Half a century after his father fought in the final Allied offensive of World War I, the author sought to recapture his experiences.
CAN IT BE RECAPTURED? I WONDERED AS THE VERDUN TRAIN ROCKED SOUTH through the darkened farmlands of Champagne. Can another generation really grasp this old lost thing that you have held and heard in imagination and in long night talks? Have another drink. The whiz-bangs were the worst….The solid men with the beefy, cheerful faces, those big hands like stones on the red Formica tabletop. I remember the first time I went into the lines….Can it be recaptured, that already ancient time, shadowed by the racing madness of another war, those days and nights you heard about so often?
The greatest battle in American history. That is what they called it in the ’20s, and even today, in terms of mass, concentration, and carnage, it still deserves the title. A million and a quarter Americans, jammed into a fighting front little more than 20 miles wide and 40 miles deep. But it is not history you are riding toward now. It is memory, it is part of the large pulse that still beats deep in your body at the word father. You hope, this once, to write a different kind of history, a personal, perhaps impossible thing. You want nothing less than to recapture him—and all the rest of them, those puttee-clad doughboys with upside-down tin dishes on their heads, the Americans of 1918 who marched, singing, into the Argonne.
There was no generation gap between my father and me. He treated me like a man from the age of 15. I went with him to political dinners and veterans’ reunions, spent innumerable midnights sitting up with him and his friends in our Jersey City kitchen while my poor mother remonstrated feebly from the upper floor. My ears always grew sharp when the talk turned, as it inevitably did, to the war. The stories would spill out, almost always funny but sometimes brutal. About cooties, the lice that made sweaters walk. About three days in the lines eating nothing but carrots. About the nervous sentry who bayoneted his own pack in the dark. About the shell that plowed into the mud a foot away from a private, who dug it out and found he and it had the same serial number. About the Garden of Allah, the first French whorehouse they found when they got off the boat at Calais. About the air attacks a few hours after they debarked and the enraged few who slung hand grenades into a German prisoner-of-war compound to revenge their wounded buddies. About Harry Ross, the company screwball, who marched an entire platoon onto a Paris train, without a leave pass among them.
My father had been a sergeant in the 78th Division, and most of his fellow Jerseymen had soldiered with the same outfit. Almost all the World War I divisions were organized along state or sectional lines. The 78th was at first called “the President’s Own” division, because Woodrow Wilson had been New Jersey’s governor. Later the men voted to call it the “Lightning” division, in honor of the famed Jersey brew surreptitiously distilled in the pine woods around Fort Dix.
Inevitably, once past these preliminaries, the reminiscing turned to the Western Front. I listened hypnotically to names that meant nothing to me: St.-Mihiel, Thiaucourt, the “Limey Sector,” Argonne, the Bois des Loges, Grandpré, Talma, Bellejoyeuse Farm. But it was all discussed in a peculiarly unheroic way. There was never a trace of braggadocio in the battle stories. Only from others did I discover that Sergeant Fleming had been made an acting lieutenant in the Argonne. Only when I asked to see them did he show me his meticulous notes on infantry tactics, the huge black .45-caliber automatic he had brought home, the division’s battle maps filled with those French names that rolled so readily (if inaccurately) off the tongues of veterans.
At the same time, my knowledge of the battle remained curiously vague. I had the standard American impression that the Argonne was a vast forest through which the Yanks had swarmed tumultuously to defeat the Germans in the decisive battle of the war. When I began planning my trip to France in the summer of 1968, my father had been dead almost 10 years. I realized I did not even know his regiment or company. A visit to the 49th reunion of the 78th Division at Fort Dix cleared up these minor mysteries. “Teddy” Fleming, or “Red” as some of the old veterans called him, had been a sergeant in Company C of the 312th Regiment.
