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  • James Houser

September 26, 1918 - The Battle of the Meuse-Argonne & America in WWI

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

September 26, 1918. After 150 years, the Americans have arrived to repay their debt to France for their aid in the Revolution. On this date, General John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force launches its great campaign of World War I in the area of the Meuse River and Argonne Forest. The result is the bloodiest, longest, and largest battle in American history, one that will only end with the Armistice on November 11.


It was never a foregone conclusion that the United States would send ground troops to Europe even after we entered the First World War. Many of the Congressmen who voted to declare war on Germany in 1917 did so under the impression that the war would consist of 1.) naval warfare against the U-Boats in the Atlantic and 2.) material and financial support.


That this was assumed to be the case may seem odd in our era, when the U.S. military has a toehold in virtually every corner of the world, but in 1917 America was very much NOT a military power. The possibility of American ground troops playing a real role in World War I seemed so remote that Germany saw little risk in antagonizing the United States, with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg saying that any contribution was “bound to be minimal, in any case not decisive.”


President Woodrow Wilson was determined to prove him wrong. The commitment of American troops to a European war was a very controversial decision in 1917, but Wilson believed that he needed boots on the ground if he wanted any say in the future peace deal. The idealistic, high-minded, arrogant Wilson believed that the United States had a right and a duty to be involved in the aftermath of the Great War, and intended to make sure he could not be denied a seat at the table. American troops would go overseas.


The trouble was that the United States was totally unprepared for modern war. When Wilson promised to send several divisions to Europe as soon as possible, he asked his generals for mobilization times, only to discover that not even one Army division existed on paper, let alone reality. The Army consisted of separate regiments and brigades, and occasionally ad hoc forces for certain tasks. The Army’s main missions were patrolling the Mexican border and garrisoning the Philippines. No blueprint existed for mass mobilization or for a major ground war. The Army would expand from 133,000 active duty and 185,000 National Guardsmen to almost 4.7 million men over the course of 19 months – and this rapid growth would come with growing pains.


Wilson shocked Army leaders by promoting the relatively junior John J. Pershing to lead the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe. Pershing was known as “Black Jack” because of his early service leading the Buffalo Soldiers. He had seen service on the western frontier, in the Spanish-American War, in the Philippines, and most recently as the commander of the “Punitive Expedition” sent to hunt Pancho Villa in Mexico. Pershing became the Army’s first four-star general since Philip Sheridan had died in the 1880s. This promotion was necessary to put him on a level playing field with the high-ranking senior officers of Britain and France.

As America underwent rapid mobilization and the Federal Government scrambled to assemble a military-industrial complex capable of fighting modern war, the AEF trickled into France across the Atlantic. The 1st Division arrived in pieces throughout summer and fall of 1917, its various components not even serving together before they arrived in Europe. The flood of volunteers beefed up many understrength units, but as more and more American troops came in their increasing flood into French ports, it became painfully aware that they were barely trained and barely equipped.


Most “units” existed in name only; they had officers with weeks if not days of training, soldiers who had never fired a rifle, and in many cases didn’t have machine guns, artillery, or the weapons of trench warfare. American industrial output had been supplying the Western Allies for so long that it had left very little for the massive force that suddenly sprang to life in the United States.


The result, ironically, was that the AEF would be largely armed with *French* heavy weapons, tanks, and aircraft. (Among these was the Chauchat light machine gun, the single worst weapon ever placed in the hands of the American soldier.) In contrast to World War II, when American-made tanks would literally supply every Allied nation, not a single tank made in the USA ever saw combat service in World War I. The Americans would train and fight on French FT-17 tanks, with the first training group commanded by Captain George S. Patton.


Pershing’s new command faced countless obstacles before it could be sent into combat: the nonexistent American logistical system, the lack of training, and tense relations with the Allies. The British and French had manned the Western Front for three years, and Pershing was definitely an outsider in talks about strategy. Pershing had very little voice on the overall plan to win the war, but he did get to pick and choose how and when his soldiers would fight. The Allies wanted to place newly arrived American units directly under British and French command in the trenches, and even suggested using American soldiers as individual replacements in British units! Pershing fought this tooth and nail, convinced that the AEF had to go into battle as an American force, under American commanders. He would only soften his stance in 1918, when the giant German Spring Offensive persuaded him to release individual American divisions to help stem Ludendorff’s onslaught.


