The colossal battle of the Argonne, fought 75 years ago, started with a shouting match between General John J. Pershing and his immediate commander, French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch.
Foch had appeared at the headquarters of the brand-new American First Army in Ligny-en-Barrois, 25 miles southeast of St. Mihiel, on August 30, 1918. Pershing and his staff were putting the finishing touches on an offensive Foch had ordered in hopes of wiping out the German salient that bulged into the Allied lines north and south of the ancient French city.
Foch grandly announced he had changed his mind. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British commander, had convinced him that it was time to launch a massive assault to roll back the entire German position in France by attacking from the left, front and right. Foch wanted Pershing to reduce the American offensive to little more than a demonstration against the St. Mihiel salient’s southern flank and give him two-thirds of the First Army’s troops, which he was going to distribute to Haig and several French generals.
Pershing absolutely refused to comply. ‘Do you wish to take part in the battle?’ Foch shrilled, his mustaches vibrating.
‘As an American army and in no other way!’ Pershing roared.
Foch backed down and agreed to let Pershing go ahead with the St. Mihiel attack. But he insisted on American support for the grand offensive he and Haig envisioned. Poking his finger at a map, Pershing vowed to finish St. Mihiel by mid-September–and then to commit his army to an assault in the valley of the Argonne before the end of the month.
In their mutual fury, neither general was thinking coherently. With a totally untried staff, Pershing had committed the American First Army to fighting two major battles 60 miles apart within 10 days. He had also accepted responsibility for attacking up the huge, tunnel-like Argonne Valley, bounded on the west by a dense forest and on the east by the unfordable Meuse River–but he left the territory on either side in French hands.
Things started so well at St. Mihiel that the potential for disaster was euphorically forgotten. When the First Army attacked on September 12, it found an enemy in retreat–the Germans had decided to abandon the salient. The Americans captured 16,000 largely second-rate troops at a cost of only 7,000 casualties. Then, thanks to a staff colonel named George C. Marshall, the Americans managed to shift more than 400,000 troops from St. Mihiel to the Argonne–and attack at dawn on September 26, after an all-night barrage from 3,928 guns.
Proof of American overconfidence were the objectives Pershing and his staff assigned the assaulting divisions for the first day. The 250,000 men who went forward into a dense ground fog were expected to advance no less than 10 miles up the valley, clearing the enemy from the forest of the Argonne and bursting through two of the three German defense lines (Stellungen)–bearing the Wagnerian names of Giselher, Kreimhilde and Freya. Pershing hoped to accomplish this miracle with a combination of mass and movement. Against his nine double-strength American divisions, the Germans mustered only five understrength divisions–perhaps 50,000 men.
But the Argonne was not the invitingly flat terrain of St. Mihiel; nor were these Germans even slightly interested in retreating–behind them lay the four-track railroad that sustained the Kaiser’s armies in the north. Moreover, of the nine divisions that surged into that ominous fog on September 26, only four, the 4th, 28th, 33rd and 77th, had seen combat in the summer-long struggle to reverse the German offensives of spring-summer 1918. Two divisions, the 79th and the 91st, had never even been in the front lines.
The U.S. Army Air Service (USAS) was also in action. The 94th Aero Squadron, led by the man who would become the Service’s leading ace, former race-car driver Eddie Rickenbacker, arrived over the Argonne in time to catch the last of the artillery barrage. In the next few hours, Rickenbacker shot down a Fokker, and two of his squadron mates flamed German Drachen, as they called the enemy’s barrage balloons, an important contribution to blinding the opposition’s artillery.
Another element of the Air Service, the 20th Aero Squadron, was airborne in seven Liberty DH-4 bombers to attack German supply depots at Dun-Sur-Meuse. Built by the Americans to incorporate 12-cylinder Liberty engines in British de Havilland DH-4 airframes, they were barely over the Argonne when 20 Fokker D.VIIs of Jasta 12 spun out of the sun to whirl through their formation, killing the lead plane’s observer and sending one bomber down to fiery death. Four more of the lumbering lemons went down before the leader and the squadron’s tail-end Charlie fled for home without dropping a bomb.
By the time Rickenbacker and the 94th headed for their home airfield, the fog had lifted and they could see the doughboys swarming forward over the shell-pocked earth. Watching their ranks being gouged by German artillery and machine guns, Rickenbacker wondered why they ‘did not go absolutely mad with terror.’
