The following article on the Meuse-Argonne Offensive is an excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The American Expeditionary Force not only had vigor and tenacity, it was building mass and strength, with 1.2 million men under arms in France, joined by more than 60,000 every week. It was the growing power of the AEF that gave Marshal Foch what he wanted—the opportunity to go on the offensive, not merely to halt German Gen. Ludendorff on the Marne, but to drive the Germans back, perhaps even behind the Rhine. Experience had made Foch cautious, but a spring of near disaster had become a summer of hope for defeating the Hun.
Foch had a special assignment for Pershing’s doughboys—to attack the German salient at Saint-Mihiel on the Meuse River, south of Verdun. The Americans would go into action led by Gen. John Pershing in a newly configured United States First Army. Pershing, if not Foch, had his eye on a bigger prize than reducing the salient; he wanted to liberate Metz, a French city on the Moselle, a little more than forty miles due east. That would be a battle honor worthy of his new First Army and would put it in a position to threaten the industrial Saarland of Germany. This battle would be part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
By the end of 13 September, the job of conquering Saint-Mihiel was essentially done. The Germans were fully withdrawn behind the Michel Line, and Pershing was content to leave them there and move his troops on to the Meuse-Argonne to prepare for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It sounds easy on paper, and relatively speaking it was, but the Americans still suffered 7,000 casualties (the Germans, about 22,500: 15,000 surrendered, 7,500 killed or wounded). Pershing was bullish, and the reduction of the Saint-Mihiel salient was considered an American success. It was the largest American battle since the War Between the States, and the troops had executed their assignments admirably.
If the German units were not the best, if they were in the process of withdrawing anyway, it was equally true that the Germans had held this line for four years; that in that time the Germans had repelled two French attempts to drive them out; and that the German high command considered Saint-Mihiel a terrible defeat. Hindenburg was appalled at how quickly the salient had been overrun; Ludendorff was depressed to the point of a nervous breakdown. Two hundred square miles of French territory had been liberated, and the Americans had badly dented the Germans’ sense of military superiority. But in retrospect, for the Americans the battle of Saint-Mihiel was in many ways a meticulously well-planned, enormous live-fire training exercise. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive would be something else entirely.
THE BIG PUSH: THE MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE
Pershing was fighting the biggest and costliest battle in American history. By battle’s end, which was the end of the war, 11 November 1918, 1.2 million American troops had been involved, one-tenth of them were casualties, and more than 26,000 of those were dead. Pershing had a gargantuan task in front of him: doing his not inconsiderable part to roll back the Germans from France and win the war.
New divisions brought up, units reorganized, orders issued, Pershing’s army went back into action on the morning of 4 October—and found the Germans waiting with reinforced positions and showers of artillery shells raining down from the Heights of the Meuse. Against this storm of steel and lead, the doughboys set their helmet straps and trudged forward, but bullets and artillery shells can slow an advance even more effectively than rain and mud; so Pershing ordered the French XVII Corps (which included an American division) to suppress the German guns on the Heights of the Meuse with a direct assault, constituting the opening actions of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive
In the west, in the Argonne Forest, the 77th Division had a similar task—to find and suppress the big German guns—but it had to fight amid the large, dense, tangled forest that effectively cut regiments into their component parts and that was spiked with German machine gun nests, snipers, and blockhouses. It left some troopers feeling, not for the first time, as if they were reliving their ancestors’ experiences of Indian fighting, though the Indians in this case had higher-powered weapons and better discipline.
The landscape itself was sobering. If Belleau Wood was “Hell Wood,” it was but a small corner of hell compared to the Argonne, which, as one American officer charged with its conquest wrote, “was a bleak, cruel country of white clay and rock and blasted skeletons of trees, gashed into innumerable trenches and seared with rusted acres of wire, rising steeply into claw-like ridges and descending into haunted ravines, white as leprosy in the midst of that green forest, a country that had died long ago, in pain.” The Meuse-Argonne Offensive would be no brisk march.
Some of that pain was assuaged, at least for the troopers, when they found abandoned blockhouses laden with almost unimaginable luxuries, including the odd piano, a wine cellar, and other signs of how well-supplied these long-standing German positions had been. The doughboys liberated a few bottles into the security of their packs, but they had to be careful—some abandoned German dugouts were boobytrapped—and their orders were to continually press forward the attack.
THE MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE AND THE END OF THE WAR
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive took place amid aggressive politicking. On 8 October, President Woodrow Wilson responded to a note from Prince Maximilian von Baden, Germany’s new chancellor, seeking an armistice on the grounds of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which put forward a liberal program of open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, free trade, freedom for Belgium and France (and Alsace-Lorraine) from German occupation, disarmament, borders drawn on the basis of nation-states rather than multinational empires, and the establishment of a League of Nations.
