First Over There-The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I, Matthew Davenport
Thomas Dunn Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York
360 pages including notes. Select bibliography and index
I started to study WW1 back in 2012 as Europe prepared for the upcoming centennial of WW1 that would commence in August 2014.
I knew little of US involvement other than German unrestricted submarine warfare had brought us into the conflict and that our Marines covered themselves with glory in a place called Bellau Wood.
I also knew a little about “Black Jack” Pershing the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.). He was called “Black Jack” because he once commanded African American soldiers in our segregated army. His nickname was not a compliment but indicative of white prejudice toward black units and the white officers that commanded them.
I knew even less about European involvement other than a Serbian anarchist started the whole thing by killing an Austrian Archduke. I also knew that George Washington warned our new country to stay out of European entangling alliances of the type that launched the Great War.
(Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 with a promise to keep us out of it. The country was highly isolationist; something we see growing today among many Americans. Teddy Roosevelt, the former President on the other hand was for intervention and worked tirelessly for it. Teddy was pro-British from the start as were American manufacturers who made munitions. They would have sold to anyone but because of the British blockade of Germany they were more than happy to make Britain and France their favorite customers. War is good business if you don’t have to fight.)
I also had some vague ideas about the bloodletting on the Western Front in battles such as The Somme (a British-German battle) and Verdun (a French-German battle).
I also knew about the Red Baron (a child hood hero) and the introduction of the tank to modern warfare and that the seeds of WW2 were laid down in the peace treaty imposed on Germany. Adolf Hitler was a corporal in a Bavarian Infantry Regiment.
What I lacked however was detail so I began to read quite a few books not only on the Western Front but also on the Eastern Front and the ramifications that followed Czarist Russia’s surrender to the Germans in 1917 and the beginning of the Soviet State-a State the US would be at odds with ever since even though Putin is not a Czar-he just acts like one. WW1 changed a lot of things; the effects of which we experience today.
1917 was a pivotal year.
When Russia surrendered it released dozens of German divisions for service on the Western Front where other German armies had been fighting the French and British for nearly three years in agonizing trench warfare that caused millions of casualties often for only yards of territorial gain.
From the German point of view the surrender of Russia came in the nick of time because the British naval blockade by the powerful Royal Navy was causing Germany to starve. German socialists were beginning to make noise and the population in general was weary of war as their empty bellies screamed for food.
At the same time Germany was trying to starve Great Britain via U-Boat warfare and while Germany did not want war with the US Germany felt it had to risk unrestricted submarine warfare to knock Great Britain out of the war. If that meant risking war with the USA (and it did) then the Germans thought they could use the released Eastern Front Divisions to launch an offensive against the British and French and beat them before the US could mobilize it’s huge population and create an army and get it to France in time to make a difference. It was a huge gamble and caused the British and French no small anxiety, as they were being bled white with massive casualties. The French Army had even started to mutiny and in many places along the front refused to advance any longer and only defend their positions.
The US had a tiny army in 1917 but upon the declaration of war the US moved quickly to expand the army to serve “over there.”
The first US Infantry Division to arrive was the 1st Infantry Division, nick-named the “Big Red One” for its shoulder patch and helmet insignia.
The German offensive(s) in 1918 experienced various degrees of success against the British and French and both countries were anxious for American divisions to shore up defenses.
Although Black Jack Pershing was reluctant to oblige before American troops were ready (to serve under America he agreed to help the French around an obscure village called Cantigny.
Black Jack also realized that both the British and French were anxious to see how American forces would perform since the US had not fought a major war since the American Civil War that ended in 1865.
Pershing sent the only fully trained (May, 1918) unit he had, the 1st ID to Cantigny to relieve a shattered French Infantry Division of Colonial Moroccans.
The Germans had taken Cantigny and the French and Americans decided to take it back and it is here that author Matthew Davenport picks up the story.
The book is a remarkable tribute to the men of the 1st Infantry Division.
It is about what many call a soldier’s war-the view and experiences of the men in the trenches-the guys who were expected to take and then hold a salient around a shattered French town called Cantigny.
The planner for this limited offensive was none other than George Marshall the same guy who would lead the entire American Army in the next war (1941-45).
