Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The Capture of St. Mihiel

The first independent operation of an American army in France as such was undertaken on September 12, 1918, against the famous German position of St. Mihiel. Hitherto the American troops had always fought as part of the British and French armies. They had occupied important posts, won important battles, but always supported by French or British artillery and directed by foreign officers. At the end of August an American army was organized, all parts of which were American. It was under the direct personal command of General Pershing and took over a section of the line east of Verdun.

The importance of this sector was extraordinary: It was directly opposite the great city of Metz, the key to the eastern end of all parts of the German defense system in France. Through it came the great bulk of supplies that went to all parts of the German lines. Through it must come reŽnforcements. Metz was also the gateway to Germany and the most important part of the defenses of that country itself. For that reason the Germans had fortified this section of the line with extreme thoroughness.

St. Mihiel Salient


In the first year of the war they had pushed through east of Verdun a sort of elbow in their line at the point of which was the town of St. Mihiel. This elbow or salient faced Verdun on the east and from it an attack was possible which would cut off the city altogether. Verdun was no less important to the French than Metz was to the Germans; it was the pivot of the French line; if it should fall, the whole line should have to retire. The French were therefore extremely anxious to wipe out this salient and directed against it immediately a series of great assaults. They failed however to make any impression, and during the four years of war this elbow stuck out from the German line, continually menacing Verdun and making extremely difficult any attack on Metz.

The first American army took over, therefore, a very important problem. It had been, however, for a year or more, what was called a quiet sector, because one on which very little active fighting had taken place for a good many months. The Germans proposed no offensive there. Their great attack against Verdun had failed in 1916 and they were not likely to renew it. From that point of view it was perhaps a less dangerous position for the Americans to take charge of than some other districts.

But the purpose of the Americans was by no means defense. They meant to succeed in a task at which the French had repeatedly failed. Not that they felt themselves braver than the French or better soldiers, but they knew that the methods of warfare had changed in four years and General Pershing believed that St. Mihiel, which had been too strong to be captured by the methods understood earlier in the war, would not be too great a task for the first American army in September, 1918. It was a great task, but not too great. The result would be extraordinary if it should be a success. It was the sort of task which would lend glory to the American army and prove to the French and British that the Americans, all by themselves, were entirely competent to undertake military operations of the first magnitude.

The extent of fortifications around St. Mihiel was unusual. There were, as elsewhere on the German lines, trenches and miles of barbed wire entanglements, but there were few places where the dugouts and underground houses were so deeply constructed and well built as along the sides of this famous salient. The positions were for the most part on the crests of hills, looking down into valleys across which a foe must advance, and steel and concrete houses had been built inside the hills. The greatest fortress of all, a tall peak called Mont Sec, has been described by correspondents as towering into the air like a twenty-story building. From it everything was visible on a clear day for ten miles. The sides of this fortress were steep, covered with woods and ditches. Across them ran trenches and miles of barbed wire entanglements. These were defended by regular underground fortresses or houses located forty or fifty feet within the mountain side; they were comfortably, even luxuriously, furnished, and most of them were built with entrances from both sides of the mountain. On the side away from the Allied lines there were porches, tables at which the German officers used to drink beer, hammocks slung between the trees, and various other devices for making the occupants pass the time pleasantly. Needless to say, fortresses of this kind were impervious to the fire of even the heaviest guns. High explosive shells could not blow the tops off of mountains nor reach fortresses fifty feet underground. The Germans had dug themselves in as early as 1915 and expected to stay there until peace was signed.

To capture such a position by assault, General Pershing realized meant preparations of no ordinary type. One hundred thousand detailed maps were prepared covering the minutest facts of the whole salient. They told where every German position was and just what it was. These maps were corrected continually from the reports of the aviators up to the very morning of the battle. To help the artillery and infantry officers in their work forty thousand photographs were taken.

