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The Meuse-Argonne

September 30, 2008

Originally posted here, here, and here.

“Lafayette, we are here.” Part I.

On this day in 1918, the United States launched an attack against the German trenches in the Meuse-Argonne region of northern France. It was the largest American effort since the Civil War; in absolute numbers it was the largest operation the United States had ever undertaken. For all that, it was a sideshow to the larger war. After the stagnation of 1916-1917, 1918 had become the year of resolution. The Germans, fresh from their victory over the Russians, had transported hundreds of thousands of soldiers back from the eastern front to the western. They knew that they had a limited amount of time to take advantage of the numbers, before millions of freshly-trained American soldiers arrived in France in late 1918 and 1919. General Erich von Ludendorff, the German Supreme Commander, threw the dice with a series of massive offensives starting in March. For a moment, the Germans broke through and the war looked like it might end before the Americans could make a difference. The crisis was serious enough that the American commander, General John J. Pershing, unbent from his insistence that American units would fight only as part of an American army under an American commander, and began sending divisions piecemeal to shore up the French and British lines. The American reinforcements, resolute defense by the French and British troops, and general exhaustion on the German side enabled the Entente to hold its lines. By late May 1918, the Supreme Entente commander, General Ferdinand Foch, was thinking about large-scale counterattacks.

Foch envisioned a series of hammer-blows all along the German lines. His hammers were to be the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army, strengthened by further injections of fresh American troops. General Pershing flatly refused. The emergency was over, he argued, and in any counterattack, American troops would fight as a single army, responsible to an American commander, not a foreign one. President Woodrow Wilson, Pershing’s commander, had been insistent that “the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved.” Pershing aimed to carry that order out to the letter. Foch fumed and argued but he had no leverage. America had come into war not as an ally, but as an “associated power,” fighting against the Germans, but not necessarily for the British or French. That meant that Foch could not order Pershing to do anything; he could only ask. At a meeting, Foch demanded if Pershing was willing to see the defenders pushed back to the River Loire, south of Paris itself. Pershing responded that he did not care where they Americans fought, only that they fought as a unit. To this rule, he made only one exception. The 369th (Colored) Regiment would fight with the French. The “Harlem Hellfighters,” as they came to be known, fit uneasily in a largely racist Army uncomfortable with the notion of blacks as combat soldiers. The 369th had not been allowed to participate with New York’s 42nd National Guard Division, the “Rainbow” Division, because, it was explained to the 369th’s commander, “black is not a color in the rainbow.” In France, Pershing felt that the 369th could be dumped on the French, with their experience commanding “colonial” troops.

Foch’s misgivings about this were not merely related to the difficulties it created in planning. He was also concerned that the Americans had little experience of trench warfare and would thus find fighting on the Western Front hard going. Foch needed the Americans to carry their weight, and he wasn’t sure that they could. The airy pronouncements from American officers that they would break out of the stagnant trench warfare that the Europeans had allowed themselves to be mired in and return to a more chivalric “open warfare” reassured Foch not all. It sounded identical to the assertions of French officers in the pre-war era. The French had discovered in 1914-15 that assertions, like men, died easily in the mud and blood of the Western Front. Machine guns respected no-one’s chivalry. The British and French had painfully learned, over the course of three years, how to mount effective assaults against heavily-defended trench systems. But to Pershing, trench warfare simply reflected Old World incompetence. The strapping sons of the New World had arrived, and they would show the Europeans how to do it. Pershing was wont to make such pronouncements in staff meetings with Foch and General Douglas Haig, the BEF commander. It remains a mystery that one or both of them did not punch him squarely in the mouth as a result, but that can perhaps be laid to Haig’s dour Scottish phlegmatism and Foch’s sense that France, wearied by the slaughter of millions of her young men, needed the Americans more than the Americans needed the French.

Pershing got his way. The Americans would fight as a single army, though the units that had been sent as reinforcements during the German spring offensive would stay with the French and British. Foch rewrote the plan to put the Americans far out on the right of the British and French lines. Their job would be to reduce two salients, bulges in the defensive line, to ensure that the main French assault would not have Germans on its flanks. The first of these, the St. Mihiel salient, would be attacked on September 12th. After reducing this, the Americans would immediately turn to an attack in the Meuse-Argonne, about 20 miles to the east of St. Mihiel. There, as part of a larger assault, the Americans would cover the flank of the main French assault. The second attack would be much larger, initially comprising about 180,000 American soldiers, essentially the entire AEF. The attack was scheduled to start with an artillery bombardment at 11:30 PM September 25th. The next morning, the American infantry would go “over the top” and into the assault.

“Lafayette, we are here.” Part II

The American plan was flawed from the beginning. First, the attacks were spaced too closely together in time. To be successful, offensives in 1918 had to be complex, highly-planned and rehearsed, and heavily supplied. There was plenty of time to plan, supply, and train for the St. Mihiel assault, but not for Meuse-Argonne. American units would have to be pulled out of the St. Mihiel attack, have their casualties replaced, and retrain for the Meuse-Argonne, in the space of about ten days. This was simply not enough time. Second, the attacks were spaced too closely in distance. St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne were next to each other on the front, supplied by the same road network. Even worse, that road network ran through Verdun, the site of near continuous fighting in 1916-17. Heavily damaged and only partially repaired, the roads were simply not up to the task of supplying two major assaults. At the attack on Amiens in August, 1918, the British had built up a stockpile of 6 million artillery shells in the weeks prior, and fired all of them and more during the attack. The Americans would not be able to do the same.

The attack on St. Mihiel pushed off on September 12th. It was a spectacular success. Within four days, the Americans had captured all their targets, 15,000 German POWs, and 400 artillery pieces. The victory raised the stock of the Americans, and Pershing, in the eyes of the French. French President Raymond Poincare visited the salient to congratulate the U.S. forces, though it should also be noted that he owned a small chateau in the liberated territory. Only some skeptical voices within French military intelligence pointed out that the Germans had actually been in the middle of evacuating the salient at the moment of the American attack, and thus had been unprepared to fight resolutely in defense. Given this, American casualties had been worryingly high, with 4,500 dead. “Open warfare” had succeeded, but at some cost.

The turnaround for the next attack turned into chaos. A traffic jam stretched back miles from the Meuse-Argonne line, carrying the critical supplies and men. Tens of thousands of trucks vied for space with 90,000 horses and mules pulling wagons. Some of the artillery got into place only hours before the shelling was due to start, at 11:30 PM on September 25th. That night 2700 guns started firing the artillery barrage, while roughly 600 tanks idled behind the lines and about 800 airplanes waited for light to take off. In the front trenches, infantry regiments sat, prepared for H-Hour, 5:30 am, when they would assault the German lines.

Let us pause for a moment and examine the challenge of their task. In front of them lay a sophisticated defensive system, consisting of trenches and strong points and barbed wire and artillery and machine guns. Allied to that system the German defensive doctrine, which specified exactly how German units should react to an attack. The doctrine, defense in depth, had come out of the hard lessons of 1916. There, at the Battle of the Somme, the Germans had defended their trenches by concentrating most of their troops in the front lines. That, they discovered, made them susceptible to the overwhelming barrage of British artillery fire, unlike anything the Germans had seen before. The “storm of steel,” (stahlgewittern) as the Germans called it, had inflicted heavy casualties. Thus the Somme, while a disaster for the British, had also been a disaster for the Germans. The result was a new doctrine. The front lines would be held lightly by forces that were only expected to slow down an attack. Behind the front lines would be the artillery, which would hammer attackers, and the Eingreif (counterattack) units. The latter, in the case of a successful assault, would launch an immediate counterattack (der Gegenstoss) before the victors could get settled in their gains. If that immediate counterattack did not work, the reserve German forces would build up to a deliberate counterattack (der Gegenangriff) a few days later. The idea was to spare the German defenders from the artillery barrage while enabling them to recover any lost terrain. The new defensive strategy worked well. The French Nivelle offensives of Spring 1917 (named after the French commander Robert Nivelle) failed catastrophically because Nivelle, not understanding the new German methods, put his faith in overwhelming French artillery bombardments slaughtering the defenders. It was the unfortunate French poilus who died by the hundreds of thousands for his error. A British assault at Passchendaele in fall 1917 met the same fate, made even worse by the soupy mud created by an unprecedented rainfall in September and October.

But even as the German doctrine succeeded, a counterdoctrine began to develop. The two main proponents of this new doctrine were British Generals Henry Rawlinson and Herbert Plumer. “Bite and hold” assumed that the Germans would mount a counterattack as soon as a British assault showed signs of success. Their idea was explicitly to provoke that counterattack. The British would bite off the front of the German defensive system, and then immediately turn it into a defensive position of their own. The British would thus be ready for a German counterattack, and, Rawlinson and Plumer hoped, hold that assault off while inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans. After a few weeks, during which the Germans would reorganize their defensive system with a new front line, the British would repeat the process. No more breakthroughs to Berlin; instead, steady, if slow, progress. The way to defend against this, of course, was to push heavy concentrations of German defenders up to the front lines. That, however, would bring them within the range of British artillery units, who would be only too happy to slaughter them as they had at the Somme. “Bite and hold” worked well at the Battle of Messines Ridge in August 1917 when a British attack, commanded by Plumer, captured a large chunk of the German defensive lines with relatively low casualties. It had worked again at Amiens in August 1918, when Rawlinson’s attack had cracked the entire German defensive line.

In a sense, “bite and hold” was the antithesis of “open warfare.” British infantry went into battle heavily weighed down, carrying extra ammunition, equipment, and weapons so that they could set up a defensive perimeter quickly. Soldiers at Amiens had carried a larger load than those at the Somme. But at Amiens, they were escorted across the battlefield by a creeping barrage of artillery fire that kept German heads down, and hundreds of tanks working to suppress German machine guns. There was no possibility that they could break out into the open terrain behind the defensive system and advance quickly. It simply was not possible. The Americans scoffed at this blinkered mentality and asserted that they would handle it differently at Meuse-Argonne. They would break into the German lines, and then expand outward, pushing the Germans before them into the open terrain behind the trench system. Pershing’s objective for the first day of the attack was the main German railhead at Sedan, forty or so miles behind the lines. Such a distance was otherworldly in a war where advances were measured in yards, not miles. The British and French winced when they heard the Americans’ confidence; it reminded them of their own confidence in 1914. Haig and Foch worried that Pershing had planned another Somme or Passchendaele, one that would end in sanguinary failure.

They were right, and wrong.

Lafayette, we are here. Part III.

The Germans knew an attack was coming. They could read a map as well as anyone, and the situation in theater was particularly obvious. The St. Mihiel salient had been a problem for the French and Americans, and an American attack had reduced it. What was next? The French Army held the center of the line, near the river Aisne. The terrain here was flat and, once the Aisne was crossed, without natural barriers until an attacking army hit the River Meuse. Just beyond the Meuse lay a tempting target: the German rail junction at Sedan. Capture that, and the network that supplied the German armies in France would be cut in half.

But along the western line of that open terrain lay one forbidding feature: the Argonne Forest. Heavily wooded and on rocky ground, the Argonne was seemingly purpose-built for defense. If the Argonne remained in German hands, any French advance to the west would be taken under flanking fire by German machine guns and artillery, potentially crippling it. The Germans figured that any major offensive in the area would have to kick off with an assault on the Argonne.

Who would do it? That too was obvious. The massive traffic jam of American troops and supplies behind the lines was clearly apparent to German reconnaissance planes, and trench raids brought back prisoners for interrogation who spoke not French, but English with a peculiar accent. The German commander in the area, General Max von Gallwitz, was determined to give the Americans a stout welcome. He organized four defensive lines, fourteen miles deep and anchored by the Kriemhild Line at the rear. The Kriemhild was part of the larger German defensive system, the Hindenburg Line, that stretched from Switzerland to the Channel. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, the last organized German defense before the Heimat.

The American assault thus faced a daunting task. The German defenses were well-built and anchored in woody, uneven terrain that would make it difficult for the attackers to spot them. Worse, through the middle of the American attack lay the Meuse River, which meant that American forces would be cut off from each other as they assaulted. Whether Foch handed Pershing such a awkward position as a reward for the American General’s intransigence is speculative: tempting, but speculative.

The American plan of attack was to make the main effort to the east of the Argonne, while the French Fourth Army launched a supporting assault to the west of the forest. There would be a limited assault in the forest, to keep the German units there busy, but Pershing hoped that the side attacks would force the German defenders in the Argonne to retreat or be outflanked. That was the plan, and it survived about as long as plans normally do in warfare. In any case, at 5:30 AM the morning of September 26th, 600,000 American soldiers launched the assault after the overnight bombardment. There was a heavy fog as they attacked, which made it difficult for the German defenders to see them coming. The main goal of the infantry in the attack was to follow as closely behind the “creeping barrage,” an artillery bombardment that slowly crept forward through the German defenses and forced those defenders to keep their heads down. It was a delicate task: follow too closely and the shells would kill your own men. Follow too far away and the German machine gunners would be able to get out of their dugouts and scythe down the advancing soldiers.

That first day, things went reasonably well. The fog and the barrage combined to reduce the effectiveness of the German defenders, and the American assault got into the first and second defensive lines without overwhelming casualties. In the French Fourth Army, the American 369th (Colored) Regiment performed extremely well, reacting perhaps to their snub and to French officers who treated them with some respect.

But there were some ominous portents. First, it was becoming clear that the artillery bombardment had not knocked out most of the German machine gun posts, and they were beginning to inflict casualties. In all, 9 Medals of Honor were awarded for actions on September 26th, a sign that there was sustained German resistance. Second, the American infantry was finding it enormously difficult to stay up with the barrage. Crossing the broken ground went slower than the commanders had expected. The infantry had no quick way of communicating back to the artillery units (they only had carrier pigeons), and so they dropped farther and farther behind the bombardment. Finally, the tanks used were breaking down at a rapid rate, leaving the infantry to handle strongpoints by themselves. Nonetheless, by the end of the day, Pershing had the sense that the attack was a success. The question that remained was could the Americans handle the inevitable German counterattacks and keep advancing?

In a word, no. German attacks the next day pounded into the American lines and brought the advance to a complete halt. von Gallwitz threw in his reserves as quickly as he could. Added to this was the start of several days of heavy rain, which bogged down everyone and thus worked to the German advantage. Most critically, the rain turned the supply roads behind the attack into quagmires and the logistics chain, which (under the organizing power of Colonel George C. Marshall) had been barely keeping pace, broke down almost completely.

What the Americans were discovering was the intricate knowledge necessary to fight this kind of war, and how much of it they lacked. The Germans would fire heavy gas bombardments at attackers to force them to put their masks on. The filters in the masks blocked the gas but did not allow enough air in for a soldier to keep moving. Experienced soldiers knew when they could take the masks off, quickly advance, and then put them back on. The Americans didn’t. The Americans were not prepared for the heavy casualties in their junior officers and non-commissioned officers. Those Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Corporals lead from the front and were thus frequently the first shot down. In experienced units, men far down the command structure understood what to do when their commanding officers were killed; American units frequently didn’t. The legendary exception to this, of course, was Corporal Alvin York who, after three officers and NCOs senior to him were killed, led the seven remaining men in his unit to the capture of 132 Germans. York got the Medal of Honor for his valor and the privilege of seeing Gary Cooper play him in a 1941 movie.

Pershing had gotten his American attack and he was, to his deep chagrin, in danger of it failing. The Germans, however, could not take advantage of the American weakness. The soldiers in the Meuse-Argonne area were worn down by four years of fighting and, in a sign of their bad morale, were often taking any opportunity to surrender to the Americans. They, and the rain, had halted the American advance, but they did not have the strength to push the Americans back. And Ludendorff could not shift substantial reserves into the area. Foch’s general offensive had put pressure all along the German line. To the north, the French had advanced deeply into German defenses, and the British had broken into the Hindenberg Line itself. Ludendorff felt his army shifting underneath him, and on 28th September, he told the Kaiser that it was time to ask for an armistice.

Negotiations were opened, but the war continued. Pershing, desperate to demonstrate his Army’s abilities, paused the assault, rebuilt his supplies, and rotated three fresh divisions into the line. He relaunched the attack on on October 4th and this time the Americans pushed the Germans back. Overwhelming force proved too much for German exhaustion, if at the price of heavy casualties. In the process, they rescued the “Lost Battalion,” a unit of the 77th Division who had gotten surrounded and cut off in the Argonne on October 2nd. Nobody realized they were out there until their last carrier pigeon, Cher Ami, made it back to her coop with a message pleading for help. The pigeon was wounded in the breast, blinded in one eye, and had one leg shot off, but recovered to receive the Croix de Guerre from the French, a wooden leg to replace the one he had lost, and the personal farewell of Pershing, who came and saw the pigeon’s boat off when it left France.

By October 14th, the Americans had successfully broken into the Kriemhild Line and achieved the objectives of the revamped offensive. It had cost them 117,000 wounded and dead, roughly half of all American combat casualties in the war. It had demonstrated to the French and British that the Americans could hold their own on the Western Front. Pershing had won his American battle. As part of Foch’s larger offensive, the attack had destroyed the last organized German resistance in the west. By the middle of October, what defense remained to the Germans was ad hoc and essentially futile. They were no longer fighting for victory but, as Ludendorff put it, for “better Armistice terms.”


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