First Over There: America’s First Battle of World War One

Posted on May 1, 2015

by Matthew Davenport

In the early morning sunshine of the fourth spring of World War One, young lieutenants climbed onto the dirt parapets of their trenches, blew their whistles, and led riflemen “over the top” and across no-man’s-land into battle. It was a scene that had repeated itself time and again along the length of the Western Front. But on this morning, May 28, 1918, the 1,394th day of the World War, for the first time ever the attacking legions wore American khaki, and these 3,500 “doughboys” became the first face of United States military might on the global stage.

These were the soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 1st Division, and having been the first American troops to land in France eleven months earlier, they had since become the first doughboys in the trenches, the first to feel the shock of combat, and now they would be the first to attack the enemy. Their objective was the German-held jumble of timber and bricks that had once been the small farming village of Cantigny, yet another anonymous French hamlet recently stomped unrecognizable by the jackboot of the Kaiser’s Army.

Battle of Cantigny - First Over There
The great jumble of bricks and timbers of Cantigny, taken on the first morning of the battle, May 28, 1918. Image taken from the book First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I

The 1st Division’s troops won their objective, becoming the first American unit of the war to conquer enemy territory. In the two-and-a-half day fight that followed, the doughboys who held their ground against repeated German counterattacks were shredded by machine-gun fire, blown to unrecognizable bits by mortar blasts, and knocked into instant death by concussive shellfire. More than one-third were wounded and nearly one-tenth killed in action, implying casualties to come and exposing the harsh reality that despite efforts to fight a new and different way from its allies, the United States could not help but yield to the grim embrace of total war.

Measured against the grand battles that preceded and followed, the fight for Cantigny was small. And although it symbolized the first American dent in the impregnable armor of the Western Front, the ground gained was strategically inconsequential and any local benefits almost imperceptible. But Cantigny proved Americans could fight, something their Allies doubted and the Germans had been bent on disproving. It was the nation’s first attack on the German Army, a clash between two world powers that would see many bloodier fights over the next twenty-seven years. On its stage many of America’s great battle captains first emerged, George C. Marshall and Theodore Roosevelt Jr. among them. And tactically, the operation previewed modern military methods, marking the first time American soldiers fought with the intricate support of artillery, machine guns, flamethrowers, grenades, gas, tanks, and airplanes, signifying the establishment of combined arms and the birth of our modern Army. Thus May 28, 1918 was the U.S. military’s coming-of-age—the day it crossed a historical no-man’s-land that separated contemporary fighting methods from the muskets and cannon of the nineteenth century.

Battle of Cantigny - First Over There
The 1st Division, under Major-General Robert Lee Bullard, captured Cantigny from the German Eighteenth Army commanded by von Hutier. Image taken from the book First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I

By the next morning, May 29, newspapers back in the States carried headlines celebrating the nation’s first victory “over there,” igniting a national pride that would endure unmatched by any subsequent news until war’s end. In the years after the Armistice, through the 1920s and ‘30s, “Cantigny” remained a symbol of American sacrifice and triumph, a uniting emblem that exorcised the dividing demons of the Civil War in a way the Spanish-American War never could. But then came Pearl Harbor, and D-Day, and the Bulge, and in the wake of these epochal events, the Army’s capture of Cantigny lapsed into footnotes, its story left to slumber for almost a century.

World War I is our most recent war with no surviving participants, and a gauzy, sepia-toned mythology has settled over the doughboy experience, a narrative that deserves to be revisited in full color, and anchored in the reality that success in the battle—as in the war—was not inevitable.

In First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I, from a distance of ninety-seven years, author Matthew Davenport has employed the letters, diaries, reports and memoirs of the soldiers themselves—privates to generals— to pull America’s first victory on the Western Front out of the dark shadows of a forgotten past. In these first warriors of a world at war, the book reveals an inner spectrum of adrenaline, strength, fear, and homesickness, and uncloaks an Army willing to fight, but unsure of its martial skill and largely unready to face the veteran German Army.

But the book’s final truth is that they did fight, outlasting and outsmarting the enemy, finding a success that would continue until war’s end. In America’s long journey to victory in two world wars, the men who fought to the high ground of Cantigny took the first steps. They were first to land and the first to fight, and their story is First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I.

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