Wiping Out The St. Mihiel Salient

By the Military Critic of The Independent

[The Independent, September 28, 1918]

Every one who has looked at the war map of France at any time in the last four years must have been struck by the curious kink in the battle line at St. Mihiel. [Readers who have no opportunity to hear the correct French pronunciation of this name may call it Sang-me-yel.] The line dividing the belligerents is for the most part a smooth curve, for any projecting point, being exposed to attack from three sides, is likely soon to be smoothed out. Also a belligerent which crosses a river and secures a foothold on the other side but is not able to make a further advance, usually has to abandon this foothold and retire behind the river. For instance, the Germans have within the last two months been obliged recently to withdraw from the positions they had obtained on the further side of the Ancre, the Avre and the Marne.

But the St. Mihiel salient is an exception to both these rules. The Germans in their first offensive of September, 1914, drove a narrow wedge into the French frontier, captured the bridgehead of St. Mihiel on the western side of the Meuse River and have held it ever since. On an ordinary map this seems miraculous, but if one consults a topographic map showing the lay of the land one can see that there is some reason for it. The eastern frontier of France is protected by gigantic fortifications prepared thousands of years before the advent and man, but in accordance with ideas of modern military engineers. The Meuse is the moat, the hights on either bank form the escarpmentment and parapet and the slope of the Woevre its glacis. Along this plateau overlooking the Rhine valley the French erected forty miles of fortresses, extending from Verdun on the north to Toul on the south. Further south there is a similar chain connecting Epinal and Belfort. These fortifications were deemed impregnable before the war and so they have proved themselves. The whole power of the German army concentrated against one of them, Verdun, was unable to reduce it and the Germans have never even got within reach of the other three. It was because of the known strength of the fortified frontier of France on the east that the Germans decided to invade France from the north, altho that involved the violation of the neutrality of Belgium and the antagonism of England.

Since, then, the Germans despaired of breaking thru the barrier of the Meuse they undertook to get in behind and so to cut off its great fortresses one by one, beginning with the topmost, Verdun. The army group under the Prussian Crown Prince, advancing southward on the west side of Verdun in August, 1914, got almost to Bar-le-Duc while an army from Metz, advancing westward, crost the Meuse at St. Mihiel. This brought the two German armies within fifteen miles of one another and there was not a river or a fort between them. If they had joined, Verdun, twenty miles north, would have been caught in the loop and, being entirely surrounded and cut off from help, it would in time have had to surrender. But General Sarrail sent troops south from Verdun and General Dubail sent troops north from Toul, and between them they were able to keep the German forces from conjunction and so Verdun was saved from encirclement.

The reason why the Germans were able to get across the Meuse at St. Mihiel was partly because of the topography of the section and partly because the French made the mistake of leaving it virtually undefended. The natural rampart formed by the hights east of the Meuse is broken here by a ravine that reaches almost to the river at the bend, where stands St. Mihiel, a town of ten thousand inhabitants. It was supposed to be protected by a fort on an adjacent hill, which in Caesar's time was occupied by a Roman camp.

Expecting to find the French frontier held in force. General von Stranz set out from the fortress of Metz with two army corps, some eighty thousand men and heavy artillery. But these elaborate preparations proved unnecessary. The hights on the Meuse that he bombarded were unoccupied and when he reached St. Mihiel it was deserted. The Fort du Camp des Romains was easily demolished and when he crost the river by a pontoon bridge he found his forces opposed by a single battalion of French Territorials without artillery. If the German general had realized a few days earlier how weak was the French defense of the line at this point he would doubtless have made a swifter advance and perhaps have covered the fifteen mile gap separating him from the Crown Prince. But, as we have seen, Sarrail intervened just in time to prevent their conjunction and so the line has stood since September 25, 1914, with the Germans in possession of St. Mihiel and even holding the bridgehead on the western side of the Meuse. The French have several times attempted to drive the Germans from this sharp salient by attacks on one side or the other, but it was left for the Yankees, to do, and, on Friday, the 13th of September, 1918, Secretary of War Baker, accompanied by Generals Pershing and Petain, walked over the shaky bridge across the Meuse into St. Mihiel.

This victory has an especial significance, since it is the first time we have been "on our own." In the operations on the Marne, the Oise and the Somme the American troops have been brigaded with the French or British and were under foreign officers. But this new offensive on the Meuse was managed by American officers and mostly carried out by American troops, altho actively aided by the French. There has naturally been some nervousness over the anticipated debut of the American army in the European theater of war. The courage of our soldiers was not questioned and it was known that they had received as long and careful a training as the recent recruits in any army. But officers cannot be extemporized. The failure of the British offensives up to the present to realize the results to be expected from their numbers and preparation has been chiefly due to the impossibility of providing adequately educated commanders for the millions of new men. On the other hand the French and the Germans have often done better than was anticipated in carrying our an offensive or extricating themselves from difficult situations, because they were largely managed by men who had made the art of war a lifelong study. But the United States when it began to raise its new army of several millions had even fewer officers of experience in battle or even of professional training than England had, so it is gratifying to find that the American officers as well as soldiers have performed creditably the duties entrusted to them. Both the planning and the execution of the St. Mihiel offensive appear to have been perfect. The St. Mihiel salient that has stood for four years was reduced in twenty-seven hours. More than 150 square miles of Lorraine were liberated, more than 15,000 prisoners captured and more than 200 guns taken.

