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When the USA declared war in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson sent the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under the command of General John Pershing to the Western Front. By May 1918, there were over 500,500 US soldiers in France.
The German held St Mihiel salient was chosen for the US Army's first offensive. Pershing and 300,000 troops assembled at this sector in early September. The German High Command, aware the attack was coming, ordered a partial withdrawal of troops.
The withdrawal was still in progress when the US Army attacked on 12th September. A secondary assault, by 110,000 French troops, took place three hours later. Over 1,400 aircraft under the command of General William Mitchell, supported the advancing US and French troops. On the first day the main attack advanced 9km to reach Thiancourt and the the French troops captured the village of Dommartin. By 16th September, the entire St Mihiel salient was under Allied control.
The Western Front, July-November, 1918
(1) Edward Rickenbacker, the leading USA War Ace, took part in the St Mihiel Offensive.
At dinner that night - the night of my arrival word came to us that the Big Show was to start at five o'clock the following morning.
Precisely at five o'clock I was awakened by the thundering of thousands of colossal guns. It was September 12, 1918. The St. Mihiel Drive was on!
Leaping out of bed I put my head outside the tent. We had received orders to be over the lines at daybreak in large formations. It was an exciting moment in my life as I realized that the great American attack upon which so many hopes had been fastened was actually on. I suppose every American in the world wanted to be in that great attack. The very sound of the guns thrilled one and filled one with excitement The good reputation of America seemed bound up in the outcome of that attack.
Dressing with great haste I ran over through the rain to the mess hall. There I found groups of the fellows all standing about impatiently awaiting the chance to get away. But the weather was certainly too bad to attempt any flight to the lines. We were compelled to wait until daylight to see the true state of the heavens.
About noon word came to us that the attack was progressing quite favorably. None of our machines had been able to get up. It was still raining but the visibility was getting better. We could see that the clouds were nearly a thousand feet above the ground.
Taking Reed Chambers one side, I proposed to him that despite the rain we try a short flip over the lines to see for ourselves what it was like. He agreed and while the others were at lunch we climbed into our machines and made off. At 60 feet above ground we found that we were just under the clouds and still had quite a long view of the landscape.
Flying straight east to St. Mihiel, we crossed the Meuse River and turned down its valley towards Verdun. Many fires were burning under us as we flew, most of them well on the German side of the river. Villages, haystacks, ammunition dumps and supplies were being set ablaze by the retreating Huns.
We proceeded as far as Verdun. Then turning east we continued flying at our low altitude and passed over Fresnes and Vigneulles.
Vigneulles was the objective point of the American forces. It lies east of Verdun some fifteen miles and about the same distance north of St. Mihiel. One American army was pushing towards it from a point just south of Verdun while the other attack was made from the opposite side of the salient. Like irresistible pincers, the two forces were drawing nearer and nearer to this objective point. The German troops who were still inside the salient would soon be caught inside the pincers.
As Reed and I turned south from Vigneulles we saw that the main highway running north to Metz was black with hurrying men and vehicles. Guns, stores and ammunition were being hauled away to safety with all possible speed. We continued on south through the very heart of the St. Mihiel salient, flying always low above the roadway which connected Vigneulles with St. Mihiel. Here, likewise, we found the Germans in full cry to the rear.
One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Boche three-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway.
Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped from his seat and started running for the ditch. Half-way across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over, upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets!
All down the line we continued our fire - now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks. Most of the drivers and gunners had taken to the trees before we reached them. Our little visit must have cost them an hour's delay.
Passing over St. Mihiel, we hastened on to our aerodrome. There we immediately telephoned headquarters information of what we had seen and particularly of the last column of artillery we had shot up in its retreat from St. Mihiel. This was evidently splendid news and exactly what G. H. Q. had been anxious to know, for they questioned us closely upon this subject, inquiring whether or not we were convinced that the Germans were actually quitting St. Mihiel.