The madness and terror would come later. For the first half- day, the infantry made encouraging progress, as the surprised Germans fell back to stronger elements of the Giselher defense line. The American foot soldiers were encouraged by the presence of Colonel George Patton’s tank brigade–141 Renault light tanks and 28 French-manned mediums, called Schneiders. But the horrendous terrain and the Germans’ aggressive anti-tank tactics took a heavy toll on Patton’s men and machines. The enemy had learned to move their Austrian 77mm fieldpieces forward to blast them at point-blank range.
By midday, two-thirds of the brigade tanks were either broken down or knocked out. Patton, virtually berserk over his losses, led a pickup squad of infantry in a frontal assault on a machine-gun nest. Every man but one was gunned down; the survivor dragged Patton into a ditch, bleeding from a severe leg wound.
The infantrymen, too, were discovering that Pershing had sent them into terrain that was only a few removes from hell. The primeval glacier that had originally gouged out the valley had left behind a hogback running down the middle of the Argonne, with ridges slanting off at odd angles, effectively dividing the Argonne into two tunnel-like defiles. General Hunter Liggett, who commanded I Corps on the American left, soon realized the place was ‘a natural fortress, beside which the Wildnerness in which Grant and Lee fought was a park.’
Inside the Argonne Forest itself, ravines, hillocks and meandering little streams added to the obstacles created by the trees and dense underbrush that reduced visibility to 20 feet. Here and throughout the valley, the Germans had added every imaginable man-made defense, from parallel and flanking trenches to concrete dugouts and fortified strongpoints, supported everywhere by barbed wire and machine guns. To those advantages was added the possession of the high ground east of the Meuse, from which dozens of heavy guns rained death on the Americans. Artillery on the slopes of the 1,600-foot-high ridge topped by the Argonne Forest wreaked similar destruction from the opposite flank.
On the first day, the crucial action took place in the center, where V Corps was given the task of taking Montfaucon, a steep-sided 500-foot height that was the key to the Giselher Stellung. This fortress had to be seized quickly by the 79th Division if V Corps had any hope of taking Romagne and other strongpoints in the Kreimhilde Stellung, the second defense line. But the green draftees from Pennsylvania and Maryland became badly confused as the fighting intensified.
German machine-gunners who looked dead suddenly came to life and started shooting up the American rear areas. Men kept charging machine guns in bunches, enabling a single gun to scythe down an entire platoon. Front-line elements lost all contact with their artillery. Not until dusk did one battalion of the 79th Division’s 313th Regiment get close enough to Montfaucon to make an attack, supported by two French Schneiders. But the French tankers, after getting a better look at the Maxims and 77s spouting death, decided to call it a day.
On the 79th’s right, the 4th Division, part of III Corps, had reached its assigned objectives by 12:30. Montfaucon was in clear view. But rigid orders from headquarters required the doughboys to sit there, doing virtually nothing, for four hours, until the 79th Division came abreast. By that time the prize was beyond anyone’s reach–and so was a quick victory in the Argonne. General Max von Gallwitz, commander of the army group opposing the doughboys, poured in a half-dozen reserve divisions in the next few days. ‘On the 27th and 28th,’ Gallwitz later wrote, ‘we had no more worries.’
An overstatement, to be sure, but there is no doubt that on those days, Pershing was a much more worried general. He ordered his nine divisions to attack again. The 79th Division, with some help from the 37th Division, captured Montfaucon at noon. Then serious problems, verging on disaster, developed in I Corps. In the forest of the Argonne, the New Yorkers of the 77th Division were floundering in incredible confusion.
In the valley, the Kansas and Missouri National Guardsmen of the 35th Division were suffering severe internal command problems. On the eve of the battle, Pershing had relieved the two brigade commanders, the chief of staff and three of the four regimental commanders, replacing them with regulars. They barely had time to introduce themselves before they started fighting the elite First Prussian Guards Division.
On September 27 and 28, the 35th Division literally fell apart. The two brigades became chaotically entangled; communications between front and rear virtually ceased. The 35th’s commander, Peter Traub, roved the battlefield in a sleepless daze, out of touch with his own headquarters. At one point he was almost captured by the Germans.
