The battle of St. Mihiel was the first major operation of an all-American force.
The Overall Allied Plan
General Foch’s overall plan was to conduct operations to reduce salients and straighten the front line to secure rail and roads behind the front for a larger Allied offensive in 1919.
What the heck is a salient?
Definition of salient (Entry 2 of 2): something (such as a promontory) that projects outward or upward from its surroundings especially: an outwardly projecting part of a fortification, trench system, or line of defensehttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/salient
St. Mihiel Salient
If we look again at the Western Front, we can see that the St. Mihiel Salient is a prominent one.
Even with no military experience, it looks obvious that this salient presents an obstacle to nearby military actions by the Allied Forces.
The St. Mihiel Salient had been won in 1914, when German troops breached the French line and took the territory. After four years, it had been heavily entrenched and fortified.
The AEF Plan
General Pershing looked for an opportunity for the American Expeditionary Force’s first combat operation as a stand-alone American army. The most promising was the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient. This aligned with Foch’s plan, and Foch approved.
Pershing thought that a successful attack would validate the decision to create an independent American army and convince the British and French to recognize the Americans as equal partners in the war effort.
The Allied plan was to attack the salient with overwhelming force, and execute a pincer operation to cut off the salient and straighten out the front line.
The buildup for the St. Mihiel attack involved over half a million Americans and 110,000 Frenchmen. Supporting the attack would require some 3,000 guns, 200,000 tons of supplies, and 50,000 tons of ammunition.
Planners began to prepare detailed marching tables, while others worked on the battle, figuring how units would be deployed to attain the objectives. I can’t even imagine the scope and detail of these kinds of military plans.
The Americans planned to attack on two converging axes that would meet to cut off the salient.
High casualties were expected, as U.S. Colonel George Marshall, one of the planners, wrote:
About fifty thousand (50,000) casualties was the percentage normally to be expected and hospitalization was prepared accordingly.Colonel George Marshall – Battle Plan for St Mihiel
A major obstacle to the American operation were the many trenches, wire obstacles, and machine-gun nests that the Germans had installed.
The Plan for 89th and Ben Teply
Each division had specific “lanes” of responsiblity. The 89th Division was to advance through dense woods onto the open plain and defensive fortifications toward Euvezin and Thiacourt.
Ben Teply and Company M would go over the top first with Company I. Companies L and K were to reinforce and back them.
D-Day and H-Hour
The First Army Field Order No. 9 set D-day for the operation as 12 September, with H-hour at 0500.
Pershing felt that a long term preparatory artillery barrage—as the Allies had done in previous years—would eliminate any chance of surprise and allow the enemy to plan counterstrokes. So the artillery barrage was set for only four hours, starting at H-4.
Then the bombardment would change, to lay down artillery fire about 100 yards ahead of advancing troops, continually moving the firing line forward.
Heavy rains for the past few days had made the ground almost impassible to both the tanks and infantry.
Wednesday, September 11, 1918
Hiked through dark woods. No lights allowed; guided by holding on the pack of the man ahead. Stumbled through and under brush for about half-mile into an open field where we waited in a soaking rain until about 10 PM.Corporal Eugene Kennedy, Diary, 78th Division
At precisely 0100 on September 12, 3,000 Allied guns simultaneously began firing a massive volley.
Thurs.Sept. 12th, 1918
We then started on our hike to the St. Mihiel Front arriving on the crest of a hill about 1 am. I saw a sight which I shall never forget.
In one instant the entire front as far as the eye could reach in either direction was a sheet of flame while the heavy artillery made the earth quake.
Corporal Eugene Kennedy, Diary, 78th Division Diary
Over the Top
At 0500 the heavy artillery stopped, and the rolling barrage hit the ground just in front of the infantry. H-Hour had arrived.
The men had been in the mud and rain all night. Now it was over the top. They crossed the jumping off line.
The rolling artillery barrage ahead of them advanced one hundred meters toward the enemy trenches every four minutes.
The attackers faced fierce resistance. Braving machine gun and rifle fire, they advanced.
The 89th Division had a difficult assignment. The woods of Bois de Mort-Mare extended across most of the front with only a narrow strip
of open ground to the east, where Ben Teply and Company M were.
At five o’clock the whole mass of men jumped up out of the trench and started through the wire. The first man to be killed in my vicinity was Private Reyelts. He was hit by a rifle bullet just as he jumped out of the trench.
I became entangled in the wire and had my leggins completely torn off.
I went forward and saw one man lying in a trench shot through the leg. Another was lying behind a bush receiving first aid.Captain Wood, Company D
They advanced, the 178th Infantry Brigade on the left and the 177th Infantry Brigade with Ben’s Company M on the right. Both brigades suffered heavy casualties as they approached the woods.
