Château-Thierry is a town 40 kilometres south of Soissons. The monument is on the northern bank of the Marne River in the centre of the town — on Avenue Jules Lefèbvre. From the American Monument on Hill 204 follow the main road (D1003) into the town and then continue straight on along the Avenue de Paris. This brings you down to the Marne and the monument is on your left.
From Soissons, you will arrive at a large roundabout. Take the direction of the town centre, passing the military cemeteries. At the next major junction turn left and at the Marne turn right into Avenue Jules Lefèbvre.
The 3rd US Infantry Division was formed in November 1917 at Camp Greene, North Carolina. By May 1918 the Division was in France at a training camp near Chaumont ; about 200 km south-east of Reims.
On 27th May 1918 the Germans launched Operation Blücher against the French line along the Chemin des Dames to the east of Soissons (the scene of much bitter fighting throughout much of 1917).
The German offensive smashed its way through the sparsely held French line (part of which was held by British units recovering from previous heavy fighting that Spring). Within days, they were on the banks of the Marne River with Paris in their sights.
On 30th May the 7th (Motorised) Machine Gun Battalion of the 3rd USD received its orders to transport itself immediately to Château-Thierry ; the rest of the Division would follow as quickly as possible.
Less than twenty-four hours later the 7th MGB arrived at Château-Thierry where the French 45e Division d’Infanterie (DI) were struggling to hold back the Germans. The Americans set up their positions covering the bridge on the southern side of the town but a dozen under the orders of Lieutenant John Bissell made good use of their Hotchkiss machine guns on the northern side of the river and their arrival helped bolster the morale of the French III/53e RIC (Bataillon Boeuf) who had themselves only arrived that day and were holding the area of the château.
In general a French Régiment d’Infanterie (RI), like its German counterpart, consisted of three battalions which fought together. In this case the soldiers are (White) Colonial troops : Régiment d’Infanterie Coloniale.
Here they remained until the following day when the decision was taken to fall back to the southern side of the bridge. Working their way around to the bridge, Bissell and his men were horrified to see that it had been blown, forcing them to make their way to the railway footbridge in the centre of the town — which was covered by American troops on the southern side. Bissell’s first efforts to establish his identity were met by machine gun fire. With the Germans closing in on him and the river too swift to be swum, Bissell was fortunate to eventually convince his compatriots that he was leading a party of American and French troops.
By the 2nd June the remainder of the 3rd USD had arrived in the southern part of the town and to all intents and purposes the Germans had been stopped.
It needs perhaps to be clarified that the Americans in the town were all regular army, whilst the US Marines formed part of the 2nd US Division their scene of action was Belleau Wood — their unrivalled public relations office has led many to think that all the fighting in the area was the work of the USMC.
Hesitating as to where to launch his last gamble for victory, Ludendorff eventually decided upon the area between Château-Thierry and Verdun — attacking in a pincer movement around Reims.
That the French did not launch an attack on the 14th July — Bastille Day — increased German hopes that their own plans had not been discovered. That night their troops began to move forward to their start positions.
The timings of the German bombardment (set for 0010 hours) had been discovered by the French who opened fire ten minutes beforehand. Although this caught the massing Germans by surprise, many went into battle unperturbed by this change in events.
Opposite the German 10th and 36th Divisions, between Château-Thierry and Mézy-Moulins to its east, was the 3rd US Infantry Division under Major General Dickman. In the town itself were the 4th Infantry and then to their right, the 7th, 30th and 38th Infantry at Fossoy and Mézy-Moulins. Immediately to the right of the 38th Infantry was the French 131e RI (125e DI) in the sharp bend of the river at Courtemont-Varennes, opposite Jaulgonne.
Although the French knew the Germans were about to attack, this helped little when the bombardment began smashing all communications well in the rear of the river. Then the shells began falling on the front line positions along the Marne.
By 0445 hours the smoke and mist on the river had cleared and Germans could be seen rafting across the river along the eastern section of the loop in the river. Those machine-gunners still alive opened fire.
Some accounts suggest that the Americans were abandoned by the French but in the initial fighting it is more probable the case that the French simply ceased to exist. At the tip of the loop the III/131e RI were never heard of again.
On the Frenchmen’s left the 38th US Infantry gained the title Rock of the Marne for their stand. Covering the area of Mézy-Moulins and the valley of the Surmelin River they had prepared positions covering the eventuality of a retirement by the French.
They were badly hit by the German bombardment along the length of the railway line running along the valley. Of the three attempts to get across the river only one succeeded — opposite the valley. Company G had already lost one of its platoons exterminated (according to an official report) and a second was also wiped out trying to hold back the Germans.
The report states :
…the French infantry withdrew at about 4 a. m., after probable severe loss. This withdrawal exposed my right flank to hostile attack on a front of over four kilometres.
It was not just the 38th Infantry’s right flank that was in jeopardy because the 30th Infantry on their left had also given way leaving that flank slightly open as well. That was secured and eyes turned again to the eastern flank.
A report from 3rd US Division states :
Taking now the sector occupied by the 38th Infantry extending across the Surmelin Valley, we find the situation about as follows: The front line occupied by this regiment followed the R. R. [Rail Road] extending north to a point on the river west of Varennes ; the remainder of this regiment was distributed in depth up the valley to St-Eugene, in the villages and slopes east and west. The forward companies of this regiment which had remained in their positions were so demoralized by the preparatory fire of the Germans that the latter after crossing advanced regardless of their presence.
It is hard to say which came first, the destruction of the troops from Company G allowing the Germans to get up the valley behind the French III/131e RI or the destruction of the latter which forced the Americans to pull back their flank allowing the encirclement of II/131e RI.
Ultimately, regardless of the cause and effect, whilst the Germans had penetrated a few kilometres to the east and taken the tip of the spur the line held. Some ground had been given to the east but the pincer movement around Reims had failed.
More on the battle :
The original two-pylon memorial to the 3rd USD was sited in Place des États-Unis almost opposite the bridge on the northern side of the river. It was however destroyed during the fighting of 1940.
The memorial commemorates the exploits of the 3rd US Infantry Division who by chance fought in the town during both World Wars. In its centre is a bronze sword with the words In Memoriam over the pommel and the dates 1917-1918 on the left and 1942-1945 on the right (Americans only date the two wars by their own participation).
Flanking walls carry the divisional insignia and inscriptions in English and French. That on the left informs us that the memorial is :
To the heroic deeds
of the Third Infantry Division United States Army
World War I
That on the right carries the same inscription but for World War II.