Today in History: September 12
On September 12, 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces under commander in chief General John J. Pershing launched its first major offensive in Europe as an independent army. The U.S.-led attack occurred in the Saint-Mihiel salient, a triangular area of land between Verdun and Nancy occupied by the German army since the fall of 1914. The Saint-Mihiel salient was strategically important as it hindered rail communications between Paris and the eastern sections of the front—eliminating the salient was necessary before the final Allied offensive of the war could begin.
Fortunately for the American forces, the Germans had begun pulling out of the salient two days before the offensive was launched. After an early morning artillery bombardment, U.S. infantry and tanks began the attack on September 12. Resistance was relatively light, and by September 16, this area of France was liberated from German occupation.
On the afternoon of the first day of the Saint-Mihiel offensive, a chance meeting took place on the battlefield between George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, two young officers who would go on to achieve greater fame in World War II.
Following the successful purging of the Saint-Mihiel salient, the American forces shifted to a new front to participate in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The combined Allied offensive successfully forced the Germans to retreat. By October, the defeat of the German army was certain. World War I came to an end with the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.
The Americans who participated in the liberation of France were deeply shocked to see the devastation suffered by the French civilians, who had lost their homes, their livelihood, and their lives during the war. The compassion of the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces for the French people generated many popular songs such as the example shown below, "The Tale the Church Bell Told."
In the shattered part of France,
In the very heart of France,
A soldier from a Yankee shore,
Lay dreaming by an old church door,
From the belfry in the sky,
He thought he heard the old bell sigh:
I was lonely in the steeple,
How I missed the birds of spring,
Looking down upon my people,
It just broke my heart to ring,
Through the din of cannon thunder,
I could hear the cries of young and old,
Someone will answer for this violence,
Answer for my silence,
That's the tale the church bell tolled.
Learn more about World War I in American Memory:
- Search the collection Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991 on World War to retrieve more than one hundred panoramic photographs of battlefields and military life. Search on St Mihiel to retrieve a number of photographs, several of which are actually dated September 12, 1918.
- Search on tank or armored vehicle in the following collections to see photographs of the first generation of armored fighting vehicles, both with and without the caterpillar traction which permitted them to get over the muddy trenches of the French battlefields:
- Search on World War in Historic American Sheet Music: 1850-1920 to find more than one hundred pieces from the World War I era, including George M. Cohan's "Over There" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Cover illustrations and song lyrics contribute valuable information to our understanding of the popular culture of that time, with themes ranging from politics and patriotism, to racial stereotypes, to sentiments about home and family.
- Search the American Memory collections of sound recordings to listen to some of the songs sung by the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces. For example, don't miss "Madelon ("I'll Be True to the Whole Regiment")," "It's a Long Way Back to Tipperary," and "Over There."
- Search on World War in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 to read veterans' stories.
- Search on World War in American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election to find recordings of speeches on the subject of World War I. The collection includes a thirty-three-second speech by General John J. Pershing, "From the Battlefields of France" recorded on location. Don't miss World War I: An Introduction, part of the Special Presentation, From War to Normalcy, associated with this collection.
- View films shot during World War I in the motion picture collections. Examples include films showing members of President Theodore Roosevelt's family who were active in the war effort:
- Search the Today in History Archive on World War I for relevant features on the war, such as the sinking of the Lusitania, the United States' entry into World War I, Armistice (Veterans) Day, and General John J. Pershing, leader of the U.S. forces in Europe.
- Read the complete seventy-one-week run of the World War I edition of the newspaper The Stars and Stripes.Published in France by the United States Army from February 8, 1918, to June 13, 1919, the eight-page weekly featured news, poetry, cartoons, and sports coverage.
- During the World War I era (1914-18), leading U.S. newspapers took advantage of a new printing technique called rotogravure that produced richly detailed, high quality illustrations. The online collection, Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914-1919 includes the Sunday rotogravure sections of the New York Times and the New York Tribune, as well as the book, The War of the Nations: Portfolio in Rotogravure Etchings. The images in this collection document events of World War I and popular American culture of that era.
Writer, editor, philologist, social critic, and Baltimore native H. L. Mencken was born on September 12, 1880. Mencken, who generated a strong literary following in Baltimore during the 1920s and 1930s, was best known for his scathing social commentary, critical support of emerging writers, and for his scholarly understanding of American usage of the English language.
Mencken first reported for the Baltimore Herald, of which he eventually became editor-in-chief, and later for the Baltimore Sun. While with the Sun, he was given his own column, The Free Lance, with which he began to make his name as a writer, cultural critic, and provocateur. He also was hired to write book reviews for a New York monthly magazine, The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, of which he ultimately became the co-editor, with the drama critic George Jean Nathan from 1914 to 1923. Mencken left The Smart Set with Nathan to establish the American Mercury in 1924.
Literary criticism enjoyed something of a heyday during the first half of the twentieth century, and Mencken was one of its most forceful practitioners. As a literary critic, he lent critical support to the fiction of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, and others.
Mencken’s popularity waned in the 1930s, during the Great Depression and resulting New Deal efforts to salvage the U.S. economy, although he remained an active, irreverent, and prolific writer. His reputation recovered somewhat in the 1940s, with the publication of a series of memoirs. Thirty-five years after Mencken’s death in 1956, in accordance with the terms of his will, a number of the author’s unpublished works were published, bringing him back to contemporary notice.
In 1919, Mencken published the first edition of his major contribution to philology, The American Language (external link), in which he attempted to analyze the words and phrases, expressions, idioms, and peculiarities of pronunciation and spelling that might be termed "Americanisms" – manifestations of the English language that were uniquely “American.” Mencken revised this seminal work several times throughout his lifetime. This scholarly study, enlivened by Mencken's particular wit, remains a classic in its field. Mencken coined the term “booboisie” —a combination of the words boob and bourgeoisie–by which he meant the ignorant and uncultured middle class.
- To see images of notable people and places from the era in which H. L. Mencken wrote, search the following collections:
- Read H.L. Mencken's scathing commentary on the Scopes Trial, quoted in the Today in History feature of May 5.