View Full Version : Forgotten Victory Capturing Blanc Mont Ridge

10-12-03, 01:17 PM
The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces



Phase I Operations

The AEF at Blanc Mont by Website Editor Mike Hanlon:

The first time I went looking for Blanc Mont Ridge I drove right past it. This was with a Michelin map in hand that had been clearly marked by my hosts in nearby Vouziers. I guess my Californian's sense of scale just prevented me from believing that the little nub on the right side of the road deserved any geographic designation at all let alone one suggestive of Europe's most famous mountain. After doubling back and parking by the limestone tower monument that marks the center of the old German line, though, I saw things more clearly. There can be no mystery why tens of thousands of Frenchmen had died attempting to take this position during the Great War. Blanc Mont ridge from atop is, undoubtedly, the summit of the rolling Champagne. You can look down across the entire region, from Reims Cathedral in the west to the Argonne Forest in the east. In front, the old no-mans-land is a 2-mile long dropping slope where no attacker could expect to hide from either machine gunners or artillery spotters.

German Artillery in the Sector was Highly Effective

Early in war the German Army had intensely fortified this promontory and proceeded to crush French offensives in both the Spring and Fall of 1915. Afterwards, the strength and reputation of the bastion seemed to guarantee permanent possession of the chalky plains of the Champagne for the invaders. French planners looked elsewhere for possibilities of breaking through.

But by the end of September 1918, the time had come for a grand roll-back; it was time for the Allies to regain occupied France and Flanders. The German Army was suffering regular defeats and had sunk to conscripting young, old and infirm. In the northwest of the Western Front, the British, bolstered by Canadian and ANZAC divisions, and with the small Belgian Army on their flank, were on the attack; while to the East, the new First Army of the Yanks was advancing in fits and starts towards Sedan.

The French Army in the center of the Western Front, however, needed to match the advances of her allies on either side. In the Champagne, this meant crashing through Blanc Mont. Considering what four years of attritional warfare, 1916's Pyrrhic bloodletting victory at Verdun and the mutinies of 1917 had done to the spirit of the individual Poilu, the French infantryman, this was simply an unrealistic expectation. In three days of trying, the French Army once again failed to push their adversary off of his stronghold.

What was needed for this mission were fresh, vigorous assault troops. That is to say, the high command had to find some soldiers who would march up that long slope to Blanc Mont without paying too much attention to their buddies alongside being machine-gunned down or mutilated by whiz-bangs. Then the surviving troops would have to possess the energy and will to hold onto the crest no matter what furies the German Army threw back at them. The answer, it was decided, was to commit some American divisions. The mission to take Blanc Mont ridge was given to the experienced Doughboys and Marines of the AEF's Second Division and the, unblooded Texas and Oklahoma National Guardsmen of the Thirty-Six Division -- 54,000 men total. They were placed at the disposal of French Fourth Army Commander Henri Gouraud, one-armed hero of both the Gallipoli campaign and the recent defense along the Marne.

Young Marines Who Fought at Blanc Mont

After a bloody, but successful, two-hour initial assault on the Morning of October 3rd, all four infantry regiments of the Second Division -- now commanded by the senior Marine in France, Maj. Gen. John Lejeune -- found themselves atop the ridge, but separated, each partly surrounded and forced to fend off an uncountable series of counterattacks. The French units on either side had been unable to match the speed of advance of the Americans and had left them floating freely in enemy territory, without support on either flank. Consequently, the German defenders and reenforcements were able to attack from almost every direction.

Part of the Thirty-Sixth Division had to move into the line to fill in the gaps and support a precarious position some Leathernecks had nicknamed "The Box". Units from both divisions collaborated on October 7th and 8th in capturing the machine gun filled strongpoint of St. Etienne, a village a half-mile northwest of Blanc Mont. This proved to be the decisive blow. The battered Second Division was sent to the rear to rest and regroup. The boys from the Southwest gathered themselves then executed a wild open field dash of thirteen miles, all the way to the River Aisne. By the 13th of the month the river line had stabilized and both American divisions were earmarked for redeployment back with Pershing's forces.

What transpired around Blanc Mont in October 1918 was a vicious battle that cost America over 7,800 men, killed and wounded. Marshal Petain (then still a hero) called what happened there the greatest single achievement of the 1918 campaign. Curiously, the Battle for Blanc Mont Ridge has slipped off of History's radar screen, appearing only in official documents and memoirs of the participants. It has become the forgotten victory of the AEF. That limestone tower on the ridge, built to honor the Doughboys, may be the least visited monument on the Western Front. Hardly an American knows it exists. MH

Preparations and Planning
On October 1, 1918, orders were received from Headquarters, IVth French Army, assigning the Second Division to the 21st Corps [French]. That Corps moved toward the front and, on the night of October 1-2 relieved the 61st Division [French] in the front line. The Second Division's Fourth Brigade took over the trenches occupied by the 61st Division [French] and the right battalion of the 21st Division [French] of the 11th Corps [French]...The Third Brigade went into a covered position in reserve south of the Butte de Souain-Navarin Farm Ridge. [Later moved into the line to the east.] The 2nd Field Artillery Brigade moved up into position in the sector to support an attack on the Massif of Blanc Mont Ridge which was contemplated on the morning of October 2 but postponed until the 3rd. The day was spent in cleaning up Trench d'Essen, which was still occupied by the Germans [to the west].