Streetwise Professor

October 7, 2018

The Apotheosis of an American Army: The Meuse-Argonne, 100 Years Ago

Filed under: History,Military — cpirrong @ 4:38 pm

The next few days are the centennial of some of the bloodiest fighting in the history of the American army.  The Lost Battalion underwent its horrific ordeal 2-8 October, 1918.  On 8 October, one of the 82nd Division soldiers who attacked in the desperate effort to rescue Major Whittlesey and his men–Corporal Alvin York–killed an estimated 25 Germans and captured 132 more.  On 7 October, John Barkley clambered into an abandoned tank and used its machine gun to beat back several German counterattacks.  On 12 October, Samuel Woodfill took out several German machine gun nests with expert marksmanship, and out of ammunition, dispatched two Germans with a pickaxe.

All of these men (two from the Lost Battalion) won the Medal of Honor.  I could go on.  Forty-three American soldiers won the MoH in action in the first two weeks of October, 1918.

If you read the medal citations, you will find that most of them were for single-handed attacks on German machine gun positions.  Yes, machine guns were major killers on the Western Front, but the Meuse-Argonne was different than say, the Somme, or the Chemin de Dames, where Allied armies attacked established trench lines in fairly open terrain.  Instead of extensive linear trench lines, the German positions in the Argonne Forest and the more open terrain to the east consisted of a dense thicket of machine gun nests.  The terrain was appalling.  Much of it was heavily wooded, cut by dense ravines.   The Americans had to crawl their way through it, yard-by-yard, taking out nest after nest, all the while subject not just to the fire from chattering Maxim guns, but to horrific shelling of high explosive, shrapnel, and gas from German guns posted on the high ground to the north and east.

Most of the American units in the initial waves had not been blooded before.  For instance, the 77th Division (in which the Lost Battalion served) and the 82nd Division (York’s) were rookies.  They had to learn the hard way, through bitter experience against an experienced foe fighting from prepared positions.

The inexperience showed initial phases of the  American assault.  Although the pivot that the 1st Army made from its attack on the St. Mihiel salient to the east to the Meuse-Argonne sector to the north and west was truly marvelous–and under-appreciated–the attack itself was beset by all of the problems of World War I offensive action, compounded by American greenness and a stubborn refusal to learn from bitter British and French experience.  American artillery support was inadequate.  The logistics–admittedly made difficult enough to start with by the wretched state of the roads–were botched.  American tactics, inspired by General Pershing’s belief in “open warfare” and the primacy of the offensive (heedless of the horrific fate of the French operating on the same beliefs in 1915 and 1917) were suicidal.

Yet the Americans learned quickly–by necessity.  It was adapt, or die.  Adaptation, combined with an almost preternatural self-confidence and aggressive spirit, ultimately prevailed.

Even as early at the battles of late-May/early-July 1918 (Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, Soissons) the Germans were taken aback by the aggressiveness of the Americans in the offense and their stubbornness in the defense.  “The Americans kill everything” wrote a shocked German grenadier.  “They showed a bestial brutality.”

Yes, tens-of-thousands of Americans leaked to the rear during Meuse-Argonne, but hundreds of thousands stuck it out–often sticking their bayonets in German bellies, as if to confirm the grenadier’s assessment.

World War I was a ghastly combination of inept leadership (often overwhelmed by the mismatch between the defense and offense) and individual courage.  Though the US army came late to the war, its experience from 26 September-11 November 2018 re-enacted this same combination.   And in the end, the incredible bravery and tenacity of the American soldier–farm boys and cowboys and immigrant slum dwellers alike–prevailed, and dealt the Germans body blows from which they reeled, and in the end, from which they could not recover.

But today, the centennial is passing almost completely unnoticed.  Where else but here are you reading about it?

In the aftermath of the war, the federal government, and many state governments, erected large monuments commemorating American service in the war.  Although the remains of most of the tens-of-thousands slain in the Meuse-Argonne were brought home, many thousands more were interred in large cemeteries,  most notably the Aisne-Marne Cemetery to the west of Rheims, and the Romagne Cemetery to the east.  The monuments are truly epic in scale–the US erected nothing comparable in the aftermath of WWII.  The cemeteries are immense–Romagne is larger than the cemetery at Omaha Beach.

Yet these places are almost forgotten and unvisited today.*  Located in an isolated pocket of France, commemorating a war that is largely outside of the consciousness of modern Americans (for whom even WWII is a vague memory), few Americans see them, either on purpose or by accident.

