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American Expeditionary Force at the Battle of Cantigny

The American Expeditionary Force fought its first World War I offensive at the tiny hamlet of Cantigny, France, a canton of Montdidier, located six kilometers to its east. In the spring of 1918, the population of Cantigny sat at approximately 100 people. Between them they ran a small number of businesses like a café and a grocery store and bakery. But it was mostly an agricultural village as were so many of the small villages in France at that time.

American Expeditionary ForceFor those who lived there, its geographical location was excellent. By road, it was 115 kilometers almost due north of Paris. It was just 32 kilometers northwest to Amiens, 135 kilometers east by southeast to Reims, and about 105 kilometers from the English Channel.

When the Germans invaded in through Belgium in to France in August, 1914, Cantigny fell on the last day of the month, August 31st, left behind by the French Sixth Army as it and the rest of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force retreated in the face of overwhelming German military might. The Germans were too busy chasing their adversaries to bother with any real occupation. They pushed forward leaving Cantigny behind and raced south toward the Marne and toward Paris. But then there was the Battle of the Marne which started on September 6, 1914, and as quickly as they had come through the Germans left. And so within the space of a few weeks, Cantigny found itself rid of Germans and back in friendly hands.

Over the next few months there was the race to the sea to the north and east of Cantigny. And then when that ended, both sides gradually clawed deep trenches into the once fertile soil of Belgium and northern France from one end to the other of the Western Front more or less locking it in place for the next three and a half to four years, There would be some movement at various points across the Western Front, but generally speaking Cantigny would remain nervously safe about 20 kilometers from the front lines from mid-September, 1914 to February, 1917 when the Germans did the unthinkable and unilaterally withdrew as much as 35 miles in places, most notably away from the area right in front of Cantigny. This movement was logical as the part of the front facing Cantigny had been a salient into the Allied lines. By withdrawing, the Germans were able to get rid of the bulge and shorten their own lines and make better use of their thinning manpower. But they utilized nasty scorched earth tactics destroying villages, poisoning wells, tearing up roads, and cutting down forests leaving behind a brutalized land.

But then on March 21, 1918, the Germans unleashed Operation Michael and punched forward again. They did so brilliantly shattering much of the opposition in their path. It wasn't just the normal penetration that could be measured in hundreds of yards or even one or two miles, but a thoroughly deep strike using four armies and new storm trooper tactics across a broad front approximately 40 miles long from Arras south to near Laon.

On the receiving end was the British Fifth Army. Over the next 15 days through April 5th, the German Seventeenth, Second, Eighteenth and Seventh Armies created another salient 25 miles deep that echoed the one they had created in 1914. And at the tip of the new salient was the little once sleepy village of Cantigny.

The Germans liked being there. Cantigny sat on a plateau a few hundred meters above much of the land around it giving the Germans a commanding view of the Allied lines. Other than that, the terrain around Cantigny was like much of the rest of France: expansive gently rolling and sometimes flat farmers' fields punctuated by the occasional small but thick forest.

The Americans had slowly been gathering strength as ship after ship transported army and air service units from American ports to British and French ones. Both the British and the French had made no pretense about wanting the fresh Americans be used as penny packet replacements for their own units. It didn't matter what they said: John J. Pershing resisted, promising that he would only use the American Expeditionary Force as a unified one under his command. Now with the Germans threatening Paris once again, he relented. The new US 1st Infantry Division, whose nickname was the "Big Red 1" in honor of the unit's shoulder patches, was inserted by itself into the lines of the French First Army right in front of Cantigny.

Next: Battle of Cantigny, page 2.

Sources:

"The American Army in the World War: A Divisional Record of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe", pp. 235-236.
"America in France", p. 223.

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