- - Sunday, August 23, 2015

First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny: America’s First Battle of World War I

By Matthew J. Davenport

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. 360 pages. 28.99

When a reluctant President Woodrow Wilson sent the first American soldiers into the European war in 1917, both he and U.S. commanders decreed that they must fight as independent units, and not be used as cannon-fodder replacements for battle-worn British and French troops.

Thus ensued a major battle of the war, one that put a decisive crimp in a German “final offensive” attempt to break a three-year stalemate of trench warfare by breaking through Allied lines. And the battle for positions around the obscure French village of Cantigny brought the first flickers of fame to a soldier who would lead the U.S. military during World War II.

George C. Marshall was a promising but relatively obscure lieutenant colonel in 1917. One handicap — and a large one in the army of the era — was that he was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, not West Point. The close-knit fraternity of “ring-knockers,” as the West Pointers were known, frowned on outsiders.

But Marshall had caught the attention of Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force. And of the four divisions making up the AEF, Pershing singled out the First Division to make the first American assault of the war.

The AEF was literally an army built from scratch. In early 1917, the regular army totaled around 5,800 officers and 122,000 enlisted men, spread from Mexico to China, versus a German Empire army of more than 5 million men. But conscription, a flood of volunteers, and hurry-up training camps meant that the United States had the makings of a military force by the spring of 1917.

Pershing’s first task for Marshall was to solve logistical problems inherent in orchestrating the movement of thousands of men to Europe, harmonizing training schedules with the French, and planning raids on German trenches that served as training for the fighting that was to come.

The attack on Cantigny had a limited objective: a “bite and hold” mission that would move the Allied front line a mile to the east, seizing high ground held by the Germans, and then hold off certain counterattacks.

Marshall realized that success depended on intelligence: “which structures in Cantigny had deep cellars,” for instance, and could be used as command centers and for ammunition storage. He also needed to know the exact placement of German machine guns and sniper positions.

Thus, patrols went out nightly to map the intended battlefield, and to seize prisoners who could provide firm intelligence. Marshall was not an armchair planner. One night he and two others crawled out into a level stretch of No Man’s Land “where we studied the lay of the land until shortly after dawn.” But the sun rose “surprisingly quickly,” and the party faced the choice of staying out until darkness returned “or exposing ourselves in an endeavor to get back to Division Headquarters.”

They chose the latter, and they were 400 to 500 yards from safety when an enemy machine gunner spotted them. To the sound of the Maxim’s deadly rattle, the three officers went flat and inched their way back, “crawling with our hands and toes,” as Marshall later related. Bullets gouged the earth all around them. The future chief of staff of the U.S. Army escaped unarmed and resumed his planning.

Matthew Davenport, a criminal defense attorney and history buff, gives a moving account of the battle, relating how soldiers as young as 18 years went into combat alongside hometown buddies and fought bravely. Some lived, others died. But they demonstrated both to their Allies and to the Germans that “the Yanks are here, and they are going to fight bravely and hard.” Several of the combatants went on to achieve fame elsewhere — for instance, a 20-year old from North Carolina named Samuel J. Ervin, Jr., who decades later chaired the Senate Watergate Committee.

To be sure, there was the occasional glitch, some deadly. America troops moved up to front-line positions a day before the assault, movements cheered by French farmers, and surely noted by German scouts. And errant artillery the day of the assault killed many American soldiers.

The battle cost the First Division some 300 dead and 1,300 wounded (versus 800 Germans killed, 500 wounded, and 255 captured. But Cantigny led to an all-out Allied offensive that halted the German’s final attempt to win. And the victory gave America’s exhausted allies a morale boost beyond measure.

Mr. Davenport’s very readable account gives a ground-level account of fierce fighting, centering on individuals who he followed throughout the battle, based on letters and oral histories. A saga of blood and suffering, to be sure, but the U.S. Army at its very best.

Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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