The isolation and loneliness makes them truly haunting places.  I visited the Argonne battlefields with my dad in June, 2010.  We were alone everywhere.  We seldom saw even a car on the road as we wound our way across the Argonne, from the ravine to where the Lost Battalion bled to Chatel-Chéhéry where Alvin York started his advance to Montfaucon and Romagne where the Americans clawed for yards day after day, to the Heights of the Meuse from where German guns ruthlessly pounded the Americans.  The monuments and cemeteries were inhabited only by the ghosts.

In many ways, America came of age in the Meuse-Argonne, but today those who fought in that epic battle are not just forgotten–they have never even been known by most Americans.  So please, take a moment in these October days to remember, and pay tribute to, men who do not deserve the oblivion to which an easily distracted nation has consigned them.

*But fortunately, not abandoned.  The American Battle Monuments Commission has done a marvelous job  of maintaining and preserving these testaments to the bravery of American soldiers.

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  1. Thanks for a wonderful tribute to the soldiers of the Fall of 1918. The politicians then, as always failed them in Paris in 1919.

    Comment by The Pilot — October 7, 2018 @ 9:22 pm

  2. @Prof, offtopic, but one you have written about:

    Rather than simply criticizing Eastern neighbors for their attitudes, “[Germans] must learn to see Europe more through the eyes of other Europeans,” Maas said. “We Germans in particular should stop taking the moral high ground on migration, especially vis-à-vis our partners from Central and Eastern Europe.

    Do you think this is real or just a baseless extrapolation of a single data point? At the very least it’s an articulation from a German of what has long been obvious to everyone but the Germans.

    Comment by Ivan — October 8, 2018 @ 12:41 am

  3. I have only been to normandy, but reading the dedications on cross after cross after cross does bring how much some people have given.

    Comment by isp — October 8, 2018 @ 7:08 am

  4. @Ivan–Interesting. Until I see others echo what Maas said, I’ll take it as a one-off. The Germans are very bad at seeing things from the perspectives of others.

    Comment by cpirrong — October 8, 2018 @ 12:45 pm

  5. You’re welcome, @Pilot. Thanks for the props.

    Comment by cpirrong — October 8, 2018 @ 12:45 pm

  6. In fairness, the Revolutionary/Civil Wars were fought on US soil. Easier to go see battlefields etc. WW2 has survivors to this day so history is living. It also had the Holocaust, which didn’t happen in WW1.
    You are right that the people of WW1 shouldn’t be forgotten. You can go to Kansas City to the WW1 Museum and learn a lot about it. WW2 so overshadows WW1 due to technology as well. Film wasn’t very good in 1918 compared to 1940. Photography not as good. WW2 in many ways was an outgrowth of the Versailles Treaty.

    The reason for WW1 wasn’t as cut and dried as the fight for independence, the fight over slavery, and the fight against Nazi evil. An Archduke gets assassinated and the Western world blows up? You need to understand the Franco-Prussian War and the history. Most history taught about that generation barely mentions the way, talks about immigration to the US and the commies taking over Russia….

    Thanks for the post and history.

    Comment by Jeff — October 8, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

  7. I don’t want to take anything away from the bravery of these men. It’s hard to take the Route Nationale that borders cemetery after cemetery without a tear in the eye.

    However, the notion of lions led by donkeys is overblown. Read “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” for an alternative view. The British and French did learn, not least because their initial tactics led to disproportionate casualties among officers. By the time of the battle you speak of, Professor, the British and French were winning battles over a 100 mile front, and the German artillery was worn out.

    Comment by zut alors! — October 8, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

  8. @zut–Note that I very specifically said the Americans had not learned from the French and British experience. Pershing’s doctrine was virtually indistinguishable from that of the French in 1914, at the Battle of the Frontiers, despite the disastrous outcome of that battle, and the manhy that followed. (There was a typo in the post–I wrote 1915 rather than 1914.) And even the Allied learning was slow–spring 1917 saw the Nivelle Offensive (which again was based on a belief in the offensive and movement), and the summer-fall saw Pascendaele. It is true that many French officers recoiled at Nivelle’s folly. But it happened nonetheless. And the horror of Pascendaele was preceded by relatively sophisticated (but limited) operations like Vimy Ridge.

    Cambrai in November, 1917 did represent a doctrinal revolution that was the basis of the summer-fall 1918 British and French operations.

    But again, that really didn’t penetrate the consciousness of the American high command.

    To give Pershing credit, the bloody failure of the first phase of Meuse-Argonne did lead him to revise drastically the American approach. That was accompanied by tactical learning by the Americans at the pointy end.

    BTW, I am reading a book called Betrayal at Little Gibraltar, which is a shocking (and very well-written) account of the appalling conduct of an American corps commander at Montfaucon. I highly recommend it. I next plan to delve into the dueling books on the site of the York fight, and the Lengel’s new book on the Lost Battalion.

    Comment by cpirrong — October 11, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

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