In itself the recovery of the St. Mihiel salient cannot be called a major operation. It is not, for instance, so difficult or so important as the recovery of the Marne and Somme salients in which we participated, for these threatened respectively Paris and Amiens. The St. Mihiel salient had long since ceased to be a serious menace to France. It would have been of value to the Germans as a vantage point in case they renewed their attempt of 1914 to force the line of the Meuse. Otherwise it was a source of weakness and by cutting it off we have shortened the German line of defense from forty to twenty miles. The German official report is unusually amusing:

In anticipation of such an attack the evacuation of this salient, liable to encirclement on both sides, which, had been under consideration for years, was begun a few days ago. We did not, therefore, fight the battle to a finish, but carried out the movements contemplated, which the enemy was unable to prevent.

It may be true that "the evacuation of this salient had been under consideration for years," but it is pertinent to inquire why after such mature consideration they "carried out the movements contemplated" in so hasty and careless a manner as to leave behind more than 15,000 troops and 200 guns.

This brilliant feat, as we have seen, adds to the glory of American arms and restores the French frontier. But it may be the beginning of something much more. If the Allies intend to carry the war into the enemy's country this fall they would naturally look in this direction. Here they are actually on the German border, within gunshot of its strongest fortress, Metz. If instead of striking east they choose to strike north, they must drive the enemy all the way back thru northern France and Belgium, before reaching the boundary. To be sure, the land that lies to the east of France is not, in French opinion, German soil. It is Alsace and Lorraine and the French have never ceased to consider Strassburg and Metz as truly French as Reims and Lille. To destroy these towns and lands which they hope to recover would be as heartrending as to devastate northern France and Belgium. But they will not shrink from either. Joffre began is campaign in August 1914, by an invasion of Alsace and if it had not been for the incompetence of a certain commander and the defection of certain troops, a large part of the lost province might have been then regained.

Now there is an opportunity for the French to take up the eastern offensive where they were forced to leave on four years ago, and now with the aid of America to carry it thru. The old women and children who crawled out of the ruined homes at St. Mihiel to kiss the hand of Mr. Baker show how welcome our boys will be to the liberated population. It has been intimated that Germany is willing to retrocede part of her acquisitions of 1871 in exchange for her African colonies. How much better it would be if the Allied delegates to the peace conference could sit down to the table with the remark: "We need not discuss Alsace and Lorraine. France has got them back."

Such is the vision to which the American advance invites us. But we must remember that this is only a first step and a comparatively easy step in the great undertaking. A second step of equal stride would bring us into the midst of Metz, which from the time of Caesar to the present has been one of the most invulnerable of fortresses. The French frontier, as we have seen, is protected by four fortresses of the first class, Verdun, Toul, Epinal and Belfort. The Germans, putting less faith in fortresses and more in field fighting, have concentrated their efforts on two, Metz and Strassburg. As the reader may see from the map of Metz here published the city is surrounded by two rings of forts, the inner consisting of ten forts, mostly within three miles from the center, and the outer consisting of twenty forts, within ten miles radius. Fuller details may be found in the article on "Fortifications and Siegeeraft" in the last edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, where plans of Metz and of two of its forts are given.

Whether Pershing in cutting off St. Mihiel salient has accomplished his complete aim or whether it is merely the first stage in a more extensive offensive is of course something that we do not know. Neither do the Germans and therein lies its importance. A fresh army of 1,500,000 men has been brought across the Atlantic and placed upon the quietest front in France. The coast defense guns of Sandy Hook have been set up with range of Germany's most famous fortress. Whether these troops remain immobile or not, whether these guns are fired or not, the Germans must be constantly prepared to oppose them. Forces already too scanty to hold the Hindenburg line must be still further depleted to meet the American menace. This extends the radius of Foch's initiative.

We can now begin to grasp the full scope of Foch's strategy. The lineup of the Allies is as follows: first, the Belgians, who hold a little corner of their kingdom near the sea, second, the British, whose line extends from Ypres to St. Quentin, third come the French, whose sector extends to Verdun, and fourth, the Americans, to whom more of the front is being entrusted as their numbers increase until, we may surmize, they will ultimately be put in charge of the rest of the line to its end at the Swiss frontier. All these armies are more or less intermingled but this in broad outline are their especial posts. To America, then, France has assigned the frontier where her hopes are greatest, the border of Alsace-Lorraine. For more than a year American soldiers have been fighting on the German side of the imaginary line drawn by Bismarck's pen on the map of France in 1871. Their latest advance from St. Mihiel brings them close to the boundary at a point further north. By driving back the Germans from the banks of the Meuse the French regain the use of the railroad line running along the western side of the river and connecting the fortresses of Verdun and Toul. Behind the American front is the elaborate system of supply stations, hospitals, concentration camps, rest resorts, repair shops and cold storage warehouses such as Mr. Holt has been describing in these pages. New railroads have been constructed leading directly from the front to the French ports that have been set aside for American debarkation. The Americans since they have been in France have constructed new harbors, towns and railroad of their own and now they constructed a new front of their own, the base line of the St. Mihiel triangle.

Looking at the sketch map of the French front we see that the battleline as drawn in 1914 and substantially maintained since makes two abrupt turns, almost at right angles; one bends about Laon and the other bends about Verdun. When the Germans, last spring, undertook their great offensive they started from the Laon salient as a vantage point and from either side of the apex advanced westward and southward. When the Allies start their great offensive, this fall or next spring, we should expect them to start from the Verdun salient as a vantage point and from either side of the apex advance eastward and northward. The fact that such a movement is to be expected may be a sufficient reason for choosing some other plan, but if Germany does not have to meet such a maneuver she will have to guard against it. At any rate the Americans having been, stationed on the right flank of the Verdun salient occupy a post of great honor and responsibility.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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