September-November, 1918: Meuse-Argonne Offensive Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the U.S. Army, consisting of only about 125,000 officers and enlisted men, was not an organized, professional army with modern equipment or training doctrines. The United States found itself embarrassingly short of weapons, uniforms, accoutrements, aircraft, and other critical items. The National Guard, called to service by President Woodrow Wilson, numbered only 73,000 to add to the army regulars. The United States did have a huge reservoir of eager recruits, however, and plans were made to raise, via the 1917 Conscription Act, a national army to augment regular and National Guard forces.

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the U.S. Army, consisting of only about 125,000 officers and enlisted men, was not an organized, professional army with modern equipment or training doctrines. The United States found itself embarrassingly short of weapons, uniforms, accoutrements, aircraft, and other critical items. The National Guard, called to service by President Woodrow Wilson, numbered only 73,000 to add to the army regulars. The United States did have a huge reservoir of eager recruits, however, and plans were made to raise, via the 1917 Conscription Act, a national army to augment regular and National Guard forces.

The commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), General John J. Pershing, knew that his force was ill-prepared for combat on the Western Front and, after his arrival in France, announced to the Allies that U.S. troops would need to be trained. The ultimate goal of the AEF, however, was to have a strictly American army, with its own sector of the line. Pershing received support in the form of training assistance and facilities from French general Ferdinand Foch and from Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, commander of British forces in France and in Flanders. Neither Foch nor Haig, however, was optimistic about an exclusive U.S. zone and the creation of a U.S. army.

Pershing firmly believed in a doctrine of maneuver warfare—getting the troops out of the static trenches, forcing an end to the war by destroying the enemy, and seizing terrain. He argued that trench warfare sapped the aggressive spirit of an army, and he distrusted the morale of both British and French armies after four years of trench fighting. Despite these feelings, Pershing placed the incoming 28,000-soldier infantry divisions under foreign tutelage in training areas and then in the trenches in so-called quiet areas. Pershing, however, stressed maneuver warfare without really knowing the impact of modern artillery, machine guns, aircraft, and chemicals on the battlefield.

By December of 1917, Pershing had four divisions (the First, Second, Twenty-sixth, and Forty-second) in training, but it was not until the German offensives that began on March 21, 1918, that Pershing allowed AEF divisions to see combat. They were then primarily under the operational control of French senior commanders.

Command Structure

One result of the German offensives was the naming of Ferdinand Foch as the Supreme Allied Commander. While Foch was frustrated with Pershing’s obstinacy, he understood Pershing’s desire to have a U.S. army in the field. In August, Pershing was allowed to form the First U.S. Army, with himself as commander. Pershing divided his army into three corps, selecting solid but inexperienced commanders for the corps. The divisions that would make up those corps were of varying quality. Those divisions that arrived early in France had extensive training and experience, but many of the new divisions did not. Division commanders and staffs had difficulty writing and overseeing the implementation of orders for subordinate brigades and regiments, let alone integrating air assets, tanks, and the like, which were habitually attached to the divisions.

During May and June, four hundred thousand troops made the dangerous ocean crossing. Supplies for this growing force were shipped by rail from the huge Service of Supply (SOS) base in Tours to depots near the western front. Yet the SOS remained critically short of heavy-duty trucks; aircraft, artillery, and heavy weapons had to be begged from the Allies. Despite the shortfall in supply and the tentative training of many AEF divisions, Pershing pushed ahead with plans to reduce the St. Mihiel salient, a large bulge that jutted into the Allied lines. The bulge resembled a triangle, with the town of St. Mihiel at its apex and the city of Metz a few miles from the base.

The Attack

Setting the attack for dawn on September 12, Pershing moved his most experienced units into line for the attack. The French sent combat divisions and augmented U.S. artillery with a large number of guns. Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell assembled more than fourteen hundred aircraft for the attack, and Major General James Harbord’s SOS brought up vast quantities of supplies. When the attack began, however, heavy rains made roads impassible for the trucks of the SOS, tanks became bogged down, and aircraft had difficulty flying. Unknown to the AEF, the German High Command had chosen to evacuate the salient, fighting the oncoming U.S. troops with well-placed machine guns and artillery. For four days, U.S. soldiers reduced the St. Mihiel salient, and Pershing firmly believed that maneuver warfare had been proven. He also had promised Foch to have a large U.S. force in place to begin the Meuse-Argonne offensive on September 26.

