In Their Words
Battle of Cantigny
On May 28, 1918, the 28th Infantry Regiment of the US First Division attacked a German-held French village called Cantigny some 75 miles north of Paris and marked an important change in the history of the American army. A small battle by World War I standards, the Battle of Cantigny was America’s first significant battle, and first offensive, of World War I. On its outcome, in part, rode the “amalgamation” question of whether arriving American doughboys would join an independent American field army or serve as replacements in the French and British armies.
Cantigny also marked the emergence of the modern, permanently established, combined arms division in the US Army, an organization that remained central to that army for the rest of the 20th Century and into the 21st. And it was America’s first commitment in blood to democracy in western Europe.
While the Americans were intent on demonstrating the First Division’s prowess as a combat unit, the French were intent on learning whether they could trust this relatively raw formation of foreigners. So important was this first American commitment to the battle at hand that Pershing himself came to address the division’s 900 officers on April 16: “…you will represent the mightiest nation engaged,” he told them. “Our future part in this conflict depends on your action.”
The purpose of the attack was limited to securing Cantigny and the central portion of the Cantigny plateau, an advantageous position that yielded excellent observation to whichever side held it. The assault was planned to seize the plateau with a single regiment, its three battalions attacking abreast, each in its own zone. The center battalion would be reinforced by a group of twelve French Schneider tanks and would have the primary task of clearing the main German position in the village of Cantigny itself and then advancing beyond the village. The battalion to the north would protect the left flank of the main attack and the battalion to the south would clear the southern edge of the village before moving into place to prevent a German counterattack from the southeast. The attack would depend on surprise and weight of artillery. Timed to occur near daybreak, it was to be preceded by only an hour of intense preparatory artillery fires before a rolling barrage and the tanks led the assaulting infantry across no man’s land.
The attack on the morning of 28 May proceeded much as planned. At 5:45 AM, as an early morning haze wafted over the battlefield, the preparation fires struck throughout the attack area. Just before 6:45 AM, the Schneider tanks clanked slowly forward from their positions in the Valle de Coullemelle to cross the American trenches at pre-selected traverses. French aircraft swarmed ahead. The 75-mm gun barrage shifted onto the line of departure, roiled and blasted there for three minutes, and then moved grimly east. All along the line, amid whistles and shouts barely audible over the din of artillery, mortars and machineguns, doughboys of the 28th Infantry Regiment grunted up from their trenches, hefting their extra ammunition, grenades, rations, flares, shovels and assorted kit, and formed into squad lines, bayonets fixed, to follow the rolling barrage. Much to everyone’s surprise and relief, they met spotty resistance. The tanks could not enter Cantigny itself through the rubble but quickly eliminated several machinegun positions west and north of the village. With a few tanks stalled or stuck in shell holes, all battalions reported to have reached the objective line by 7:20 AM.
With the attack apparently successful, US troops consolidated their hold and prepared for the coming German counter attacks. German artillery fire against the new American positions increased by noon and enemy artillery and machinegun fire into what was now a shallow US salient in the German line became intense. Several German counter-attacks were met with withering American rifle, machinegun and artillery fire and were driven off, but not without inflicting a rising number of American casualties. Reserves were committed to bolster the line. By May 30, the new American position was sufficiently secured and the 16th Infantry Regiment relieved the 28th. The fight had caused the First Division 1,067 casualties – killed, wounded, missing and gassed.
Cantigny made a profound statement to Germans and Allies alike. It bolstered Allied morale to hear of American troops in the line, on the offensive and succeeding. It underscored Pershing’s persistent argument that American troops were more valuable in large formations of their own than as reinforcements for the Allies. Most important, it began a narrative of American success powerfully amplified by the heroic stands of the 2d and 3d Divisions along the Marne just days later. Clearly, Americans could fight, and there were now nearly a million of them in France.
Another individual impacted by Cantigny was Colonel, then Major, Robert R. McCormick, editor and publisher or the Chicago Tribune, who commanded the 1st Battery, 5th Field Artillery, First Division, at the start of the battle. He was evacuated during the battle due to the effects of poison gas and Spanish influenza. When he returned to Wheaton, IL, he renamed his estate, Cantigny from Red Oaks Farm in honor those with whom he served. Upon his death his estate was turned into Cantigny Park a beautiful 500 acre estate housing two museums, formal gardens, and a nationally recognized public golf course.