Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Exerpt -- American Battlefields of World War I: Chateau-Thierry: Then and Now


"The fields of the Marne are growing green
The river murmurs on and on;
No more the hail of machine-guns
The cannon from the hills are gone.
The herder leads the sheep afield
Where the grasses grow o'er the broken blade;
And toil worn women till the soil
O'er human mold, in sunny glade
The splintered shell and bayonet
Are lost in crumbling village wall;
No sniper scans the rim of hills,
No sentry hears the night bird call
From blood wet soil and sunken trench,
The flowers bloom in summer light;
And farther down the vale beyond,
The peasant smiles are sad, yet bright.
The wounded Marne is growing green
The gash of Hun no longer smarts;
Democracy is born again,
But what about the wounded hearts?"

The verses were signed Sergeant Frank Carbaugh, and below his name was this note: "Written while lying wounded in hospital; died August, 1918."
"Everyone felt that the Americans were present at the magical operation of blood transfusion. Life arrived in torrents to revive the mangled body of a France bled white by the countless wounds of four years."
Jean de Pierrefeu
Staff Officer, French Army Headquarters, 1918


Germany's plan for her military campaigns in 1918 called first for the destruction of the British Army in the Spring, then, all forces were to be concentrated to crush France. In furtherance of the strike at the British, attacks were launched in Picardy and Flanders during March and April. These failed in their announced purpose. Meanwhile, German preparations had gone steadily forward for a blow against the French along the Aisne River line.

The Allied High Command realized that a German attack was in the making, but it was considered improbable that it would come against the Aisne front.

On the morning of May 27, German assault troops struck the Aisne front from between Berry-au-Bac and Anizy-le-Chateau. The blow was a complete surprise and the Germans overran the Chemin des-Dames positions and crossed the Aisne River by noon.

Aisne 27 May – 5 June 1918. The next major German attack fell on 27 May on the thinly held but formidable terrain along the Aisne River known as the Chemin des Dames. The original objective of this new offensive was to draw southward the Allied reserve accumulated back of the British sector, in preparation for a final German attempt to destroy the British Army in Flanders. The French and British defenders were taken completely by surprise, and their positions were overrun rapidly on a forty-mile front. German progress on the first day was so rapid (advances up to 13 miles were made at some points) that Ludendorff altered his plans and decided to make the diversionary attack a main effort. Most of the Aisne bridges were captured intact. The thrust toward Rheims failed but Soissons was taken, and by 31 May the Germans had reached the outskirts of Château-Thierry on the Marne, less than 40 miles from Paris.

In the next few days the Germans sought to exploit and expand the deep and exposed salient which they had established. But by 4 June they had been stopped everywhere. Some 27,000 American troops took part in the check of the German advance. The 3d Division foiled enemy attempts in the period 1-4 June to secure a firm bridgehead across the Marne at Château-Thierry. West of the town the 2d Division, which included a Marine brigade, defended the road to Paris, and on 6 June successfully counterattacked in Belleau Wood.

American troops played an important part in turning the tide of World War I in favor of the Allies at the Second Battle of the Marne. Château-Thierry saw the first fighting of American forces as a separate unit—and their participation under their own officers was decided upon as a final desperate effort to stop the triumphal entry of the German troops into Paris.

At about the time the Second Battle of the Marne ended, German Field Marshal von Hindenburg, attempted to explain and justify "strategical retreat," declaring that "the decisive victory" of German arms had merely been temporarily postponed. The scales had begun to weigh in favor of the Allies and, however long it might take to bring about the final decision, the second Battle of the Marne was the beginning of the end of World War I. For the third time in its history, the Marne had proved to be the bulwark of the free nations of the world.
The part played by U.S. divisions at Château-Thierry, in what is very properly termed the second battle of the Marne, forms a remarkable chapter in the history of the AEF in France. It was an initial effort, and although the American forces at this time were under French control, it saw the first actual functioning of the American Army Corps, it produced the army commanders who controlled American units under General Pershing, and it was essentially the battle of baptism of the American fighting forces.

Eight American divisions took part in the Marne salient battle; four saw real fighting, and one took part in an offensive operation. The other four had either seen no fighting at all, or so little during their training in calm sectors that they had not yet received the classification of fighting units. But they gave so clear a demonstration of the fighting quality of American troops, even though not fully trained, that they had completely restored the morale of the Allied battle line.
Château-Thierry was an emergency; it had no part whatever in the plans prepared by the general staff of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) or in the original French scheme for the entry of American forces upon the Western Front.

The result of the German attack on the morning of May 27, 1918, was that in four days, or by the evening of May 30, the leading elements of the German troops had driven from the Chemin des Dames and were at Château-Thierry. The following day the German communiqué stated,"We stand along the Marne" No greater measure of self-satisfaction was ever reflected in an announcement than in this. It was a big advance, nearly forty miles in four days. An advance of forty more miles would see Paris in German hands and end the war in favor of the Germany and the Central Powers.

