- Historic Sites
America's Bloodiest Battle
American doughboys proved their mettle in the forests and fields of eastern France during World War I
Summer 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 2
After kicking through soaked shrubbery, the doughboys entered another ravine bisected by a light railway line. The fog, which up to this point had covered them, lifted as if on cue, and German mortars and machine guns opened up. Beside Woodfill, a sergeant grunted, moved as if sleepwalking, and then keeled over dead on the railway tracks. Men ran or were hurled by shell blasts in all directions. One teenage soldier screamed and fired wildly until his buddies dragged him down.
Someone had to find the enemy machine guns and take them out. Motioning his men to stay back, Woodfill tore off his pack and dashed ahead. Bullets passed so close to his face that he could feel their heat. A shell hole appeared, and he dove in just in time. After a few moments to catch his breath, he peered over the rim and identified three enemy soldiers: one to his right in an old stable; another hidden in the woods somewhere ahead; and a third in a church tower in the small town of Cunel, about 300 hundred yards to his left.
The church tower and stable came first. Putting his prewar hunting skills to use, Woodfill drew a bead on the tower and downed the enemy gun crew with one clip of bullets. He fired another deadly clip through a gap in the stable boards and, not stopping to savor his success, dashed on into another hole, the third gun’s bullets kicking the ground behind him.
After a moment Woodfill leapt up, raced for another hole, and tumbled in. Suddenly he couldn’t catch his breath, and his nose, throat, and eyes felt as if they’d been stuffed with horseradish. Gas! He had to get out of that hole, but he searched in vain for another shelter. Spotting a patch of thistles, he crawled out to some open space behind it and lay gasping for air as he waited for the enemy gunner to lose interest.
By 1918 the Germans had developed gas warfare to deadly perfection. After early experiments from 1915 with chlorine and phosgene, they had come up with a new, deadly compound. Mustard gas not only burned a man’s lungs but blinded him and left severe burns all over his body. The Americans used gas too, but their techniques lagged far behind those of the Germans. Worse, they had been poorly trained in the use of gas masks and did not appreciate their value. Woodfill, like many others, disdained to use a mask because it limited his scope of vision. The whiffs of gas he received in the Meuse-Argonne would cripple his lungs for the rest of his life.
Woodfill crawled ahead to an old gravel pile. Hearing the German gun just ahead, he carefully laid out his automatic pistol and a clip of rifle ammunition, then pushed the tip of his rifle inch by inch over the gravel’s rim, and squinted over the sights. The muzzle of a German Maxim poked out of a thicket just over 10 yards ahead. Gas had brought tears to Woodfill’s eyes; he struggled to blink them away. Finally, the outline of an enemy helmet and a grim face came into view. Woodfill fired, and both disappeared.
Another face, equally grim, rose up. Woodfill fired again. The German died, but another took his place. It was like shooting targets in a gallery. Four Germans went down before the two remaining bolted. Woodfill dropped them both, the first with the last bullet in his rifle clip, the second with the .45 pistol he had placed within handy reach.
Moving past the corpse-choked machine-gun nest, he swerved to avoid what looked like a dead enemy officer lying in the mud. As he did so, the German—a huge man—leapt up, grabbed Woodfill’s rifle, and hurled it into the brush. Fortunately he had not unholstered his Luger, while the American held his .45 at the ready. Woodfill fired once, then paused briefly to divest the corpse of souvenirs before moving on.
Only now did Woodfill sense the pandemonium surrounding him. Machine-gun and rifle fire echoed through the woods, and shadowy forms dashed from tree to tree among the trailing wisps of fog. As he crawled toward another enemy nest, bullets again splashed the mud only inches from his face. He rolled behind a tree trunk, pinned down. Then, unaccountably, the fire stopped, and he dashed away. Only later did he learn that one of his men had closed with the crew and dispatched it with bayonet and pistol.
Woodfill polished off another enemy nest with his rifle, then happened upon a trio of teenage German ammunition carriers who begged for mercy. He sent them to the rear. Further ahead, he encountered another machine-gun nest. He slid through 10 yards of soupy mud until he could see the top of the German gunner’s head. Again, five men went down, one by one.
It had almost been too easy, and for a brief moment Woodfill let down his guard, standing up and walking toward the enemy guns. The air exploded around him as another enemy opened fire, driving him headlong into the apparently vacated trench. He landed on top of an enemy officer with a Luger. The American recovered first and shot the German through the gut. An instant later, another German appeared. When his pistol jammed, Woodfill grabbed the nearest object within reach—a pickax—and swung it down upon the soldier just as he was raising his rifle.
Some instinct told Woodfill to wheel around. Another bullet smacked where he had just stood. The German officer was dying, but he could still use his Luger. Woodfill finished him off with the pickax.
Pulling back to the woods, Woodfill gathered a few of his men and established an outpost amid the storm of steel. Germans seemed to be everywhere. “We might get out and we might not,” Woodfill told his men, but “anyway, we could give ’em a hot time before they saw us.” Taking cover, they sniped every figure they could identify as German, loading and firing as if in a dream. Finally the woods fell silent. The enemy had withdrawn.