Battle of Meuse Argonne Forest

The Meuse-Argonne campaign, which falls into three phases, reads far differently than the taking of St. Mihiel. Except in its early stages this was no grand running, flawless offensive without a hitch worth mentioning. In the nature of things it would not be so. The Argonne was less susceptible to the laws of military strategy. Warfare in these woods became between small detached units. Much of the fighting took place in the dark and practically all of it in the rain. The American victory was a triumph of the bomb and the rifle, and perhaps the wire-cutter should be added, over the machine gun. In many encounters the opposing units fired at each other from short ranges, and directed their fire solely by the flashes of the other fellow’s machine-gun. War in the Argonne Forest was a cat-and-dog fight, and Germany was destined to play the cat’s usual role, though she clawed her hardest.

And yet though many of the phases of the Meuse-Argonne were primitive and elemental in their nature, sound strategy lay behind the campaign. General Pershing in his vivid report explains not only the necessity for the campaign but the objects which he sought and gained. St. Mihiel shook the confidence of the Germans, but neither that success nor those scored by other allied armies was sufficient to batter the Germans into defeat.

“The German Army,” wrote General Pershing, “had as yet shown no demoralization, and while the mass of its troops had suffered in morale, its first-class divisions, and notably its machine-gun defense, were exhibiting remarkable tactical efficiency as well as courage. The German General Staff was fully aware of the consequences of a success on the Meuse-Argonne line. Certain that he would do everything in his power to oppose us, the action was planned with as much secrecy as possible, and was undertaken with the determination to use all our divisions in forcing decision. We expected to draw the best German divisions to our front and to consume them while the enemy was held under grave apprehension lest our attack should break his line, which it was our firm purpose to do.”

“Our right flank,” wrote General Pershing in describing his position at the beginning of the battle, “was protected by the Meuse, while our left embraced the Argonne Forest, whose ravines, hills and elaborate defense screened by dense thickets, had been generally considered impregnable. Our order of battle from right to left was: The Third Corps from the Meuse to Malancourt, with the Thirty-third, Eightieth, and Fourth Divisions in line, the Third Division as corps reserve; the Fifth Corps from Malancourt to Vauquois, with Seventy-seventh, Eighty-seventh and Ninety-first Divisions in line, and the Thirty-Second in Corps reserve; and the First Corps, from Vauquois to Viennie Le Chateau, with Thirty-fifth, Twenty-eighth and Seventy-seventh Divisions in line, and the Ninety-second in corps reserve. The army reserve consisted of the First, Twenty-ninth and Eighty-second divisions.

The American Army had no extended vacation after the victory at St. Mihiel. That action had hardly been completed when some of the artillery left its positions and departed for the Meuse-Argonne front. St. Mihiel began on September 12. Just two weeks later the first attack in the long-protracted Meuse-Argonne campaign began. The first portion of this offense was by far the easiest. It was difficult to be sure, but the terrific hardships were still to come. One factor which mitigated the task of the troops engaged in the first attack was again the Germans seemed to have been taken by surprise. The Americans moved very fast over difficult terrain. This was country which had already been sorely disputed, and shell-holes were everywhere. In the places where there were no shell-holes there was barbed wire.

As the attack progressed the German resistance increased. Artillery was moved forward and machine-guns seemed to spring up overnight in that much plowed and harrowed land. Yet after three days’ fighting the Americans had penetrated a distance of from three to seven miles into the enemy’s positions, in spite of the large numbers of reserves which were thrown in to check them. Even a German communique writer would hardly have the fact to maintain that territory captured by the Americans was of no strategic important. Every mile that Pershing’s men went forward brought them that much nearer to Sedan, and on Sedan rested the whole fate of the German lines in France. But Sedan was still many a weary mile away. The territorial gains in the onward rush of the first three days included the villages of Montfaucon, Exermont, Gercourt, Cuisy, Septsarges, Malancourt, Ivoiry (known to the doughboys, of course, as Solid Ivory), Epinonville, Charpentry, and Very. Ten thousand prisoners were taken.

