First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America's First Battle of World War I

First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America's First Battle of World War I

by Matthew J. Davenport


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The riveting true story of America's first modern military battle, its first military victory during World War One, and its first steps onto the world stage

At first light on Tuesday, May 28th, 1918, waves of American riflemen from the U.S. Army's 1st Division climbed from their trenches, charged across the shell-scarred French dirt of no-man's-land, and captured the hilltop village of Cantigny from the grip of the German Army. Those who survived the enemy machine-gun fire and hand-to-hand fighting held on for the next two days and nights in shallow foxholes under the sting of mustard gas and crushing steel of artillery fire.

Thirteen months after the United States entered World War I, these 3,500 soldiers became the first "doughboys" to enter the fight. The operation, the first American attack ever supported by tanks, airplanes, and modern artillery, was ordered by the leader of America's forces in Europe, General John "Black Jack" Pershing, and planned by a young staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall, who would fill the lead role in World War II twenty-six years later.

Drawing on the letters, diaries, and reports by the men themselves, Matthew J. Davenport's First Over There tells the inspiring, untold story of these soldiers and their journey to victory on the Western Front in the Battle of Cantigny. The first American battle of the "war to end all wars" would mark not only its first victory abroad, but the birth of its modern Army.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250056443
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/12/2015
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 609,872
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

MATTHEW J. DAVENPORT is a litigation attorney who is a former prosecutor and veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve. He is a member of the Western Front Association, the American Legion, and the Military Writers Society of America. He lives with his wife and two sons in Greenville, North Carolina. First Over There is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

First Over There

The Attack on Cantigny, America's First Battle of World War I

By Matthew J. Davenport

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Matthew J. Davenport
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6027-8


Let 'em Come

Again that morning the sustained din of far-off artillery filled the expected hour of sunrise as darkness lifted from the American trenches. Light fog blanketed no-man's-land—three hundred boundless yards of ripening beet plants, wheat stubble, and butchery ascending toward the German lines. Beyond the tangle of barbed wire at the unreachable crest of the hilltop, dark rooftop silhouettes of the village of Cantigny materialized against the morning's leaden sky, framed by a horizon of piney woodlands in the distance.

Once a serene farming hamlet graced with orchards and idyllic red-roofed homes, Cantigny was now a barren maze of hollowed ruins staring back at the American lines across the forbidden plateau. Its smooth walls and rooftops had been whittled to jagged profiles by weeks of artillery fire, and though the village seemed vacant and lifeless, its stone cellars and outlying trenches were stiff with Germans.

By this, the final week of May 1918, tranquil moments on the front lines had grown rare, but for once, above the low rumble of remote shelling, no crashing of nearby artillery or chatter of machine-gun fire attended the emerging dawn. The temperature climbed out of the low fifties, but down in their trench where the bite of the night air lingered, the doughboys lay curled on the cold dirt floor or propped against the hard chalk walls, stealing what sleep they could before daybreak. They had arrived at the front lines only three hours earlier, after a long march lugging their weapons, supplies, and ammunition through crushing shellfire, and what little rest they were able to grab was surely insufficient to equip them for a new day staring down the German lines extending out the north side of the village. As the light fog and overcast sky battled the first glimmers of daylight, the sleeping figures in the trench line dressed in khaki, brown boots, wrapped leggings, and stiff, high-necked collars were lit faintly in colorless relief.

These fifty men formed 3rd Platoon, Company E, 28th Infantry Regiment of the US Army's 1st Division, and together they held a short 150-yard stretch of the 468-mile-long Western Front—a ragged line of carnage clawed out by forty-five months of the bloodiest fighting in human history. The scene repeated itself in trenches snaking north to the English Channel and south to the Swiss border in alternating shades of French blue, Belgian navy, and British tan. The sight of American khaki in the front lines was a recent development, and though many of these doughboys had just endured their first French winter and some had been in-country nearly a year, they were still considered the new guys—the untested "Yanks."

