Chateau Thierry

(Reprinted from Army Nurses of World War One:  Service Beyond Expectations)

The German Spring Offensive of 1918 was the last ditch attempt by the German Army to win victory in the field before the weight of American forces could make itself felt on the Western Front.  In successive attacks using hurricane artillery bombardments and infiltration attacks spearheaded by crack stormtrooper battalions, the Germans sought to destroy first the British and then the French Armies.  On May 27, 1918, the third of these attacks was launched against French forces defending the Chemin des Dames sector, and in a single day of heavy fighting, broke through the French defenses.  Within four days, the Germans were preparing to secure their gains and begin their final drive against Paris, a mere forty miles away.  On both sides, the war seemed nearly over, especially since all that lay between the Germans and Paris were broken French colonial units, including a shattered French Senegalese Division near the small town of Chateau Thierry.

What the German Army had not planned on was the imminent arrival of fresh American troops to take over the defense of this crucial point.  When the scope of the German attack and its danger to Paris became clear, General John J. Pershing rushed to the French Army’s headquarters to offer all assistance to his French counterpart, Marshal Ferdinand Foch.  Pershing and Foch were not close – for months the American had resisted Foch’s appeals to amalgamate American units piecemeal into the French Army – but Pershing’s gesture transformed the Frenchman’s opinion of the Americans.  Pershing later recalled his offer:

I have come to tell you that the American people would consider it a great honor for our troops to be engaged in the present battle.  I ask you for this in their name and my own.  At this moment there are no other questions but of fighting.  Infantry, artillery, aviation, all that we have are yours; use them as you wish.  More will come, in numbers equal to requirements.  I have come especially to tell you that the American people will be proud to take part in the greatest battle of history.”

Two full American divisions, the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions, were sent to take over the defense of Chateau Thierry from the French Colonials there.  The advance elements of the 3rd Division arrived on the scene on the evening of May 31, 1918, and covered the retreat of the Senegalese across the Marne the following day.  Joined by the remainder of their division on June 2, the Americans dug in along the banks of the Marne overlooking Chateau Thierry, where they would remain until well into August.  During that time, the 3rd Division made up the core of a growing American defensive sector that would resist constant attempts to cross the Marne River and resume the German march on Paris.  Always outnumbered, and frequently isolated by retreating French units abandoning their flanks, the 3rd Division and other American units held onto the region and denied the German Army its chance to win the war.

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