The Spring Offensive of 1918, as it is now remembered, succeeded magnificently—too magnificently, really. The Germans got so far ahead of their own supply lines that they were soon beset by crippling shortages. What’s more, they overran their initial objectives so quickly that they found themselves floundering, with no idea what, exactly, to do next. While it appeared on the surface to have paid off handsomely, that great gamble the Germans had taken because of the threat of 4 million fresh doughboys actually left them confused, directionless, hungry, and ill-equipped—vulnerable.
And the first of those doughboys were already in a position to exploit that vulnerability.
1918: Military Might
The Germans, seeing their Spring Offensive falter, held out one last hope: that they might inflict so much damage upon the untested American Expeditionary Forces in battle that the doughboys could lose their will to fight or even succumb to defeat. And indeed, in the two armies’ first major encounter, on April 20 at Seicheprey, in northern France, German shock troops caught the Americans by surprise and quickly took the town, along with nearly 200 prisoners. But within hours, the Americans rallied and recaptured it; then U.S. troops went on the attack and drove the Germans out of Cantigny on May 28 and, a few days later, repelled the Germans at Chateâu-Thierry. The Germans moved into Belleau Wood, a dense, strategically located forest nearby, where they had formidable defenses. The French, reluctant to follow the Germans into such a place, asked Pershing to send in an American division to root them out; Pershing, perhaps unaware of how dangerous the position was, dispatched the Second Division, which included two regiments of marines. The battle lasted nearly three weeks and claimed nearly 10,000 American casualties. (More marines were killed or wounded at Belleau Wood than in the service’s entire 143-year history to that point.) But in the end, it was a grand triumph for the American forces—militarily and psychologically.
The Germans regrouped and launched a vast assault across the Marne River, where French and British troops had stopped them four years earlier. This time, they made great advances—everywhere except at the critical western end of the line, only about 40 miles from a panicked Paris, where the American Third Division stopped them cold at the river’s edge. (To this day, the division is known as “The Rock of the Marne.”) It was the Germans’ last offensive of the war: three days after they failed to move the Rock of the Marne, American and French troops launched a counteroffensive that would ultimately drive them out of the area entirely. The Germans would remain on the defensive until the war ended.
Though they could no longer win the war outright, they still hoped—quite reasonably—to achieve a stalemate, dragging out the fighting and weakening their enemies’ will to the point that they could dictate the terms of a cease-fire. Both sides expected the war to rage well into 1919, especially considering how fiercely the Germans clung to every bit of ground and how dearly they made the Americans pay for every inch. Then, in early September 1918, the Expeditionary Forces caught the Imperial German Army by surprise at Saint-Mihiel, in northeastern France, and captured more than 200 square miles—including many towns the Germans had occupied for four years—in just two days. The American troops followed this with their greatest offensive of the war, the Meuse-Argonne, to the west. Some 1.2 million Americans fought there; by the time the battle ended, at 11 a.m. on the 11th of November, 26,277 of them had been killed. It remains, to this day, the deadliest battle in American history—but it was also a great American victory, and a crucial one. As much as anything else that fall, Meuse-Argonne forced Germany to plead for an armistice.