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The Doughboys’ Greatest Battle

July 2024
3min read

The Meuse-Argonne offensive was the greatest battle American soldiers fought in the First World War—the greatest battle the American Army had ever fought up to that time, which was the fall of 1918. The battle was over twentyfive miles wide and thirty-five miles deep, it went on from September 26 to November 11, from first to last it involved something like 1,250,000 American soldiers, and as long as military history is written or remembered it will be recalled as one of the greatest and most costly of American military achievements.

The Meuse-Argonne was part of the enormous Allied blow that broke the back of the Imperial German Army and brought the war to an end. On the left of the Americans the French were driving forward; beyond the French, the British were smashing across northern France in a great all-out effort. Outnumbered, and led by a high command that had lost its morale and its grip on the situation, the German soldiers were putting up a game but losing battle. Allied victory was obviously somewhere ahead, but there was a great deal of hard fighting to be done before it could be won. In the Meuse-Argonne, the Americans got their full share of it.

The final objective of the Meuse-Argonne drive was to sweep the Germans back across the Meuse River from above Verdun to Mézières. A particularly vital target was the stretch of railroad that ran the twelve miles from Mézières to the rail division town of Sedan. To cut this line and force the Germans out of Sedan would not only drive a wedge between their left and right flanks but would hinder orderly withdrawal for a last-ditch stand on the Rhine.

Many of the Americans were green troops, but they were confident. Some of them had already tasted victory. In September, fighting for the first time as an American army—under General John J. Pershing—rather than as separate American divisions attached to French or British armies, they had conducted the offensive that wiped out the Germans’ St.-Mihiel salient, to the southeast.

Facing them now was bad country, heavily fortified. The American left was in the Argonne Forest, a gloomy woodland seamed by ravines and hills, with bad roads—a worse place for an offensive, if possible, than even Virginia’s famous Wilderness had been in the Civil War. East of the Argonne the country was more open, but no better. The German center was anchored on the imposing height of Montfaucon, with the valley of the Aire River going north some distance to the west. From Montfaucon to the Meuse there was more rough country, with the American right resting on the river a dozen miles north of historic Verdun. North of Montfaucon there were long hog-back ridges offering powerful defensive positions which the enemy had not overlooked.

In the first fifteen miles beyond the American front the Germans had built three chains of elaborate fortifications tied in with the famous Hindenburg Line. Together they presented an unending network of trenches, dugouts, barbed-wire entanglements, machinegun nests, concrete bunkers, and fortified artillery batteries—as forbidding a prospect as any new army ever faced, or for that matter, any veteran army either.

The American offensive, which opened on September 26, threw nine American divisions into action. There is no space here to detail the separate engagements of the immense battle that followed, or to list the divisions that began it or the ones that were called to the front as the battle continued. What happened to Sergeant Fleming’s 78th Division, as told in the accompanying A MERICAN H ERITAGE story, was fairly typical of the whole tangled operation. In that difficult terrain, in that wet, cold, and foggy weather, and under the relentless harassment of German guns, it was inevitable that the offensive should be confused: some military historians have said that it was mismanaged. At any rate, it produced some of the legends of American military history—the “lost battalion,” for instance, and the astonishing one-man show of Corporal Alvin York. (Corporal York, a sometime pacifist, more or less blundered into his capture of 132 German soldiers; but when he saw his opportunity, near the village of Cornay, he took it superbly.)

In the end, about all that can be said is that the advance kept going at terrible cost—117,000 American casualties in a little over six weeks. The frowning height of Montfaucon was taken; the wooded inferno of the Argonne was finally cleared out, yard by yard; eventually all the innumerable fortified positions that lay beyond were overrun. (On the map, the lines indicated by 1, 2, 3, and 4 show the positions of the American front on September 26, October 3, November 1, and November 11, respectively.) By November 11, the Americans and French had reached Sedan, and the war was over.

This of course is not to say that the Meuse-Argonne offensive was the blow that “won the war.” The war was won by a number of blows, all of them essential to victory. This was one of them; a matter for somber pride to all Americans, because it showed that the fighting quality of the American soldier was as good as the best.

Bruce Catton

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