On this day in 1918, General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) launches American’s first independent offensive of the war. Previously they had only acted in concert with the French or the British. The Americans had begun to arrive in real numbers on the western front in 1917, but it was not until 1918 that the numbers of American soldiers began to make a difference on the western front.
The American soldiers, popularly known as ‘Doughboys’ at first were inexperienced and poorly organized. However, by mid-1918 they are a force to be reckoned with on the western front.
The AEF helped to support the exhausted and stretched French forces at Belleau Wood in June 1918 and in the Second Battle of the Marne in July. The Americans played a critical role in helping the allies to resist the last great German offensive of the war. This was known as the German Spring Offensive of 1918 or the Ludendorff Offensive and it was the German High Command’s last ditch gamble to win the war. The Americans helped to supply much-needed manpower to the British and French. After the failure of the German Spring Offensive, the allies planned for a major offensive, this they believed, if planned and executed effectively could deal a decisive blow to the Germans.
Pershing and the overall commander of the allied forces Field Marshal Foch decided that the AEF should launch an offensive in the Saint-Mihiel salient. This was a bulge in the front line between Verdun and the town of Nancy, in northern France. The area had been in the hands of the Germans since September 1914. They used this salient to disrupt communications and the movement of troops from western to eastern France. The allies had long wanted to retake the area, but it was heavily defended by the Germans. They had dug miles of trenches and had developed an elaborate network of defenses in the area, including bunkers and minefields. Pershing was eager to prove that the AEF was every bit as good as the other Allied contingents. He proposed the assault on the Saint-Mihiel salient.
The attack began on the 12th of September and it was spearheaded by a hundred Allied tanks. The AEF infantry followed behind the tanks as they attempted to break through the Germans defenses. Conditions deteriorated when heavy rain fell and the terrain became muddy and almost impassable. The Americans pressed on and managed to push the Germans back. General Ludendorff, the de-facto leader of the German army, ordered the evacuation of the salient as they simply did not have the necessary forces to defend the lines, after the heavy losses that they suffered during their Spring Offensive.
By September 16, 1918, Saint-Mihiel and the surrounding areas were free of German units and this was proclaimed as a great victory for Pershing’s men. From Saint-Mihiel the AEF pressed on toward to the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River, where they linked up with the French and then planned for a massive assault against the Germans. This was to prove the final offensive of the war and it led to the collapse of the German army.