Despite this refusal to “amalgate” their forces, the incoming doughboys did receive ample training from the British and French to adapt to the realities of trench combat. The United States’ last big land war, the Civil War, was nowhere close to preparation for 1918. The Allies taught the Americans modern artillery tactics, trench assaults, combat engineering, tank tactics, and combined arms operations.


While some of these lessons sunk in, though, General Pershing was a firm believer in the “open warfare” doctrine, where the rifle was the predominant weapon and marksmanship was the fundamental skill in modern combat. He stressed the valor of the individual soldier, his offensive spirit, and the superiority of an American boy with a rifle over all these newfangled contraptions and technologies. Pershing believed the Europeans to have lost their fighting spirit in the trenches, and his attitude spread throughout the AEF’s senior leadership. Though he clung stubbornly to these beliefs to the end of his days, Pershing’s conviction that he knew better than the Europeans would have dire consequences for many of his soldiers.


By the time the final Allied offensive had begun in August 1918, Pershing had finally assembled enough of an American army to undertake an offensive of his own. Individual American divisions and corps had participated in multiple engagements by now, such as the legendary Marine battle at Belleau Wood or the successful American attack at Soissons – but those had always been as part of a French higher headquarters. By July, Pershing finally set up the U.S. First Army under his direct command. The first task of the AEF’s independent forces would be the reduction of the St.-Mihiel salient in eastern France, a network of German trenches that stuck like a sore thumb into the French lines east of Verdun. The Allies judged this a fairly simple operation that would allow Pershing to “cut his teeth” on independent command.


Pershing amassed 550,000 American troops in three corps and 14 divisions. One of his headquarters staff, the recently promoted Colonel George C. Marshall, played an important role in planning the St-Mihiel operation as well as the future Meuse-Argonne battle. On September 12, the AEF charged into the St.-Mihiel salient and scored a spectacular success, collapsing the salient after only four days of battle. The Americans successfully used combined-arms tactics in the fight, integrating artillery, aviation, and armor, but Pershing nevertheless crowed about the victory as a validation of his open warfare methods.


Unbeknownst to Pershing, the Germans had already planned to withdraw from St.-Mihiel when the attack began, and gave ground more easily than they would have otherwise – after all, they weren’t planning on defending it. What looked like a massive victory, then, was not all it seemed. This would become abundantly apparent in the next battle.


In September 1918, the Allies were pushing the Germans back all along the Western Front. The British were on the verge of breaching the Hindenburg Line, with Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps and John Monash’s Australian Corps as the twin spearheads crashing through German defenses. Several American divisions remained to support the British forces, and two American divisions (27th and 30th) played a critical role in the legendary crossing of the Saint Quentin Canal on September 29 that cracked the Hindenburg Line wide open. The French led the advance in the center, where their artillery chewed through German positions. Pershing’s AEF was given the task of advancing on the right, in the sector of the Meuse-Argonne, to keep pressure all along the German front. Their objective would be the city of Sedan, a critical railroad hub and the location where Emperor Napoleon III had once surrendered to Otto von Bismarck and the Prussians.


On September 26, 1918, Pershing launched the largest and – though he did not know it – the last American operation of World War I. The offensive did not roll out with the smoothness Pershing wanted, or indeed with the explosive force of Australian, Canadian, British, or French assaults going on elsewhere on the Western Front. Only four of the initial attack divisions had any combat experience, and artillery-infantry cooperation was sorely lacking. During the three hours before the attack began, the preliminary American bombardment fired more artillery shells than both Union and Confederate forces had used in the entire Civil War, at the cost of $1 million per minute.


Despite this onslaught, the American forces failed to achieve their objectives. The terrain was tangled and rocky, with infantry assaults lost in deep ravines and punished in open hills by machine guns and converging artillery fire. The area has been compared to the Wilderness of the Civil War in terms of the density and challenge of the terrain.


The “open order” tactics caused Americans to attack in infantry waves more akin to the style of 1914 than the modern methods of 1918. This time, too, the Germans were defending to the death. The 35th “Santa Fe” Infantry Division was virtually shattered on September 29 by a German counterattack, despite the efforts of valiant junior officers like Lieutenant Harry S. Truman of the 129th Field Artillery and Colonel George Patton, leading his tank brigade. The first phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive went so badly that by October 1, Pershing had to call a halt to operations, acknowledging that the original plan had failed. The French suggested that maybe the U.S. units should come reinforce their armies – or maybe the AEF needed a new commander.


