Author Topic: US 26th "Yankee" Division Closes the Pincer at St. Mihiel - 100 Years  (Read 913 times)

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Offline ArizonaTank

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St. Mihiel Offensive, September 12 – 16, 1918.

The first American led offensive in WWI was the St. Mihiel Offensive, September 12 - 16, 1918. The US 26th and 1st Divisions formed a northern and southern pincer to slice off the St. Mihiel “bump” or salient in the line that had been held by the Germans since 1914. 

The Germans had planned on retreating, but they were surprised by the timing and rapid advance of the American offensive.

The 26th “Yankee” Division was a National Guard division made up of troops from New England. The 1st Division was one of the most battle hardened Regular Army divisions in the AEF. In the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), there was a natural rivalry between Regular Army and National Guard units. As the German retreat in the St. Mihiel salient became more frantic, the 26th and the 1st Division got into a race to close the pincers at the central point, Hattonchatel.

To their great satisfaction, the 26th won the race, and from the heights of Hattonchatel, was able to watch the 1st Division approach up the valley below.

This is a Google street view from Hattonchatel looking down toward where the 1st Divsion would have advanced from.,5.7052312,3a,60y,164.16h,90t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sEep3TKZLLjtxUhzF0wUrCg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

The US Army's Center for Military History (CMH) has a great downloadable booklet on the St. Mihiel Offensive.

This map from the CMH publication shows the pincers and US and French units participating.

The Offensive

St. Mihiel was the first “modern” offensive by US forces. The staff planning, scheme of maneuver and use of combined arms would be familiar to US forces in WWII, or even today. It was also the first fully independent operation of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

St. Mihiel is a French town on the Meuse river, that was at the “point” of a sharp bump or salient in the Allied Western Front.  The Germans had pushed out the salient in 1914, and held it ferociously against French attempts to take it in 1916 and 1917.   

The failure of the German Kaiserslacht Offensives in Spring 1918, dramatically shifted the initiative to the Allies.

In July, Pershing got the blessing of Allied Supreme Commander, French General Ferdinand Foch, for an American led offensive in mid-September. Reducing the St. Mihiel salient was chosen as the target, and US Army level planning went into overdrive.

The plan was for the newly formed First US Army, with 4 corps, made up of 9 US divisions, and 4 French divisions, to form a pair of pincers, and cut the salient at its base.

But the Germans were now on their heels. What the Allies did not know was that the Germans were now willing to give up the salient. Straightening out the St. Mihiel salient, would save them divisions to put in the line elsewhere. Operation Loki was conceived for a fighting withdrawal, at the first sign of Allied attack.

The Germans saw the American build-up coming. However, they did not anticipate the timing of the fight exactly. The initial barrage, and rapid American advance, took many of the units off-guard. Except for some initial heavy resistance at places like Mort Mare woods, many German units retreated more rapidly and with much less discipline than General Ludendorff, the German Quartermaster General, had expected. 

In four days, the AEF achieved its objectives, giving the Allies confidence in the new American First Army. But the battle was stacked in the AEF's favor. The enemy was retreating anyway, the Americans had large advantages in troops, equipment, and aircraft. Maybe more importantly, the the AEF had plenty of time to plan prepare. Overall, the American First Army had about 7,000 casualties, while the German Composite Army “C” had 2,500 casualties, but lost another 16,000 captured.

The 26th's Advance

In general, the advance of the 26th was fairly easy, compared to other parts of the St. Mihiel salient (the 79th Division, to the right of the 1st, may have had the toughest fight). The Germans were retreating, but they had also been surprised and the troops in the salient were 2nd and 3rd stringers who did not have much fight in them anyway. The Germans did put up some defense; snipers, and dug-in machine gun emplacements worked to slow the Americans down, and buy time for the retreat. While casualties were light, the division still lost many good men.   

But in many cases, the Germans that the New Englanders met, were often more interested in surrender. This passage comes from the history of Company K of the 101st Infantry Regiment, 26th Division. 

