Two Argonnes

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The German defenses known as the Hindenburg Line ran from the Bois de Bourgogne through Grandpré and the Bois des Loges into the little village of Champigneulle. In 1968 I sat in the farmhouse of André Godart, a bluff, barrel-chested citizen of Champigneulle who was fifteen years old when the 78th Division came across his father’s fields. The Germans had tunnels running from the cellar of the family farmhouse to the forward trenches and blockhouses. Godart took me out in the pasture behind his house, and to my amazement the eye could still trace the snaking line of the German trenches, while in the distance several of the concrete blockhouses were still visible, sunk deep in the earth, with only a slit, like a baleful mouth, for machine-gun fire. Here, as everywhere in the Argonne, the deceptive contours of the rolling earth were startling. The ground fell away in a long gradual incline across naked fields all the way from Champigneulle to the Grandpré-St.-Juvin road. In 1918 those fields, Godart said, were thick with barbed wire, huge belts of it every hundred feet. In the north, the British were using 4,000 tanks to open paths through the wire for their infantry. In the Argonne, the Americans had only 189 tanks, and most of these had been knocked out the first day. All Pershing could offer his infantry were artillery barrages to blast holes in the wire. More than one soldier died trying to find holes that were not there.

I drove with Godart down the road from Champigneulle toward Grandpré. About halfway, he stopped the car and pointed across another naked field toward a clump of woods—the Bois des Loges. This was the primary objective of the right brigade of the 78th Division. It was only a few thousand square yards, but from the 78th’s viewpoint it might have been designed by the devil and handed to the Germans as a gift. It was a series of ravines, like a giant corrugated iron roof, thick enough to conceal machine guns and to protect the defenders from detection by artillery, yet thin enough to give them murderous fields of fire. The men of the 3ogth and gioth Infantry reached the edge of the woods, but that was only Act One in a terrible two-week drama. There were machine guns every forty yards firing down the ravines. When Company F of the gioth attempted to penetrate the woods from another angle on the eighteenth of October, the Germans let them advance two hundred yards and then blasted them with machine-gun fire from both flanks. In four searing days, the gioth took 800 casualties in the Bois des Loges, and the sogth suffered proportionately.

Again and again, with unquestioning courage, the companies tried to fight their way forward, destroying one machine-gun nest only to be cut down by flanking fire from another, grappling with repeated counterattacks which, in the undemonstrative language of the y8th Division’s history, “resolved” the fighting into “combats between small groups.” A special feature of the nightmare in the woods was gas. The shells plopped almost soundlessly around the fighting men day and night and the deadly swirls of phosgene and mustard settled in the ravines and even in the foxholes, forcing the men to wear their uncomfortable masks almost constantly. “We slept in the damn things,” one 3ioth man told me.

While this battle for the Bois des Loges raged, the 3i2th and giith regiments were righting their own war, in and around Grandpré. They had the same driving orders that had sent their comrades smashing into the Loges woods—attack, attack. All a visitor has to do is walk around Grandpré to realize what those words meant on October 16, 1918. A detailed exploration of the town chills the blood.

Grandpré is built against the brow of a steep hill, with a main street running east and west along the Aire River and two other streets feeding down into it from the north. The Germans controlled the northsouth streets, and could infiltrate men over roofs and through back doors into the east-west houses. This was bad enough. Much worse was another German-controlled piece of local real estate which the soldiers dubbed the Citadel.

This was a tongue of rock that jutted into the center of the town and ended in a perpendicular thirty-foot cliff. Comte Bellejoyeuse, a minor figure in sixteenthcentury French politics, had built his chateau on this commanding perch. The Germans had burrowed into its shattered ruins like determined moles. I climbed the hill and persuaded a lady caretaker to let me enter the grounds of the chateau, which has been restored as a national monument. From the edge of the promontory I looked down on Grandpré and the open ground across the river beyond it, rolling out to the edge of the Argonne. From this vantage point a machine gunner could kill anyone indiscreet enough to expose himself anywhere in or around Grandpré.

This was only the beginning of the assaulters’ problems. The chateau was situated in a park that stretched 700 yards behind it along the St.-Juvin road. Just beyond that was Bellejoyeuse Farm. In the division and regimental histories this ironically named farm was ranked with the Citadel and the Bois des Loges as the most agonizing obstacle in the 78th’s path. The farm is still there, the same cluster of red-roofed buildings (rebuilt, of course) where the Germans had emplaced dozens of machine guns.