Determined to prove the ability of American forces and equally determined not to lose his command, Pershing launched a new series of attacks on October 4. The American commanders on the ground quietly dropped “open order,” despite official policies, and division commanders like General Charles P. Summerall of the 1st Division and Marine General John A. Lejeune of the 2nd learned the lessons of World War I fast. Soon they were making steady progress in the dense, rocky hills of the Argonne Forest. They massed overwhelming artillery support and fed steady numbers of reinforcements into the battle. Position by position, the key German strongpoints fell, but the experienced soldiers of the Kaiser inflicted heavy casualties on the doughboys. From October 14-17, the Americans cracked the Kriemhilde Stellung – the portion of the Hindenburg Line stretching through the Argonne Forest.


It was during this phase of the battle that the legendary struggle of the “Lost Battalion” occurred. Nine companies of the 77th “Liberty” Division, led by Major Charles W. Whittlesey, penetrated too far into the German positions as the units on either side of them stalled. Without this knowledge, Whittlesey’s men found themselves trapped behind enemy lines from October 2 to October 7. They managed to hold out for six days under constant attack, often from their own artillery. The “Lost Battalion” was only saved from friendly fire by a carrier pigeon named “Cher Ami,” their only means of communication with American headquarters. Only on October 8 was the “Lost Battalion” able to cut its way out and link up with the rest of the 77th Division; of the 500 men who had gone in, only 194 walked out unscathed. Whittlesey and two other officers received the Medal of Honor, and the saga of the Lost Battalion became a part of Army legend.


As for another Medal of Honor recipient – a Tennessee farm boy in the 82nd Division – you’ll hear about him next month.


The American forces continued to make steady progress throughout the month of October. Their major tactical innovation was the night attack, which surprised the Germans and forced sudden withdrawals. Slowly, painfully, the American commanders and soldiers learned the same lessons it had taken the British, French, and Germans years to learn from 1914 to 1918. Some of the best American commanders proved the equal of their Allied or German counterparts, successfully planning and combining artillery, air support, poison gas, and tanks in synchronization with infantry attack. Unlike Pershing’s belief in the infantryman and his rifle, it was the howitzer and its crew that was the true dominant weapon of the First World War.


By October 31, the Americans had advanced 10 miles, and had cleared the Argonne Forest completely. On November 1, the AEF launched its final lunge towards Sedan and Metz. In the last few days of World War I, the Americans finally began to rupture the German defenses for good, under the leadership of men like Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur of the 42nd Division – at 38 the youngest division commander in World War I. As the American and French forces converged on Sedan, they suddenly received word to halt. The exhausted, numb soldiers of the AEF climbed from their foxholes and heard – silence. The guns had stopped.


The Germans had signed the Armistice. World War I had ended.


The United States troops in World War I had triumphed, and paid a heavy price for that triumph. The Meuse-Argonne Campaign lasted from September 26 to November 11, 1918, a period of 47 days. It would involve 1.2 million American soldiers and Marines and cost 26,277 American dead, making it the single costliest battle in American history (though it depends on how you define a “battle,” since under some definitions Normandy was worse).


Many of these losses were entirely preventable, the result of poor American tactics prescribed by Pershing’s “open order” doctrine. Some were unavoidable, though, due both to American inexperience and the onset of Spanish Flu. The Americans paid a lighter price for their inexperience in 1918 than any nation had in 1914, though, and that was largely thanks to the training they had received from the British and French – which does not get enough credit in popular memory. (Remember that on a single day in the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914, the French lost as many dead as the Americans lost in 47 days in the Meuse-Argonne.)


Indeed, the AEF’s accomplishment was immense. From a U.S. Army that before the war had been a glorified police force, it had sent 1.3 million Americans to serve at the front in Europe in 29 combat divisions. These troops had provided the Allies the decisive edge needed to defeat the German Army in the final campaigns of World War I. In 200 days of combat, the United States lost 53,402 men killed in action, and over 200,000 wounded. Deaths from disease – especially Spanish Flu – killed an additional 57,000 American doughboys. About half of these casualties occurred in the Meuse-Argonne.


Though the United States fought late in World War I and at small cost compared to its Allies and foes, no one could deny that the Army Washington founded had repaid its debt to Lafayette, 150 years later. Thousands of American boys lie in the green fields of France to this very day.


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