Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cantigny, France - May 28th 2008

Battle of Cantigny, France - May 28, 2008 – 90th Anniversary

In the pre-dawn hours of the 28th of May 1918, the men of the 28th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 1st Division made last minute preparations for battle.

They had come from all over America. They were hastily trained, but were eager to take on the German army; the largest and best equipped fighting force in the world. General John J. Pershing, of the American Expeditionary Forces, and the Allied high command (France and Great Britain) chose America’s first strike on the Western Front to be at the village of Cantigny, which is about 60 Kilometers north of Paris. General Pershing wanted to prove to the Allies that America was a full, determined partner and willing to shed the blood of its young soldiers.

At first light the 28th Infantry Regiment’s artillery units began firing on the German positions in the village. The thunderous barrage lasted for an hour and then as the sun rose higher the regiment went “over the top” and charged the enemy with bayonets fixed. The Big Red One charged on to victory and into American military legend.

The spring of 1918 was not going well for the Allies, so the American victory boosted morale and confidence among the French and British troops and just as important it de-moralized the German army.

Thus May 28, 1918 began the American drive that would help the Allies defeat the German Army and force the Armistice six months later on November 11, 1918.

The 90th Anniversary began at 11:00 on Wednesday morning the 28th. It was heavily overcast, but thankfully it did not rain! The village of Cantigny is tiny, only a few homes and nothing commercial. The commemorative ceremony took place in a small, serine park in the center of the community. It was an all-military program.

There were four battalions: French, German, and of course the Big Red One, and a small group of American WWI re-enactors from England known as the Pershing Doughboys. There was also a French Military Band.

The centerpiece of the ceremony was the unveiling and dedication of a magnificent sculpture of an American Doughboy charging forward into the fight. Stephen Spears, from Alabama, had recently completed the sculpture. I told him on the scale of human pride he must be near the top. “Oh yes I am, this is incredible!”, he said.

There were many speeches by Generals and officials from France, Germany and America, but there was on speech that to me stood out from the others.

“After America entered the First World War and the Big Red One struck us [German army] here at Cantigny, it began to knock some sense into us, if we ever had any sense at all. Then the Second World War, well (pause) it was simply good versus evil. Today I am grateful to be living in a free Europe with self-determination."

Christian Duhr, German Military Attache’ in Paris

I talked with Mr. Duhr at the reception (vin d’ Honneur) following the ceremony and he said that his remarks were not officially scripted but came from his heart.

Another meaningful moment was when I talked with American General Cradock (four star) and Supreme Commander of NATO. As I shook hands with the general I said, “It is important to be here and living this history.” He thoughtfully replied, “That’s right, but it is living because we are here.” “How true.” I said.

The victory in Cantigny was an important moment in American history. It marked the beginning of the end of Kaiser Wilhelm’s bid to dominate Europe. No one from a U.S. press company was there.