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By the spring of 1918, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and several others had already been bloodied during rotations into generally quiet sectors to gain experience, or in support roles with the British Army as the latter sought to contain the Imperial German Army’s Michael offensives.  In the last week of April, the 1st Division made the move into the sector that would in a month’s time earn the division national acclaim: Picardy, in northern France, in which province stood the village of Cantigny.  The Battle of Cantigny is regarded as the first distinctly American victory of the war.

1919, France - Col George C. MarshallPublic domain
1919, France – Col George C. Marshall

A concerned Colonel George Marshall recorded that:

“We commenced the relief of the French units on the night of April 24th, and by the 26th the First Division was established in front of the enemy.  There were no trenches, the men being distributed in individual pits or “foxholes”, and the Headquarters located in any convenient cave or cellar.  This lack of covered communications and the continuous violence of the artillery fire made it almost impossible to circulate in the sector during daylight hours.  Our casualties made a formidable daily list, considering the fact that there was no advance by the infantry on either side. The losses in officers were particularly heavy, as it was necessary for them to move about to oversee their men.  The captains of the machine gun companies, whose personnel was more scattered than others, had a particularly trying task, and most of them were killed or wounded during the first ten days. After the machine-gunners, the field officers suffered most, and we had two Lieutenant Colonels killed and two others wounded in a very short time.” (Excerpted from Memoirs of My Services in the World War, 1917-1918.)

Takeaways:

–The communications scheme under which you train may not be the same one you are able to employ when you enter a new area of operations.  Anticipate this and be flexible.

–Leaders will be excited when their first action is imminent.  That is normal and indeed a good sign, but it must be tempered with a sense of caution.  No one benefits when a large number of key leaders are knocked out on the eve of battle.

–Likewise, the junior leaders of combat support units (machinegun companies in this case) are often more vulnerable, less situationally-aware, and may be less experienced when it comes to operating within the big picture.  Be aware of and sensitive to that, and when possible devote some additional time or resources to help them do their job so that their units can subsequently provide you with the best possible support.

John Throckmorton is a business executive who lives with his family north of Atlanta.  He served for 20 years as an infantry officer with assignments at Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Fort Benning, and in Iraq.  His great-grandfather was a machinegun officer with the U.S. 35th Infantry Division (and ironically saw the start of the next war while serving as a senior staff officer with the U.S. Army’s Hawaiian Department on December 7th, 1941).  His World War I reading list can be found here:  https://taskandpurpose.com/american-expeditionary-force-books/