Story of the Great War - Roland Usher


The third great German attack had burst through the Allied lines in the battle for Paris and had reached the Marne at Château-Thierry. Paris only thirty-nine miles away, all but within range of German guns! Paris already bombarded by the long-range, monster gun some sixty or seventy miles distant! As one Frenchman expressed it, "We felt in our faces the very breath of the approaching beast."

It had been throughout the German offensive the strategy of Foch to retreat to save men rather than positions, and, as the lines had drawn back nearer and nearer to Paris, the hearts of the Allied world had stood still for fear that Paris itself might fall into German hands. Dauntless as the French were, it seemed at that moment as if their strength was failing. The British had just suffered two months before a crushing defeat; the Italians were as yet in the gravest danger; there was serious question whether the British and French could themselves resist the Hun alone. Were the Americans ready? Although the American regulars at Cantigny had showed superb skill, they were comparatively only a handful. But there were other Americans. The Second Division was composed largely of marines, the land soldiers who go to sea with the navy, and in desperation the marines were rushed to the Château-Thierry sector to help stop a gap, when even French heroism had seemed almost incapable of resistance.

Americas at Chateau Thierry


It was a characteristic modern charge, an all-night charge. On motor trucks, cattle cars, dummy railroad trains, across country they hurried, crowded together like sardines. With little food and less sleep, they reached the battlefield. They were not posted in the town the Third Division of Regulars were there; but along the line to the west of the town itself. The French commander advised and even ordered them to retire. The German advance was so strong that it was idle, he thought, to sacrifice life to stop it. But the American commander declined. It was not the tradition of the marines to retreat, he told the French officer; it was their business to attack. They stormed ahead through the middle of an artillery battle, yelling like wild Indians, ardent, young, irresistible. "Don't go there!" shouted the French, "The boches with machine guns are there!" "That's where we want to go!" shouted the Americans. "That's where we have come three thousand miles to go." It is reported that an American officer hurried up to a French officer, commanding troops who were fighting fiercely and almost hopelessly, and in extraordinarily bad French said, "Vous fatigez vous partir—netre job." "You tired—you go back—our job."

Part of the marines went into action on June 2, in a wheat field hereafter to be famous in American annals. Far in the distance they saw the Germans advance across another wheat field in smooth steady columns, with no attempt at concealment. Indeed, the Germans were so far off that they believed themselves out of danger and the French were amazed to see the marines set their sights and open rifle fire on the Germans. The European tradition still was in this war, that the best that could be done was to fire toward the enemy rather than at an individual man. But just as the American farmers in the Cambridge marshes bothered General Howe's men on the ramparts of Boston, and as Morgan's men at Saratoga picked off Burgoyne's officers, so the American marines each picked out his man and killed him. The Germans were literally paralyzed; men were falling on all sides, very obviously killed—and by rifle fire—and at such a distance. The German lines hesitated, stopped, and broke for cover. The advance was checked. A French aviator, soaring overhead, grasped the situation and signaled, "Bravo." His signal was caught and passed back through the lines to Paris, echoing again and again and spelling courage and hope.

There was also a bridge across the Marne which the Germans were determined to take and which the Americans determined to hold. The Americans had pushed across the river on the north bank some small companies of machine gun men who were to attempt to hold the Germans away from the town and the bridge during the night of May 31. The Germans filtered into the outskirts of the city and occupied positions on the hills which enabled them to direct a galling fire upon the French and Americans holding the north bank of the river. In accordance with orders, after dark on the first of June the French retired to the southern bank. It was now 10:30 P.M. and pitch dark except for the light of the bursting shells and the flame stabs of the machine guns on both sides. Then there came to the Americans out of the black darkness, the ghostly chant of the advancing enemy and they knew the Germans were coming, shoulder to shoulder, singing loudly to keep up their courage. Presently the shuffling and creaking of their boots was heard by the straining ears of the Americans, and then every gun let loose in the darkness. The enemy waves melted away, but on they came again, only to be met by furious gun fire, and to melt away once more.

One American lieutenant with a squad of thirteen men was somehow or other left on the north bank, and, returning as he understood under orders, he approached the main bridge after the Germans arrived and while the grand attack was proceeding. He and his men worked their way down toward the bridge, took refuge under the stone parapets, and watched the Germans rushing forward and getting shot. The lieutenant knew that his own company was on the other side and in a lull of the firing he yelled repeatedly, "Cobey! Cobey!"—the name of his fellow officer. Cobey heard him, and the next time the German wave retired the American guns ceased long enough for the lieutenant and his men to scramble back across the bridge.

The next day, June 2, the Germans continued heavy shelling of the position and then at nine o'clock under cover of darkness they sought to rush the bridge. But fifteen minutes of heavy machine gun fire squelched the attack. The next night the French engineers laid a charge under the bridge and blew it up, and, as the Germans rushed out of the houses to learn what had happened, a flare was thrown over which lit up the whole scene, and the American bullets again found plenty of targets. The German advance was checked. The Americans had held. France was electrified. Help had come.