America's Bloodiest Battle

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On October 11, 1918, late in the afternoon, a platoon of American doughboys marched to the front in eastern France, passing shattered villages, forests reduced to matchsticks, and water-filled shell craters. At every step the Americans struggled to free their boots from the slopping mud. Icy wind and rain slashed at their clothing, and water poured in steady streams from the rims of their helmets, somewhat obscuring the devastation. They were already exhausted, some literally asleep on their feet, little aware that they soon would find themselves fighting the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history.

As the platoon slogged north, it skirted the summit of a craggy hill named Montfaucon, the slopes studded with burnt-out German pillboxes, and tripped over the sparse ruins of the village of Nantillois, hardly one brick standing on another, then moved through a copse of wildly leaning, fog-draped trees toward the edge of a small ravine. Rolling hills covered by well-plowed fields and small stands of oak covered much of this region of northeastern France. The German defensive positions exploited ridges, ravines, dense forests, and small rivers to maximum effect. Enemy shellfire increased, and the men dropped to a crouch or crawled.

Nearby lay the smoking remnants of a Salvation Army canteen. Less than an hour before, two cheery young American women had been distributing gallons of coffee and mountains of doughnuts to weary soldiers. Now their bodies lay ripped open in the mud, surrounded by doughnuts and coffee tins.

Lt. Samuel Woodfill, a tall, robust, 17-year Army veteran from lower Indiana, led the platoon past even more awful horrors. Unlike his doughboys, most of whom were poorly trained rookies, Woodfill had grown up with a gun in his hand, joining the Army at 18, fighting guerrillas in the Philippines, and then transferred—at his request—to Alaska, where he had hunted moose and grizzly bear in his spare time. Woodfill hadn’t thought much about the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. Less than three years later, however, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare and at the same time made a clumsy attempt to convince Mexico to attack the United States. As a result, Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war in April 1917. Congress complied and then set about trying to build an army out of millions of untrained volunteers and draftees. Woodfill was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to Company M, 60th Regiment, 5th (“Red Diamond”) Division.

American troops began arriving in France in large numbers in spring 1918, tasked to join French and British troops against the Germans, who had launched a massive offensive in March and come close to taking Paris. By May and early June, when American soldiers and Marines went into action at places such as Cantigny and Belleau Wood, the Germans were still struggling to break the Allied lines in France and end the war. That summer Americans joined the Allied effort in increasing numbers and helped to roll back the German advance.

Woodfill’s outfit hadn’t seen any action in those summer campaigns. Now, caught in the clammy grip of October, he led his men out of the shattered copse, down the slope of an open ravine, and into action for the first time. German machine-gun fire opened up a murderous volley, sending wounded or frightened doughboys toppling head over heels downslope. Reaching the bottom of the ravine, Woodfill dove for cover in a shallow depression near some partially buried scraps of corrugated iron. His overstuffed backpack bulged into sight, and the Germans pumped it full of bullets.

Adding insult to injury, a louse, or “cootie,” began marching slowly down his spine. Scratching was impossible. Nor could he return fire as bullets ricocheted off the corrugated iron. The enemy barrage moved steadily forward, plopping one after another, closer and closer to his position. Woodfill drew a photograph of his wife from his pocket and scribbled on its back his home address and the following words: “please forward this picture to my Darling Wife. And tell her that I have fallen on the field of Honor, and departed to a better land which knows no sorrow and feels no pain. I will prepair a place and be waiting at the Golden Gait of Heaven for the arrival of my Darling Blossom.”

The bombardment finally stopped, and Woodfill and his men crawled from their cover, eyeing each other sheepishly, each struggling not to betray his fear. A private who had taken cover near Woodfill tucked a piece of paper into his tunic—he too had written a farewell note.

The platoon traversed the ravine past the ruins of Madeleine Farm and deployed behind the crest of a ridge. “Halt, and dig in!” cried an officer; but there was no time. Instead the men scattered by twos into shell holes half full of water. Darkness fell, and as sight failed other senses grew more acute. The soldiers listened with dread to the grumble of intermittent shellfire, now far, now near, the crackle of machine guns, muttered curses, and the clank of equipment. The rain intensified.

Woodfill had only a few hours of “rest”—shivering in his shell hole—before a major ordered him to take eight men on a scout into the woods beyond the ridge. On the way back, Woodfill stepped onto a small bridge that the Germans had booby-trapped. A shell planted in a nearby tree burst over his head, and he lost consciousness. When he recovered, he found that blood was pouring from his nose. He felt as if an iron spike had been driven through his temple. Staggering back to his shell hole, he fell asleep, only to be reawakened a few hours later by floating out of the hole, which the rain had turned into a pond.