Members of the U.S. Thirty-fifth Coast Artillery loading a mobile railroad gun on the Argonne front in September, 1918. (National Archives)

Pershing hurried forces to staging areas for the offensive. His operational planners, including Colonel George C. Marshall, did not have time to reflect upon reports from the St. Mihiel operation, and a false sense of optimism reigned at the headquarters of the First U.S. Army. Pershing himself wrote that everyone at army headquarters felt alert and confident, but they set impossible objectives, disregarding terrain, the enemy, the climate, and the ability to resupply. Pershing’s best and most combat-experienced divisions had yet to leave the St. Mihiel area. The attack would begin with less experienced, less trained combat divisions.

The Meuse-Argonne area resembled a box twenty miles long and about forty miles in depth. There were dense forests such as the Argonne and ranges of rugged, thicketed hills that had been turned into formidable defensive positions by the Germans. There were three solid defensive lines, the strongest being the second line, the Krimhilde Stellung (the Hindenburg Line). Unlike at St. Mihiel, the Germans had continually improved their defensive positions with machine guns and more artillery; most important, they had sent first-class infantry to the defense. Against these determined, dug-in defenders, the AEF arrayed divisions with little training or experience. The Thirty-fifth Infantry Division, for example, had had no time to work with its artillery prior to starting the assault against the first defensive line, and by the end of the first day, it was showing signs of confusion.

While Pershing was overly optimistic about the combat capabilities of his troops, his operational instincts were correct. He arrayed from left to right three corps of four divisions each on the start line—the First, Fifth, and Third—which were to advance together. The Meuse-Argonne was not the battle of maneuver that Pershing had preached. It was a head-on, frontal assault that pitted muscle against muscle, and the casualties were appalling. By the end of the operation, 120,000 U.S. troops had been killed or wounded, and the number of stragglers, those who wandered off from their units, numbered near 100,000.

Heavy rains continued, supplies went forward very slowly, and many of the wounded languished in agony for days before they could be removed to combat hospitals. By November, 1918, the AEF was reaching the end of its rope as a result of combat, fatigue, lack of supplies, climatic conditions, and the German defense.

The attack had begun on September 26 and in four days had ground to a halt. On October 7, Pershing ceased all operations and ordered the Twenty-eighth and Eighty-second Divisions to clear the Argonne Forest of German defenders. This they did, at great cost, for several days, but the Krimhilde Stellung had not yet been reached.

In mid-October, the AEF attacked the Krimhilde Stellung. Some of the best divisions of the AEF, such as the First and the Forty-second, were used up in the attack. On October 15, a brigade of infantry of the Forty-second Division, under Brigadier General Douglas A. MacArthur, established a foothold on one key position of the line. After another lull, U.S. forces attacked on November 1 with great success. By this time the Germans were in full retreat. Continuing to take casualties against a stiff German rearguard action, the AEF finally reached the Meuse River on November 11, when the armistice was announced. The date would later be dubbed Armistice Day. Later still, it became Veterans Day in the United States.

German Collapse

The fighting in the Meuse-Argonne came to an end because Germany was at an end. The AEF fought with grim determination, but the army that Pershing commanded was near collapse. Despite the horrendous casualties, Pershing and his many disciples came to believe that the battle had confirmed the correctness of their doctrine: that determined infantry with rifle and bayonet, supported by artillery and machine guns and air, was the decisive factor in war.

Due to strict censorship, few civilians realized the horrendous conditions under which U.S. soldiers fought. For decades, the extent of the slaughter in the Meuse-Argonne remained undiscussed. The Meuse-Argonne offensive, however, showed the fighting spirit of the AEF and fixed the concept that only trained, well-schooled soldiers should be committed to battle. Memories of the early confusion and subsequent combat in the Meuse-Argonne motivated men like General George C. Marshall to train and prepare troops extensively for the next great global conflict.

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