The 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Cantigny: American Forces’ First Divisional Attack in World War I

On May 28, 1918 the American 1st Division led an assault on the town of Cantigny, France, making it the first divisional attack by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I. Prior to this attack, American soldiers had been at the front for operational training serving as part of experienced British and French units. The success of this attack proved that American forces had the training, tools and leadership necessary to be a major threat to the Germans.

Situated on high ground west of the Rivier des Trois Doms, the location of Cantigny allowed for observation of the surrounding open countryside. The elevation concealed German reserves and artillery batteries to the east, and  fortified entrenchments stretched north and south. The Allied trenches lay 500 yards away, down the open slope west of Cantigny. To the north and south Allied lines wove through small woodlands and broad fields where troops were under constant hostile observation. The Allies could only evacuate wounded or move in the open at night.

On May 20 the 1st Division was ordered to prepare to attack Cantigny. The 28th Infantry Regiment was selected for the assault with support from two companies of the 18th Infantry Regiment. The division’s officers scouted the objective from the front lines. The French air service took photographs of the defenses at Cantigny and reconstructed a replica of the main assault area on similar ground well behind their frontline. The three battalions of the 28th Infantry Regiment practiced the assault. Platoon level units were tasked with attacking specific enemy shelters and positions in detail. French tank and flamethrower units joined the training, and aircraft dropped weighted messages to advancing troops as they would in combat. American and French signals’ men joined in to practice establishing communication with the newly taken ground. During the period of preparation, enemy artillery fire constantly harassed American forces facing Cantigny. Despite bombardment by poison gas, shrapnel, and high explosives, the French X Corps and 1st Division batteries amassed over 200,000 rounds of ammunition to support the attack.

On the nights of May 26 and 27, the 28th Infantry Regiment moved into the line with its reinforcements. They occupied newly dug positions, command posts, and mortar pits only 200 yards from Cantigny. An enemy trench raid attacked American lines northwest of Cantigny, but  alert assault troops repulsed the attack. At 4:45 a.m. on May 28 all the artillery batteries fired a few timed rounds to confirm their targets. An hour later the bombardment began with heavy guns hitting German batteries with explosives and poison gas, while mortars and howitzers churned Cantigny with shells. American artillery concentrated on trenches and machine gun positions adjacent to Cantigny. By 6:45 a.m. the tanks had come up and the infantry followed them in three waves behind a rolling barrage. They encountered little resistance. The engineer and flamethrower teams prompted many Germans to surrender their shelters in the town, and signals’ men established communications almost immediately. The flanking battalions and part of the center battalion moved around the town and took up defensive positions. The Allies had taken Cantigny.

 The engineers and the 28th Infantry Regiment quickly consolidated their positions. They repaired German trenches and made new ones. They secured the defense with three strongpoints, and artillery observers came forward to coordinate fire. Firmly established, the Allies resisted seven strong German counterattacks over the next several days.

 The AEF’s 1st Division had shown that American troops could perform effectively in larger coordinated operations with other Allied armies, and that large American units could defend against determined enemy attacks. Though relatively small, the successful attack on Cantigny added a spirit of self-confidence to American forces. The battle left the Allies feeling encouraged,  and optimistic about the employment of further American divisions, corps, and armies. The efficiency of American preparation and execution of a difficult operation was a foreshadowing of the energy and ability they would display in the coming months.

Recommended Readings:

1st Division Summary of Operations in the World War

History of the 1st Division during the World War, 1917-1919

The 1st Division at Cantigny, May 1918. Gas Warfare in World War I Study #11