What Were the Key Battles For American Forces During the First World War?

History Hit Podcast with Michael Neiberg

3 mins

20 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of America’s Entry into the First World War – Michael Neiberg on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 3 April 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The United States joined the First World War in April 1917. From June 1917 onwards, thousands of American troops began arriving on the Western Front, though they wouldn’t be ready for active duty until several months later.

Early Combat Experience

The Battle of Belleau Wood, in June 1918, was one of the first major actions for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The battle took place during the German Spring Offensive, during which it briefly looked as though the Germans might march on Paris.

This battle holds an important place in the history of the US Marine Corps, of which one brigade was included in the forces in action at Belleau Wood. This was the moment they burst onto the world stage. There were actually more Army soldiers than Marines at Belleau Wood but the Army had much stricter censorship policies. The Marines were perfectly well aware that they needed a good PR system and a good PR campaign, and they’re very, very good at it in a way that the Army is not. We remember the PR, the media sensation that the battle created, as much as we do what actually happened there.

An illustration of American forces at Belleau Wood from a French magazine

In a wider sense, Belleau Wood feels like the beginning of the century of American hegemony. That was the first time American troops had gone beyond American shores. They were making a really important impact in the rest of the world.

The arrival of American troops, though untrained, had a significant impact on the situation in France. When you’re landing 20,000 or so soldiers a day, you can do a lot with those numbers. The French can move those inexperienced Americans into relatively quiet sectors, and move experienced French soldiers into active sectors.

…if you play your cards right… you might be able to end this war in 1918.

At the Second Battle of the Marne, in July 1918, Ferdinand Foch is able to bring together soldiers from the United States, Great Britain, France, and even a couple of divisions from Italy, and put them into a kind of coalition battle. The numbers of American troops arriving in France gives the Allies these new options.

It was a great morale boost. A great morale shift. French high command began to think that if you play your cards right and get a break or two, you might be able to end this war in 1918, rather than having it go to 1919 or 1920, which is what everybody was then planning.

American troops approach a smoking German bunker

Meuse-Argonne

The battle of Meuse-Argonne, which began in September 1918 and continued until the end of the war, was the biggest campaign that the United States had fought up to that point by a long shot.

Meuse-Argonne was a bloody lesson for the Americans.

The battle took place in the Northeastern sector of the Western Front, which had previously been a relatively quiet sector. The Americans, fighting alongside the French, attacked an area of the German line that they had spent the last four years fortifying.

They discovered that it’s one thing to train for a modern war like the First World War, it’s another thing to actually fight that war in that terrain. The Meuse-Argonne is between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest – it’s an extraordinarily difficult place to fight. The Germans had defended it extremely well over the years with several lines of trenches, interlocked machine gun positions, and all kinds of defences. It was a deadly, deadly, deadly place to try to fight. Meuse-Argonne was a bloody lesson for the Americans.