Otherwise the reunion was a sad and somewhat frustrating experience. All my father’s close friends were dead. In discussing the Argonne, the surviving old soldiers were unbelievably vague about details. Like my father and his friends, they preferred the funny memories—stealing chickens, chasing French girls, outwitting second lieutenants or MPs. It made me realize, with something of a shock, how little death or wounds, fatigue or hunger, fear or bravery had been mentioned in the stories I had heard when my father was alive. The commanding officer of the contemporary 78th Division slashed all sorts of red tape to give me access to company and regimental histories. But I left Fort Dix with little more than the raw material of personal history. It was clear that if I was going to recapture my father’s Argonne, much would depend on what the place itself gave me.
THE MORNING AFTER I ARRIVED AT VERDUN, I HIRED A CAR AND GUIDE and took the highway that runs north along the banks of the Meuse River, a curiously placid-looking stream only a few hundred yards wide, with low, almost nonexistent banks. The road passed French and German cemeteries, monuments to that earlier cataclysm, the yearlong struggle for Verdun that consumed almost a million soldiers before America entered the war. When the road swung west across the Meuse, I unfolded a multicolored map and asked eagerly, “Where’s the Argonne?”
“The forest of the Argonne?” replied Robert Devillars, my guide. “That is many miles away. Let us first go to Montfaucon.” Soon our little Renault was straining up an ever-steeper hill; it finally groaned to a stop before a towering monument, a circular column of stone that rose 327 feet to a figure of Liberty at the summit. Immediately behind it were the ruins of a church and other buildings, the remains of the once thriving village of Montfaucon.
From this steep-sided height I learned the first and most important lesson about the Argonne—it was immense. “See there,” said Devillars. “There is the forest of the Argonne.” My eyes strained toward a thin dark line on the western horizon. In between, the land rose and fell in a vast panorama of rolling hills and clumps of forest past the foot of Montfaucon to the banks of the Meuse.
The Argonne was not a battle for a forest. It was fought for the control of a region, of which the forest, stretching some 15 miles along a dominating ridge, was the western boundary. From Montfaucon the vision of that September 26, 1918, dawn, when 225,000 Americans in nine divisions had surged forward, suddenly made a mockery of the word personal. From the New Yorkers of the 77th Division, thrashing through the Argonne Forest, to the Illinoisans of the 33rd Division, up to their cartridge belts in the oozing swamps along the Meuse, each unit experienced its own distinct version of hell. Did the single human being, the single regiment, even the single division matter in such a cataclysm? I wondered, trying to see the whole stupendous scene with the historian’s eye. Suddenly the answer was clear.
Yes, because the very immensity of the experience staggered the mind. One could, of course, write an objective article about the Argonne, discussing the tactics, the progress made by the various divisions on the first, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, day. But to rescue the Argonne from this kind of abstract, impersonal history, to find its human dimension, it was absolutely necessary to reduce it to a smaller scale.
The intuition gathered momentum as we drove along the valley of the Aire River. It was a gray, sunless day, typical Argonne weather, and the landscape was in perfect harmony with the atonal sky. The Aire was as colorless as the back of a mirror and, seen from a distance, as inert as a dead snake. Dun-colored earth undulated to the right and left, broken by an occasional cluster of red-roofed farmhouses or an isolated patch of woods. The long miles of open fields seemed peculiarly naked. The few fences were almost invisible wire, and there were no stone walls, no rocks, no hedges. It was all as bare as the Nebraska plain—but by no means as flat. Close up, the undulations became surprising hills or shallow ravines. It was a landscape in which only mass and density could make an impression, and the forest of the Argonne played this role with dark insistence. Mile after mile it was a brooding, impenetrable presence, on its twisting western height.