On the 29th, the Prussian Guards launched a counterattack that caused a near rout. The diary of the German Third Army reported ‘concentrated artillery fire struck enemy masses streaming to the rear with annihilating effect.’ The oncoming German infantry were stopped by counterfire from the 35th’s field artillery, among which Battery D of the 129th Regiment, headed by Captain Harry S. Truman, performed with distinction. But on the following day, the shattered division was withdrawn.
By the afternoon of the 29th, gloom and confusion had spread across the entire American battle line. West of the Argonne Forest, the French Fourth Army had barely gained a foot, a mistake making life even more difficult for the Americans in the woods.
September 29 also saw the last flight of 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, the 27th Aero Squadron’s wild Arizona balloon buster, who had destroyed 11 German balloons and downed four enemy planes in the past 17 days. Taking off that evening, Luke sent three more gasbags up in flames, but he never returned. It was later learned that he had been brought down by groundfire near Murvaux and, when called upon to surrender by German troops, drew his pistol and died fighting. Luke was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
Pershing personally visited every division to deliver exhortations and threats of dismissal. Alas, willpower was not what the First Army needed. It was stalled not only by ferocious German resistance but also by massive traffic jams in the rear areas. On October 1, the entire offensive ground to a muddled halt.
For the next four days, the green center divisions were relieved by three veteran divisions, the 1st, the 32nd, and the 3rd, which had all performed with distinction during the summer. But the traffic problem was worsened by days of bone-chilling rain that turned the roads into gumbo–and started influenza raging among the front-line troops.
The Air Service was also having its troubles maintaining superiority. The Germans had bolstered Stenay-based Jagdgeschwader II (JG.II, comprised of Jastas 12, 13, 15 and 19) with JG.I (Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11)–the famed Richthofen Circus. No longer commanded by the Red Baron, who had been killed on April 21, it was still an elite outfit, commanded since July by an ace named Oberleutnant Hermann Göring. The long, narrow shape of the Argonne enabled the Germans to fly into it from three sides. They roared along the defiles and popped over ridges to gun down American rear-area troops as they clustered around mess kitchens.
On October 4, the First Army attacked again along the entire front. This time the Americans did it without artillery preparation, trying to surprise the Germans, but machine guns and the murderous artillery fire from the flanks forced everyone to measure gains in yards. Only the 1st Division, lashed by its ruthless commander, Charles P. Summerall, made any progress, blasting and battering a narrow 7-kilometer-long salient up the Aire River valley. The cost was horrendous. In six days, the division lost 9,387 men and had to be withdrawn.
In the Argonne Forest, some 540 New Yorkers of the 77th Division were cut off and surrounded in the Ravin de Chaulevaux. Stubbornly refusing to surrender, they became the ‘Lost Battalion,’ a name coined by a newspaper that infuriated the New Yorkers ever afterward–they insisted they were neither lost nor a battalion. The Air Service made repeated attempts to drop food and ammunition to the surrounded men from minimum altitudes. One DH-4 crew of the 50th Aero Squadron, 1st Lts. Harold Goettler and Erwin Bleckley, was shot down on October 6, both men later winning posthumous Medals of Honor. But all the goods landed in German hands and stomachs.
The casualties were close to 70 percent when the survivors were rescued on October 7 by the tactical genius of Hunter Liggett. Relieving the exhausted 28th Division with the ‘All-American’ 82nd Division, he ordered a brigade to make a’sideways’ attack into the forest from the edge of the 1st Division salient. The daring maneuver worked, forcing the Germans to withdraw from the entire forest by October 10.
On the second day of that operation, a Tennessee mountaineer in the 82nd became a legend. Corporal Alvin York had grown up with a gun in his hands. He could knock the head off a turkey at 100 yards. When his company’s advance was stopped by German machine guns on a hill ahead of them, Future Sergeant York worked his way through the woods into the German rear with 16 other men. They captured the commander of the machine-gun battalion, but fire from the hill killed half of York’s men and pinned down the rest. With rifle and pistol York proceeded to kill 28 men on the hill without missing a shot. The German major blew his whistle and ordered the survivors to surrender. York marched them back to the American lines, scooping up more prisoners along the way, to bring his total bag to 132–plus a Medal of Honor.
York’s and the 82nd’s deeds were among the few bright spots in the renewed American assault. Flying overhead, General Billy Mitchell, the commander of USAS, groaned aloud as he watched the uncoordinated attacks. He said it was like watching a man butt his head against a brick wall.
