Tenacious Gallwitz stood directly in the path of American and French offensives during the final months of World War I. He eventually yielded to superior Allied numbers and resources but extracted a heavy price for the victory along the Western Front.
Max von Gallwitz was born in Breslau, Germany, on May 2, 1852, into a family of common origin. He joined the army in 1870 and that year saw service in the Franco-Prussian War as an artillery officer. After the impressive Prussian victory, which led to the unification of Germany as a single nation, his prospects for advancement seemed grim. Not only was he a commoner in an officer corps dominated by glittering aristocrats, but he also practiced Catholicism in a predominately Protestant army with long traditions of bias against his creed. Nonetheless, Gallwitz proved himself an outstanding junior officer, and he rose steadily through the ranks on merit. In 1896, he gained a promotion to colonel and shortly after received the appointment of chief of artillery in the War Ministry. He became a major general in 1902 and lieutenant general commanding the 16th Division three years later. Good performance, sound judgment, and attention to detail then led to his appointment as inspector of field artillery with the rank of full general in 1911. Two years later Gallwitz’s acceptance was confirmed when Kaiser Wilhelm I elevated him into the ranks of Prussian nobility.
When World War I commenced in August 1914, Gallwitz commanded the elite Guard Reserve Corps on the Western Front. After distinguished fighting at Namur, Belgium, his forces transferred to the east, where they fought in the decisive victory at the Masurian Lakes in September 1914. By dint of excellent service, Gallwitz was elevated to command an army group bearing his name in February 1915. Having crossed the Narev River in Poland after heavy fighting, he took 111,000 Russian prisoners in a series of battles around Pultusk. That fall Gallwitz transferred south as head of the 11th Army and helped orchestrate the conquest of Serbia in September 1915. He was preparing for an all-out assault against the Allied bridgehead at Salonika, Greece, when orders arrived transferring him back to the Western Front. Successively leading troops in the Verdun and Somme sectors, his Fifth Army was renamed Army Group Gallwitz with the addition of troops from Army Division C.
After the defeat of Paul von Hindenburg’s and Erich von Ludendorff’s spring offensive, German forces were increasingly placed on the defensive. By the fall of 1918, it fell upon Gallwitz to hold a defensive line in the Meuse-Moselle region against increasing numbers of newly-arrived American troops. The recent failure also ushered in Allied counterattacks across the Western Front, and German forces were hard-pressed to contain them. However, the U.S. commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, was determined to keep the American Expeditionary Force intact and not parceled out to assist French and British efforts elsewhere. For his first target he selected the St. Milhiel Salient, a large pocket of German forces south of Verdun. On the flank of the critical Meuse-Argonne sector, it posed a threat to any advances toward the German border. Pershing received permission to attack, although only after haggling with senior French commanders, who wanted American forces concentrated for the upcoming Meuse-Argonne offensive. Pershing nonchalantly agreed to participate in both operations once he had neutralized the salient. On September 12, 1918, 550,000 American doughboys, aided by an additional 110,000 French, attacked Gallwitz’s men along a 50-mile front. Preparations were intense and included bombardment by 2,900 artillery pieces, sorties by 1,500 aircraft, and support from 267 tanks. German resistance was fierce and professional, but the Allied advance scored impressive gains. However, Pershing’s progress proved deceptively easy. Gallwitz had already concluded that Allied advances elsewhere made St. Mihiel untenable, and he ordered a strategic withdrawal to straighten out the German line. Making excellent use of the terrain, the badly outnumbered Germans fell back in good order, fighting a series of tenacious rear-guard actions. By the time Pershing ordered a halt on September 16, the St. Mihiel Salient, which had existed since 1914, was finally erased. Furthermore, Pershing had proved a point to both Allies and Germans alike: that his inexperienced Americans could fight effectively. To that end they captured 15,000 prisoners and 450 artillery pieces at a cost of 7,000 casualties. The doughboys had made an auspicious debut.
The next trial of strength came at Meuse-Argonne, a critical sector on the Western Front. It was also heavily defended, as the Germans had three years to prepare numerous and interlocking fields of fire, several belts deep. Gallwitz’s forces may have been bled white from months of continuous combat; being well-trained, experienced, and professionally led, however, they still evinced plenty of fight. At length Pershing massed upward of 600,000 French and American troops, 500 cannons, nearly 500 tanks, and a 500-plane strike force under Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell. Logistical arrangements for the entire operation were entrusted to a lowly colonel, George C. Marshal, who subsequently gained renown for his efforts. Pershing intended this final battle to be a fight to the finish.