To insure success the French supplied the heavy artillery to shatter the German trench line and provide long range counter battery fire to silence German artillery.
The French also provided a new horror of war called the flame-thrower and provided assault teams to accompany the American infantry. The idea was to roast the Germans who had survived the massive bombardment in Cantigny in the basements of the buildings they occupied.
In addition to the flame throwers and heavy artillery the French also supplied another novelty and new weapon-the tank.
To accompany the American infantry and flame thrower teams they supplied 12 Schneider tanks-small enough by WW2 standards but effective enough by WW1 standards. The Germans had little defense against these new metal monsters of the battlefield.
The German defenders from a reserve infantry division did not stand much of a chance. Whole companies disappeared in the bombardment and follow up as the US infantry of the Big Red One went over the top.
The center US units did well and took Cantigny while the flanking units fared not as well since the German units on either flank were untouched by the bombardment. German machine gun fire caused American units on the flanks to go to ground and try to dig in short of their objectives. (The horror of trying to take a defended trench line manned by machine guns comes across loud and clear in the narrative.)
Nevertheless, the main objective was reached with relatively light causalities (by WW1 standards) and the lead US Infantry Unit dug in to receive the inevitable German reaction from German reserve formations and that’s when the real hell on earth began for the Americans who took Cantigny.
The French and American High Commands both realized the taking some ground could be easier than holding it because to take it back the Germans would employ essentially the same tactics the Americans had just used-a massive artillery bombardment supplanted by machine-gun barrage fire-a tactic that used heavy machine guns a bit like artillery in the sense that machine guns would continually sweep a trench line back and forth causing the defenders little opportunity to dig deeper and be better prepared to receive an infantry attack. To supplement the artillery and machine guns the Germans would employ effective sniper tactics that virtually ensured that anyone peaking over the trench line would get a bullet to the head.
Davenport states that his book is a tribute to the men, especially the men who died taking and holding a minor piece of WW1 real estate. As a result, due to his extensive research and access to dairies, letters home and archives the story of Cantigny and the Big Red One is an intensely personal story as he documents nearly man for man how soldiers died or in some cases how they recovered from some of the most horrific wounds you can imagine.
Frankly, there were times when a tear was brought to my eye as young soldiers in their prime of life were literally blown to pieces with nothing left to bury or others killed by machine guns as they frantically tried to escape machine gun fire by digging deeper. More than once I had to put the book down and take a break from the sorrow I was feeling for soldiers and families from so long ago.
For some reason and I’m not certain why a number of these recorded incidents involved soldiers from my home state of Wisconsin thus making me mindful and grateful of the fact I was born in 1953 rather than 1900!
When I was a child of maybe 12 or so my dad told me a story (dad served in WW2) about our early family.
My great-grandfather was a German immigrant to the US who arrived in 1875 or so. He settled in “little Germany” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and started a family having many sons all born between 1892 and 1904.
According to family oral tradition that I cannot verify the boys of draft age (in 1917) did not want to go. As German-Americans one generation removed they felt they would face cousins across the lines and didn’t want to do that.
Dad also told me that at least one did go “over there” and was crippled by mustard gas living out his days in a VA home and dying quite young. That too I have been unable to verify despite extensive searching.
True or not Davenport’s story became even more personal as I came to realize the plight of German Americans who loved their new land and wanted do their bit but at the same time realized there were relatives on the other side of the trench lines.
That all came kind to mind as Davenport reports the countries of origin of many of the men most of whom were 1st or 2nd generation immigrants from Russia, Germany and Italy to name a few. In this I think the US fielded a rather unique army of immigrants called back to the lands they or their fathers and mothers had just left in order to fight for their new country and new freedoms.
First to Fight is Davenport’s first book and it was excellent. It’s top notch military history but more than that it is as I said deeply personal as you come to care about those who he writes about-the relatives of the survivors as well as those who died for their country and were for the most part proud do it such was their patriotism.
The Big Red One would go to fight through many more battles before the armistice before coming home in September 1919.
The Division would be remobilized for WW2. It was perhaps our premier Infantry Division fighting in North Africa, Sicily and the Invasion of France as part of the Normandy invasion.
Today there is a museum for the Big Red One in nearby Illinois. It’s on my list to visit next summer.