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Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

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Following the successful Amiens and Albert offensives Marshal Ferdinand Foch decided to order an attack at Meuse-Argonne in an attempt to cut-off the entire German Second Army. General John Pershing was given overall command of the operation and American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was given the main attacking role. Colonel George Marshall, had the difficult task of bringing 400,000 troops from the successful St Mihiel campaign to take part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive on 26th September, 1918.

The US First Army, led by General Hunter Liggett, used more than 300 tanks in the offensive. The advance was supported by General William Mitchell and 500 aircraft from the United States Air Service. Two-thirds of the soldiers involved in the advance had just arrived from St Mihiel and the exhausted troops only advanced 3km along a 64km front on the first day. Progress remained slow and the offensive eventually came to a halt on 30th September.

The Meuse-Argonne offensive was resumed on 4th October. The German Army, many suffering from the influenza epidemic, held on until 4th November when they began to retreat. Fresh US troops were moved to the front and had advanced 32km when the Armistice was announced.

Tag: Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Portrait of Woodfill by Joseph Cummings Chase, 1919. Image courtesy Lowell Thomas, Woodfill of the Regulars, 1929.

Perhaps one of the most heroic soldiers of World War I, Samuel Woodfill is largely forgotten today. He would have preferred it that way. Modest and a skilled marksman, Woodfill was born in Jefferson County, near Madison, in January 1883. Growing up, he watched his father and older brothers use guns to hunt, observing how they shot. By the age of ten, he was secretly taking a gun out to hunt squirrels and telling his mother the squirrels were from a neighbor. When he was caught, his veteran father (John Woodfill served in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War), was so impressed with Woodfill’s marksmanship he was allowed to take the gun whenever he pleased.

At 15, Woodfill tried to enlist during the Spanish-American War. He was turned down, but enlisted in 1901 at the age of 18. He served in the Philippines until 1904, and returned home for only a few months before he volunteered to be stationed at Fort Egbert in Alaska. It was in Alaska that Woodfill worked on his marksmanship, hunting caribou, moose, and brown bears in the snowy landscape of the Last Frontier until 1912. Upon his return to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Woodfill was promoted to sergeant due to his impeccable record. In 1914, he was sent to defend the Mexican border until his return to Fort Thomas in 1917. While Woodfill showed great discipline and marksmanship as a soldier, World War I would prove how exceptional he really was.

Woodfill (left) and his comrades in Alaska. Image courtesy Lowell Thomas, Woodfill of the Regulars, 1929.

In April 1917, Woodfill was promoted to Second Lieutenant and he prepared to go to Europe to fight on the front. Before leaving, he married his longtime sweetheart, Lorena “Blossom” Wiltshire, of Covington, Kentucky. Woodfill was part of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.), Company M, 60 th Infantry, 5 th Division and was promoted to First Lieutenant while in Europe.

“Lieut. Woodfill used his rifle as a club.” New Castle Herald (New Castle, Pennsylvania), April 5, 1919, accessed Newspapers.com

Woodfill’s most defining moment, and one that brought him international fame, occurred on October 12, 1918 near Cunel, France during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Leading his men through enemy territory, Woodfill’s company was attacked by German soldiers. Not wanting to put any of his men in danger, Woodfill proceeded ahead alone to face the enemy. Using his marksman skills, he identified the probable locations for German nests, and took out several snipers and their replacements. As he moved forward, his men managed to keep up with him and together they braced themselves for the shelling that would continue throughout the afternoon. When it finally stopped, Woodfill went back to retrieve the pack he had left behind, discovering that the jar of strawberry jam he had been saving was gone. Hearing Woodfill grumble about the “yellow-bellied son of a sea cook” who stole it, the company cook gave Woodfill a fresh apple pie. Remembering the pie years later, Woodfill said “I don’t think any medal I ever got pleased me half as much as that apple pie.” Woodfill spent ten weeks in the hospital, recovering from the mustard gas he breathed in while taking out the German snipers.

Woodfill received the Medal of Honor for his actions in January 1919 before returning home to Kentucky. Several other medals followed, including the Croix de Guerre with palm (France, 1919), and the Croce di Guerra (Italy, 1921).

Samuel Woodfill. Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society

He left the Army in November 1919, but quickly realized that after such a long time in the forces, finding a job would be difficult. Three weeks later, he reenlisted as a sergeant, losing his rank of captain he had achieved during the war. But as long as Woodfill was in the Army and living a quiet life, he was happy. Soon, his heroic actions during the war were forgotten by the public. This changed in 1921 when Woodfill was chosen to be a pallbearer to the Unknown Soldier by General Pershing. Upon seeing Woodfill’s name on the list to choose from, he exclaimed,

“Why, I have already picked that man as the greatest single hero in the American forces.”

