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America's Bloodiest Battle

May 2024
16min read

American doughboys proved their mettle in the forests and fields of eastern France during World War I

On October 11, 1918, late in the afternoon, a platoon of American doughboys marched to the front in eastern France, passing shattered villages, forests reduced to matchsticks, and water-filled shell craters. At every step the Americans struggled to free their boots from the slopping mud. Icy wind and rain slashed at their clothing, and water poured in steady streams from the rims of their helmets, somewhat obscuring the devastation. They were already exhausted, some literally asleep on their feet, little aware that they soon would find themselves fighting the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history.

As the platoon slogged north, it skirted the summit of a craggy hill named Montfaucon, the slopes studded with burnt-out German pillboxes, and tripped over the sparse ruins of the village of Nantillois, hardly one brick standing on another, then moved through a copse of wildly leaning, fog-draped trees toward the edge of a small ravine. Rolling hills covered by well-plowed fields and small stands of oak covered much of this region of northeastern France. The German defensive positions exploited ridges, ravines, dense forests, and small rivers to maximum effect. Enemy shellfire increased, and the men dropped to a crouch or crawled.

Nearby lay the smoking remnants of a Salvation Army canteen. Less than an hour before, two cheery young American women had been distributing gallons of coffee and mountains of doughnuts to weary soldiers. Now their bodies lay ripped open in the mud, surrounded by doughnuts and coffee tins.

Lt. Samuel Woodfill, a tall, robust, 17-year Army veteran from lower Indiana, led the platoon past even more awful horrors. Unlike his doughboys, most of whom were poorly trained rookies, Woodfill had grown up with a gun in his hand, joining the Army at 18, fighting guerrillas in the Philippines, and then transferred—at his request—to Alaska, where he had hunted moose and grizzly bear in his spare time. Woodfill hadn’t thought much about the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. Less than three years later, however, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare and at the same time made a clumsy attempt to convince Mexico to attack the United States. As a result, Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war in April 1917. Congress complied and then set about trying to build an army out of millions of untrained volunteers and draftees. Woodfill was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to Company M, 60th Regiment, 5th (“Red Diamond”) Division.

American troops began arriving in France in large numbers in spring 1918, tasked to join French and British troops against the Germans, who had launched a massive offensive in March and come close to taking Paris. By May and early June, when American soldiers and Marines went into action at places such as Cantigny and Belleau Wood, the Germans were still struggling to break the Allied lines in France and end the war. That summer Americans joined the Allied effort in increasing numbers and helped to roll back the German advance.

Woodfill’s outfit hadn’t seen any action in those summer campaigns. Now, caught in the clammy grip of October, he led his men out of the shattered copse, down the slope of an open ravine, and into action for the first time. German machine-gun fire opened up a murderous volley, sending wounded or frightened doughboys toppling head over heels downslope. Reaching the bottom of the ravine, Woodfill dove for cover in a shallow depression near some partially buried scraps of corrugated iron. His overstuffed backpack bulged into sight, and the Germans pumped it full of bullets.

Adding insult to injury, a louse, or “cootie,” began marching slowly down his spine. Scratching was impossible. Nor could he return fire as bullets ricocheted off the corrugated iron. The enemy barrage moved steadily forward, plopping one after another, closer and closer to his position. Woodfill drew a photograph of his wife from his pocket and scribbled on its back his home address and the following words: “please forward this picture to my Darling Wife. And tell her that I have fallen on the field of Honor, and departed to a better land which knows no sorrow and feels no pain. I will prepair a place and be waiting at the Golden Gait of Heaven for the arrival of my Darling Blossom.”

The bombardment finally stopped, and Woodfill and his men crawled from their cover, eyeing each other sheepishly, each struggling not to betray his fear. A private who had taken cover near Woodfill tucked a piece of paper into his tunic—he too had written a farewell note.

The platoon traversed the ravine past the ruins of Madeleine Farm and deployed behind the crest of a ridge. “Halt, and dig in!” cried an officer; but there was no time. Instead the men scattered by twos into shell holes half full of water. Darkness fell, and as sight failed other senses grew more acute. The soldiers listened with dread to the grumble of intermittent shellfire, now far, now near, the crackle of machine guns, muttered curses, and the clank of equipment. The rain intensified.

Woodfill had only a few hours of “rest”—shivering in his shell hole—before a major ordered him to take eight men on a scout into the woods beyond the ridge. On the way back, Woodfill stepped onto a small bridge that the Germans had booby-trapped. A shell planted in a nearby tree burst over his head, and he lost consciousness. When he recovered, he found that blood was pouring from his nose. He felt as if an iron spike had been driven through his temple. Staggering back to his shell hole, he fell asleep, only to be reawakened a few hours later by floating out of the hole, which the rain had turned into a pond.