Then to insure the smooth cooperation of the American forces after they had succeeded in penetrating the first defense, five thousand miles of telephone wires were laid on the borders of the salient before the attack, and to them six thousand telephones were connected the instant the American troops advanced. Behind the troops as they went forward came motor trucks unreeling wires which were to continue this telephone system. Then the signal corps men took the reels of wire on their shoulders and walked with them immediately behind the attacking troops right up to the very firing line. As fast as the troops advanced, the telephone lines came after them, and in the battle-zone during the battle itself there was a telephone system in operation which would have been adequate to handle the business of a city of one hundred thousand people. Ten thousand men were engaged in operating it. Most of the various exchanges, exactly like the exchanges in any American city, were on motor trucks and moved around as the battle changed. The signal corps had thousands of carrier pigeons by which messages could also be sent through should the telephone wires be cut or broken. But the wires held.

Elaborate provisions were made to take care of the wounded, including thirty-five hospital trains, sixteen thousand beds in the battle-zone, and fifty thousand at the base hospital. Happily, only ten per cent of these facilities were needed. This gives some idea of the extent and character of the preparations necessary for a major operation in modern warfare. While these arrangements represented the very acme of military perfection, it must not be supposed that they were superior to or different from the arrangements made by the British and French. We merely showed that we could do it ourselves.

The plan of the attack was simple. General Pershing proposed to push in both sides of this salient or elbow, sticking out of the line, and compel the Germans to evacuate its tip. He was going to push at the base of the triangle on both sides, and, by bending in the lines until his forces met, he would either compel the Germans to run in a hurry and evacuate the strongest part of the district without fighting or he would capture them.

There were four hours of artillery preparation, terrific and intensive, intended to drive the Germans underground and destroy whatever could be destroyed on the surface. Then at five A.M. on September 12, the Americans, assisted by one French corps, advanced. They were preceded by a number of tanks, which could not, however, climb the mountains and were not so useful to them as in some other battles. But, aided by groups of wire cutters, they went through the lines of the German defenses very much as at Cantigny. To their own amazement, they carried everything with a rush and found themselves through the first zone of the German defenses with very small losses and in record-breaking time. The first push had been on the south side of the salient and the second had been on the northern; both had succeeded.

The American army and the world at large were electrified to learn on the following day that the American forces had met and that the salient had been wiped out. Between one hundred fifty and two hundred square miles of territory had been taken from the Germans and many villages had been released from German domination which had been in their hands from the very beginning of the war. Sixteen thousand prisoners, four hundred and forty-three guns, great amounts of material, ammunition, clothes, and food were captured.

The speed of the Americans had been so great that considerable numbers of Germans had been unable to escape from the apex of the triangle. Eventually a good many thousands surrendered. Whole regiments walked out with their officers. In one case the commander, after surrendering, requested that the roll be called in order that he might discover how heavy his losses had been. The whole regiment answered present except one officer and one private, and the commander then suggested that he should march his own command wherever it was wanted. The Americans advancing to the front met the astonishing spectacle of an entire German regiment, marching off the battlefield under its own officers, and guarded only by a half dozen American cavalrymen, lounging in their saddles after the fashion of American cowboys driving a herd of cattle.

The Americans had proved their quality. They had achieved what the French had been most anxious to do for four years. They had relieved Verdun of all apprehension and had ironed out one of the most important creases in the German lines. They had put Metz within reach of the heavy artillery and were able to shell the most important railroad the Germans had. General Pershing had every reason to be content.

The triumphal entry into St. Mihiel was characteristic of the Americans and French. The American secretary of war, Mr. Baker, with Generals Pershing and Petain, went quietly to the famous little town and walked through its streets, all but unaccompanied, and without ceremony or signs of triumph. But the identity of the distinguished visitors was soon known to the inhabitants. They poured out to receive them, crowded around them, kissing Mr. Baker's hand, weeping. The sudden relief from the galling oppression which they had endured almost unnerved them.