There in its little valley lay compact Varennes, famous in history as the town where the fleeing king Louis XVI was captured and sent back to Paris and his doom. Thousands of Pennsylvanians of the 28th Division died to drive the Germans out of it. A monument, one of the many that dot the Argonne region, commemorates their sacrifices. There was the village of Exermont, and that nearby narrow ravine where a German counterattack struck the exhausted, depleted Kansans and Missourians of the 35th Division on September 29, 1918, and almost turned the battle into a rout. There was Le Chêne Tondu, a saw-toothed height jutting out of the Argonne Forest into the valley like the prow of a ship. From it German artillery dominated the lower half of both the valley and the forest. Next we passed the heights of Cornay and Châtel-Chéhéry, equally crucial to the upper half of the valley. The divisions fighting east of the Aire had “scalloped” away these strongpoints at a terrible price, while across the valley other outfits swarmed up the steep slopes of Montfaucon. Both had to fight their way up a huge amphitheater with enemies flinging destruction at them from three sides. Next we drove across the forest itself, pausing to stare down the shrouded slope where the famed “lost battalion” of the 77th Division was cut off but held out for five searing days against repeated German assaults. The round outlines of their foxholes are still visible after 50 years.
We were close to personal history now. The 78th Division had marched up through the Argonne’s blasted, shell-stripped trees in the wake of the 77th. The Jerseyans had spent the two weeks preceding the Argonne buildup, and the first week of the battle itself, holding a sector of the St.-Mihiel line, about 30 miles to the southeast. To confuse the Germans about American intentions during the buildup, they had orders to keep the sector boiling, and they obeyed them with enthusiasm. Their days and nights were devoted to aggressive patrolling and limited attacks. The Germans retaliated with intense bombardments. The history of my father’s 312th Regiment tells how one of these barrages fell with special fury on my father’s Company C, killing Lieutenant Donat G. O’Brien and several other men.
My father was a tough, cocky Irishman from the downtown slums of Jersey City. When the chaplain urged everyone to take the full $10,000 insurance policy the government was offering at rock-bottom rates, Sergeant Fleming had sneered, “I can take care of myself,” and opted for only $3,000. After a night spent with his face in the shuddering St.-Mihiel mud with chunks of deadly metal humming around him, he signed up for the full $10,000. “I never thought I’d come out of it in one piece, after that night,” he said.
At the same time, my father retained his faith in something he called “Irish luck.” Those who scoffed at this superstitious philosophy must have wondered, after the death of Lieutenant O’Brien. As my father told it in later years, that first barrage caught them in the open. “You never saw anyone dig holes faster in your life,” he said. “I was down about three feet when the lieutenant crawled over to me and told me to get out—he was taking over my hole as a command post. I told him to go dig his own goddam hole. Finally he ordered me out, and it was go or get court-martialed.” Fifteen minutes later, while Sergeant Fleming, still cursing fluently, was digging himself a new hole a few dozen yards away, a shell made a direct hit on O’Brien’s command post. “All we ever found of the poor guy,” my father said, “was a piece of his raincoat.”
More than 2,000 Lightning men had been killed, wounded, or were missing by the time General John J. Pershing ordered the division withdrawn from St.-Mihiel for service in the Argonne. They made some of the 60-mile journey in trucks, but most of it they covered in traditional infantry fashion, “picking up one brogan and putting the other one down,” as my father liked to describe it. While they marched, they sang. The 311th Regiment’s favorite was “Smile, Smile, Smile.” Others preferred “K-K-K-Katy,” “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” or “Madelon.” It was a singing war.
But this sentimental streak (on the wall of his bedroom, my father had framed the words of that saccharine song “My Buddy”) was strangely combined with an almost primitive toughness. Frank Mueller, a member of Company C, told me, “The first time I saw your father, he was a bayonet instructor at Fort Dix. He made my hair stand on end, the way he’d snarl, ‘Stick it into his guts and pull it out the same way!’ ” Going into the Argonne, Mueller recalls my father getting into an argument with one of his best friends. “We were marching along, and all of a sudden, Red just flattened him. Right there in the road. Out cold, with one punch. Nobody talked back to your old man.”
Ahead were Argonne days and nights when both the sentiment and the toughness would be tested to their utmost limits.
