America's Bloodiest Battle


Pouring with sweat, Wrentmore searched himself frantically for a wound. Not finding any blood, he finally realized that his gas mask had stopped the bullet. “Well, here goes again!” he yelled and then zigzagged frantically, bullets chasing him like bees. Diving through some underbrush, he landed amid a pile of dead Germans.

Eventually he made contact with an officer of the 3rd Division and delivered his message. The gap in the lines was closed up, and the advance resumed. But a raw and bleeding wound had opened in Wrentmore’s 13-year-old psyche, one that would never heal. In the following days he witnessed horrors that pushed him to the verge of insanity. “If this don’t let up soon,” he told a friend, “it’ll be curtains for me.” Shortly afterward, he was severely gassed while on another mission. Coughing violently, his young body racked with scorching pain, he passed in and out of consciousness.

He awoke in a dressing station under shellfire. Around him lay scores of men on stretchers, one after another screaming “I’m hit! I’m hit!” He passed out again; an ambulance carried him to the rear. Not far away, another ambulance carried Lt. Samuel Woodfill, also gassed. Neither would return to combat.

Woodfill would receive the Medal of Honor, as would Allworth. Wrentmore received no such honors, but he was happy enough just to return home. Their efforts, with those of more than a million other American soldiers, had led to eventual victory in the Meuse-Argonne, as the doughboys finally broke through on November 1 and took all their objectives, helping to hasten the end of the First World War.

American soldiers had fought on a large scale for only the final six months of the war. Yet more than 53,000 men had been killed during that brief period, and more than 200,000 wounded. In the Meuse-Argonne alone, the First Army had killed or wounded 100,000 Germans, taken 26,000 prisoners, and captured 874 artillery pieces and more than 3,000 machine guns. They had experienced combat as intense as any of their countrymen have ever endured. And although their limited training and experience had cost them brutally, they had learned on the job and developed into some of the finest fighting men in the world. The bravery of U.S. soldiers and Marines in the First World War, and especially at the Meuse-Argonne, was acclaimed by everyone who fought alongside them. No other American soldier had ever learned how to fight in such a short period of time. While the First Army had not won the war, they appreciably hastened its end. But, perhaps most important, the doughboys had shown—more than any number of generals, diplomats, or politicians—that America had an important role to play on the world stage.

The war never truly ended for the doughboys. They returned to families that did not understand and sometimes did not value their sacrifices. Veterans wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder found it hard to find and keep jobs. Woodfill, returning to the farm where he had grown up, struggled to recover a sense of direction, fell deeply into debt, and relied on the kindness of neighbors to keep him afloat until he died in 1951. Wrentmore served as a colonel in the Army Air Force during World War II, then in the Air Force in the Korean War, but remained frail until his death in 1983. Both were buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But the greatest testament to their unwavering courage was in the shell-scarred woods and fields of the Meuse-Argonne.