America's Bloodiest Battle

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On September 26, 1918, nine mostly inexperienced American divisions totaling about 600,000 men assaulted well-trenched German positions in a shell-pitted tract just north of Verdun. Thus began the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest American campaign of the First World War. During the following six weeks, more than 1.2 million American soldiers in 22 divisions and support formations would assault German positions in northeastern France. More than 120,000 soldiers and Marines would fall wounded: 26,277 would die. Nearly all the casualties—about half of those sustained by the United States during the war—occurred within a three-week period. Some 2,400 artillery pieces fired 4 million shells, more than the Union army had fired during the entire Civil War. No other single battle in American military history even approaches the Meuse-Argonne in size and cost, yet few know much about it, even though it constituted the most important U.S. contribution to the Allied effort in World War I. Young officers entering the armed forces in the 1930s and 1940s could recite details about the action at Gettysburg but little if anything about the Meuse-Argonne. The reasons for this are many, perhaps the most important being that the doughboys were the first to experience modern industrialized warfare and the horrific large-scale death and destruction that artillery, machine guns, and poison gas could unleash. And perhaps—unlike Pickett’s charge, Concord Bridge, or the invasion of Normandy—the First World War’s scorched earth, miles upon miles of trenches, and inch-by-inch fighting do not lend themselves to an easy or particularly heroic story line. Yet the heroism that emerged in those bloody days was extraordinary, as inexperienced and untested recruits and draftees went up against the world’s best-trained and most formidable army in some of the strongest defensive terrain in France. The battle created heroes of ordinary men, the likes of which America had never seen before. On the darker side, the story is also tragic: military ineptitude and thickheaded nationalism led to thousands of needless deaths. The Meuse-Argonne would also fail to gain traction in the collective American memory because of a mistaken belief that the nation’s late entrance into the conflict was merely pro forma, the war essentially being already over.

The American forces in the Meuse-Argonne, a region bordered on the east by the Meuse River and on the west by the dense Argonne Forest, comprised the First Army of the American Expeditionary Force, commanded by Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing. Their objective was to break through the German defenses for 40 miles to a critical railway junction near Sedan. Supplies for nearly the entire German army in France passed through this junction; its capture would inflict a severe if not catastrophic blow to Germany’s military fortunes.

The German forces in the Meuse-Argonne were under orders to stop the Americans at all costs. Four brutal years of combat had severely weakened the German army, which in many parts of France held the lines with young boys and old men; but not in the Meuse-Argonne. Initially outnumbered three or four to one, the Germans reacted to Pershing’s offensive by pouring every reserve formation into battle. Their artillery remained the best in the world. Their air formations were strong and vigorous. And they had many thousands of machine guns.

Pershing had expected the initial advance to take no more than 36 hours, but it bogged down almost immediately in the face of determined resistance. That only convinced him to push harder, driving his forces to exert every nerve, every resource. Like President Wilson and his cabinet, Pershing hoped that victory in the Meuse-Argonne would help establish America’s right to stand coequal with the old empires of Europe. He

also expected his troops to demonstrate the superiority of American initiative and fighting spirit. The individual doughboy, he told them, should not put his faith in trenches, artillery, or machine guns but in his rifle, bayonet, and the will to win. Pershing thus put his boys up against a veteran, well-entrenched enemy with many machine guns and little naïveté about the horrors of war. Later theorists, such as B. H. Liddell Hart, would excoriate Pershing for his inability to “master the requirements of the modern battlefield.” And the Americans’ lack of training in weapons, tactics, and combined arms had bloody results. But it’s too strong to lay it all on Pershing. Many of the problems of Meuse-Argonne resulted from years of unpreparedness and the nation’s late entry into the war.

The term “doughboy” has uncertain origins. What’s clear is that the doughboys represented all the vigor and variety of American society in the early 20th century. Many were recent immigrants or sons of immigrants and could barely speak English. Thousands were African American, segregated into separate units and constantly persecuted, although they would prove their patriotism in blood. The doughboys came rich, poor, and everything in between, from the city and the country, putting aside work as bankers, farmers, professional baseball players, and gangsters. Poorly trained and unprepared for modern warfare, they were nevertheless determined to prove their mettle.

At dawn the rain ceased, and a dense mantle of fog settled over Madeleine Farm. A runner brought the day’s orders, which directed Woodfill to lead a combat reconnaissance of the woods he had scouted the night before and to find the German lines. At 6 a.m. the men of his battalion rose, shivering and sodden with mud, and moved out in skirmish lines, advancing 16 paces apart, bayonets fixed and rifles ready.