Interest in Woodfill and his story gained popularity, and the fact that he had lost his rank as captain bothered many. Appeals as to his rank would appear in the Senate, but proved fruitless. Woodfill’s rank did not bother him, but the pay did. He wanted to provide for anything his wife wanted, and could not do that on a sergeant’s pay. In 1922, he took a three months’ leave from the Army and worked as a carpenter on a dam in Silver Grove to make enough money to pay the mortgage. By 1923, Woodfill was able to retire from the Army with a pension. Author Lowell Thomas took an interest in Woodfill and published a biography titled Woodfill of the Regulars in 1929 in an attempt to help Woodfill pay his mortgage. Framed as Woodfill telling the story of his life, Thomas had to add an epilogue to include the prestigious honors he received because Woodfill only included the Medal of Honor.

Woodfill on the rifle range at Fort Benning, Georgia, 1942. Image courtesy The Cincinnati Enquirer, via newspapers.com

In 1942, the War Department reenlisted Woodfill and Sergeant Alvin York, another WWI hero. Having lost his wife a few months earlier, Woodfill sold everything he owned and went off to serve in WWII. Woodfill passed most of the entrance exams, but had to be given special clearance because he did not have the minimum number of teeth required to serve. (Check back to learn about Hoosier dentist Dr. Otto U. King, who, through the National Council of Defense, mobilized dentists to treat military recruits rejected due to dental issues during World War I). At 59 years old, Woodfill was still an excellent marksman, hitting “bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye” on a rifle range in Fort Benning, Georgia. He did not serve long, as he hit the mandatory retirement age of 60 in 1943.

Rather than returning to Kentucky, Woodfill settled in an apartment in Vevay, Indiana. He spent his remaining years in solitude, enjoying the anonymity that he had craved throughout his career. He died on August 10, 1951 and was buried in a cemetery between Madison and Vevay. In 1955, Woodfill’s story resurfaced and a push to honor the WWI hero resulted in Woodfill’s body moving to Arlington National Cemetery. He was buried near General Pershing with full military honors in October 1955.

Woodfill did not enjoy the spotlight, but after taking on the enemy singlehandedly in the midst of a battle, he deserved it. He worked hard throughout his life with little expectation of recognition for his great accomplishments.

General Overviews

Only four substantive studies of the Meuse-Argonne have been published, although these may be supplemented by other texts. Palmer 1919 was for many decades the only full study of the offensive, and it provides some useful contemporary perspective despite its journalistic tone. US Army General Staff College 1919 is likewise of interest as a contemporary description from the professional military perspective. American Battle Monuments Commission 1992 remains indispensable for any study of American military participation in World War I, particularly with regard to its in-depth consideration of local topography and maps. Braim 1987, the first academic monograph solely concerned with the Meuse-Argonne, is sparse and written solely from the top-down perspective. Ferrell 2007 covers the same ground as Braim but corrects a number of errors and presents new insights into how Pershing and his staff conducted the battle. Lengel 2008 is the only thorough tactical study of the Meuse-Argonne, and this work merges perspectives from both staff and from the soldiers. Lengel 2014 presents a collection of twenty-nine essays that reflect current scholarship on the offensive, including studies of French and German participation.

American Battle Monuments Commission. American Armies and Battlefields in Europe. Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1992.

A single-volume official history of American military participation in World War I. Compiled by a team of officers including then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, it provided a guide to all American battlefields including the Meuse-Argonne, accompanied by detailed maps, photographs, and text descriptions of the course of events. The study remains immensely valuable. Originally published 1938.

Braim, Paul F. The Test of Battle: The American Expeditionary Forces in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.

Originally a PhD dissertation, Braim’s study provides the first critical, albeit imperfect, study of American operations in the Meuse-Argonne. Only about half of the text deals with the battle itself, with the other half providing background information. The first edition of this book was highly critical of Pershing and his staff a revised edition published by White Mane Publishers in 1998 somewhat toned down this criticism.

Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Coffman’s work has long been the standard scholarly account of American military participation in World War I. It provides essential contextual information about the formation of the American Expeditionary Forces, the contest over amalgamation, and the development of strategic priorities in the autumn of 1918 that led to the Meuse-Argonne. Includes a brief but solid survey of the course of the offensive and its consequences.

