The Battle of Cantigny Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Though a fairly small battle when compared to the massive offenses that became the hallmark of the Western Front, the Battle of Cantigny was the first sustained offensive by American troops. French troops, skeptical of the untested American Expeditionary Force (AEF), wanted proof that the US Army could be successful in the field under its own command. In the early months of 1918, it was not yet decided whether US soldiers would serve as replacements for British and French soldiers in those armies. General John J. Pershing’s report praised the efforts of the US First Infantry Division, while acknowledging that the Battle of Cantigny was a small, but meaningful engagement. This first American-led battle of the war proved to the Germans and the Allies alike that American soldiers could fight.

Summary Overview

Though a fairly small battle when compared to the massive offenses that became the hallmark of the Western Front, the Battle of Cantigny was the first sustained offensive by American troops. French troops, skeptical of the untested American Expeditionary Force (AEF), wanted proof that the US Army could be successful in the field under its own command. In the early months of 1918, it was not yet decided whether US soldiers would serve as replacements for British and French soldiers in those armies. General John J. Pershing’s report praised the efforts of the US First Infantry Division, while acknowledging that the Battle of Cantigny was a small, but meaningful engagement. This first American-led battle of the war proved to the Germans and the Allies alike that American soldiers could fight.

Defining Moment

Cantigny is a small hamlet in the Somme region, about seventy-five miles north of Paris, with a population hovering around one hundred people in 1918. Cantigny had first been under German control at the end of August 1914 but was reclaimed by the French several weeks later. The village remained in French hands, about thirteen miles from the front lines, for most of the war. Then in spring 1918, the German high command initiated an offensive they hoped would finally break through the stalemate in France and win the war. The so-called Spring Offensive began on March 21, with a significant German advance. On the tip of the German advance was Cantigny, back in German hands by April 5, 1918. It was located on a plateau–an excellent strategic position for the German army–and the French were eager to have it back.

Meanwhile, as American troops flooded into France, there was a spirited debate about how to best use them. Pershing believed that American soldiers should fight under American command, though in coordination with the other Allied armies. Britain and France were interested in having fresh troops to bolster their tired armies. Pershing promised that the AEF would remain under his command, but he knew he needed to prove to his allies that his men were able to fight as a unit. The attack on Cantigny was the perfect opportunity. Pershing was very clear about the importance of this battle, telling the officers of the US First Infantry Division on April 16, “Our future part in this conflict depends on your action.” The First Division was placed alongside the French First Army directly in front of Cantigny, and on May 28 at dawn, they attacked.

The first wave of the attack went extremely well. Supported by a rolling artillery barrage, along with French tanks and aircraft, the soldiers left their trenches in an early morning fog and headed for Cantigny. To their great relief, they were met with little resistance, and the strategic high ground was gained by 7:20 a.m. They had suffered fewer than 100 casualties, but had taken 350 German prisoners. German counterattacks were swift and fierce, however. Over the next two days, the First Division casualty count mounted to 1,067 troops. Finally, the German Army withdrew completely, leaving the town in American hands.

The Battle of Cantigny was a great success for the AEF on the Western Front. To France and Britain, it proved that US troops were valuable on their own and not just as reinforcements for other armies. On the American home front, the battle bolstered morale, and it reinforced American soldiers’ confidence in their commanders. To Germany, it proved that they faced a formidable adversary in the US Army. The Battle of Cantigny was the first of a series of American military successes in Europe.

Author Biography

John Joseph Pershing was born in Laclede, Missouri, in 1860. His initial ambition was to become a lawyer, but his family’s financial troubles thwarted his plans; eventually, he became a teacher at an African American school in Prairie Mound. In 1882, he attended college at the Normal School in Kirksville, and applied to the US Military Academy at West Point. He was highly commended by his instructors at West Point and graduated as a second lieutenant in the US Army in 1886.

After West Point, Pershing was assigned to cavalry units in the West and Southwest, including the Tenth Cavalry, an all-African American unit. In 1892, he was appointed instructor of military tactics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In 1898, Pershing returned to West Point as an instructor. That same year, he went to Cuba as a quartermaster. In 1903, he was sent to Manila as a negotiator during the Philippine-American conflict. From 1903 to 1917, Pershing held a variety of military and diplomatic posts, and was also sent to Mexico in search of the revolutionary Pancho Villa. When Pershing’s commanding officer died suddenly on the eve of war in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson promoted Pershing to full general and gave him command of the AEF in May 1917. He arrived in France in June to prepare for large-scale deployment that fall. After the war, Pershing published his memoirs, My Experiences in the World War (1931), which won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize in history. Pershing died in Washington, DC, in 1948, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Document Analysis

Pershing’s report on the Battle of Cantigny is not only a transmission of fact, but also a triumphant assertion of the abilities of American soldiers and, therefore, the rightness of Pershing’s decision to insist that the army fight under American command rather than being sent in small detachments to fight in British and French units that were already deployed. He describes the capture of the heights at Cantigny as an attack “with splendid dash.” He describes the German counterattack as “extremely violent,” “desperate,” and an attempt to repulse the “excellent effect” of American success.

Pershing knew that French support was crucial to the success of the attack on Cantigny, but he does not give them full credit. The French “aided in the attack” with their tanks, planes, and flamethrowers, but Pershing states that most of this help was withdrawn before the completion of the operation, in order to redirect French forces to a new German offensive toward Château-Thierry. Though more French support may have been expected before the offensive at Cantigny, it is certainly true that eyewitnesses described French tanks and airplanes as taking part in the battle. For Pershing, admitting to the necessity of French involvement was dangerously close to admitting that US troops would be useful if loaned to the French Army to fight in French units, a prospect that he strongly opposed.

Pershing also knew that detractors would say that Cantigny was a minor battle, one that did not necessarily prove the fitness of the AEF. Pershing addressed this concern by stating that even though the numbers of combatants and the size of the territory taken were relatively small, the violence and relentlessness of the German counterattack gave the position a tactical importance much greater than its relatively small size might suggest.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this report is the excellent way that American soldiers under American command conducted themselves in battle, their first victory in Europe during the war. It is clear that Pershing believed that the Battle of Cantigny proved the fitness and bravery of American soldiers, and he enhanced the triumphant language in the report to convince others of the same. Though Cantigny was a relatively small battle, it had a decisive effect on the military structure of Allied forces for the remainder of the war, and its victory convinced the French, British, and Germans that the AEF could fight and win.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Browne, George Waldo. The American Army in the World War: A Divisional Record of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Manchester, NH: Overseas Book Company, 1921. Print.
  • First Division Museum at Cantigny. “History of the First Division.” First Division Museum at Cantigny. First Division Museum at Cantigny, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
  • Horne, Charles Francis. The Great Events of the Great War: A.D. 1918. Indianapolis: U of Indiana Alumni P, 1920. Digital file.
  • Palmer, Alan. Victory 1918. New York: Grove, 1998. Print.
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