I DROVE OUT OF THE ARGONNE FOREST ALONG A ROAD THAT RUNS THROUGH THE TOWNS of Lançon and Senuc. My father’s regiment had marched up this road on the night of October 15–16, 1918. The rain, by then a standard feature of the battle, came down in relentless sheets, and darkness was total. No one had the slightest notion where he was going. Guides who supposedly knew the way were as lost as everyone else. The confusion was par for the Argonne course. As they had moved up through the forest, the commanders of the 78th Division had been told that they would relieve the 82nd Division. They had rushed their best young officers forward, to spend days mapping and patrolling the 82nd’s front. Then, without so much as a whisper of explanation, they were told to relieve the 77th, along a front about which they knew no more than they could read on their maps.
The 78th Division was split into two brigades of two regiments each. Except for battalions held in reserve, both brigades were supposed to be in line at 5:30 on the morning of October 16 to launch an all-out attack on the town of Grandpré, on the Bois de Bourgogne beyond it to the north, and on a smaller woods known as the Bois des Loges, to the northeast. Because of the total confusion in which they marched, both wings of the division arrived late. The 2nd Battalion of the 310th Regiment, for example, marched all night in the rain and got nowhere. At 10:30 a.m., under direct orders, they had to leave the shelter of the Argonne’s trees and move across the Aire River and an open field 500 yards wide, through an enemy barrage that cost them, one veteran remembers bitterly, “more casualties than we took in two whole weeks at St.-Mihiel.”
The German defenses known as the Hindenburg Line ran from the Bois de Bourgogne through Grandpré and the Bois des Loges into the little village of Champigneulle. In 1968 I sat in the farmhouse of André Godart, a bluff, barrel-chested citizen of Champigneulle who was 15 years old when the 78th Division came across his father’s fields. The Germans had tunnels running from the cellar of the family farmhouse to the forward trenches and blockhouses. Godart took me out in the pasture behind his house, and to my amazement the eye could still trace the snaking line of the German trenches, while in the distance several of the concrete blockhouses were still visible, sunk deep in the earth, with only a slit, like a baleful mouth, for machine-gun fire. Here, as everywhere in the Argonne, the deceptive contours of the rolling earth were startling. The ground fell away in a long gradual incline across naked fields all the way from Champigneulle to the Grandpré–St.-Juvin road. In 1918 those fields, Godart said, were thick with barbed wire, huge belts of it every hundred feet. In the north, the British were using 4,000 tanks to open paths through the wire for their infantry. In the Argonne, the Americans had only 189 tanks, and most of these had been knocked out the first day. All Pershing could offer his infantry were artillery barrages to blast holes in the wire. More than one soldier died trying to find holes that were not there.
I drove with Godart down the road from Champigneulle toward Grandpré. About halfway, he stopped the car and pointed across another naked field toward a clump of woods—the Bois des Loges. This was the primary objective of the right brigade of the 78th Division. It was only a few thousand square yards, but from the 78th’s viewpoint it might have been designed by the devil and handed to the Germans as a gift. It was a series of ravines, like a giant corrugated iron roof, thick enough to conceal machine guns and to protect the defenders from detection by artillery, yet thin enough to give them murderous fields of fire. The men of the 309th and 310th Infantry reached the edge of the woods, but that was only Act One in a terrible two-week drama. There were machine guns every 40 yards firing down the ravines. When Company F of the 310th attempted to penetrate the woods from another angle on October 18, the Germans let them advance 200 yards and then blasted them with machine-gun fire from both flanks. In four searing days, the 310th took 800 casualties in the Bois des Loges, and the 309th suffered proportionately.
Again and again, with unquestioning courage, the companies tried to fight their way forward, destroying one machine-gun nest only to be cut down by flanking fire from another, grappling with repeated counterattacks, which, in the undemonstrative language of the 78th Division’s history, “resolved” the fighting into “combats between small groups.” A special feature of the nightmare in the woods was gas. The shells plopped almost soundlessly around the fighting men day and night and the deadly swirls of phosgene and mustard settled in the ravines and even in the foxholes, forcing the men to wear their uncomfortable masks almost constantly. “We slept in the damn things,” one 310th man told me.