Ferrell, Robert H. America’s Deadliest Battle: Meuse-Argonne, 1918. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.

This work covers much of the same ground as Braim 1987, and it is also sparse. Ferrell’s copious archival research nevertheless allows him to present an accurate and well-contextualized portrait of the campaign from the staff point of view. More sympathetic to Pershing and his officers than either Braim 1987 or Lengel 2008.

Lengel, Edward G. To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918. New York: Henry Holt, 2008.

Thorough narrative account of the battle that emphasizes the soldiers’ point of view, quoting extensively from accounts of veterans. As such, it reflects the bitterness with which many doughboys perceived the alleged mismanagement of the offensive.

Lengel, Edward G., ed. A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

A collection of twenty-nine essays by as many scholars on various aspects of the offensive, including command, logistics, equipment, tactics, French and German perspectives, commemoration, and memory.

Palmer, Frederick. Our Greatest Battle: The Meuse-Argonne. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1919.

Journalistic account, heavily colored by wartime propaganda. Palmer helped to publicize heroes and episodes such as Alvin C. York and the Lost Battalion.

US Army General Staff College. Staff Ride: Meuse-Argonne Operations. US Army, 1919.

The US Army attempted to incorporate lessons learned from the offensive as evinced in this staff ride, which informed American Battle Monuments Commission 1992 and other subsequent official studies.

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The Meuse-Argonne Offensive

The American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) was the expeditionary force of the United States Army during World War I and was established on July 5, 1917, in France under the command of Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. During the war, the A.E.F. fought alongside French and British troops against armies of the German Empire.

The Western Front, or Western Frontier, developed over the period from 1914 to 1917. By the time US troops took joined the allied forces, in the summer of 1917, it ran in a curved line from Nieuport, on the strait of Dover, through France, including Soissons, Rheims, Verdun, along the River Somme, westward to Metz, then south through the Vosges Mountains. The Meuse-Argonne battles were fought over an eighty mile long line in the vicinity of Verdun.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, also known as the Maas-Argonne Offensive and the Battle of the Argonne Forest, named after the regions of conflict, was a major part of the final Allied offensive of World War I. The offensive operation lasted 47 days, from September 26, 1918, until the Armistice of 11 November 1918. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the largest in United States military history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers, and was one of a series of Allied attacks known as the Hundred Days Offensive, which brought the war to an end. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive cost 28,000 German lives and 26,277 American lives, making it the largest and bloodiest operation of World War I for the A.E.F.. The large American losses were attributed to a combination of inexperienced troops and ineffective battle tactics.

To reach the front, American soldiers sailed to Europe from ports in New York, New Jersey, and Newport News, Virginia. The entry ports in Europe were at Bordeaux, La Pallice, Saint Nazaire and Brest, from which soldiers and supplies made their way by rail to the front. American engineers in France built 82 new ship berths, nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of additional standard-gauge tracks and 100,000 miles (160,000 km) of telephone and telegraph lines. From arrival destinations near the front, troops marched from the train depots to their assigned posts.

Map of area, 1918

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Meuse-Argonne Offensive of World War I

The colossal battle of the Argonne, fought 75 years ago, started with a shouting match between General John J. Pershing and his immediate commander, French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch.

Foch had appeared at the headquarters of the brand-new American First Army in Ligny-en-Barrois, 25 miles southeast of St. Mihiel, on August 30, 1918. Pershing and his staff were putting the finishing touches on an offensive Foch had ordered in hopes of wiping out the German salient that bulged into the Allied lines north and south of the ancient French city.

Foch grandly announced he had changed his mind. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British commander, had convinced him that it was time to launch a massive assault to roll back the entire German position in France by attacking from the left, front and right. Foch wanted Pershing to reduce the American offensive to little more than a demonstration against the St. Mihiel salient’s southern flank and give him two-thirds of the First Army’s troops, which he was going to distribute to Haig and several French generals.

Pershing absolutely refused to comply. ‘Do you wish to take part in the battle?’ Foch shrilled, his mustaches vibrating.

‘As an American army and in no other way!’ Pershing roared.

Foch backed down and agreed to let Pershing go ahead with the St. Mihiel attack. But he insisted on American support for the grand offensive he and Haig envisioned. Poking his finger at a map, Pershing vowed to finish St. Mihiel by mid-September–and then to commit his army to an assault in the valley of the Argonne before the end of the month.