Prince Max, as he was known, did not agree with everything in the Fourteen Points, but offered to accept them as the basis for negotiations. A democratically inclined aristocrat, he had clipped some of the powers of the Kaiser, brought Social Democrats into the government, and removed Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff as the de facto leaders of Imperial Germany. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had towered over the civilian government, but they now conceded that the war was lost and that Germany must seek terms. Their goal was an orderly retreat to Germany’s western borders in exchange for Britain, the United States, Italy, and France accepting Germany’s territorial gains in the east.
Wilson took four days to respond to Prince Max—and then it was through Secretary of State Robert Lansing. Lansing sought assurances that the prince did in fact speak for the German government and stated flatly that no negotiations could begin while the Germans occupied Belgium and France. Nothing came of the overture, and the war continued.
West of the Argonne, the American 2nd and 36th Divisions—the former a collection of Marines and soldiers, the latter made up of cowboys and Indians from the Texas and Oklahoma National Guard—took over a position from the French and on 4 October seized the Blanc Mont Ridge in tough fighting. The Americans then led the French in driving the Germans to the Aisne River, so that by 27 October the French Fourth Army could finally take its place alongside the American First Army.
The First Army, meanwhile, had continued to slog its way through the forest as part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. As Laurence Stallings, a Marine veteran of Belleau Wood, put it in his own history of the war, “From now until the end . . . it was to be five weeks of unremitting pressure all along the front, and for the Doughboys in the line, of ‘one damn machine gun after another.’” In front of them lay the still unbroken Kriemhilde Stellung, reinforced by the Germans, who now had forty divisions in the Meuse-Argonne, joining the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Organized both by terrain and by its grid of trenches into interlocking fields of defensive fire, the Kriemhilde Stellung allowed the Germans to move from one strong point to another, which meant the Americans’ only strategy could be tenaciously repeated assaults. It was now the French who were demanding that the Americans move more quickly.
The Germans were everywhere falling back, while in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive the Yanks were clawing their way forward against stiff resistance. But they were making progress. By mid-October, the Argonne Forest had been cleared, which put the American main thrust between the River Aire on the left, just east of the Argonne, and the River Meuse on the right. The chief objective was the area surrounding Romagne, about five miles north from Montfaucon, bracketed by the Côte de Châtillon and the Côte Dame Marie on the one side and Cunel on the other. The Côte Dame Marie was considered the key to unlocking the Kriemhilde Stellung. On 14 October, the Americans seized it and Romagne, but they could advance no farther until they reduced the Côte de Châtillon, with its newly rewired trenches and perhaps two hundred machine guns. It had to be taken, and in the undaunted assault, as General Douglas MacArthur remembered, “Officers fell and sergeants leaped to the command. Companies dwindled to platoons and corporals took over. At the end Major [Lloyd] Ross [leading one of the attacking battalions] had only 300 men and six officers left out of 1,450 men and 25 officers. That is the way the Côte-de-Châtillon fell. . . .”
The United States was now fielding two armies. The Second Army, with more than 175,000 men under General Robert Lee Bullard, was east of the Meuse River, covering the American right flank. The First Army, more than a million strong, under the capable General Hunter Liggett, held the center. Having cracked the Hindenburg Line, Liggett paused to reorganize his exhausted troops, and then paused again waiting for the French to catch up to him. Allied war planners had assumed that they could drive to victory in 1919. But now it seemed possible that if they were aggressive enough, they could pummel Germany into a far more rapid defeat. Pershing was bullish, and Colonel George C. Marshall reckoned that in ten days, if the American advance could be maintained, “about a million German soldiers in front and to the west of us would either have to surrender or disperse as individuals.”
The attack timetable Pershing had originally drawn up for his army of supermen at the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive took on a new realism in this great charge of the First Army. Again, the Americans lined up three corps, left to right, I Corps, V Corps, and III Corps, with V Corps taking the lead. The goal was to press ever harder, expanding each day’s gains as the Germans lost their artillery and were forced into an ever more debilitating retreat—and that was what happened. The attack commenced on 1 November. By 5 November, the Americans had cleared a broad swath of territory to the River Meuse; the Meuse-Argonne sector was theirs. But Pershing pressed on—first making a move to capture Sedan in the French sector to the North (until French protests had him rescind the order) and then crossing the Meuse against German artillery bombardments. An armistice was arranged to take place at 11:00 a.m., 11 November, but Pershing kept his men fighting to the end—and regretted that he had not been given a few more days to drive the American Expeditionary Force into Germany, not for glory, but to put a formal mark on Germany’s defeat.
As it was, the forty-seven day battle of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive marked the end of the First World War.
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