While this battle for the Bois des Loges raged, the 312th and 311th regiments were fighting their own war, in and around Grandpré. They had the same driving orders that had sent their comrades smashing into the Loges woods—attack, attack. All a visitor has to do is walk around Grandpré to realize what those words meant on October 16, 1918. A detailed exploration of the town chills the blood.
Grandpré is built against the brow of a steep hill, with a main street running east and west along the Aire River and two other streets feeding down into it from the north. The Germans controlled the north–south streets, and could infiltrate men over roofs and through back doors into the east–west houses. This was bad enough. Much worse was another German-controlled piece of local real estate which the soldiers dubbed the Citadel—a tongue of rock that jutted into the center of the town and ended in a perpendicular 30-foot cliff. Comte Bellejoyeuse, a minor figure in 16th-century French politics, had built his château on this commanding perch. The Germans had burrowed into its shattered ruins like determined moles. I climbed the hill and persuaded a lady caretaker to let me enter the grounds of the château, which has been restored as a national monument. From the edge of the promontory I looked down on Grandpré and the open ground across the river beyond it, rolling out to the edge of the Argonne. From this vantage point a machine gunner could kill anyone indiscreet enough to expose himself anywhere in or around Grandpré.
This was only the beginning of the assaulters’ problems. The château was situated in a park that stretched 700 yards behind it along the St.-Juvin road. Just beyond that was Bellejoyeuse Farm. In the division and regimental histories, it was ranked with the Citadel and the Bois des Loges as the most agonizing obstacle in the 78th’s path. The farm is still there, the same cluster of red-roofed buildings (rebuilt, of course) where the Germans had emplaced dozens of machine guns.
The day before the 78th relieved it, the 77th had filtered some men across the Aire, and in a fierce house-to-house brawl had temporarily cleared the east–west main street. Yet every man in the first patrol of the 78th who ventured into Grandpré on October 16 was killed or wounded by fire from the Citadel and the rooftops. It was obvious that an assault would have to be made in force, and the entire 312th Regiment crossed the Aire River later in the day. The rains had raised the normally rather narrow, tepid stream, and in some places the men had to wade through water up to their necks. The water ruined almost every gas mask. They had barely reached the northern bank when the Germans laid down a gas barrage. The Americans could do nothing but watch in horror as the poisonous cloud boiled up less than 50 yards away. Then what seemed to them a miracle happened. A breeze sprang up, and the deadly vapor moved down the river valley instead of enveloping them. The regiment went to work on Grandpré.
The Citadel could not be taken by frontal assault. But assailing it from the east was equally impossible. Bellejoyeuse Farm protected that flank, and the Loges woods in turn protected Bellejoyeuse Farm. The only hope seemed to be an assault that swung west of the town, up a narrow valley to a village called Talma. According to division headquarters, the French were in possession of this little town. But before the men of the 78th could move, they learned that a German counterattack had sent the French reeling back to the main road, where my father’s C Company maintained an uncertain liaison with them. Machine guns were rushed to this flank, and instead of an attack, the Americans found themselves fighting a desperate defense. It was probably here that my father almost got himself court-martialed. They were dug in beside the main road, which the Germans periodically sprayed with machine-gun and shell fire. They had it zeroed in, and nothing human could live on it. To my father’s astonishment, he saw a lone figure strolling casually toward them in the twilight. “Get off that road, you goddam idiot,” my father roared in his best sergeant’s voice. But the racket drowned him out. Another 10 steps and German machine guns would cut the fool in half. With a curse, my father dove out of his foxhole and went sprinting across the road to hit the stroller with a flying tackle that sent them both somersaulting off the road into a shell hole half full of rain water. An instant later the German machine guns laced the road with bullets. In the shell hole the stroller surfaced, spluttering with rage, and my father blanched to discover that he had tackled a major from division headquarters, sent out to check on the liaison with the French. The major roared about courts-martial and executions for a moment, and then looked out at the swarm of bullets tearing up the road where he had been standing a moment before. “Sergeant,” he said, extending a gooey hand, “thanks for saving my life.”