In their mutual fury, neither general was thinking coherently. With a totally untried staff, Pershing had committed the American First Army to fighting two major battles 60 miles apart within 10 days. He had also accepted responsibility for attacking up the huge, tunnel-like Argonne Valley, bounded on the west by a dense forest and on the east by the unfordable Meuse River–but he left the territory on either side in French hands.

Things started so well at St. Mihiel that the potential for disaster was euphorically forgotten. When the First Army attacked on September 12, it found an enemy in retreat–the Germans had decided to abandon the salient. The Americans captured 16,000 largely second-rate troops at a cost of only 7,000 casualties. Then, thanks to a staff colonel named George C. Marshall, the Americans managed to shift more than 400,000 troops from St. Mihiel to the Argonne–and attack at dawn on September 26, after an all-night barrage from 3,928 guns.

Proof of American overconfidence were the objectives Pershing and his staff assigned the assaulting divisions for the first day. The 250,000 men who went forward into a dense ground fog were expected to advance no less than 10 miles up the valley, clearing the enemy from the forest of the Argonne and bursting through two of the three German defense lines (Stellungen)–bearing the Wagnerian names of Giselher, Kreimhilde and Freya. Pershing hoped to accomplish this miracle with a combination of mass and movement. Against his nine double-strength American divisions, the Germans mustered only five understrength divisions–perhaps 50,000 men.

But the Argonne was not the invitingly flat terrain of St. Mihiel nor were these Germans even slightly interested in retreating–behind them lay the four-track railroad that sustained the Kaiser’s armies in the north. Moreover, of the nine divisions that surged into that ominous fog on September 26, only four, the 4th, 28th, 33rd and 77th, had seen combat in the summer-long struggle to reverse the German offensives of spring-summer 1918. Two divisions, the 79th and the 91st, had never even been in the front lines.

The U.S. Army Air Service (USAS) was also in action. The 94th Aero Squadron, led by the man who would become the Service’s leading ace, former race-car driver Eddie Rickenbacker, arrived over the Argonne in time to catch the last of the artillery barrage. In the next few hours, Rickenbacker shot down a Fokker, and two of his squadron mates flamed German Drachen, as they called the enemy’s barrage balloons, an important contribution to blinding the opposition’s artillery.

Another element of the Air Service, the 20th Aero Squadron, was airborne in seven Liberty DH-4 bombers to attack German supply depots at Dun-Sur-Meuse. Built by the Americans to incorporate 12-cylinder Liberty engines in British de Havilland DH-4 airframes, they were barely over the Argonne when 20 Fokker D.VIIs of Jasta 12 spun out of the sun to whirl through their formation, killing the lead plane’s observer and sending one bomber down to fiery death. Four more of the lumbering lemons went down before the leader and the squadron’s tail-end Charlie fled for home without dropping a bomb.

By the time Rickenbacker and the 94th headed for their home airfield, the fog had lifted and they could see the doughboys swarming forward over the shell-pocked earth. Watching their ranks being gouged by German artillery and machine guns, Rickenbacker wondered why they ‘did not go absolutely mad with terror.’

The madness and terror would come later. For the first half- day, the infantry made encouraging progress, as the surprised Germans fell back to stronger elements of the Giselher defense line. The American foot soldiers were encouraged by the presence of Colonel George Patton’s tank brigade� Renault light tanks and 28 French-manned mediums, called Schneiders. But the horrendous terrain and the Germans’ aggressive anti-tank tactics took a heavy toll on Patton’s men and machines. The enemy had learned to move their Austrian 77mm fieldpieces forward to blast them at point-blank range.

By midday, two-thirds of the brigade tanks were either broken down or knocked out. Patton, virtually berserk over his losses, led a pickup squad of infantry in a frontal assault on a machine-gun nest. Every man but one was gunned down the survivor dragged Patton into a ditch, bleeding from a severe leg wound.

The infantrymen, too, were discovering that Pershing had sent them into terrain that was only a few removes from hell. The primeval glacier that had originally gouged out the valley had left behind a hogback running down the middle of the Argonne, with ridges slanting off at odd angles, effectively dividing the Argonne into two tunnel-like defiles. General Hunter Liggett, who commanded I Corps on the American left, soon realized the place was ‘a natural fortress, beside which the Wildnerness in which Grant and Lee fought was a park.’

