Nov. 11, 2018, marks not only Veterans Day but also the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Members of the Defense Logistics Agency Europe and Africa Enterprise team recently took advantage of Columbus Day weekend to visit the sites of the St. Mihiel Offensive, fought Sept. 12-16, 1918 — a key moment in the history of Europe and of the U.S. Army.
This offensive by the men of the American Expeditionary Forces and French troops reduced the St. Mihiel “salient”— or bulge of enemy-held territory — key ground held by the Germans since the opening days of the war. But as the first offensive planned and executed by the AEF, it also marked the AEF’s “coming of age” during the war.
Ever since the June 1917 arrival of the AEF in France, General of the Armies John “Black Jack” Pershing strenuously resisted British and French requests that the AEF provide fresh American troops to refill their units. Pershing’s orders were clear: Americans would fight only as organized American units and under American command.
However, as the German spring offensives of 1918 were a crisis for the British and French armies, Pershing provided American divisions to meet the exigencies of the moment. Thus at places like Belleau Wood, Chateau Thierry, Soissons and in the Champagne region, American units turned back the hitherto victorious German forces — while under British and French command.
But by August, the AEF had grown to over 1.2 million men — large enough that Pershing could form an independent American Army; the First U.S. Army came into being Aug. 10, 1918. With an opportunity to support Allied offensives and demonstrate American competence, Pershing and the First Army staff developed plans to reduce the St. Mihiel salient.
After a fierce four-hour barrage from 3,000 cannon, at 5:00 a.m. on a rainy Sept. 12, the doughboys of the I, IV and V Corps, along with “poilus” (infantrymen) of the French II Colonial Corps, pressed forward. Supported by 400 tanks (144 manned by Americans and led by a dashing Cavalry officer, Lt. Col. George S. Patton) they met all their initial objectives by evening. Overhead, 1,481 American, British, French and Italian aircraft, the largest aerial fleet seen in the war, protected and supported the ground attack.
This massing of air power was the brainchild of Army Col. William (Billy) Mitchell. Over the next three days, the St. Mihiel salient ceased to exist, as the German forces were driven out. The Germans suffered 5,000 casualties, saw 16,000 men captured, and lost 450 pieces of artillery.
In the fall of 1918, these were losses the Germans could ill afford. While the AEF suffered 7,000 casualties and earned four Medals of Honor, they liberated over 200 square miles of occupied France and clearly showed the ability of the AEF to plan and execute complex, large-scale, independent operations. These facts validated General Pershing’s vision of an AEF that could operate as an equal with any of the Allies on the modern battlefield.
Almost 100 years later, as the DLA group visited Montsec, the dominant hill where the American Memorial now stands; Thiaucourt and the St. Mihiel American cemetery; and the heights of Les Eparges, where over 50,000 Frenchmen died and German trenches remain, we gained an immense appreciation of where our ancestors fought. As one participant said, “Walking in the footsteps of our forefathers is both an awesome and a humbling experience”— a sentiment we could all agree with.