On September 26, 1918, nine mostly inexperienced American divisions totaling about 600,000 men assaulted well-trenched German positions in a shell-pitted tract just north of Verdun. Thus began the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest American campaign of the First World War. During the following six weeks, more than 1.2 million American soldiers in 22 divisions and support formations would assault German positions in northeastern France. More than 120,000 soldiers and Marines would fall wounded: 26,277 would die. Nearly all the casualties—about half of those sustained by the United States during the war—occurred within a three-week period. Some 2,400 artillery pieces fired 4 million shells, more than the Union army had fired during the entire Civil War. No other single battle in American military history even approaches the Meuse-Argonne in size and cost, yet few know much about it, even though it constituted the most important U.S. contribution to the Allied effort in World War I. Young officers entering the armed forces in the 1930s and 1940s could recite details about the action at Gettysburg but little if anything about the Meuse-Argonne. The reasons for this are many, perhaps the most important being that the doughboys were the first to experience modern industrialized warfare and the horrific large-scale death and destruction that artillery, machine guns, and poison gas could unleash. And perhaps—unlike Pickett’s charge, Concord Bridge, or the invasion of Normandy—the First World War’s scorched earth, miles upon miles of trenches, and inch-by-inch fighting do not lend themselves to an easy or particularly heroic story line. Yet the heroism that emerged in those bloody days was extraordinary, as inexperienced and untested recruits and draftees went up against the world’s best-trained and most formidable army in some of the strongest defensive terrain in France. The battle created heroes of ordinary men, the likes of which America had never seen before. On the darker side, the story is also tragic: military ineptitude and thickheaded nationalism led to thousands of needless deaths. The Meuse-Argonne would also fail to gain traction in the collective American memory because of a mistaken belief that the nation’s late entrance into the conflict was merely pro forma, the war essentially being already over.

The American forces in the Meuse-Argonne, a region bordered on the east by the Meuse River and on the west by the dense Argonne Forest, comprised the First Army of the American Expeditionary Force, commanded by Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing. Their objective was to break through the German defenses for 40 miles to a critical railway junction near Sedan. Supplies for nearly the entire German army in France passed through this junction; its capture would inflict a severe if not catastrophic blow to Germany’s military fortunes.

The German forces in the Meuse-Argonne were under orders to stop the Americans at all costs. Four brutal years of combat had severely weakened the German army, which in many parts of France held the lines with young boys and old men; but not in the Meuse-Argonne. Initially outnumbered three or four to one, the Germans reacted to Pershing’s offensive by pouring every reserve formation into battle. Their artillery remained the best in the world. Their air formations were strong and vigorous. And they had many thousands of machine guns.

Pershing had expected the initial advance to take no more than 36 hours, but it bogged down almost immediately in the face of determined resistance. That only convinced him to push harder, driving his forces to exert every nerve, every resource. Like President Wilson and his cabinet, Pershing hoped that victory in the Meuse-Argonne would help establish America’s right to stand coequal with the old empires of Europe. He

also expected his troops to demonstrate the superiority of American initiative and fighting spirit. The individual doughboy, he told them, should not put his faith in trenches, artillery, or machine guns but in his rifle, bayonet, and the will to win. Pershing thus put his boys up against a veteran, well-entrenched enemy with many machine guns and little naïveté about the horrors of war. Later theorists, such as B. H. Liddell Hart, would excoriate Pershing for his inability to “master the requirements of the modern battlefield.” And the Americans’ lack of training in weapons, tactics, and combined arms had bloody results. But it’s too strong to lay it all on Pershing. Many of the problems of Meuse-Argonne resulted from years of unpreparedness and the nation’s late entry into the war.

The term “doughboy” has uncertain origins. What’s clear is that the doughboys represented all the vigor and variety of American society in the early 20th century. Many were recent immigrants or sons of immigrants and could barely speak English. Thousands were African American, segregated into separate units and constantly persecuted, although they would prove their patriotism in blood. The doughboys came rich, poor, and everything in between, from the city and the country, putting aside work as bankers, farmers, professional baseball players, and gangsters. Poorly trained and unprepared for modern warfare, they were nevertheless determined to prove their mettle.

At dawn the rain ceased, and a dense mantle of fog settled over Madeleine Farm. A runner brought the day’s orders, which directed Woodfill to lead a combat reconnaissance of the woods he had scouted the night before and to find the German lines. At 6 a.m. the men of his battalion rose, shivering and sodden with mud, and moved out in skirmish lines, advancing 16 paces apart, bayonets fixed and rifles ready.

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.

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.

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.


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