Blood, Mud, Concrete, and Barbed Wire: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive

U.S. troops disembark from a transport ship, circa 1918. Photo Courtesy of USAHEC.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September 1918 was part of a large Allied effort to attack the Germans along the entire front to force them out of France and back into Germany.  The plan sought to take advantage of the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force under General Pershing.  After four years of fighting, European soldiers were exhausted, but the arrival of the U.S. Forces gave the Allies fresh troops and numerical superiority.

The 600,000 man strong U.S. 1st Army planned to attack northward with nine divisions in the line and five in reserve, supported by 2,700 pieces of artillery, 189 tanks, and 821 aircraft, along a fifteen to twenty mile wide corridor bounded by the impassable Meuse River on the east and the dense Argonne Forest and the Aire River on the west.

The Germans had occupied the area for years and had developed an elaborate defensive system of four fortified lines with a dense network of wire entanglements, machine-gun positions, and concrete fighting posts.  In between these trench lines, the Germans had a series of strong points in the woods and knolls.  With five divisions on the line and another seven in reserve, French General Philippe Petain believed that the German defenses were so strong that the Americans would do well if they managed to reach one of their first objectives, the town of Montfaucon, located a few miles behind enemy lines, before winter.

 

This concrete pillbox was typical of the kind of defenses Soldiers faced as they advanced upon the Germans. Photo courtesy of USAHEC.

At 5:30 A.M. on September 26, 1918, after a three-hour artillery bombardment, Pershing launched his attack.  Despite heavy fog, rugged terrain, and the network of barbed wire, American Soldiers quickly overran the Germans’ forward positions.  For the rest of September, the 1st Army plodded forward.  Heavy rains turned the terrain to mud, which bogged down tanks and artillery and slowed resupply efforts.  The Germans used the delay to bring in reinforcements, and German artillery rained down fire from the heights of the Meuse and the Argonne Forest.  The advance became a continuous series of bloody, hard-fought engagements.

Of the nine U.S. divisions in the initial assault, only three had significant combat experience.  The 79th Division had only been in France for seven weeks.  Heavy fog, rain, and the broken terrain sorely tested the inexperienced troops.  Many divisions suffered from a lack of coordination, and the infantry and artillery often failed to work together effectively.

Despite these problems, the 1st Army advanced eight miles into the German lines by the end of September, fighting through some of the strongest positions on the Western Front and capturing 9,000 prisoners and large amounts of supplies and equipment.

As the battle progressed, Pershing began to reorganize the 1st Army, rotating three battle-hardened divisions into the line to relieve some of the less experienced units.  The Germans also strengthened their position, adding six new divisions, bringing their total to eleven.

The remains of the town of Malancourt give testimony to the devastation of war. Scenes like this were all too common across France. Photo courtesy of USAHEC.

On October 4, the 1st Army renewed the attack.  The fighting was especially severe.  The American infantry launched a series of frontal attacks to penetrate the German lines and to exploit the exposed enemy flanks.  The Americans made some gains against their objectives, but critical high grounds remained in German hands.  As new American divisions were rotated into line, the Germans continued their reinforcement efforts; and by October 6, they had twenty-seven divisions in the area.

By the third week of October, the 1st Army had penetrated the third German defensive line and cleared the Argonne.  Pershing reorganized the AEF, creating the 2nd Army under General Robert L. Bullard.  Pershing later placed General Hunter Liggett in charge of the 1st Army, in order to focus his own attention on larger strategic issues.

To prepare for the second phase of the offensive, Liggett ordered a series of limited attacks to keep the pressure on the Germans while his battle-weary men reequipped and recuperated.  By the end of October, the 1st Army was ready for the next general attack.

During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the American Infantry received support from 189 tanks. The FT-17 shown here is a French design, the first ever with a fully rotating turret that carried either a machine-gun (seen here) or a 37 millimeter gun. The FT-17 is regarded as the prototype for the modern tank. Photo courtesy of USAHEC.

On November 1, Liggett’s 1st Army attacked north, toward the Meuse River.  Over the next several days, the 1st Army advanced as fast as it could move artillery and supplies forward.  At one point, the advance was so rapid that it ran off the AEF headquarters’ maps.  By November 4, the Americans had achieved their objective.

Liggett’s careful preparation of the 1st Army paid off.  Infantry and artillery coordination was superb.  Instead of stopping to deal with fortified positions, regular troops pushed through and

around them while special assault troops remained behind to deal with them.  Under Liggett’s tutelage, the American units had finally developed into a well-trained, well-organized fighting force.

One week later the Armistice was signed, and World War I was over.  The fighting ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—November 11, 1918.  When it ended, the Meuse-Argonne Campaign was the greatest battle that the U.S. Army had ever fought.  Almost 1.25 million American troops had participated during the course of the 47-day campaign.  American casualties were high—over 117,000—but the results were impressive.  The 1st Army had driven forty-three German divisions back about thirty miles over some of the most difficult terrain and most heavily fortified positions on the Western Front, while inflicting over 120,000 casualties.  While credit for victory belongs to all the Allied nations, there is little doubt that the success of the American forces during this offensive was a major factor in Germany’s surrender.

 

Adapted From:

Stewart, Richard W., ed.  “Chapter 1: The U.S. Army in World War I, 1917-1918.” American Military History Vol. II: The United States Army in a Global Era, 1917-2003.  Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2005.  pgs. 43-49.  http://www.history.army.mil/books/AMH-V2/AMH%20V2/Chapter1.htm#b9.

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