In spite of this great success it was not possible for the Americans to drive straight forward. The country over which the action was fought was so bad that several days were needed to build new roads up to the positions that had been won. Even with the best efforts in the world, the moving of supplies was a prodigious job. The mud was almost as great a foe as the German guns. In the necessary lull of the Germans, of course, rushed new troops in the sector to combat the American advance. Naturally, the lull was not complete. There was constant raiding by Americans to identify units opposed to them, and here and there in small local attacks strategic point were taken which would be of advantage in the big push to come. From prisoners the Americans learned that among the divisions opposite them were many of the crack units of the German Army. America was also represented by its best organizations, but under the constant losses incurred in attacks against strongly intrenched positions units dwindled, and replacements were poured in. Under the circumstances it was necessary to send many soldiers to the front who had been in training but a short while. These were mixed in, however, with veterans, and it should be said to the credit of these green men that in practically every case they upheld the reputation of the units to which they were sent. They were quick to feel themselves as sharers in the reputation of their new-found organizations.

There was no element of surprise to help the American Army when the attack began again in full force on October 4. Where progress before had been measured in miles, now it was counted in yards. Possibly it was even a matter of feet at some points in the line. Yet always the movement was forward. Weight of numbers and dogged courage proved that machine-gun nests of the strongest sort were vulnerable, such tactics were actually welcomed by the Americans as they brought the Germans into the open and gave our riflemen and machine-gunners something at which to shoot. The difficulties with which the Americans had to contend may be judged by the fact that, according to an official report, the Germans had machine-guns at intervals of every yard all along their line.

The Argonne produced many actions more important than the rescue of the Lost Battalion, but hardly any as dramatic. The incident could have happened only in the Argonne, where communications with co-operating units was always difficult, and sometimes impossible. Major Whittlesey’s battalion, in making an attack through the forest, gained their objectives, only to find that they were out of touch with the American and French units with which they were co-operating. It is not true, as sometimes reported, that Whittlesey pushed ahead beyond the objectives which had been set for him. Nevertheless, he was so far away from help as to make his chances of rescue small. German machine guns were behind him. His men were raked by fire from all sides. Yet their position was a strong one and they hung on. Soon their rations were gone. For more than twenty-four hours even their position was unknown to the American Army. Eventually they were located by aeroplanes and an attempt was made to supply them with food and ammunition. Even yet rescue seemed a long chance. The Germans though the battalion was at their mercy and sent a messenger asking Whittlesey to surrender. He refused, and the “Go to Hell” which has been put into his mouth as a fitting expression for the occasion will probably go down in American history in spite of the fact that Whittlesey has done his best to convince people that he never said it. Several attacks were made in an effort to rescue the Americans but without success until a force under Lieutenant-Colonel Gene Houghton broke through and brought the exhausted men back to safety.

The last strongly fortified line of the Germans was the Kriemhilde, and the second phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive had not been in progress long before our men were astride the line at many points. But there was still much desperate fighting to do before the Germans were completely driven from their scientifically perfect positions. The honor of actually breaching the line fell to the Fifth Corps, which entered the line on October 14 and drove the Germans out after some fearful close fighting. In the meantime the continual pressure of the American Forces was beginning to tell. Chatel-Chehery fell to the First Corps On October 7. On the 9th the Fifth Corps took Fleville, and worked its way through Brieulles and Cunel. By October 10 the Argonne Forest was practically clear of the enemy.

One of the important factors in the Argonne campaign was aviation. Aerial activity was great on both sides, since in no other campaign was observation so difficult or so important. Both sides did a great deal of day bombing, and during one such American foray, the greatest battle of the air took place. The American expedition consisted of thirty-four machines. It was attacked by thirty-six Fokkers, Although the German machines are faster, the American squadron managed to hold its formation. Seven Fokker machines were brought down in the battle and five Americans.

All in all, the Meuse-Argonne campaign was one of the most remarkable in the history of the war. Its second phase in particular is sure to be a bone of contention for military experts. General Pershing himself declared very frankly in his report to Secretary Baker that he had purposely abandoned traditional military tactics in the campaign. “The enemy,” he wrote, “had taken every advantage of the terrain, which especially favored the defense, by a prodigal use of machine-guns manned by highly trained veterans, and by using his artillery at short ranges. In face of such strong frontal positions we should have been unable to accomplish any progress according to previously accepted standards, but I had every confidence in our aggressive tactics and the courage of our troops.”

Such strategists as oppose the theory of the Meuse-Argonne campaign will undoubtedly assert that American losses were high. In rebuttal defenders of the plan of the campaign will say that the losses were very light considering the nature of the fighting, and that the campaign shortened the duration of the war appreciably by putting the Germans into a position where they were compelled either to surrender or be overwhelmed. But whatever decision may be reached by the experts, there is no necessity of calling for testimony as to the part of the American soldier played in this campaign. It seems fair to say that he has never shown more dogged courage or resourcefulness than in the fighting in the forest.