Clayton M. Sherwood:
Diary of Foreign Service, August 1917 to February 1919

By Captain Joseph H. Giese

Note: This page mirrors information on the Web at this link: Please visit this location for additional information and photographs from the period.

From 12-16 September 1918, on the Western Front of France, one of the most significant battles of World War One was fought, the battle of St. Mihiel. The engagement was the first battle in which American led forces used a concise and comprehensive operations order allowing for independent initiative from their front-line commanders. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF), commanded by General John J. Pershing, faced several German armies who were defending a series of in-depth trenches. The trench boundaries started in the French fortified area southeast of Verdun, jutting south toward St. Mihiel, and then east to Pont-Au-Mousson.

The combat commanders participating in the operation, namely Colonel George S. Patton Jr. and his subordinate officers, believed that by rapidly adapting to a situation and through their personal leadership they could influence events on the battlefield. During World War II, General Patton drew upon these personal leadership principles when he prepared for an attack on the German salient in the Ardennes Forest. Today, the battle of St. Mihiel teaches modern tactical commanders the necessity to issue clear and concise operations orders that allow small unit leaders the freedom to carry out their commander's intent during the battle.

By 1918, the number of offensives on the Western Front began to slow down into another phase of static warfare. Although the Western armies outnumbered the Germans, the strategic situation was turning into a murderous war of attrition in which each shattered side could no longer sustain an offensive. Yet, General John Pershing believed that a successful Allied attack in the region of St. Mihiel, the Metz, and Verdun would psychologically break the Germans will to fight. (Comb. Arms War. 2-3) This psychological theory was similar to what had happened to the French armies at Verdun in 1917. Besides, General Pershing knew the AEF's strategic setting dictated that the "clearing" of the rail and road communications into Verdun, and the capture of the German's key rail center at Metz should be the Americans' primary objective. Then the Americans, from their bases on the Rhine, could launch offensives into Germany. (Comb. Arms War. 2-3)

Tactically, the terrain became the biggest threat to the attacking forces. After five days of rain the ground became almost impassible to both the tanks and infantry. The weather section of I Corps operation order stated: "Visibility: Heavy driving wind and rain during parts of day and night. Roads: Very muddy." (United States Army in the World War 269) Another obstacle to the American operation were the many in-depth series of trenches, wire obstacles, and machine-gun nests that the Germans installed to augment their defensive positions. Therefore, "The Renaults designed to cross six-foot trenches in dry weather, were being forced by their crews to negotiate line after line of trenches that were eight feet deep and ten to fourteen feet wide ‘in horrible mud.'" (Wilson 108)
Further, the battlefields' key terrain was control of the cities: Vigneulles, Thiaucourt, and Hannonville-sous-les-Cotes because their rapid capture would ensure the envelopment of the German armies near St. Mihiel. To do this, the American forces would breach the trenches and then advance along the enemy's logistical road network toward their objectives.

Although the AEF was new to the French theater of war, they trained hard for several months in preparation of fighting against the German armies. Also, the British use of armor at the battle of Cambrai impressed General Pershing so much that he ordered the creation of a tank force to support the AEF's infantry. As a result, by September 1918, Colonel George S. Patton Jr. had finished training three tank brigades at Lagranges, France for an upcoming offensive at the St. Mihiel salient. (Wilson 93-96)

In contrast, the Germans had almost complete knowledge available to them about the Allied offensive campaign coming against them. "One Swiss newspaper even published the date, time, and duration of the preparatory barrage." (Comb. Arms War. 2-6) Still, the German armies stationed in the salient lacked sufficient manpower, and effective leadership to launch a counter-attack of its own against the AEF. Thus, the Germans decided to pull out of the salient and consolidate their forces near the Hindenburg Line. The Allied forces discovered the information on a written order to the German Group Armies von Gallwitz. "The forces for repulsing a broad attack against the greater portion of the south front of Composite Army C are not at present available. The attack is therefore not to be met in the forward combat zone, but in this case, avoiding it by a withdrawal into the Michel [position] is contemplated, though only in the event of an enveloping attack." (U.S. Army in WWI 290)

