The American Expeditionary Forces fought one of its earliest World War I engagements at the tiny hamlet of Seicheprey, France on April 20, 1918. It was a surprise battle, at least as far as the Americans were concerned. They weren’t expecting a fight when the Germans struck at them from the north in the wee hours of the morning. In front of the Germans was the US 26th Infantry Division, which along with the 1st, 2nd and 42nd Infantry Divisions, was one of the first four American divisions to reach France.
American manpower was building up rapidly and the Germans were no longer as strong as they used to be, but they were still powerful and they still had the upper hand overall in manpower and quality on the Western Front. But what would happen over time was a question.
As far as the Germans were concerned, the attack on Seicheprey was simply a large raid designed to show the Americans how weak and inexperienced they were and correspondingly, how good German crack troops were. It would be good not only for morale amongst the German troops, but good for morale back home. And it would have an adverse affect on American troops and the American home front.
Seicheprey was located 26 kilometers by road north of Toul and almost equidistant between St. Mihiel 23 kilometers by road to its west and Pont-a-Mousson 22 kilometers by road to its right. The front lines of the bottom of the St. Mihiel salient were more or less parallel to and just north of the Departmental Roads D907 and D958 that ran from St. Mihiel to Pont-a-Mousson. Seicheprey was just in between the front lines and D958 on a spur road. While there was a good amount of forest in the general area of the St. Mihiel salient, the area immediately surrounding Seicheprey was wide open farmland other than to the immediate northeast which was home to a thick forest called Foret de Mort Homme (Dead Man’s Forest) that ran as far as the eye could see and well beyond that. The same forest also flanked the east of Seicheprey, but further away, and in any case, that part was in friendly hands. To the northwest, just a few thousand feet ahead of Seicheprey, the lines bulged menacingly southeast toward the village. And it was probably from there that the attack was launched.
At the vanguard of the German assault were Stormtroopers. The Stormtroopers were very small infiltration units equipped with specialized tools such as flamethrowers. They were trained to get into tricky spots, cause dramatic damage and then get out of the way for normal infantry troops to come in their wake for mopping up operations. In all, 3,200 Germans were in on the attack.
The 26th’s nickname was the Yankee Division, owing to its formation in Boston and its component units being mostly from New England. There were two brigades and four regiments, the 101st, 102nd, 103rd and 104th. The Americans were green, just about untried in battle in any way thus far. In fact, that was the whole point of having them in the St. Mihiel area: it was known as the quiet backwater of the Western Front. And a primary reason that the Americans had been positioned there was that they could slowly acclimate themselves to modern warfare. It is worth noting that there was another extremely significant reason. Higher ups such as John J. Pershing felt that it would be a perfect place to launch a deep thrust into Germany once the Americans had built up to sufficient numbers. But that was just a plan and in any case, such an attack was not going to happen until 1919 at the earliest.
As the Germans moved south, their brunt of their attack fell on the 102nd Regiment largely constituted of brave young men from Connecticut. As the Stormtroopers flowed into and around Seicheprey, the Americans fell back in disarray, taking heavy casualties. The fighting became progressively fiercer and culminated in desperate hand to hand combat and grisly bayonet thrusts. From the 102nd Infantry Regiment, practically everyone got involved including the cooks and the marching band. One of the cooks killed two German soldiers with his meat cleaver.
Eventually the Americans counter-attacked and were able to regain Seicheprey by later in the afternoon. The Germans had exacted a heavy toll for a partial day of fighting against just pair of Regiments: more than 100 taken prisoners and over 650 Americans who were either dead or wounded. In exchange, the Americans were able to count 100 dead Germans lying around them. Was the successful capture a result of a match of equal fighting power or simply because the Germans had completed their raid and were melting away is not clear. But at least the Americans could claim that they hadn’t lost ground.
As a result, the battle was hailed as a victory by the American press. The reality was that the Stormtrooper tactics had carried the day, and that the Americans had been trounced and given a humiliating bloody nose. And the village was left in ruins with not a single building or tree left intact. At least 80 Americans of the 102nd Infantry were buried in the village in the immediate aftermath of the battle.
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