The offensive kicked off on September 26, 1918, into terrain that was heavily forested and favoring the defense. The inexperienced Americans charged manfully into prepared German positions and were mowed down by intense machine-gun fire. The process was slow and costly, but Gallwitz simply fed a continuous stream of reserve divisions to threatened points, and the Germans held. Casualties mounted as the Allies inched north toward the Belgium border, but four days later Gallwitz’s defenses had completely derailed the offensive. Pershing then frantically reorganized and resupplied his battered divisions before resuming the attack on October 4, 1918. The exhausted Germans gave ground slowly and in good order, making the Americans pay heavily at every step. But the end was in sight. After four years of continuous warfare, Germany was at the breaking point, and the arrival of millions of American troops underscored the futility of further combat. All fighting ceased on November 11 when the Armistice was signed. The Americans had made better progress during the later phase of the campaign, which cost them 117,000 men in 47 days of intense combat. German losses were nearly as heavy and included upward of 20,000 prisoners.
The Meuse-Argonne offensive was the most important operation ever mounted by U.S. forces in World War I and was a direct factor in the collapse of Germany. Once again, Pershing demonstrated the value of his enthusiastic but inexperienced men. But if the victorious Yankees could claim that they had “learned to fight by fighting,” the indomitable Gallwitz proved to be a stern teacher. He was subsequently one of a handful of diehards who opposed the Armistice and urged the government to rally the people for a defense of the homeland. As an indication of how highly Gallwitz was regarded, many politicians spoke of him as a successor to the now disgraced Hindenburg.
After the war, the general mustered out and parleyed his popularity into politics. From 1920 to 1924 he completed several terms in the Reichstag (national assembly) as a deputy of the German National People’s Party. He died in Naples on April 17, 1937, the most accomplished enemy that America encountered during World War I.
Max von Gallwitz on the Battle of St Mihiel, 12 September 1918.
Before the attack on the St. Mihiel triangle the American troops had been greatly strengthened. Their divisions had been welded together into army corps. By the beginning of September we learned of the formation of an independent Pershing American army, which was lying between the second and eighth French armies.
American divisions had fought honourably in the big battles which ended with the failure of our offensive at the Marne in July and August. It was an obvious suggestion to follow up this gradual development with some big feat, accomplished exclusively or largely by American troops under their own supreme command. An opportunity offered itself at St. Mihiel which had long been known.
Our position between the Meuse and the well-known height of Combre, southeast of Verdun, looked like an outstanding nose. It had taken this formation after the first battle in the Summer of 1914, and had been retained, fortified and honoured as the field of many single combats.
We had seven divisions that occupied this line, but they were reduced in number and among them were three of the militia and one Austrian division. The peril of this faulty triangle had always been patent to us. It lent itself to attack on all sides. We had repeatedly discussed the question of giving up this triangle. The chief in command agreed with me that no big battle in this territory was permissible.
But while we waited, the crisis came on apace. We never had time to carry off the materials we had gathered during an occupation of several years. On the other side lay the consideration that the yielding of a position held for years would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Naturally we disregarded such considerations when the situation in other parts of the theatre of war was difficult.
There had been indications that something was brewing on the other side, but we were not certain as to which direction the attack might take. We were informed that the objective of the Americans was Metz and the territory east of that fortress, which would threaten our communication with the rear.
The centre of the enemy rear guard and communications was located on the southern side of the triangle, while on the northwest side everything was quiet, indicating that danger in the latter quarter was remote.
Then from foreign sources came the news that the American attack had been postponed - that the army was not yet ready for a big offensive movement.
We were surprised, therefore, when, on September 12, a concentrated attack was launched against the triangle. It was soon demonstrated that this was not a partial attack, but the execution of a great concentrated drive. The order to retire, which I gave on my own responsibility, but too late, could not prevent the loss of many troops and much material which had to be left behind.
The first deep advance took place on the southern side and was directed against two of our divisions, extending some twenty-three kilometres. Against the front covered by this attack nine or ten American divisions were led into battle, six being held in reserve.
The two divisions which I had in reserve behind the southern front could not succeed in turning the tide. The artillery and infantry collaborated better than ever, but there was little skill in profiting by the advance.
The American fliers made themselves very disagreeable. We learned that 800 of them were active at the front. Our units retired from the Mihiel position in order, although with losses. All of the retiring divisions, except one that was scattered (one which held Alsace-Lorraine men), were still employed in the front lines.
Although our retirement had been effected in good order, the enemy naturally considered it as forced.
I have experienced a good many things in the five years of war and have not been poor in successes, but I must count the 12th of September among my few black days.
NEC JACTANTIA NEC METU ("zonder woorden, zonder vrees")
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