For twenty-five-year-old platoon sergeant Ray Milner of Titusville, Pennsylvania, who stood six feet two inches tall, keeping his steel soup-bowl helmet down below the four-and-a-half-foot top of the trench parapet took strained effort. Bent at the waist, he worked his way up and down the line quietly rustling the men, one by one, awake for their morning stand-to. With six years of Army service, Milner was a seasoned veteran when measured against the inexperienced faces he was waking up. Some were just boys, like Pvt. Homer Blevins of Fresno, California, who at seventeen was the youngest in the platoon. Most had volunteered for service in the months following America's entry into the World War the year before, and many others had been drafted, trained, and added to the unit in the past few weeks—fresh replacements for those lost to snipers, shelling, mustard gas, or the influenza of a harsh winter that had dragged on well into spring.

It was Monday, May 27, 1918, a detail almost universally unnoticed by soldiers who had long before shed their previous life's mental dividers of workweeks and weekends. Time passed in clusters of days marked only by greater or lesser mortal danger—ten days of cheating death in the trenches, ten days "rest" billeted in drafty barns and cottages of some anonymous French village, then ten days in "reserve" up closer to the front, where the perils of mustard gas and aerial bombardments were often worse than at the front lines. Then over again the sequence repeated, and for how long nobody knew.

Three days earlier, this monotonous cycle was finally broken as these soldiers were ordered from the front lines and trucked twelve miles away to a training area for "battle rehearsal." As General Pershing promised six weeks before in his sendoff speech to the division officers, the 1st Division had been chosen out of the five then in France to enter that "great battle of the greatest war in history." Rumors had since circulated among the men about when the "great battle" would finally come, and where, and which unit would get the coveted assignment.

Back at the rehearsal area, these men had learned it was their regiment—of the division's four—ordered to retake the prize of Cantigny from the German Army. Field Order No. 18, which had descended from the typewriter of a young lieutenant colonel on the division staff, George C. Marshall, laid out the attack operation in great detail, and its thirty-nine pages of supply lists, mission assignments, and artillery barrage schedules formed the script for history. Thirteen months after President Wilson had called them to service in "the most terrible and disastrous of all wars," and ten months after landing in France to join the Allied cause, the Americans—the "Yanks," "Sammies," or "doughboys"—were finally entering the fight, and the soldiers of Company E's 3rd Platoon would be in the first attack wave going "over the top."

The first day of battle, "J-Day" was set for Tuesday, May 28, and with two and a half days of battle-plan rehearsal complete, most of the regiment would be spending May 27, "J minus 1," relaxing back at the training area before moving up to the front lines after dark. But for the men of Company E there would be no rest. The four companies of their battalion had been ordered again to the front the previous night, May 26, two nights before the attack and a full day earlier than the rest of the regiment. Having taken over the front-line trenches well after midnight, some being rustled awake by Sergeant Milner had managed to squeeze in two or three hours of sleep, but many had found no rest, and fatigued by the night's long march they were running on fumes. As dawn struggled to break, their collective hope was for a quiet twenty-four hours on the front lines before the shrill whistles blew the next morning at Zero Hour, sending them over the top and into the maelstrom of war.

* * *

Up and down its length the trench began stirring with hushed activity as soldiers sat up, buckled on their canvas web belts, hung their gas masks over their chests, and strapped on their cold steel helmets amid stretching yawns and gulps of cold coffee. Sidestepping slowly through them, moving from soldier to soldier, his stout frame buckled tight in his officer's Sam Browne belt with holstered Colt .45 pistol, was their platoon leader, Lt. Charles Avery.

Just fourteen months earlier, Avery was a field reporter for the Kansas City Star. The United States entered the war the day before his twenty-fourth birthday, and though married with a three-year-old son, he quit his newspaper job, volunteered for Army service, and was admitted to officer school. After three months training at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, he received his commission, said good-bye to his family, shipped off to France, and was placed in charge of 3rd Platoon by March. In just his second month as platoon leader, Avery displayed an effective leadership that seemed instinctive, but it was his light, personal touch that earned the swift respect of his men. A fellow Company E officer portrayed Avery as "the fun maker" who "bubbled over with fun and scintillating wit."

