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The great crusade

8:55 AM  May 1st, 2017
by Joseph T. Dickman

Among the battles in which Joseph T. Dickman commanded troops was the battle for the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient. The chunk of land in northeastern France had been seized by the Germans and blocked the Allies’ communications and transportation lines. In the war’s first independent U.S. operation and supported by the Allies, forces attacked the Germans in September 1918. Dickman commanded the IV Corps, sending three divisions in from the south. This included the 3rd Division, which he had commanded as it landed in France in April 1918. In Europe, Dickman found himself fighting not just the Germans but also the perceptions of the French and British militaries, which regarded the American troops as underprepared and the American tactics as foolhardy for their embrace of open warfare tactics. The success at St. Mihiel, followed closely by the battle of Meuse-Argonne, proved the mettle of the U.S. troops and the strategy of the Americans. It also made Dickman proud of his men.

The edited excerpt below is from his book The Great Crusade, published by
D. Appleton & Co. in 1927 just months before Dickman’s death following a heart attack. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
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The immense fields of wire known to exist in front of the enemy’s lines gave me much concern. One method proposed of overcoming this obstacle was by means of portable sections of wire matting, which were to form a kind of bridge over the entanglement for the passage of attacking doughboys. A demonstration at Vaucouleurs on Sept. 8 was fairly successful.

The next day there was an exhibition of the operation of five French tanks at Autreville. These machines, in addition to dealing
effectively with machine-gun nests, were counted upon to go through fields of wire, unless the rains should make the soil of the [Plain of the] Woevre too soft and slippery. However, our principal reliance was placed on wire cutters, and arrangements were made to secure a large supply of the powerful two-handed kind to assist in clearing the way for the advance.

The only cavalry in the IV Corps was a squadron of the 2nd Cavalry, comfortably located in barracks and stables at Dommartin,
a mile east of Toul. A review of the squadron was held and an inspection of its equipment made, partly to show the troopers that, [as] their former colonel, [I] had not forgotten them among the large forces of the other arms now under [my] command.

One of the difficult things to teach new troops is the avoidance of exposure, not only on account of the unnecessary personal danger, but also, in many cases, to avoid betrayal of the plans of the High Command. At one time the division recently arrived in the Marbache sector was suffering daily casualties from artillery fire, about noon, although the sector was rather quiet at other times. One of the enemy’s aviators had discovered that the American soldiers formed long lines in the streets while waiting for their turns to be served with the midday meal at the company kitchen. This exposure furnished good opportunities for artillery concentrations which the enemy was not slow in utilizing. Eventually our local Commanding Officer realized that this artillery activity was not a mere coincidence, so he ordered that the men come up in groups of four, the rest remaining behind a wall or other cover until ready to be served.

The original plan of the American Commander-in-Chief, [Gen. John J. Pershing], contemplated a strategical operation of the highest importance, namely, a break in the enemy’s line and a deep advance at a point seriously menacing the line of communications so vital to the existence of his army. When the Meuse-Argonne operation was decided upon by the Allied High Command, the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient was considered as preliminary thereto and thus became a secondary and limited operation to flatten out the salient and to liberate the enclosed territory and several important lines of railroad.

The principal attack was to be made by nine American divisions; the secondary attack by two American and one French division; and the holding attack by a French corps of three divisions. 

The Germans had established a succession of strongly fortified defensive lines, with many bands of wire. Their command, as organized, was divided into three groups, [with] six divisions in reserve.

The American concentration commenced on the 28th of August. As secrecy was highly important the movements were made by night, the marches being about 10 miles per day for foot troops and 15 miles for vehicles. In the daytime the troops were concealed in woods and buildings. In this way our forces opposite both sides of the salient were increased to about 600,000 men, but depositions on the outpost line were not changed until the last day, to prevent identifications. Although the Germans expected an attack, it came sooner and much stronger than they had anticipated.

The IV Corps was to attack on a front of about 6 miles, from Limey to Richecourt with the 89th, 42nd and 1st Divisions in line from east to west, each with a front of about 2 miles.

Promptly at 1 a.m. Sept. 12, the battle commenced when our artillery opened an intense fire of penetration that was intended to damage the German wire, destroy many of the enemy’s machine guns, and drive his troops to cover. On the southern face of the salient this artillery fire continued until 5 a.m., and the infantry of the corps front then moved out under a powerful barrage.

Some of the French generals had gone to the hills of Boucq to observe the great bombardment from the walls of the château. This was too far from Corps headquarters, where a busy time was in prospect; but a position on high ground about 200 yards in advance of the Corps dugout enabled me to witness, for about an hour, a display of fireworks never seen except in a great war. More than 2,000 fiery mouths belched forth their vehicles of destruction against the enemy who scarcely made a reply.

The attack came as a tactical surprise to the Germans who were thrown into the utmost confusion. Mustard gas fired on occupied woods and crossroads contributed to the disorder; large trains of transportation were caught on the roads and destroyed.

Rainy weather had left the ground soft and in poor condition for military operations. The 12th was cloudy, with squalls of rain; our air observation was deficient and rendered very mediocre assistance. The tanks got into trouble early in the game, on account of the mud, rough country and impassable trenches.

Much of the wire was found to be old and insecure. The enemy was demoralized by our artillery fire and the rapid advance of our troops, and made but weak resistance. Numbers came out of dugouts and gave themselves up. Occasional strong points and machine-gun nests made more resolute opposition, but as a rule the resistance was quickly overcome.

In the evening of Sept. 12 a report was received that the retreating German artillery was choking the roads south of Vigneulles and Hattonchâtel. The rumbling of retreating German transportation on that highway was audible in the night. This indicated a
good opportunity to make huge captures. Accordingly, the 2nd Brigade, with machine guns and cavalry, was ordered to advance in force to the outskirts of Vigneulles and Hattonville, so as to close all roads to the north and east of these towns.

y the evening of Sept. 13 the St. Mihiel operation practically was over. All the exits from the salient had been closed since early morning and the escape of the troops remaining therein cut off. Early in the day the last division had attained the Army Objective, and all divisions were consolidating their positions and operating towards
the Exploitation Line.

Sept. 16 marked the end of the battle of St. Mihiel, the front having become stabilized. The operation was a success in every respect. We captured nearly 16,000 prisoners, 182 guns, hundreds of machine guns, and an immense store of material, supplies and ammunition. [We] recovered 200 square miles of territory and freed the Paris-Avricourt railroad. The force and speed of our attack had overwhelmed the enemy so that he offered but slight resistance. Our casualties were so small, less than 7,000 during the period of advance, that these units were immediately available for another and greater operation in a new theater of war.

The greatest results of the victory were moral. It raised the morale of our troops and of our Allies; the Germans were correspondingly discouraged and began to realize that final defeat was inevitable. An efficient American army had been developed and its fighting power demonstrated to friend and foe. The victory gave our troops implicit confidence in themselves and a sense of superiority over the enemy. Wire entanglements ceased to be regarded as impassable obstacles, and training for open warfare required no further
vindication.

To read some historical background about Joseph T. Dickman, please click here.

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