At Talma, as elsewhere in the Argonne, it is not so much the stories as the ground itself that makes the most eloquent history. Again and again the men of the 312th’s 1st Battalion tried to push up that narrow valley, dodging, twisting, crawling from shell hole to shell hole, finally capturing a German machine-gun nest at Talma Farm, about halfway to Talma village. I walked up the valley, staring at the dark mass of the Bois de Bourgogne ahead on the left, and the steep angle of Talma Hill on the right, thinking of the morning when, their hopes raised by the capture of Talma Farm, two companies tried a surprise assault on Talma village. Shrouded by heavy fog, they moved forward and were within 300 yards of their goal when the winds of chance, which had rescued them from the gas attack, betrayed them. The fog suddenly lifted and the Germans poured in fire from the front and both flanks. Almost every man in the advance platoons was killed or wounded; the few that survived did so by playing dead through the agonizing day. At nightfall, this handful crawled back to the foot of Talma Hill.
Often men cracked in the face of such carnage. One captain, after seeing a patrol shot to pieces, asked to be relieved, claiming that his “heart” could no longer stand the strain. My father was not by nature a bitter man, but he never forgot or forgave another captain who panicked as they moved out to an assault. “I looked over my shoulder and saw him going the other way,” my father said. “I would have shot the son of a bitch, but he was already intermingled with the next wave and I was afraid I’d hit one of our own men. The guys saw him later in Paris wearing a wound stripe. They walked right by him without saluting or speaking. He looked the other way.”
For the idealistic, the war was a genuine crusade. One Elizabeth, New Jersey, soldier, writing home a vivid description of the dead and wounded around him, added: “But all this suffering is worth it, because it will make the world safe for democracy.” A few developed a savage hatred for the Germans, and killed as many as possible. Another Elizabeth man proudly told his parents of shooting Germans who had surrendered. I never heard my father, tough Mick though he was, speak a harsh word against the Germans. Once, when I was about 12, I asked him, “Did you ever kill a German face to face?” I was surprised by how disturbed the question made him. “Maybe,” he said. “I don’t really remember.…” And he quickly changed the subject.
From their vantage points on the heights of the Bois de Bourgogne and the crest of the Talma Hill above Grandpré, the Germans were able to direct deadly artillery fire on the Lightning Division all along the line. The gun that the infantrymen hated the most was the Austrian 77 millimeter, which fired a shell they called the whiz-bang. It traveled at almost the speed of sound, so that it exploded before the man it hit even heard it. Yet by an odd twist, the German artillery helped the doughboys tolerate the Argonne’s continual rain. “The muddier it got,” my father told me, “the deeper the shells sank when they hit, and that cut down the shrapnel.” Sixty-five per cent of the casualties, most 78th men agree, came from artillery fire. That anyone survived the hail of metal seems miraculous.
ON OCTOBER 23, WHAT WAS LEFT OF THE 1ST BATTALION MADE ANOTHER TRY AT TALMA. It was part of a coordinated attack that the division launched, both there and in the town of Grandpré, after a nightlong artillery preparation. All the artillery accomplished was to bring down on the exhausted infantry a fierce counterbarrage that caused heavy casualties among the 3rd Battalion, fighting in Grandpré. But they went forward nevertheless, and the remnants of one squad made it to the top of the Citadel.
With the 1st Battalion, it was the same deadly story. A vicious crossfire of machine guns and artillery pinned them down on the reverse slope of Talma Hill.
They were in desperate need of artillery support, but there was no short-wave radio to get the message back to the gunners. In the American Expeditionary Forces the men in the front lines depended on runners to carry such messages. At the 78th reunion I had met a thin, wiry old man who told me proudly that he had been a runner in the 311th Regiment. My first reaction had been puzzlement at his pride. Being a runner did not sound like a very glorious assignment. But he went on to tell me how one night, when the going was especially rough in Grandpré, his captain had sent eight runners back to regimental headquarters, begging for reinforcements and ammunition. All eight had been killed. He volunteered to go, and made it, crawling the last half mile with a bullet in his leg.
