flew. He would retire as a lieutenant colonel after 28 years of service, although flying aircraft was not his only field of expertise: Friend directed Project Blue Book—a series of studies launched by the U.S. Air Force that dealt with UFO sightings. In a 2012 interview concerning the project, Friend told HuffPost, "I, for one … believe that the probability of there being life elsewhere in this big cosmos is just absolutely out of this world—I think the probability is there."

CNN reports that Friend's funeral will most likely be held the weekend of July 4.

[h/t CNN]

Laura Yeager Is Making History as the First Woman to Lead a U.S. Army Infantry Division

iStock/MivPiv
iStock/MivPiv

For over 100 years, the California National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division has been led by a male officer. That’s set to change at the end of this month as Brigadier General Laura Yeager becomes the first woman to oversee a U.S. Army infantry division.

A career military officer, Yeager entered active duty in 1986 and saw combat as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Iraq. According to CNN, she’s the recipient of the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star, among other accolades. Her appointment to the National Guard’s 40th Infantry comes as Major General Mark Malanka retires.

Yeager’s father, Major General Robert Brandt, served two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. Yeager is also a member of Whirly-Girls, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the roles for women in helicopter aviation.

The 40th Infantry has served in virtually every major conflict of the past century, including the two World Wars and the Korean War. They’ve most recently been dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan. Yeager is expected to assume her post on June 29.

[h/t CNN]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER