Overview: Situation Desperate
The battle, the battle, the battle is everything !
Marshal Foch, June 1, 1918
The third great German attack of their 1918 offensive struck on the Chemin des Dames...on the morning of May 27th. Preceded by a dense gas barrage and accompanied by tanks, the attacking columns broke the French line into fragments.
The German advance swept across the Aisne and Vesle [rivers] with such ease that [their] high command committed to the deepest possible penetration [to threaten Paris]...[The] German columns . . . pressed on to the Marne, a gain of thirty miles in three days, the swiftest German gain of their three attacks . . . Posters were put up in Paris warning the civilian population to leave. The government archives were crated for dispatch to Bordeaux. . . Marshal Foch had few resources left to meet this ultimate threat.
However, American support was now ready and was now to be called on . . . But for the immediate emergency of the German descent to the Marne and approach to Paris only two American Divisions were within reach. The 2nd, a fully equipped, splendidly trained division which was northwest of Paris waiting to relieve the 1st at Cantigny [and] the 3rd, well drilled but quite without any experience even in a quiet trench sector and without its divisional artillery, which was in the Chateau-Villain training area...were placed at the disposal of the French.
American Machine Gunners in Training
What ensued was forty-one days of continuous action -- from May 31st to July 10th -- in the vicinity of a pleasant river town previously little known to Americans. Named after that community, the Battle of Chateau Thierry entailed three major operations by the forces General Pershing sent to fight under French Command.
- The Defense of the Marne River Line
- The Battle for Belleau Wood
- The Capture of Vaux
The first article begins below. Just use the icon at the bottom to continue to the other section.:
The Defense of the Marne River Line
MG Joseph Dickman and 3rd Division Staff
Quick Facts | Description |
Where: The Aisne-Marne Sector, within the town of Chateau-Thierry on the River Marne 35 miles northeast of Paris and to the town's east.
Check the Location on a Map of the Western Front
When: May 31 - July 10, 1918
AEF Units Participating: Under command of the XVIII Corps of the Sixth French Army - Third Division of the AEF under the command of Major Gen. Joseph Dickman.
Click Here To See the German Position around Chateau-Thierry.
Opposing Forces: From German Army Group Crown Prince - Numerous divisions from the Seventh Army Commanded by General Max von Bohem.
Memorable As: The halting of the greatest threat to Paris since 1914.
On May 30th the 3rd Division was ordered to report to the French 6th Army which had fallen back to the vicinity of Chateau-Thierry where the German penetration had reached its deepest point in France. There was apprehension of the Germans crossing the Marne, at least in sufficient force to seize a bridge head available for later renewed attacks.
The Division's infantry entrained to go by railroad, a procedure which on account of the demoralization of the French railway service by the German advance was certain to require several days. One unit of the Division, however, was ready to make its own way to the Marne. This was the 7th Machine Gun Battalion which was equipped with its own motor transport.
West Bridge at Chateau-Thierry
The Battalion left La-Ferte-sur-Aube at 2:55 pm, May 30th. After a 24 hour forced drive, the Battalion reported to the French commander at 2:00 pm May 31st and was ordered to proceed at once to Chateau-Thierry to aid in the defense of the Marne bridges there. Lack of gasoline and breakdowns had delayed some of the cars but there were seventeen machine gun squads present [to continue on].
Where the 3rd Division Made Their Stand
Arriving at Chateau-Thierry near 6:00 pm, a reconnaissance determined that the 10th French Colonial Division was in contact with the German advance in the northern edge of the city. [Chateau-Thierry straddles both the northern -- the larger section - and southern sides of the Marne.] The Battalion set up its guns on the south bank where its fire could defend the approaches to the bridges and in addition could command much of the city on the north side of the Marne.
When darkness fell that night one section of Company A, under 1st Lt. J.T. Bissell, was sent across the west bridge to take up an outpost position on the north bank. He was to fight a delaying action if attacked, to keep the main line of the Battalion notified of developments, and to fall back to the sought bank if attacked in force.