Then came a new kind of hell. Their own artillery, groping for the range to silence the German machine guns, began falling among the prone Americans. A captain from Company D tried to reach the men who were being hit, to order them to fall back. Machine guns cut him down, and twin brothers Victor and Bertrand Herrmann crawled out to help him where he lay in the open. But the captain was dead, and Bertrand Herrmann was hit. Hours later, he and the four men who tried to evacuate him on a stretcher were hit by a shell and killed instantly.
Meanwhile, members of my father’s C Company somehow worked their way to the top of that shell-ripped hill and drove the Germans off it. Reinforcements from the 311th Infantry were rushed to their support. The next day, what was left of my father’s company pushed into the southern edge of the Bois de Bourgogne. There, exhausted, their ranks too thin to go farther, they dug in while a battalion of the 311th Infantry drove past them.
On the night of October 27, the 312th Regiment was withdrawn and reorganized into two (instead of three) battalions. Many sergeants, including my father, were made acting lieutenants without commissions, to beef up the all but annihilated officer cadre. Around Grandpré, the rest of the 78th Division continued to extend the gains already made. Bellejoyeuse Farm was finally captured, the penetration into the Bois de Bourgogne was deepened and held against renewed German counterattacks. But the Bois des Loges remained in German hands. My father received his only “wound” of the war coming out of the Bois de Bourgogne. The trail was blocked by a large tree branch, which each man was supposed to hold for the man behind him. Maybe a private had a grudge against the sergeant; more probably they were all too exhausted, after nine days of almost continuous fighting, to remember the simplest order. The man ahead of my father let the branch go, and in the darkness, it smashed him in the face, breaking his nose.
An officer told him to consider himself wounded and go to the rear. He refused. “I think I’m needed around here,” he said. No one argued with him. The 1st Battalion had only four officers left. The regiment had lost 21 officers and 800 men to bullets and shellfire—and seven other officers and 150 men had been gassed and evacuated. Wiping away the blood and shrugging off the pain, Sergeant Fleming stayed with his men.
That night, back in the forest near Senuc, they found that the rear area of the Argonne was almost as dangerous as the front lines. German long-range guns, perhaps alerted by an aerial observer who had spotted a careless light or a fire, poured a terrible bombardment into the 312th’s camp. That surprise attack was one of the few painful memories of the Argonne that my father shared with me. They dove under wagons and into ditches while the big shells screamed in, one after another, like berserk express trains. Suddenly, one of his closest friends cried out, “Teddy, I’m hit. I’m hit.” My father crawled over to him through the shellfire and asked him where he was hurt. “My legs,” he said. “My legs.” My father groped for his legs in the darkness, but there was nothing there. Minutes later the man was dead. My father never told me his friend’s name, but the sorrow in his voice made me understand for the first time why the song “My Buddy” meant so much to him.
In the Bois de Bourgogne, André Godart spotted a rusted, grisly relic of the battle, a German helmet. He gave it to me as a souvenir. Standing in silence on Talma Hill, the helmet in my hands, I struggled to assess the gulf between this experience and the old soldiers’ reunion stories, the tales told by my father and his friends. They did not begin to approach the reality that these tan, naked fields and shrouded woods evoked. More significant, the tellers had not really tried. Most of the time they only hinted at what they had seen and heard. For those who had been through the Argonne, it was enough to say: “I was there.”
THE MEN OF THE 78TH HAD ACCOMPLISHED THE DIRTY JOB ASSIGNED TO THEM. The task recalls the harsh larger reality of the Argonne as described by Laurence Stallings, author of The Doughboys: “No one, corps or army commander, expected the 78th to capture the German positions before them. Their assignment was to exert flank pressure by exposing themselves in a series of attacks to contain an enemy seeking to sideslip toward the center where…the 42nd and 32nd Divisions were ripping into his heart.”
Pershing’s strategy for the enemy, a war correspondent said, “called for violent pressure on his flanks in order to draw forces from his center.” Thus the grim historical truth about the sacrifices of my father and his friends. Thus the explanation for the frantic insistence on repeated attacks, often without artillery, from their very first day in the lines.
