The American Expeditionary Forces fought its first World War I offensive at the tiny hamlet of Cantigny, France, six kilometers west of Montdidier. In the spring of 1918, the population of Cantigny was about 100. 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 like so many other small French villages at that time.
Cantigny's geographical location was excellent. By road, it was roughly 115 kilometers north of Paris, 32 kilometers southeast of Amiens, 135 kilometers northwest of Reims, and 105 kilometers from the English Channel.
When the Germans invaded through Belgium in to France in August 1914, Cantigny fell on the last day of the month, August 31st. It was abandoned by the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force as they retreated in the face of overwhelming German military might. The Germans were too busy chasing the Allies to bother with any real occupation. They pushed through Cantigny and raced south toward the Marne and Paris. But then there was the Battle of the Marne, which started on September 6, 1914. This was a tremendous victory for the French. They quickly pushed the Germans back to the north. As quickly as they had come through the Germans left. And thus in the space of a few weeks, Cantigny found captured by the Germans and then liberated by the French.
Over the next few weeks, the Germans and the Allies raced pushed northwest to the English Channel, each hoping to outflank the other. Neither was successful. Instead, both sides had millions of troops now staring at each other from their parallel lines. Next 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. This would more or less lock the troops on both sides in place for the next three and a half to four years. There would be some movement across the Western Front, but Cantigny would remain nervously safe about 20 kilometers from the front lines from mid-September 1914 to February 1917. Then the Germans did the unthinkable and unilaterally withdrew as much as 50 kilometers 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 shorten their own lines and make better use of their thinning manpower. But while withdrawing, they utilized nasty scorched earth tactics destroying villages, poisoning wells, tearing up roads, and cutting down forests leaving behind a brutalized land.
Then on March 21, 1918, the Germans unleashed Operation Michael and punched forward again. They advanced 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 stormtrooper tactics across a broad front approximately 60 kilometers 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 40 kilometers deep. 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 most of the surrounding land 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 wanted the fresh Americans as penny packet replacements for their own units. However, the American Expeditionary Forces Commander General John J. Pershing resisted, promising that he would only use the American Expeditionary Forces as a unified army under his command. Now with the Germans threatening Paris once again, he relented. The new US 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed "Big Red 1" for its 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.
"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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