Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The First American Offensive—Cantigny

In all probability the American attack upon Cantigny on May 28, 1918, was the first offensive attack conducted by American troops alone. While not in itself a major operation as this war has judged affairs, its immediate success at once altered the opinion of foreign observers of the value of American aid. It probably led the French general staff to intrust to the Americans the far more important positions at Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood. The offensive was conducted and carried out with magnificent dash and verve by the First American Division, comprising sections of the Regular Army.

Cantigny was a sort of observation post for the Germans, jutting out into Allied territory, and gave them a considerable advantage. It was a strong position because of the number of cellars and dug-outs around it, and it was joined by a long tunnel to the chateau in the village. The American infantry had carefully rehearsed the attack behind the lines with tanks and finally went forward in three waves. The tanks preceded the troops, who advanced slowly, not on the run, separated from each other by considerable spaces. With the infantry went an attachment of flame-throwers who were to throw bombs into the cellars and dugouts if the Germans refused to come out. Engineers, signal corps men, carrier pigeons, also went with them; in case the wires should be cut, the carrier pigeons should be used. Overhead the artillery fire roared. The French guns also threw over gas bombs on the German batteries to the rear of Cantigny. Immediately preceding the infantry was laid down a rolling barrage behind which walked the troops, not moving faster than fifty yards a minute and then only half that pace. Suddenly a heavy smoke was thrown to blind the eyes of the German observers.

American troops at Cantigny


The village might have been a volcano in eruption, shooting up clouds of smoke, first white, then brown, then black—a great dull cloud covering all like a pall, eternally writhing and twisting as if Cantigny were trying to escape its fate. The German defenses were completely leveled by the artillery fire; the trenches were smashed so that they looked like a field plowed by a giant harrow; the German artillery was silenced by the gas and smoke.

At 6:45, the zero hour or the minute for the attack, the observers, watching from behind, had their eyes fixed upon a smooth green slope, dotted with trees, across which the American troops must advance. The moment for the attack came and the great smoke cloud rolled itself between the observers and objective. Then came a rift in the smoke and on the green slope were tiny black figures, like ants, walking forward slowly. "We could see two of the three waves and not a single man out of place, following the barrage like veterans," said one of the officers.

The sun had just risen and through streaky clouds the tongues of red flame from the hundreds of guns were momentarily visible to the watchers behind, but the village itself was nothing but a pillar of smoke. Out of it came back in thirty-five minutes the characteristic American message, "We're here! Everything O.K." Further messages came back to the observers in the staff office: "They can see the Roche throwing down his arms in Cantigny—the colonel has twenty prisoners—the right flank is sending back about a hundred balloon reports grenade fighting west of Cantigny where our men are mopping up the trenches—one tank returning from Cantigny—our men are seen walking around the city—flame throwers can be seen through the smoke cleaning out the dugouts."

American troops at Cantigny


All had gone absolutely as rehearsed, the artillery fire, gas, shells, smoke screen had prevented the German artillery from operating and had driven the Germans into their dugouts. The rolling barrage kept them there until the Americans were upon them. The Americans had not lost their heads, had walked as they should and had not run, and had executed in thirty-five minutes with a precision which no Allied troops could have surpassed an operation of real difficulty. These were men of the Regular Army.