On October 10, Mitchell dispatched three squadrons, the 94th, the 27th and the 147th, over the Argonne to flame a particularly annoying Drachen. The Germans summoned Jastas from all directions, and the result was an aerial battle royal–one in which the Americans claimed four victories and the German Jasta 10 claimed three American Spads. At the end of the day, however, the deadly Drachen was still aloft.
On October 8, Pershing had finally decided to do something about those murderous guns east of the Meuse. He ordered the 29th Division to attack, supported by the French 18th Division and part of the III Corps’ 33rd Division. The attack made some early gains, but the Germans moved in two fresh divisions and soon had the Allies pinned on the banks of the Meuse. On October 12, New Jersey National Guardsmen of the 29th’s 113th and 114th regiments took the Bois d’Ormont, at a cost of 118 killed and 812 wounded. Over the next 34 hours, the Germans bombarded Bois d’Ormont with high-explosive and mustard gas shells. Wisely, the 113th withdrew while the 114th held its ground–which only resulted in 706 more gas casualties in an area, permeated with persistent mustard agent, that the Germans had no intention of entering.
Meanwhile, despite an unwillingness by their French allies to keep up the pace, Maryland’s 115th Regiment overran Richène Hill, while the Virginian 116th took the heights of Malbrouck, Consenvoye and Molleville Ferme–discovering the last objective to have been defended by Austrian troops. Then, on October 18, the two units found their right flank exposed (due to the breakdown of the 113th and 114th’s assault) and under German attack from the directions of Ormont and Haumont. On October 16, the 79th Division arrived to relieve the 29th, and five days later the last of the ‘Blue and Grays’ were pulled out of the line, after having suffered 5,552 casualties in three weeks. Although pushed back as far as seven kilometers, the German Meuse batteries remained a menace until the last week of the war.
Elsewhere, the First Army was showing signs of severe strain. The traffic jams had become monumental again. The terrific casualties forced Pershing to cannibalize seven divisions as they arrived in France, sending green men into the lines to serve with strangers–never a good situation. More than 100,000 stragglers were wandering in the rear area, and Pershing finally issued a desperate order to shoot any man who ran away.
Pershing himself began to show signs of emotional collapse. Foch and Georges Clemenceau, the French premier, were hurling insults and demands for ‘results’ at him. Driving to the front, he buried his head in his hands and spoke to his wife, who had died tragically in a fire at the Presidio in San Francisco in 1915. ‘Frankie, Frankie…my God, sometimes I don’t know how I can go on.’
But the iron general summoned great reserves of mettle from somewhere within his warrior soul. Visiting the 90th Division, he told General Henry T. Allen: ‘Things are going badly…but by God! Allen, I was never so much in earnest in my life. We are going to get through.’ Even so, Pershing by now recognized that willpower was not enough. He decided to try brain power.
On October 10, he handed over command of the First Army to I Corps’ Hunter Liggett. The former president of the Army War College, Liggett was a thinking general. He was also 40 pounds overweight, but he parried criticism by declaring: ‘There’s nothing wrong with fat, if it isn’t above the collar.’
To focus Liggett’s task, Pershing created the Second Army east of the Meuse and put Robert Lee Bullard, III Corps’ commander, in charge of it. He also replaced George H. Cameron, V Corps’ leader, with the 1st Division’s ferocious commander, Charles P. Summerall.
Liggett waited until October 16 to take charge, meanwhile allowing fresh outfits, notably the 42nd ‘Rainbow’ Division, to make another try at cracking the Kreimhilde Stellung. The Rainbow, which included New York’s famous ‘Fighting 69th’ (redesignated the 165th U.S. Infantry), was assigned the forbidding Côte de Chatillon. On the night of October 13-14, Summerall visited brigade commander Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters and said: ‘Give me Chatillon or a list of 5,000 casualties.’ MacArthur replied that if they failed, the entire 84th Brigade would be on the casualty list, with his name at the top.
In the next two murderous days, MacArthur and his soldiers almost reached Summerall’s savage quota, with the brigade commander ignoring shrapnel and bullets to set an example for his men. By dusk on the 16th, they reached the crest of Chatillon and held it against a ferocious German counterattack. On their right flank, the weary men of the 32nd Division surprised themselves and everyone else by capturing another key height, the Côte Dame Marie, effectively piercing the Kreimhilde Stellung. It had taken the First Army three weeks and 100,000 casualties to reach the objective Pershing had assigned to it for the first day.
