America's Bloodiest Battle


Later that afternoon, Woodfill’s remnant herded a gaggle of weary prisoners back to the Red Diamond’s front lines. Woodfill’s major asked what he had done. “I got a few,” he replied. “Yeah,” said the major. “I know you did.”

On a nearby knoll, Capt. Edward Allworth watched the procession through his binoculars. “Looks like Woodfill’s boys are rounding up some prisoners,” he shouted to his runner over the rising screech of incoming artillery. “Yes, that’s right,” he added after a moment. “They’re on their way to the rear. Woodfill’s having quite a day for himself!”

“Yes sir!” yapped the runner, who looked suspiciously young for his stated enlistment age of 18. “If we could clean out those bastards on the heights, we could mop up this area in a hurry!”

“Just what I was thinking,” replied Allworth. “But our artillery has been ordered to lay off this sector until we push the enemy back.” Raising himself up for a better look, he provoked a burst of German machine-gun fire that spattered the two with dirt and debris. “For Christ’s sake, Captain, keep your head down,” screamed the runner, pulling Allworth back down into their shell hole. “That was a little close, eh?” said the captain with a wry grin.

The barrage intensified until the runner felt sure they were doomed. “We’ve got to get the hell out of here!” he howled. “We’ll be blown to bits if we stay here any longer!” As if to confirm his prediction, a shell landed nearby, momentarily lifting the two Americans into the air and partially burying them under mud and stones, as the air came alive with bullets.

“Come on! It’s now or never!” cried Allworth, and the two jumped out of their hole and sprinted for what next bit of cover they could find. As they ran, the runner sensed other Americans scrambling around him. Many were cut down, while others sobbed or screamed in panic. “How can anyone live through this hell?” the runner asked himself.

Just as they had seemed to reach safety, another shell barreled in. To the runner it seemed to shriek as no shell had shrieked before, closer and closer until it burst with a terrifying crash. After a moment of oblivion, he opened his eyes and realized he was still alive. “If this is the result of one day, what will it be tomorrow. . . and the next day—and the next?” The runner had never thought in such terms before. He was only 13 years old.

Ernest L. Wrentmore hardly looked like a child. He had a wrestler’s build, stood five feet six inches tall, and weighed 145 pounds. A doctor’s son from West Farmington, Ohio, he had, like many others, lied about his age in order to enlist; but he got away with much more than most. With his 14th birthday not coming up until November 1918, he was by far the youngest soldier in the American Army. Captain Allworth suspected that Wrentmore was underage, but he couldn’t prove it and certainly never imagined that his young charge was only 13. Allworth looked more like a child than Wrentmore did, although the captain had played fullback in college.

Wrentmore and his buddies spent the remainder of that day and the following night scrounging for food—forcing down some moldy bread that tasted like a “haunted house”—and dodging bullets and shells. October 14 found them back at the front, preparing to jump off once more. Soldiers gripped their rifles with white knuckles and stared tensely into the distance. Captain Allworth had confiscated Wrentmore’s rifle and ordered him to stay close; but the boy still possessed a small arsenal that he had gathered at various places on the battlefield, including two .45s, two wicked-looking knives, and pocketfuls of ammunition.

Wrentmore shook uncontrollably as H-Hour approached but tried to cover it up with a show of bravado. “Hope none of you guys think I’ll turn tail when the chips are down,” he told his comrades. “I won’t—not as long as I have an ounce of strength left in me!” With that, he gave his pistols a pat and moved off to join his captain.

At 8:30 a.m., Allworth waved and shouted “Forward!” Wrentmore and the other Red Diamonds jumped up, yelling wildly. At first Wrentmore felt like part of an unstoppable avalanche. Then the artillery opened up, killing men in swaths. He felt sick: a million thoughts pulsed through his brain, all variations on the stark certainty that they’d never make it.

Somehow, despite the slaughter, the attack gained momentum. Under covering fire from American heavy machine guns, the infantry pushed across a road and uphill toward Cunel. Corpses and the wounded of both sides lay scattered about; stretcher bearers moved among them with the dreadful slowness of exhaustion. Smoke and poison gas clogged the air, drifting in gray and yellow tufts across a once idyllic countryside that now Wrentmore thought resembled “a scene from the infernal region.”

Despite their appalling losses, the Red Diamond doughboys fought on, driving the Germans from the woods adjoining Cunel and burning out their pillboxes. Hand-to-hand fighting swirled around Wrentmore.

He eventually rejoined his captain. The fighting seemed to have gone reasonably well so far, but Allworth’s face was grim. To their right, the 3rd Division had lost contact with the Red Diamonds, opening their flank to murderous enfilade. Contact had to be reestablished at all costs—even, Allworth admitted, if it meant Wrentmore’s life. No other runners were available. The boy would have to go.

“I understand, sir,” answered Wrentmore gamely. “If I don’t make it, you’ll know that I tried!” But even as he spoke, his insides were turning to jelly. “God be with you,” Allworth shouted as Wrentmore leapt out of the hole, passed his buddies, who were still desperately engaged, and moved into a fire-swept no-man’s-land, dodging from shell holes to underbrush to shattered tree trunks. Just as he dove behind a tree, bullets cut into the trunk and knocked him cruelly into some bushes.