In the overall American sector, during those 10 days of bitter flank fighting, Pershing completely reorganized his forces from the top down, creating two separate armies to guarantee better communication between headquarters and the front. More artillery was moved up, and fresh or rested divisions came into the line. On November 1 the offensive resumed with a mighty roar, and the hammer stroke was delivered at the German center.
Up over Barricourt Heights went the doughboys, smashing a huge hole that made a retreat on the flanks inevitable. For one more day the Germans punished the 78th in the Bois des Loges and the Bois de Bourgogne, but the next morning, November 2, the men of the 310th pushed ahead and found only a few dead Germans left behind by their departed comrades. Sometimes using trucks, but going most of the way on foot, the 78th galloped 12 miles in exhausting pursuit of the fleeing enemy. At Boult aux Bois, just north of the Bois de Bourgogne, my father’s C Company joined hands with a French detachment in a tumultuous celebration. The union of the two armies in this town meant that the end was near.
But the German soldier was still a deadly foe. On November 5, a patrol of the 309th Infantry entered the village of Sy. The French civilians assured them the Germans were still very much on the run. About a half a mile beyond the town, machine guns spat from surrounding ridges. One officer managed to fight his way out. Every other man in the patrol was killed, wounded, or captured. It was a bitter postscript to the division’s 12-mile advance, and to make matters worse, it was the 78th’s last day in battle. That night, the 42nd Division replaced the 78th, and the Lightning Division marched out of the Argonne. My father had preceded them. He and several other sergeants were pulled out on November 3 and sent to officers’ training school.
This last small item of personal history illuminates Pershing’s iron resolve to ignore rumors of imminent peace that had filled American newspapers throughout October and November. Even when he was finally told, on November 1, that Berlin was seeking an armistice, Pershing drove his men forward with the same attack-and-the-hell-with-your-flanks order. He quite agreed with Marshal Ferdinand Foch that the German army had to be defeated in the field, if the specter of Prussian militarism was to be stamped out forever. But the politicians decided that they could not afford to risk Pershing’s policy of unconditional surrender. So with doughboys looking down on Sedan from the heights of the Meuse, and with Allied artillery shelling the jugular Metz-Lille railway, the roaring furnace of the Argonne fell silent on November 11, 1918. In the front lines, men looked at each other in amazement, unable to believe that they were going to survive after all. Like my father, every doughboy who spent a day under fire had long since resigned himself to the inevitability of his own death.
The last place I visited in the Argonne was the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial on the heights above the village of Romagne. Fourteen thousand of the Argonne’s 44,000 dead sleep here. It is still the largest American overseas cemetery. Row on row the white marble crosses stretch across the beautifully sculptured grass. Above them on a small rise is a chapel with stained-glass windows carrying the insignia of each American division, the 78th’s lightning patch among them. I looked, and thought about battles and history.
Could I re-create the reality of the Argonne? As history, yes. I could see it with a clearer, colder eye. I could give reasons, make analyses that my father and his friends, struggling through the shell-churned mud, simply could not consider. But as for recapturing those singing, brawling doughboys, what they really thought and felt about the rain-soaked, shell-shrieking days and nights, with the constant smell of death in the mind and in the nostrils, no. Their garrulous reticence (for that, I finally decided, was the only way to describe it) may be explained by a line Guy Chapman records in his story of the British front in World War I, A Passionate Prodigality: “The war, old chap, is our youth, secret and interred.” But I suspect a larger explanation. The Argonne was the last enormous expression of America’s youth, and perhaps they sensed the tragedy, sensed that this marvelous innocence had been violated there by old Europe’s grimmer, more terrible vision of life and death. Never again, after the Argonne, would we go to war with a smile and a song.
Time has created two Argonnes. Mine, a thing of words and terrain and memory, belongs to my generation. My father’s sleeps with him and his friends beneath the crosses at Romagne and other cemeteries, or hides beneath the banter at division reunions. Both are true. MHQ
This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Two Argonnes
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