But on this same fourth day at Château-Thierry the German troops encountered a small American fighting unit, the 7th Motorized Machine Gun Battalion, U.S. 3rd Division. The 7th had traveled a distance of 110 miles in thirty hours in its own motor transport and set up its machine guns to defend Château-Thierry.
For seventy-two hours the 7th Machine Gun Battalion successfully contested the crossing of the river. The delay occasioned by the French-American resistance at Château-Thierry gave French General Foch and his staff the needed precious time to plan for the organization of the defensive strategy which culminated in the battle of Belleau Wood and the defense of the Marne east of Château-Thierry. Subsequently, American divisions initiated and sustained the counteroffensive that marked the turning point of World War I.
By the second day of June the infantry of the U.S. 3rd Division was in position along the river from Château-Thierry to the east for a distance of about twelve miles. The U.S. 2nd Division, which included the Marine Brigade, arriving from a point north of Paris, was in position from Château-Thierry to the west for a distance of about eight miles, standing astride the Paris-Metz Road, and the German drive halted at this point.
At this point, the battles northwest of Château-Thierry, and in particular the savage fight for control of Belleau Wood, took on an importance far beyond the strategic or tactical value of the area or of the Wood itself. Belleau Wood took on a new dimension, discounting the limited value of the terrain in question and emphasizing the psychological aspects of winning and losing—and neither side wanted to lose. From having been a formerly valueless little wood, and one having really no strategic or tactical importance, Belleau Wood now became a battle for supremacy of forces. If the Americans were beaten in the battle for the wood, the Germans would publish the news in every world newspaper, thus giving the American and Allied morale a severe drubbing which might change the course of the war. If the Germans lost the battle, it would prove the value of American arms to the world at large, thus giving a great boost to sagging Allied morale. The outcome of the fighting in Belleau Wood and elsewhere in the Marne Salient would decide once and for all who was the master of the battlefield—the Germans or the Americans.

Although most European military historians (and some American ones also) tend to discount the value of American arms in 1918, most will, if pressed, reluctantly concede that American intervention on the battlefield in 1918 changed the course of the war.

Château-Thierry is a small town in the valley of the Marne about fifty miles east of Paris, now once again picturesque, but sadly battered in 1918. To the AEF Château-Thierry signified the whole area over which its divisions contended through ten-weeks of bitter fighting. More than all else, it signified the fact that the tide of military fortune had turned at that point, that the AEF had taken the measure of the Germans, and were no longer anxious as to the final result. They were then certain that victory would surely be theirs at sometime in the future, though even the most optimistic did not count it possible in four short months.

Just a few miles east of Paris, were enacted the combats of the second battle of the Marne. They took place within a picturesque theater of war, a panoramic stage of forested hills and fertile valleys, with vineyards, fields, meadows and woodland in between. It is a rolling terrain intersected by streams and rivers flanked by steep ridges and webbed together by rail and highways, roads and towns. Villages and hamlets nestled in the valleys, perched on the hills or clung to their slopes. Here also an appalling number of young Americans sacrificed their lives to capture and hold the hills and towns. The men of the AEF thought that, for every yard they conquered, it was at the cost of a doughboy's life. It is there that we begin our tour of the battlefields of the AEF in the Marne salient.

Drive the country roads in and around the valley of the Marne in northeastern France, and you will pass by prosperous stone villages flanked on all sides by fields of wheat. The country north of the Marne was a pleasant place in peacetime. The thick greenery of forests rimmed the yellow of the wheat fields. Here and there were the red-tiled roofs of a farm homestead or one of the tiny rural villages so familiar to the traveler in France. A beautiful landscape, indeed, but a bitter place for men to be in when every woodland hid masses of artillery and every innocent tuft of forest shrubbery concealed a machine gun. The terrain along the Marne was mostly woody and the fighting that took place there was mostly from tree to tree and rock to rock. It is said that the Germans, cleverly concealed in the forests and woods, had a machine gun for about every ten yards of their front.

But in previous days, this area, like the other battle areas of France and Belgium, was besieged by artillery, gashed with trenches and shell craters, and shrouded in the black and foul air of war. The Germans deluged woods and wheat with mustard gas, thrown in liquid form from artillery shells, which hung, an invisible blanket of poison, over the ground which the Americans must cross to reach their foes. The appearance of the American skirmishers always gave a signal for the German artillery and machine guns to open fire. So skillfully were their guns placed to sweep the ground that a soldier could scarcely stand upright and live; to drop flat and crawl forward was hardly better. A dozen courageous machine gunners could make an assault battalion pay a fearful price for a few hundred yards of ground. Then, if conditions favored, the defenders might withdraw to fresh positions before the oncoming Americans could get to grips with their exasperating foes.

Following each rush there would ensue a period of silence during which none moved except the groaning wounded crawling back, when they could, through the spattered wheat. But for these and the twisted bloody bundles that lay motionless here and there, an observer might fancy, during these deceitful lulls, that he was alone in a deserted countryside. But presently, emerging again from shelter of the woods, the brown steel helmets of the Americans would appear, wave upon wave, the bayonets of the men flashing before them and their heads bent to resist the storm they knew would break. In just an instant the opposing woods would burst into an angry metallic chatter, the wheat suddenly to swarm with vicious invisible insects, and overhead the air was flecked with the countless white and black puffballs of the bursting German shrapnel-shells. Men heard the sickening sound of a bullet against flesh, saw their comrades vanish utterly in a swirl of flame and smoke, and finally, after an eternity of this, the shadow of the woods would fall across their front. From that point until the woods were cleared of the enemy the action would resolve to scores of individual fights. Men, grim of eye, hunted one another like quarreling wolves from copse to copse and from tree trunk to tree trunk, moving with a kaleidoscopic rapidity that made one feel that soon one would emerge from this ghastly nightmare and find oneself in a motion picture theater watching those shadowy characters on the screen. Such was the daily, almost hourly experience of the American soldiers in the Marne
salient battles of 1918.

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