Page 117

One of the funny incidents which occurred in taking prisoners
was that which happened to boys of K Company. Peruda
Maudsley and Joseph Gillis, during one of the halts along the
road leading to Hattonchatel, discovered a small wooden shack
which had been used by the enemy for a First Aid Station. They
decided to explore the shack and see if any souvenirs might be
lying around. On reaching a small piazza in front of the building
a door was thrown open and a large chorus of "Kamerade" was
heard from within. Both boys, having left their rifles standing
against a tree a few yards away, were armed with a stick and were
as much taken with surprise as the men inside were with fear. On
regaining their bearing, Maudsley commanded the men to step out,
and out walked fourteen husky Germans and Austrians. The
boys marched them to the Battalion Commander and turned them
over. Gillis was ordered to take the fourteen men to the rear.
He started along the main road, had gone about two kilometers
and decided that he had better check up and see if all the four
teen prisoners were in line. On making the count, to his surprise
there were twenty-two in line.' Gillis began to feel that he did
not know how to count or that for once figures lied. On second
count he decided figures were right and started on his way. On
reaching Headquarters, three kilometers further on, he reported
to the officer in charge that he had twenty-two prisoners. The
officer made a count and found thirty-four in line. After a thor
ough investigation of how these figures lied, it was discovered that
many of the enemy which had been camouflaged and overlooked
by the advance, on seeing the prisoners marching by, would look
out of the woods, and when Gillis was not looking would step into
the line and march along. They felt that this was much safer
than to stay in the woods and be captured or killed there.
In the group of prisoners taken was one who seemed inclined
to talk freely, so the Intelligence Officers asked him if he
knew what he was fighting for. He said, "Yes, Germany was
fighting to preserve the Fatherland from being overridden by
England." The officer then asked him if he knew what the other
countries were fighting for and he said, "Yes, England is fighting
to destroy my Fatherland, Belgium was compelled to fight on
account of her stubbornness, France for protection and to regain
possession of Alsace-Lorraine, and the Americans for souvenirs."

The division was able to move rapidly, the history of Company "E" of the 101st Engineers of the 26th Division notes:

One of the striking features of the whole
affair was the exceptional ease with which the
great salient was taken. Many more guns were
at hand than were actually used, and the hardest
part of the drive was in keeping up the pursuit
of the enemy over an exceedingly hilly country.
One found it almost impossible to understand
why the Boche made such comparatively little
resistance after seeing the wonderful dugouts,
large and small, including gymnasiums, great
kitchens, and also fine living accommodations
with solid reinforced concrete overhead of six
to eight feet, great double-planked doors and
windows, lined with armor-plate one-half inch
thick. These were situated under reverse slopes.
Concrete trenches with concrete pill-boxes and
observation-turrets, the mass of barbed wire to the front, and lastly the
fine positions with their second and third lines of defence all behind long
moraines, seemingly created there just for the purpose, gave a further
idea of what a stiff resistance would have meant to us.

The 26th reached it's objectives so easily, that the Corps Commander ordered them forward to Hattonchatel, the link up point that would close the pincers with 1st Division. The race, born of Regular Army / National Guard rivalry was on. 

But the 26th got to Hattonchatel first. One of several divison histories (New England in France – available in the internet archive) published after the war describes taking Hattonchatel this way:

Through the night, leaving patrols on every cross-road,
gathering in prisoners as it marched, the 102d Infantrypushed
along the Grande Tranchee. Ahead of the column
rode Colonel Bearss, with his adjutant, the French information
officer, regimental inteUigence officer, Lieutenant-
Colonel Alfonte (the Division signal officer), and three or
four messengers. Just after two o'clock on September 13
this party stormed into Hattonchatel, which had been set
on fire by the enemy, captured then and there a loaded
truck train and a machine-gun crew, too surprised to offer
resistance. Into blazing Vigneulles, at the foot of the hill
below Hattonchatel, marched the regiment before three
o'clock. Strong patrols, with machine-gun sections, were
immediately sent to the southward, toward Creue and
Heudicourt; and it was in the latter village that contact
was made later in the morning with elements of the First
Division. The race was to the Twenty-Sixth. To the Corps
Commander, who had said that General Pershing wanted
the Division to be in Vigneulles by daylight. General Edwards
had given an assurance that his men would be there
at four o'clock at the latest; and his men had made good
their leader's promise handsomely.

Overall, St. Mihiel was an American victory, but with plenty of asterisks. But the US First Army would not have much time to celebrate. General Pershing had committed the AEF to an even larger offensive, one that would greatly test American mettle; The Meuse-Argonne, set to kick off on September 26th.

« Last Edit: October 05, 2018, 03:09:44 PM by ArizonaTank »
Honus Wagner
"The Flying Dutchman"
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