- Historic Sites
Half a century later, an American writer in France tries to recapture the unforgettable experience of his father in the greatest battle fought by the doughboys “over there”
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
Pershing’s strategy, a war correspondent said, “called for violent pressure on his [the enemy’s] flanks in order to draw forces from his center.” Thus the grim historical truth about the sacrifices of my father and his friends. Thus the explanation for the frantic insistence on repeated attacks, often without artillery, from their very first day in the lines.
In the over-all American sector, during those ten days of bitter flank fighting, Pershing completely reorganized his forces from the top clown, creating two separate armies to guarantee better communication between headquarters and the front. More artillery was moved up and fresh or rested divisions came into the line. On November i the offensive resumed with a mighty roar, and the hammer stroke was delivered at the German center.
Up over Barricourt Heights went the doughboys, smashing a huge hole that made a retreat on the flanks inevitable. For one more day the Germans punished the 78th in the Bois des Loges and the Bois de Bourgogne, but the next morning (November 2) the men of the 310th pushed ahead and found only a few dead Germans left behind by their departed comrades. Sometimes using trucks, but going most of the way on foot, the 78th galloped twelve miles in exhausting pursuit of the fleeing enemy. At Boult aux Bois my father’s C Company joined hands with a French detachment in a tumultuous celebration. The union of the two armies in this town, just north of the Bois de Bourgogne, meant that the end was near.
But the German soldier was still a deadly foe. On November 5, a patrol of the 309th Infantry entered the village of Sy. The French civilians assured them the Germans were still very much on the run. About a kilometer beyond the town, machine guns spat from surrounding ridges. One officer managed to fight his way out. Every other man in the patrol was killed, wounded, or captured. It was a bitter postscript to the division’s twelve-mile advance and, to compound the irony, it was the 78th’s last day in battle. That night, the 42nd Division replaced them and the Lightning Division marched out of the Argonne. My father had preceded them. He and several other sergeants were pulled out on November 3 and sent to officers’ training school.
This last small item of personal history illuminates John J. Pershing’s iron resolve to ignore rumors of imminent peace that had filled American newspapers throughout October and November. Even when he was finally told (on November 1) that Berlin was seeking an armistice, Pershing drove his men forward with the same attack-and-the-hell-with-your-flanks order. He quite agreed with Marshal Foch that the German army had to be defeated in the field, if the spectre of Prussian militarism was to be stamped out forever. But the politicians decided that they could not afford to risk Pershing’s policy of unconditional surrender. So with doughboys looking down on Sedan from the heights of the Meuse, and with allied artillery shelling the jugular Metz-Lille railway, the roaring furnace of the Argonne fell silent on November 11, 1918. In the front lines, men looked at each other in amazement, unable to believe that they were going to survive after all. Like my father, every doughboy who spent a day under fire had long since resigned himself to the inevitability of his own death.
The last place I visited in the Argonne was the American Cemetery on the heights above the town of Romagne. Fourteen thousand of the Argonne’s 44,000 dead sleep here. It is still the largest American overseas cemetery. Row on row the white marble crosses stretch across the beautifully sculptured grass. Above them on a small rise is a chapel with stained-glass windows carrying the insignia of each American division, the 78th’s lightning patch among them. I looked, and thought about battles and history.
Could I re-create the reality of the Argonne? As history, yes. I could see it with a clearer, colder eye. I could give reasons, make analyses that my father and his friends, struggling through the shell-churned mud, simply could not consider. But as for recapturing those singing, brawling doughboys, what they really thought and felt about the rain-soaked, shell-shrieking days and nights, with the constant smell of death in the mind and in the nostrils, no. Their garrulous reticence (for that, I finally decided, was the only way to describe it) may be explained by a line Guy Chapman records in his story of the British front in World War I, A Passionate Prodigality . “The war, old chap, is our youth, secret and interred.” But I suspect a larger explanation. The Argonne was the last enormous expression of America ’s youth and perhaps they sensed the tragedy, sensed that this marvelous innocence had been violated there by old Europe’s grimmer, more terrible vision of life and death. Never again, after the Argonne, would we go to war with a smile and a song.
Time has created two Argonnes. Mine, a thing of words and terrain and memory, belongs to my generation. My father’s sleeps with him and his friends beneath the crosses at Romagne and other cemeteries, or hides beneath the banter at division reunions. Both are true.