A few minutes past 5:00 a.m., as Lieutenant Avery and Sergeant Milner ensured the last of their men were awake, the calm hanging over no-man's-land was broken by the familiar low rumble of German artillery fire. The soldiers braced at the whistles of incoming salvos, and the distant drumfire continued as the first shots hit halfway across the plateau in crashing thuds of smoke and flame. More shells followed, humming a medley of ominous tunes as enemy gunners dialed in the American lines, marching the footfall of detonations closer to Avery's hunkered doughboys.

The blasts reached the trench in eruptions of fire and dry earth. Packed spoil of the parapet collapsed and earthen walls caved in as sheets of white flame and hot shrapnel filled the air. Lieutenant Avery scampered up and down the line checking on his soldiers, who were curled up, white-knuckled, hugging the dirt. "No such thing as a dugout in the sector, so we lay like lizards in the bottom of the trenches," one man wrote home. "The awful explosions would come, the ground would rock, then dirt would fall in on us." The onslaught was relentless, pounding minute after unending minute for an eternal hour, rupturing eardrums and stretching some men to their psychological breaking point. As their captain would later say of enduring such bombardments, "nothing can be done but wait, and wait, and wait."

Steel shards and flames sliced through the cramped space, and yells and screams punctuated the thunder of shelling. The undaunted Sgt. Ray Milner, still walking up and down the line and loudly encouraging his men, was the first to fall. In a blinding flash, his standing figure was "wrapped in smoke and fire," as Lieutenant Avery would later relay; "when the scattered mist of high-explosive fog and the uprush of earth had cleared away, the sergeant lay dead in two pieces, his trunk severed below the shoulders."

The entire platoon was trapped in the deadly vortex, and between exploding flashes men dropped wounded and dead. Eighteen-year-old Pvt. Charles "Ollie" Shepard fell on the dirt trench floor, "killed instantly by piece of shell in back" a watching comrade would later recount. Likely hit again and buried in the shelling that continued, young Ollie's body was never seen again. Another blast got the platoon's youngest, Pvt. Homer Blevins, killed "instantly" when "a shell exploded alongside" him, a nearby private reported.

Surrendering to the grim lottery of shellfire, twenty-three-year-old Cpl. Chester Melton and twenty-five-year-old Pvt. Fred Turner both shriveled into fetal bundles on the trench floor. A shell hit near Private Turner, and when the smoke cleared he lay motionless in the dirt, seemingly untouched. A fellow private, Franklin Berry, found Turner lifeless, with glazed eyes fixed in a death stare. "It was more concussion than wounds that killed Turner," Berry estimated, because "there were only a couple of scratches on him but he was as limber as a rag just shook to death from concussion." Corporal Melton, in sad contrast, had simply disappeared. None of his comrades remembered seeing the blast that killed him, and no trace of him was ever found, leaving his carved name on the Somme American Cemetery's tablets of the missing as the sole monument to his memory.

* * *

Three hundred yards behind them, in the captain's small command bunker, the company's second-in-command, Lt. Irving Wood, was worried and restless. He had been listening intently to the sounds of the bombardment, but repeated checks with the guard outside revealed no runners or messages from the front lines. The commander, Capt. Edward Johnston, was asleep, and as the roar of shelling hit full crescendo, Wood decided to wake him.

"Captain, I don't want to wake you up about a mere bombardment, but this has been getting steadily louder, and I don't like it." Lieutenant Wood was leaned over, shaking his captain's shoulder. The urgency in his voice was obvious as the packed walls of the earthen bunker telegraphed the distant barking of artillery blasts. Captain Johnston, only an hour into sleep and still in uniform, sat up on his canvas cot and adjusted his eyes. A faint hint of dawn leaked in through the curtain hung over the entrance invading the frosty dark of the dugout just enough to reveal a "somewhat concerned" expression on his number two's face.

"Lieutenant Desmond here," Wood continued, gesturing to a soldier stepping in, "says that this is heavier than usual." It was Lt. Thomas Desmond, or "Desperate" Desmond as his own men called him, though to these officers he was a face from another unit, the 18th Infantry, which Johnston's company had relieved in the front lines just hours before. Desmond and his men had held the trenches for the past three nights while Company E had been rehearsing for the next day's battle. Assigned to stay behind as a "liaison officer" to help acquaint the newly arrived platoons with newly dug trenches, fields of fire, and enemy activity, Desmond agreed that Wood's worry was well placed but added, "[I]t's hard to tell; the old place has been picking up lately, and they've doused us two or three times a night."

