In late September 1918, some 600,000 American troops massed in a valley in northeastern France as part of the final major campaign of World War I, the Meuse-Argonne offensive. A newcomer to the Allied effort, the United States had begun sending large numbers of soldiers to Europe only months before. Many of these men were raw recruits who knew nothing of the horrors of machine guns, poison gas, combat aircraft, and other weapons born of the Industrial Revolution. More than a million U.S. soldiers would eventually join the assault of the well-entrenched Germans; American forces would suffer more than 120,000 casualties, including 26,277 dead.
There was the long advance; the acrid odor of the gas; the beautiful little puff balls in the air above your head, thick as cotton in the field
Lieutenant Francis Scott “Bud” Bradford Jr., of the U.S. Army’s Company H, 39th Infantry Regiment, 41st Infantry Division, enlisted soon after America joined the war in 1917. A Wisconsin native, he arrived in France around New Year’s Day 1918. He first saw action in early September, a few weeks before the Meuse-Argonne push began.
This account of the offensive’s launch is drawn from his letters and diary as well as stories he told his family. It describes Bradford’s experience beginning the night of September 25 and 26 as his unit moved into position for the attack against the Germans, whom the Allies called “Boche.” The First Army of the American Expeditionary Force, commanded by General John “Black Jack” Pershing, was to drive north from Verdun through a valley bordered by the Argonne Forest to the west and the Meuse River to the east.
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We moved into the trenches on the famous hills about Verdun. The ground was plowed in a sickening churn. Not a blade of grass remained. We dug in, for the trenches were in poor repair. We dug but not dirt alone—legs, arms, skulls, helmets, all the debris of the mighty struggle.
By 2 a.m. we were ready. A half hour’s tense wait. At 2:30 the barrage cut loose. For three hours a solid sheet of flame lit up all behind us.
O God, O God, the poor devils on the other end.
At 8:30 we went over, a link in the grand attack. Another battalion was in the lead. About 10 the first morning prisoners commenced to come in. They were an inspiring sight, to say the least. Shells were breaking through us, and every now and then machine guns flattened us to the ground, but we kept on without losses until the evening of the first day. We were lying in what had once been a town when five Boche planes swooped over us and dropped bombs into the company, killing two men and wounding a third.
For two days we chased the Germans across five miles of devastated territory, through rain and mud and hunger. Now we moved steadily forward, now we were held up, now we were exploring enemy works, now digging in against counterattack. The evening of the second day the battle lagged. Our artillery could not keep pace with us. The resistance was stiffening.
The next morning the 2nd Battalion was shot in, to swing the balance. There was the long advance; the acrid odor of the gas; the beautiful little puff balls in the air above your head, thick as cotton in the field; the continuous whine of the bullets; the industrious grinding of the Marines landing us iron rations by the box; and above all the terrible cries from some familiar form wrenching beside you in his blood or unseen among the weeds.
You wonder how you have gotten so far—where in hell is that other combat group? You feel under your skin that you are the one man in the world who can look on wounds and death as something that will never come your way—“In the name of the Lord, where are we?”—you curse for just one German to take apart piece by piece and then feed to the animals.
H Company went into the first lines with a smash. By nine we had advanced two kilo[meter]s under terrific shrapnel, high explosive, and machine gun fire mixed plentifully with gas….I can hear those bullets yet! I put on my [gas] mask. Inside of five minutes I had completely lost my bearings. We took off our gas masks and got through somehow.
We passed a high railroad before I realized that I was way in the lead of the regiment. Just at that moment a German machine gun opened on our right flank and another in our front, at 700 yards. To charge them across the open would have been suicide; to stay where we were on the nose of the hill, worse. We were partly concealed in brown weeds about a foot high.
I didn’t pull any hero stuff. I ordered a withdrawal 100 paces to the railroad track to reorganize. We started, but just then the Boche artillery got our range and the heavens opened. Machine gun bullets were coming as thick as holes in player piano [music rolls]. One got me in the right foot. I turned to [First Sergeant Emil] Dallman and said, “Get the men back; I’m hit.” Then all the bells in the land broke loose—I grabbed my head with my hand; blood poured down my face and blinded me. I lay there for several moments betting on whether I was dead or alive.
A bullet had gone through the middle of my tin derby. After I got the blood from my eyes, I wrote the captain a message of our predicament and turned to the runner on my left. He was sure hugging the ground. I hit him with a stone. He didn’t move. He was dead. I turned to the man on my right. He was lying on his side and I saw him hit twice more.
Then I realized I was all alone. I got to my knees and started [crawling] for the track. The snakes commenced to creep in the grass again. Bees droned and sang overhead. I finally made the railroad. When I got in after my weird crawl [the other men] were sure a surprised bunch. Saw the hole in my helmet and thought I was dead.
Back behind the railroad [track] we clung for three hours. Then the infantry went on for a kilometer jump. And there I was with one other man getting the shell fire meant for that infantry line. A four-by-one-half-inch piece of the next shell struck the webbing where his pack strap crossed his shoulder and turned him over twice before he hit the ground. I’d gotten so used to dead men, I didn’t even ask if he were killed—nor glance his way. However, the piece hadn’t even penetrated.
I lay five mortal hours behind that bank while the Boche searched it with his artillery. About 3 in the p.m. I sighted an “ambulance” borne between two [stretcher-bearers] that came strolling over the rise. Going back was wonderful. It was so nice to think of all the work I wasn’t doing.
The backward trail was interesting. There was a battery of German guns, weirdly disarrayed; there was a battery of 75s on a bare slope firing with clocklike precision. It was beautiful. There was a plentiful sprinkling of smoldering aeroplanes, there were the supplies of the mighty army moving forward, there were the wounded and the dead, but always flowing forward as far as the eye could see the Infantry, the Infantry!
It made my chest swell and I thought, “Gosh, I was in the lead of all this!”
Now our army is no different in general respects from any other army: You always find cowards sneaking to the rear on some trivial excuse. Shell shock and gas have become the bluffs[, so] you have to have a pretty good dose of either to get admitted.
One young doctor at the field hospital, whose apparent business it was to ferret out these cases, came down the line in the most approved military manner.
“And what’s the matter with you, buddy?” he demanded of a captain sitting on a stretcher next to mine.
“Well, I guess I’ve got a little gas.”
“Yes, you have. Don’t try to pull that bluff. There wasn’t any gas shot today.”
I lay in the field hospital two days on the ground under fire, got tired of it, crawled to the road, and got a lift to an evacuation hospital, then to a base.
The bullet in my foot did not break a bone. It went in midway between toe and heel half an inch up and out the bottom. My helmet deflected the other [bullet] over my left ear, from whence it dropped to the ground, giving me only a scalp wound. Am going to send that helmet home!
I am in excellent shape, absolutely no pain and the happiest man in the hospital.
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Bud Bradford recovered and returned to his unit, which joined the Army of Occupation. Back in the United States, he studied art, won an art scholarship, and attended the American Academy in Rome. He became a prominent artist, winning a commission to design and install the interior mosaic in a shrine at Cambridge, England, commemorating the service of American airmen flying from England during World War II. He died in 1961 at age 63. The author, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, is Bud Bradford’s nephew.