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Birth of an Army: Spring 1918

Birth of an Army: Spring 1918

Trial by Fire: Holding the line and counterattacking

In the Spring of 1918, Germany launched its last major effort of the war, a series of offensives along the Western Front. Although initially the Allies were forced back, they recovered and prevented the Germans from breaking through. During these battles, large numbers of American troops entered combat for the first time. These actions taught U.S. troops and their commanders costly but valuable lessons, and proved that Americans were ready to play a major role in the final push to end the war.

By March 1918, there were over 300,000 American troops in France. A few units had been called into action during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, but the vast majority of U.S. troops had yet to see combat. In keeping with Commanding General John J. Pershing's plan to organize and deploy an independent American army, most of them were training in rear areas, or assigned to relatively quiet sections of the Allied lines.

The British and French were still recovering from setbacks they had suffered in 1917, and were simply holding on until the Americans were ready. Meanwhile, Germany had quietly moved hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the Western Front -- forces that had been freed up by Russia's departure from the war and a major German victory on the Italian front.

On March 21, the reinforced German armies attacked. They used new tactics that relied on speed and surprise, rather than the enormous week-long artillery barrages and mass frontal assaults of the past. Short, intense artillery bombardments blasted gaps in the Allied lines that were exploited by specially trained and equipped shock troops. These "stormtroopers" bypassed strong points and moved quickly forward, opening the way for larger units to follow.

At first, the Germans made good progress, advancing deep into Allied territory. However, the battered British and French troops held, and the German attacks ground to a halt without achieving their objectives. A follow-up offensive in Flanders, to the north, resulted in a similar outcome.

At first, American forces took little part in these battles. However, as the German offensives continued, Pershing agreed to send individual U.S. units to fight under French or British command. In late May, a U.S. regiment successfully seized the village of Cantigny, in the first U.S. attack of the war. Although the action was relatively minor, it was an important step forward for American troops.

A few days later, U.S. forces moved to reinforce Allied positions in the Chemin des Dames area northeast of Paris, where they prevented the Germans from crossing the Marne River to threaten the French capital. To the west, U.S. Marines halted the German advance at Belleau Wood. After three weeks of costly fighting, the Marines retook the wood, proving that American fighting men were capable of standing toe-to-toe with the battle-hardened Germans.

The Germans launched their last assault, which they optimistically named Den Friedensturm (peace offensive), just to the east of their previous effort. As before, they achieved initial successes, advancing over the Marne River near the town of Chateau-Thierry. Once again, French and American forces rallied to stop the German advance. Over 85,000 U.S. troops saw action during this engagement -- the largest number of Americans in combat since the Civil War. The failure of this final offensive definitively ended German hopes of winning the war.

As the last German attack stalled, the Allies launched a major counter-offensive along the Aisne and Marne rivers. For the first time, multiple American divisions fought shoulder-to-shoulder, sending 270,000 U.S. troops to push the Germans back. Two newly-formed American corps led much of the advance, inspiring further Allied confidence in U.S. troops and leadership. In August, the advance ran its course, and the Allies paused to regroup.

The performance of U.S. forces in the Aisne-Marne Offensive proved that the Americans were ready to take on a full share of the upcoming fighting. The various units that had been placed under Allied command during the German offensives were brought back under American control, and the First United States Army was officially formed on July 24th, with Pershing as its commander.

When the Germans had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, they had gambled that they could defeat the Allies before the Americans could raise, ship over, and train an effective fighting force. The birth of the First U.S. Army meant that they had lost this gamble. Over one million American troops now stood ready for the final Allied push to end the war.

Sergeant Stubby

Stubby was smuggled to France by the 102nd Infantry

Regiment of the 26th (Yankee) Division. He took part in 17 battles, surviving shrapnel and gas injuries.

Stubby’s canine senses helped warn his human comrades of danger. He could smell incoming gas attacks and hear inbound artillery and approaching enemies. He even captured an enemy spy trying to sneak into camp at night. Stubby also served as a mercy dog, finding and comforting wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

For his actions, Stubby was “promoted” to Sergeant. After the liberation of Chateau-Thierry, the women of the town made him a special blanket for him to wear his many awards.

Stubby returned home as a hero and celebrity. Upon his death, he received an obituary in the New York Times.

Devil Dogs: The U.S. Marine Corps

Most of America’s troops in France were soldiers in the U.S. Army. However, 30,000 U.S. Marines (officially part of the Navy) made important contributions to victory on the Western Front.

Marines had arrived with the first U.S. troops in June 1917. By March 1918, nearly 10,000 were in France. Most were organized in a brigade under the U.S. Army’s Second Division.

On June 1, the Marine brigade went into action near Belleau Wood, along the Marne River. Despite being told to retreat, the Marines dug in and fought back a German assault. They then attacked to push the Germans out of the woods. For three weeks, the Marines battled the enemy head-on. Due to their inexperience and the strength of the German positions, Marine casualties were high. But after 20 days of brutal fighting, the Marines controlled the wood.

According to legend, the Marines at Belleau Wood were called “Teufelshunde” or “Devil Dogs” by their German opponents. The nickname endures today as part of the Marine Corps’ legacy.

American Aviation: The U.S. Army Air Service

The U.S. Army had just 35 pilots when it joined the war, all in the Signal Corps. It began an intensive program to recruit and train pilots and support personnel.

The first U.S. aviation squadron entered combat in February 1918, manned mostly by pilots who had previously volunteered with the French. American-trained squadrons soon joined the fighting, and on May 24, the Air Service of the U.S. Army was officially formed.

Most American aviators flew French planes, since U.S. aircraft production was still ramping up. Training was hazardous, causing twice as many deaths as combat. In addition, brand new U.S. pilots faced experienced German foes, resulting in heavy early losses.

Despite these challenges, American pilots steadily improved. 71 pilots shot down at least five aircraft, earning “ace” status. Former race car driver Eddie Rickenbacker led all Americans with 26 victories. U.S. aviation helped beat back the German Spring Offensives, and helped control the skies in the final Allied offensives of the war.

Birth of an Army: Spring 1918

In the spring of 1918, American forces were drawn into combat earlier than expected, in response to a series of major German offensives. Their performance under fire helped hold the line and turn the tide, and proved that U.S. troops were ready for action.

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