Liggett immediately announced it was time to rest and regroup. While rounding up the 100,000 stragglers and returning them to their units and restoring order in the rear, he replaced the exhausted 77th Division with the fresh 78th ‘Lightning’ Division and ordered that New Jersey-New York outfit to exert pressure on the enemy’s right flank around the town of Grandpré, which sat on a bluff north of the Aire River.
For 10 days and 10 nights, the 78th attacked, and attacked again, taking heavy casualties from Germans in the town and the nearby Bois de Loges. As Liggett had hoped, the Germans, convinced that the Americans’ next offensive would come from the left, shifted reserves from the center to meet the threat.
Meanwhile, Liggett tried to reform the First Army’s primitive tactics. He issued orders to stop charging machine guns and strongpoints that were holding up an advance. Regiments and divisions were no longer to consider boundary lines as no-trespass signs. They should assist their neighbors with flank attacks if they made better progress. Liggett also significantly added to his staff’s brain power by making Colonel George C. Marshall his operations officer.
On November 1, a rested, replenished First Army renewed the offensive with a thunderous predawn barrage. The I and III corps attacked vigorously on the left and right flanks–but the main effort was a three-division smash up through the center by Summerall’s V Corps, led by the veteran 2nd Division and its Marine brigade. The Air Service roared in to strafe and bomb, in an early example of ground-air coordination. The German center virtually evaporated, and the 2nd Division gained an astonishing five miles. On its right, the 89th Division did almost as well.
The appalled Germans found their right and left outflanked and had no choice but disengagement and headlong retreat. Several times in the next few days, when the Germans attempted to set up a defense line, the Americans overran it before the enemy could issue orders to man it. On November 3, the 2nd Division marched an entire regiment through a wood by night, while the frantic enemy was trying to fortify it. In the morning the Germans found themselves in a trap. A despairing General Gallwitz was told: ‘All the front line commanders report the [German] troops are fighting courageously but just cannot do anything.’
The Meuse River became the one hope of containing the American surge, but that, too, vanished when the 5th Division raced across open ground under fire and crossed the river at Dun-sur-Meuse on November 5. The crucial railroad was soon within range of American artillery. Elsewhere, Foch’s grand offensive was making equally spectacular gains. On November 8, the Germans met with the generalissimo to discuss an armistice and peace talks.
Pershing already had told President Woodrow Wilson he thought that was a poor idea. He favored fighting until the Germans surrendered unconditionally. Wilson had furiously informed him that politics were none of his business. Pershing responded by ordering Liggett and Bullard, whose Second Army had also gone into action, to attack without respite.
The offensive’s main goal soon became the city of Sedan, where France had ingloriously surrendered to the Germans in 1871 to signal an unhappy end to the Franco-Prussian war. Pershing, still seething at Foch, decided he wanted Americans to capture it–Liggett ordered I Corps to make the city its target. The 42nd Division, which had replaced the 78th, led the advance. But V Corps commander Summerall had brought his beloved 1st Division back into action and decided he wanted the men to win the prize.
Summerall ordered the 1st to lunge across the fronts of the 77th and 42nd divisions in a dash to Sedan. The result was massive confusion that would have caused a military disaster if the German army had retained any fighting power. Doughboys shot at each other in the darkness, and a 1st Division patrol arrested a strolling Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a German spy. Liggett called the fiasco a ‘military atrocity’ and seriously considered court-martialing Summerall. But Pershing dismissed the episode as not worth fussing about. The 1st Division was his favorite, too.
By the time the mess was unraveled, Pershing had yielded to French complaints and allowed his hosts to capture Sedan. But at 11 a.m. on November 11, when the armistice went into effect, most divisions of the American First and Second armies were still attacking. To the end of his life, Pershing insisted that if the battle of the Argonne (and the other Allied offensives) had lasted another 10 days, ‘we would have rounded up the entire German army, captured it, humiliated it.’
Not a few military historians have differed strongly with Pershing’s view. Both the French and British armies were close to exhaustion, and the combination of 117,000 Argonne casualties, influenza, and a total lack of replacements rendered the ability of the First and Second American armies to fight a battle of annihilation against a determined enemy a dubious proposition. On the key to victory in the Argonne, however, there was no disagreement. The iron general confessed it on Armistice night in Paris. ‘The men were willing to pay the price.’ *
This article was written by Thomas Fleming and originally published in the October 1993 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!