This Day In History: May 28

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In the first sustained American offensive of World War I, an Allied force including a full brigade of nearly 4,000 United States soldiers captures the village of Cantigny, on the Somme River in France, from their German enemy.

Though the United States formally entered World War I on the side of the Allies in April 1917, they were not fully prepared to send significant numbers of troops into battle until a full year had passed. By May 1918, however, large numbers of American soldiers had arrived in France, just in time to face the onslaught of the great German spring offensive.

On May 28, a day after their French allies suffered a blistering defeat on the Aisne River, a two-hour artillery barrage preceded the attack on Cantigny, located further north on the Western Front. The French army provided air cover, artillery, heavy tanks and—in an especially effective tactic—teams of flamethrowers to aid the U.S. advance through the German-held village, which was quickly overrun. The Americans took 100 German prisoners by the end of that day.

The commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), General John J. Pershing, gave the order that no inch of Cantigny was to be surrendered. Over the next 72 hours, the Americans in Cantigny endured seven German counterattacks, maintaining control of the village despite high casualties, with 200 soldiers killed and another 200 incapacitated by German gas attacks. By the time relief finally came, total U.S. casualties at Cantigny had reached over 1,000, and the soldiers were exhausted from the strain of continual shelling. As their commander, Colonel Hanson E. Ely, remembered: They could only stagger back, hollow-eyed with sunken cheeks, and if one stopped for a moment he would fall asleep.

As the first major U.S. victory, the capture of Cantigny had a threefold impact on the war effort in the spring of 1918: first, it deprived the Germans of an important observation point for their troops on the Western Front. It also lent weight to Pershing’s argument that an independent U.S. command should be maintained apart from the joint Allied command. Finally, it provided a warning to the Germans that the Americans, although recently arrived and relatively new to the battlefield, were not a force to be taken lightly.

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