An exploding shell knocked Lt. Hunter Wickersham to the ground with a severe wound. He continued to lead his platoon until he collapsed and died.
Lt. Wray fell on the morning of the 12th, and stretcher bearers Homes and Lamson rushed to his aid at the cost of their own lives.
The Germans too were suffering heavy casualties. Under such pressure, the line cracked, and soon hundreds of enemy prisoners were streaming to the rear.
By 0800, the Mort-Mare woods were in American hands and the division was advancing toward the next defensive line.
By 1230, they reached the southern edge of the Bois de Nonsard and Bois de Thiaucourt and captured the town of Nonsard. The infantry had advanced eight kilometers through the muddy fields and paused to rest.
Three officers and two hundred men had been wounded. Four officers and thirty-five enlisted men had been killed.
The commanders felt the Germans were in chaos and retreating, and they wanted to press the attack further. They requested and got permission to continue the attack toward the objectives of Day 2.
So the attack continued into the afternoon.
By early afternoon, the men had advanced almost to Thiacourt.
Ben Teply was somewhere along the right front, probably southwest of Thiacourt.
At about 1500, he was hit by gun shrapnel in his right leg.
He probably looked for cover, and administered initial first aid himself.
We will look at his medical situation in more detail in the next post.
He was out of the battle.
By the evening of September 12, the troops attacking the salient’s southern boundary were a day ahead of their scheduled objective.
And by September 14, the salient was pinched off and the front line was pushed back to the Hindenburg line. Allied objectives were met.
The successful offensive resulted in 7,000 casualties on the Allied side, far below the expected number of 50,000. The Americans captured 16,000 prisoners and 450 enemy guns.
Ben was one of 195 wounded and 88 killed from the 353rd.
Nibbles Extra Credit
D-Day and H-Hour
June 6, 1944 was the first D-Day. Nope. The St. Mihiel Offensive in 1918 was the first use of the terms D-Day and H-Hour.
The U.S. Army Center of Military History identifies this distinct origin: “In Field Order Number 9, First Army, American Expeditionary Forces, dated September 7, 1918: ‘The First Army will attack at H hour on D day with the object of forcing the evacuation of the St. Mihiel Salient.'”
It was a revolutionary advance in military battle planning.
The D in D-Day means the date the a planned operation is to begin. Likewise, the H in H-Hour means the hour the operation will begin.
So all planning uses D+1 for the next day after the battle is to begin, D-3 is the third day before. H+5 means five hours after the battle begins, H-1 is one hour before.
Using this terminology allows the planning to be fully developed without specifying a calendar date or time.
So if an operation is planned for September 1, 1918 at 0300 hour, then D-Day is September 1 and H-Hour is 0300. But if something changes, like weather, the operation can be changed to September 12 at 0500 without modifying the plan.
More Nibbles Extra Credit
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million. Here are two remarkable videos, both filmed at the same place and time that Ben Teply fought and was wounded in the St Mihiel battle.
He was there. You can see what he saw – battle, chaos behind the line, the massive scope of the effort. You can almost see him.
The first is a 9 minute video of the St. Mihiel offensive. Watch for the 89 when the map is shown. That’s Ben’s 89th Division.
It begins on September 12, the day Ben is wounded. Can you see him in the video?
Another video, 11 minutes, with footage of 89th Division. I think it’s even more interesting, as it shows a lot about behind the lines activities. And the huge scope of the operation. For sure, these are scenes that Ben saw.
Did you see him?
- Much of the information – History of the 353rd Regiment, 89th Division, National Army, by Capt. Charles F. Dienst et al. – 1921
- Much of the information – Official Brief History of the 89th Division USA – 1917-1918-1919 – Maj. C.J. Masseck
- St. Mihiel, 12-16 September 1918, by Donald A. Carter – Center of Military History – United States Army
- First St. Mihiel video – The Prelinger Archives – The St. Mihiel Drive – www.prelinger.com
- Second St. Mihiel video – National Archives – 11.H.1326 – THE ST. MIHIEL OFFENSIVE, SEPT. 10-25, 1918, 89TH AND 2ND DIVISIONS – www.archives.gov
- Corporal Eugene Kennedy, Diary, 78th Division Diary – http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/stmihiel.htm
- Battle map and photo of German prisoners – IV Corps – St. Mihiel, 12-16 September 1918, by Donald A. Carter – Center of Military History – United States Army
- Battle map – Company position – History of the 353rd infantry regiment, 89th division, National army, Charles F. Diest – 1921
- Photo – Open Attack at St Mihiel – Lucien Jonas – 1927
- Photo – Thiacourt – Schutz Group Photographers Collection – Library of Congress
- Photo – Cemetery at Thiacourt – American Battle Monuments Commission