Yet, General Pershing's operational planning of St. Mihiel had broken down the salient into several sectors. Each Corps had an assigned sector, defined by boundaries, that it could operate within. The American V Corps location was at the north-western vertices, the II French Colonial Corps at the southern apex, and the American IV and I Corps at the south-eastern vertices of the salient. (Hq. 1st Tank Bde, Field Order No. 1, 1-2) Furthermore, General Pershing's intent was obvious, to envelope the salient by using the main enveloping thrusts of the attack against the weak vertices. The remaining forces would then advance on a broad front toward the direction of Metz (Comb. Arms War. 2-4) This pincer action by the IV and V Corps was to drive the attack into the salient and to link the friendly forces at the French city of Vigneulles while the II French Colonial Corps kept the remaining Germans tied down. (U.S. Army in WWI 255)

One reason for the American forces success at St. Mihiel was General Pershing's thoroughly detailed operations order. In fact, "...his [Pershing's] total offensive plan ran to only eight pages, about 150 less than the French proposal." (Com. Arms War. 2-4) Nevertheless, General Pershing's operation included detailed plans for penetrating the Germans' trenches using a "basic" combined arms approach to warfare. His plan had tanks supporting the advancing infantry, with two tank companies interspaced into a depth of at least three lines, and a third tank company in reserve. (Field Order No. 1,4) The result of the detailed planning was an almost unopposed assault into the salient. The American I Corps reached its first day's objective before noon, and the second days objective by late afternoon of the second day. (Com. Arms War. 2-8)

Another reason for the American success was the audacity of the small unit commanders on the battlefield. Unlike the World War One officers that commanded their soldiers from the rear, Colonel Patton and his subordinates would lead their men from the front lines. They believed that a commanders' personal control of the situation would help ease the chaos of the battlefield. One example of subordinate leadership was "Second Lieutenant Julian K. Morrison, ...[who] came upon a German machine-gun nest as he led his tanks forward on foot. Struck by two bullets in the right hand, he continued forward and, armed only with his .45-caliber pistol, captured the crew." (Wilson 109) Indeed, Patton's aggressive leadership style seemed to have inspired and influenced several of his subordinates during the battle.

Yet, the hallmark of the battle was Colonel Patton's employment of unsupported tank platoons in a "cavalry-styled" attack outside the town of Jonville. On the 13th of September, the 326th Battalion was southwest of St. Benoit where they were going to link with the enveloping units of General Samual D. Rockenbach. However, an impatient Colonel Patton did not wait for the meeting. Instead, he sent a patrol of three tanks and five dismounted soldiers toward the town of Woel to keep contact with the enemy. "Thirty minutes later the patrol was attacked by a force estimated to be at least a battalion of infantry accompanied by a battery of 77mm guns." (Wilson 116) Colonel Patton reacted to the fluid situation by sending the defenders a platoon of five tanks. The tanks joined into the fray, and without infantry support, drove the Germans about six miles to the outskirts of Jonville. "During the running battle the tankers killed or put into flight at least a dozen machine-gun crews and captured four 77mm cannon." (Wilson 116) Thus, Colonel Patton responded to the fluid situation by aggressively committing his "unsupported" tanks. Further, the tanks "cavalry-styled" attack caught the German infantry off-guard and gave the initiative back to the "outnumbered" Americans.

In conclusion, the audacious leadership qualities and the operational planning present at the battle of St. Mihiel are still important factors for the modern military commander. Another major factor is the continuation of detailed planning that permits leaders to interpret their commander's intent. General George S. Patton Jr. continued to successfully use those skills throughout his lustrous career, especially at the Battle of the Bulge. Finally, "Had Pershing been allowed to conduct his offensive as planned, The First American Army probably would have penetrated German lines [further] and altered the strategic situation along the whole Western Front." (Com. Arms War. 2-3).

Original text © 2002-2003 by, Willowshade, West Grove, PA


Foreword and Summary

August 1917 | September 1917 | October 1917
November 1917 | December 1917

January 1918 | February 1918 | March 1918 | April 1918
May 1918 | June 1918 | July 1918 | August 1918
September 1918 | October 1918 | November 1918 | December 1918

January 1919 | February 1919

THIS PAGE: BATTLE ANALYSIS | Definitions | Names | Family

© 2002-2003 by, Willowshade, West Grove, PA

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