The Meuse-Argonne Offensive Reconsidered
The what, now?
The Great War… remember that?
The United States only reluctantly entered the Great War in Europe (which took place from the mouth of the Yalu to the English Channel, and from the North Sea to the Horn of Africa), and then not as an ally but as an "associated power," whatever that meant. Indeed, it took most of the summer of 1917 just to decide to send a sizable force. John J. Pershing was the best general the US had to offer, and he had enough political pull to be assigned as head of the BEF in June 1917. Because they had been pummeling each other for three years with little to show for it, both the British and the French wanted the Americans to become reinforcements for their battered units, but that was not what President Woodrow Wilson wanted. Wilson told Pershing that he wanted a seat at the conference table when the war was over. To do that, Pershing was told, an independent American force had to make a significant enough contribution to end the conflict as it could make.
By September 1918, 1.4 million Americans were under arms in France.
The Germans had been in the sector dominated by the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest since 1914, more or less undisturbed since 1916, and had built a line of pillboxes, wire entanglements, and pre-positioned artillery strongpoints that made it a five-mile deep fortress called the Kriemhild Stellung. Behind that was the railway hub at Sedan, through which most of the German supplies to the entire Hindenburg Line flowed. This offensive required seventeen American divisions totaling nearly three-fourths of a million men.
It was the biggest American battle between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.
The opening moves were small parties of doughboy engineers that crawled forward on the night of 25 September to the first band of German barbed wire, cutting as much as they could and marking what they could not. At 2:35 AM on 26 September, over 1,400 French and British artillery pieces (the Americans manned batteries of guns that they did not manufacture) from 75mm to 15 inch railway guns opened up on a five-mile wide by three-mile deep band.
The guns fired more ordnance in that first three hours than both armies had used in the whole four years of the American Civil War.
Then, at 5:30, the ground troops started moving ahead, and the bloodletting began. The Americans barely knew what they were doing, and in their untutored zeal they died by the scores on open ground, where Pershing said they would be victorious because in the trenches lay fear and exhaustion. He was right, but just getting to that open-country warfare took hundreds of thousands of gallons of American blood. By the first week in November, American artillery was ranging across the Luxembourg frontier, and American troops had penetrated the Hindenburg Line. By then the German government had fallen, the politicians were taking over, and by the time the first Americans were within a day's march of Germany, the armistice came. In proportion to the French and British and even the Germans and Belgians, the American casualties from WWI were small. The Americans lost half (26k) of their total combat deaths (53k) in WWI in the Meuse-Argonne—the last ten weeks of the war.
At the height of irony, there was another battle of Megiddo on 25 September.
The Australian Mounted Division secured the Jordan Valley against the Ottomans, and Bulgaria was in serious trouble from Italian forces attacking out of what had been called the largest PW camp in history: the Salonika front in Greece; the Bulgars would sign an armistice on 29 September. Within days, British, French and Canadian forces were pressing the Germans out of Belgium and France. But for all the good news on the war front, the Great Influenza was killing two thousand people every hour around the world. By 1922, it would be directly or indirectly responsible for up to 100 million deaths… though they’re still arguing about that.
If not for the influenza, WWI would have been the first conflict where US combat deaths exceeded non-combat deaths.
A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign
Scholars (myself included) have argued ever since whether the Meuse-Argonne was in any way decisive. I took the title of my essay for A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign (Wiley-Blackwell 2014) is "We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them," from a letter by a German lieutenant in the Meuse-Argonne sector to his wife. He was referring to the Americans, who in their ignorance kept getting killed while they continued to take ground. After the war, Paul von Hindenburg, the victor of Tannenberg and the architect of Russia's defeat in WWI, said that it was the Americans who were most to be feared, not because of their fighting abilities (which he admitted improved with time), but because of their raw numbers and energy.
And, from his perspective and from that of all of Europe, Hindenburg was right.
There were plans to have two million American soldiers, sailors and Marines in France by the end of 1918, and by the spring of 1919, three million (influenza notwithstanding). By the end of 1919, four million Americans could have been under arms and either in Europe or on the way; more than Germany and France could field combined. If Germany had continued to fight after that disastrous fall of 1918, and the Allies had not accepted the armistice offered (and some senior officers did not want to), most of Europe might have been bystanders in an American victory parade through Berlin, Vienna and Budapest. Thus followed the Peace of Versailles, where Wilson was the first American president to not only leave the country while in office, but was the first to negotiate foreign treaties in Europe. That American victory parade through western Europe was delayed by a generation, even if the Soviets had captured Berlin, Vienna and Budapest.
Once again, if you buy a copy of the Companion, I won’t get anything more out of it but a sense of gratitude that you’ve got the interest… and that much money lying around.
Where did Germany Go Wrong?
If Reality Mattered, Does This Newsletter?
On 24 September:
1884: Herman Hollerith received a US patent on his tabulating machine. You may not remember the machine he never actually built, but you might remember the cards that he adopted from the textile industry to enter the data in his machine: the humble punch-card.
1957: President Eisenhower ordered Federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to get black students into Little Rock High School. Not all Republicans are racists, you know.
And 24 September is NATIONAL GREAT AMERICAN POT PIE DAY. Inspired by the Welch/Cornish pastie, the “pot pie” is a staple in some parts of the world… not.