Captain Johnston was uneasy being this far from his men. His small command bunker had been hastily constructed by the French Moroccan unit that first defended this sector the month before. Dug into the face of the slope that descended away from the front, it placed Johnston three hundred yards behind the trenches. On arrival two hours earlier, he thought it "too far from the platoons." Now the distance forced a dilemma: remain to gather delayed information about the bombardment and keep command intact, or walk up to the front and expose himself to the shelling. Johnston brooded as he and the two lieutenants "stood still in the hush appropriate to such moments," he would later record, as "they listened to the clatter from without." Only three months into his command of the 250 soldiers of Company E, he was becoming quickly acquainted with such lonely decisions.

At just twenty-one years old, Edward Scott Johnston was the youngest company commander in the division. One of seven siblings from Bloomington, Indiana, he had enlisted in the Army National Guard two years before, while a student at Indiana University. His unit was activated for service on the Mexican border, and he volunteered for officer training, securing his commission in the Regular Army the same year. When America entered the World War the following spring, young Lieutenant Johnston's service, although brief, earned him promotion and he shipped off to France with the 1st Division.

Johnston had walked the gangplanks onto French soil with the first American soldiers in the first convoy to arrive the previous June. Since then, he had endured with his men each arduous slice that made up the hell of the Western Front. He had attended the solemn funeral of the first three young Americans killed in action the previous fall. He had survived nerve-shattering bombardments in two previous sectors and buried the grisly remains of young soldiers blown to pieces. He had endured the "hard winter" when "[s]ocks had to do duty as gloves" and "[s]hoes had to be held together with rags and string." He had led intelligence patrols out into no-man's-land, low-crawling on his belly, armed only with a pistol and hand grenades, where the faintest sound could trigger a German flare, then machine-gun fire, then death as certain as in a shooting gallery. He had seen gas shells fall from the sky and hiss out mustard clouds, causing men caught without masks to puke pools of blood as they gasped helplessly for air, and their skin boiled up into melting blisters. And just three weeks prior, he had witnessed his own battalion commander—his beloved major whom he called "a warm and living symbol of what we all were at our best"—crushed to death when a German high-explosive shell hit his headquarters.


Excerpted from First Over There by Matthew J. Davenport. Copyright © 2015 Matthew J. Davenport. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

US Army Ranks and Unit Structure, 1917-1918 xi

Map: The Western Front xv

Map: American and German Lines Around Cantigny xv

Prelude: A Speech 1

Chapter 1 Let 'em Come 15

Map: German Raid On Company E 27

Chapter 2 The Advance Guard 33

Chapter 3 Must Not Fail 49

Chapter 4 Adventure of War 69

Chapter 5 Life and Death 87

Chapter 6 Marshall's First Plan 103

Map: The Infantry Plan of Attack 108

Map: Original Artillery Map Depicting Timetable for Creeping Barrage 109

Map: Location of Strongpoints & Path of Tank Attack

Chapter 7 A Hellish Clamor 125

Chapter 8 Zero Hour 143

Chapter 9 Second Wave 163

Chapter 10 We Took the Hill 177

Chapter 11 A Pack of Bumblebees 191

Map: Progress of the Infantry During First Hours 204

Chapter 12 Ignore the Bullets 207

Chapter 13 Half Crazy, Temporarily Insane 221

Chapter 14 The World Is Watching 237

Chapter 15 Novelty of Silence 247

Chapter 16 Final Determined Effort 263

Map: New American Lines Around Cantigny 271

Epilogue: Until We Meet Again 281

Acknowledgments 293

Notes 299

Selected Bibliography 337

Index 347

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First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America's First Battle of World War I 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ADELEB More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read. As a 93 year old I could not put it down. We as a nation should not forget our history and what these young men went through to protect our freedom. Matthew Davenport brings this to us in a way that brings each one in this battle to live in our memories forever.GREAT WRITING, GREAT BOOK ADELE
Anonymous More than 1 year ago