St. Mihiel—Dress Rehearsal

St. Mihiel was . . . an exciting experience to a young replacement, Lieutenant Maury Maverick, who had just reported to the 28th Infantry, 1st Division. Maverick, a brash Texan from an influential family, was a man who seemed to relish living up to his last name. He never missed a chance to ridicule the war in general and his own role in particular. His insouciance sometimes got him into trouble, but he performed his duties conscientiously.

As the first day’s battle approached, Maverick found himself in charge of the ammunition train of his battalion. Though in command, he had little idea of what he was supposed to do. He had been given no orders, not even a map. His sole consolation was that he had a horse to ride. When the First Army jumped off in the early morning hours of September 12, the infantry battalions of the 28th went forward so rapidly that Maverick and his command could not keep up. Trying to bring his ammunition train forward to find the rifle companies, he found his way blocked by congested traffic. Telling his men to stay where they were, he left the main road and struck out cross-country to find a way forward.

Suddenly Maverick found himself face-to-face with a band of German soldiers. So frightened was he that he nearly fell off his horse, expecting to be “shot full of holes.” His first day of battle, it flashed across his mind, would be his last!

Maverick’s life was probably saved by the fact that many Germans, at least in that sector, were thoroughly discouraged with the war and had little stomach to fight. To his amazement, therefore, nobody shot him. The enemy—he counted twenty-six of them—dropped their guns and raised their hands in surrender. “Kamerad! Kamerad!” they shouted as they inched closer to the befuddled American. At a respectful distance they stopped. An officer stepped forward and in bad English pleaded with Maverick to save the lives of his men. By now, Maverick later wrote, he began to feel “very brave and patronizing.”

Maverick had a job to do, and he tried to get rid of his new captives. Pointing to the rear, he shouted, “Beat it!” But they would not “beat it.” Making themselves understood, they said that if he turned them loose they would be shot by other Americans. By now completely over his fright, Maverick now looked on his captives as only pitiful. Two of the younger Germans were crying. Maverick’s pride, which had succeeded his fear, was now transformed into “brotherly love.” He acceded to their pleas.

Maverick led his captives back to the main road, some of them marching so close to him that they seemed like “a pack of hunting dogs with a huntsman.” One soldier even offered him a piece of sausage. When they finally came upon a larger group of prisoners marching to the rear, Maverick was able to turn his charges loose. Knowing no German, he dismissed them with a terse “Allez!” The leader saluted him stiffly and clumsily, but gratefully.

The wry Maverick later mused to himself about his incident:
If I had ridden back on my horse, having him curvet and prance, and had shouted that I had captured twenty-six Germans, I could have gotten a crowd together, made a record of it—and gotten a batch of medals. Since my uncle was in Congress, there would have been no limit.
Maverick’s time would come later. St. Mihiel was only his introduction to infantry combat.

Despite the quality of the opposition the Americans faced, legends grew from the St. Mihiel offensive. One had it that two prominent generals of World War II, Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, met briefly on the battlefield, exchanged a few words, and went their ways.

Secretary of War Newton Baker was also on hand to witness the product of his efforts in action. And from Washington President Wilson sent a cable to Pershing:
Accept my warmest congratulations on the brilliant achievements of the Army under your command. The boys have done what we expected of them and done it the way we most admire. We are deeply proud of them and of their Chief. Please convey to all concerned my grateful and affectionate thanks.
Most remarkable of all, however, was the reaction of Pershing himself. Talking with his intelligence officer, Brigadier General Dennis Nolan, Black Jack confided that “the reason for the American triumph lay in the superior nature of the American character. Americans were the product of immigrants who had possessed the initiative and courage to leave the Old World . . . to make a mighty nation out of a wilderness. Americans had the willpower and spirit that Europeans lacked.” The American soldier, he went on, with military training equal to that given a European, “was superior to his Old World counterpart.”

Those words seem strange to a modern-day American, but a key to Pershing’s makeup is the fact that he believed them. The next few weeks would give him time to reconsider his views on the matter.

John S. D. Eisenhower, Joanne Thompson Eisenhower, Yanks: the Epic Story of the American Army in World War I

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