Colonel McCormick’s War


In May 1918 the 1st Division was rushed north of Paris to help the French and British contain the two great German offensives of that deadly spring. As these German drives ran out of steam, the Americans demanded a chance to demonstrate what they could do on the offensive. Finally they got a one-regiment show, aimed at capturing the ruined village of Cantigny, which sat on top of a ridge opposite the 1st Division’s lines. As the attack approached, McCormick came down with the Spanish flu and had to be half carried to a meeting with General Pershing, where the field-grade officers were exhorted to prove the prowess of the AEF—or else. McCormick reeled back to his dugout and commanded his batteries from a field telephone beside his cot.

The French gave the Americans twelve heavy Schneider tanks, a flame-throwing unit, and no fewer than thirty-seven batteries of additional artillery. Unintentionally, the Germans were also cooperating. They were planning another offensive, this time against the French on the Chemin des Dames, some forty miles south of Cantigny. They needed their crack 30th Division for this drive and withdrew it from the Cantigny lines, replacing it with the 82d Reserve Division, which was full of overage veterans, teenage recruits, and assorted other flotsam, including railway guards.

On May 27 the storm troopers struck on the Chemin des Dames with annihilating force. The French 6th army evaporated. The French artillerymen preparing to bombard Cantigny said they would stay for a day. Then they were heading south to try to stop the Germans before they reached the Champs-Élysées. The Americans decided to attack anyway.

At dawn on May 28, 1918, a torrent of steel came down on the somnolent companies of the 82d Reserve Division. After an hour of fearful punishment, the doughboys of the 28th Infantry Regiment went over the top and captured 255 men. American casualties were fewer than 100.

The next morning the French, eager for a gleam of success, trumpeted this tiny American victory in their newspapers, and the headlines echoed around the world. That same day, the French artillery and tanks departed, leaving the Americans dangerously undergunned and without air support.

Now it was German artillery that came cascading down, and the Yanks were dug into open slopes. By the time the 28th was relieved, on May 31, it had lost 45 officers and 1,022 enlisted men. The German 82d had taken a worse beating though, with 1,408 casualties on the very first day.

For Pershing and his staff, the little clash had vast significance. “I am . . . going to jump down the throat of the next person who asks, ‘Will the Americans really fight?’” Pershing said. Cantigny had not only banished the amalgamation hoodoo but proved to McCormick and his fellow Americans that they could stand up to Europe’s veterans. No matter that the veterans were third-rate soldiers; that is history’s judgment. Cantigny’s importance to the doughboys was a matter of memory, an equally important realm for those who seek to understand history.

Eager for a gleam of success, the French trumpeted the tiny American victory, and the headlines echoed around the world.

As I realized this, I acquired new respect for both Cantignys—and for Robert R. McCormick. By the time the battle sputtered out, he was in a hospital in Paris. He tried several times to get back into action, but the flu continued to sap his strength. Pershing eventually promoted him to colonel and ordered him home to train a new regiment for an anticipated war-winning offensive in 1919. To almost everyone’s astonishment, the Germans collapsed in the fall of 1918, making Cantigny the colonel’s only battle. He soon enshrined it by changing the name of Red Oaks Farm.

The Illinois Cantigny would have remained an idiosyncrasy—and an egotistical one at that—if the colonel had concentrated on memorializing only that one small battle. What has elevated his Cantigny to a major confluence of memory and history is his intense identification with the 1st Division. It had emerged from the carnage of the Western Front with a reputation for fighting prowess second to no other American outfit. As early as 1920 McCormick invited members of the newly founded First Division Association to join him at Cantigny for celebrations. In 1937 General Pershing asked McCormick to represent the division at a memorial service at the original Cantigny. He delivered a speech, full of fervid Fourth of July rhetoric, which he liked enough to have engraved near the fireplace in his mansion and high in the Gothic reaches of the Tribune Tower, the skyscraper he erected in 1925 to proclaim his paper’s dominion over the Midwest.