The Germans pounded the sought bank that night with a bombardment so severe that in spite of the extended fashion in which the Battalion was posted, fourteen of its personnel were wounded before morning. In spite of the deterrent effect of the bombardment, by 4:00 am the Battalion had seventeen guns in position and firing. Belated squads which had been delayed on the road arrived from time to time, and these were held in reserve.
During the day, June 1st, the Germans pressed their advance vigorously. To the northwest they drove the French into Belleau Wood, and to the west they took [the village of] Vaux and Hill 204, towering above the surrounding terrain, and thus completely isolated Chateau-Thierry. They failed, however, to penetrate into the city in force and much of this failure may be ascribed to the machine gun barrage maintained by the 7th Battalion, which had so set up its guns as to command most of the streets in the city on the north bank.
The Germans attempted to mask their advance by the use of smoke bombs without success. In addition they bombarded the Battalion's gun positions but failed to reduce the volume of firing.
After darkness fell the night of the 1st, the Germans began to filter into the city in force. Toward 1:00 am, June 2nd, Lt. Bissell's outpost party was pushed back by the weight of this advance. Thereupon he led his party toward the west bridge with the intention of crossing to join the rest of the Battalion on the south bank.
The German infiltration, however, had com from the northwest and before Bissell's detachment reached the north end of the west bridge it was occupied in force by Germans. They turned a fierce machine gun fire on the approaching Americans scattering the detachment.
Bissell then made his way toward the east bridge accompanied by a few American soldiers and a group of French Polius. They found it impossible to approach of the constant fire directed upon its approaches by the Americans on the south bank. After giving up an attempt to swim the river, Bissell ventured into the field of fire and shouted to the Americans on the south bank until they recognized his voice. As a result of his courage, the fire was halted long enough for him and his followers to get across to the south bank.
7th Battalion Machine Gunners at Chateau Thierry
Unfortunately during the confusion of the last hectic few minutes of his adventures Bissell had been informed by a French officer that the west bridge, which he knew was held by Germans, had been crossed successfully by [the enemy]. When Bissell imparted this startling information to the American officer in charge of the defense around the east bridge, the latter ordered a retreat in order to save his detachment from capture. The peculiar error was discovered before it caused any damage and the Americans returned to the south bank posts which they had been holding so effectively.
As a matter of fact the French had managed to blow up the west bridge before the Germans had crossed it. [Some eyewitnesses reported] a number of Germans about to cross were caught by the explosion and their bodies hurled far into the air and out over the river. At any rate no German that night or later crossed the Marne into the southern part of Chateau-Thierry.
Meanwhile the main body of the 3rd Division, moving more slowly by railroad and later by marching, approached the area with orders to prevent the Germans from crossing the river between Chateau-Thierry and Dormans [to the east]. The infantry without artillery or engineers, reached the scene on June 3rd. The regiments passed to the control of the French and were assigned defensive positions on the south bank of the Marne.
[By preempting other possibilities for their adversaries advancing south, the 3rd Division had fulfilled its mission, which was to prevent the Germans from crossing the Marne at Chateau-Thierry.] During June, the scattered elements of the 3rd Division were put to a variety of uses. On June 7th and 8th, the 30th Infantry [long associated with San Francisco's Presidio] assisted the French in their assault on Hill 204. Between June 15th and 22nd, the 7th Infantry relieved the Marines in Belleau Wood. The doughboys also participated in night raids to capture German prisoner for interrogation. Other elements of the Division were constantly and somewhat aimlessly shifted around along the south bank of the Marne.
[But] by patiently exerted pressure on the French corps command[er], Major General Dickman, commanding the Division, at length drew his scattered units together, so that in July it presented a unified front to the enemy along the south bank of the Marne east of Chateau-Thierry. It was there to play one of the greatest roles falling to an American division during the war.
See the Doughboy Center article on the Second Battle of the Marne for more on this later episode.
Click here to visit Part II of
The Battle for Belleau Wood
Sources and thanks: A several works were consulted for this page including Stalling's The Doughboys, Friedel's Over There and American Armies and Battlefields in Europe. The sections on the 7th Machine Gun Brigade were excerpted from The AEF in Battle by Dale van Every pulished by Appleton and Company, 1927. Regular contributors Herb Stickel and Ray Mentzer helped with the photos. MH
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