This weekend will see France and the United States commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of the Battle of Cantigny, named after a little village in the Somme. This particular event was one of many during World War 1, but marked the first U.S. military offensive in Europe.
Some 199 American soldiers were killed during the Battle of Cantigny between May 28 and 31, 1918. The clash was very small according to the standards of the Great War. A skirmish, almost. However, there are four monuments in France and a museum in the west suburbs of Chicago commemorating the battle. In fact, Cantigny was the first major U.S. military victory in Europe, and a baptism of fire for the 1st Infantry Division.
The armed forces that docked in the port of Saint-Nazaire on June 26, 1917, were intrepid but disorganized. The U.S. army had less than 200,000 soldiers, and many lacked uniforms, weapons, and ammunition. The Allied general staff did not trust these Yankees and had them placed under French command, relegating them to the rear of the action. While in the town of Gondrecourt, in the Meuse département, the U.S. soldiers were trained on how to handle weapons and learned the art of trench warfare.
The German army provided the Doughboys with the opportunity they were waiting for in March 1918. After breaking through the Allied lines in Picardy, the German forces pushed on towards Paris. The French general Foch had little choice but to call on the American men for help. The 1st Infantry Division (nicknamed the “Big Red One”) had just finished its training and was sent to the front in the Somme. Its mission was to recapture the village of Cantigny.
More than 1,000 Americans were killed, injured, or gassed, but the village was finally taken along with 250 German prisoners. This feat of arms earned the men of the 28th Infantry Regiment their nickname as the “Black Lions of Cantigny.” The battle profoundly affected 36-year-old field artillery colonel Robert R. McCormick, the heir to a family of industrialists who also owned the Chicago Tribune. After the war, he renamed his estate in Wheaton, west of Chicago, in homage to the village of Cantigny. And upon his death in 1955, a public park and a museum for the 1st Infantry Division were founded on the site.
A Forgotten Battle
“Every American knew about the Battle of Cantigny during the 1920s and the 1930s, but World War II eclipsed this decisive episode of the Great War,” says Paul Herbert, a retired American army officer, historian, and director of the museum at Cantigny Park, Illinois. “That day, while everyone thought the U.S. soldiers were inexperienced and unable to fight a modern war, they proved their valor in combat.”
Immediately after their victory in Cantigny, the American troops made a name for themselves once again at the Battle of Belleau Wood and at Château-Thierry, on the Marne River. At this point of the war, the U.S. army boasted two million soldiers and was fighting on equal terms alongside the Allies. “It took almost a year to mobilize, equip, and organize the American troops,” says the historian. “But the Battle of Cantigny was really the moment when the U.S. forces stopped travelling by foot and on horseback and transformed into a motorized, modern army.”
Paul Herbert will be attending the inauguration of the new monument to the American soldiers of Cantigny, France on Saturday, May 26 at 9:30 am (Paris time), and Frédéric Chole, deputy general consul in Chicago, will be attending the commemoration ceremonies in Cantigny Park on Monday, May 28, at 10 am (Chicago time).