Inside the Argonne Forest itself, ravines, hillocks and meandering little streams added to the obstacles created by the trees and dense underbrush that reduced visibility to 20 feet. Here and throughout the valley, the Germans had added every imaginable man-made defense, from parallel and flanking trenches to concrete dugouts and fortified strongpoints, supported everywhere by barbed wire and machine guns. To those advantages was added the possession of the high ground east of the Meuse, from which dozens of heavy guns rained death on the Americans. Artillery on the slopes of the 1,600-foot-high ridge topped by the Argonne Forest wreaked similar destruction from the opposite flank.

On the first day, the crucial action took place in the center, where V Corps was given the task of taking Montfaucon, a steep-sided 500-foot height that was the key to the Giselher Stellung. This fortress had to be seized quickly by the 79th Division if V Corps had any hope of taking Romagne and other strongpoints in the Kreimhilde Stellung, the second defense line. But the green draftees from Pennsylvania and Maryland became badly confused as the fighting intensified.

German machine-gunners who looked dead suddenly came to life and started shooting up the American rear areas. Men kept charging machine guns in bunches, enabling a single gun to scythe down an entire platoon. Front-line elements lost all contact with their artillery. Not until dusk did one battalion of the 79th Division’s 313th Regiment get close enough to Montfaucon to make an attack, supported by two French Schneiders. But the French tankers, after getting a better look at the Maxims and 77s spouting death, decided to call it a day.

On the 79th’s right, the 4th Division, part of III Corps, had reached its assigned objectives by 12:30. Montfaucon was in clear view. But rigid orders from headquarters required the doughboys to sit there, doing virtually nothing, for four hours, until the 79th Division came abreast. By that time the prize was beyond anyone’s reach–and so was a quick victory in the Argonne. General Max von Gallwitz, commander of the army group opposing the doughboys, poured in a half-dozen reserve divisions in the next few days. ‘On the 27th and 28th,’ Gallwitz later wrote, ‘we had no more worries.’

An overstatement, to be sure, but there is no doubt that on those days, Pershing was a much more worried general. He ordered his nine divisions to attack again. The 79th Division, with some help from the 37th Division, captured Montfaucon at noon. Then serious problems, verging on disaster, developed in I Corps. In the forest of the Argonne, the New Yorkers of the 77th Division were floundering in incredible confusion.

In the valley, the Kansas and Missouri National Guardsmen of the 35th Division were suffering severe internal command problems. On the eve of the battle, Pershing had relieved the two brigade commanders, the chief of staff and three of the four regimental commanders, replacing them with regulars. They barely had time to introduce themselves before they started fighting the elite First Prussian Guards Division.

On September 27 and 28, the 35th Division literally fell apart. The two brigades became chaotically entangled communications between front and rear virtually ceased. The 35th’s commander, Peter Traub, roved the battlefield in a sleepless daze, out of touch with his own headquarters. At one point he was almost captured by the Germans.

On the 29th, the Prussian Guards launched a counterattack that caused a near rout. The diary of the German Third Army reported ‘concentrated artillery fire struck enemy masses streaming to the rear with annihilating effect.’ The oncoming German infantry were stopped by counterfire from the 35th’s field artillery, among which Battery D of the 129th Regiment, headed by Captain Harry S. Truman, performed with distinction. But on the following day, the shattered division was withdrawn.

By the afternoon of the 29th, gloom and confusion had spread across the entire American battle line. West of the Argonne Forest, the French Fourth Army had barely gained a foot, a mistake making life even more difficult for the Americans in the woods.

September 29 also saw the last flight of 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, the 27th Aero Squadron’s wild Arizona balloon buster, who had destroyed 11 German balloons and downed four enemy planes in the past 17 days. Taking off that evening, Luke sent three more gasbags up in flames, but he never returned. It was later learned that he had been brought down by groundfire near Murvaux and, when called upon to surrender by German troops, drew his pistol and died fighting. Luke was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

Pershing personally visited every division to deliver exhortations and threats of dismissal. Alas, willpower was not what the First Army needed. It was stalled not only by ferocious German resistance but also by massive traffic jams in the rear areas. On October 1, the entire offensive ground to a muddled halt.

For the next four days, the green center divisions were relieved by three veteran divisions, the 1st, the 32nd, and the 3rd, which had all performed with distinction during the summer. But the traffic problem was worsened by days of bone-chilling rain that turned the roads into gumbo–and started influenza raging among the front-line troops.

The Air Service was also having its troubles maintaining superiority. The Germans had bolstered Stenay-based Jagdgeschwader II (JG.II, comprised of Jastas 12, 13, 15 and 19) with JG.I (Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11)–the famed Richthofen Circus. No longer commanded by the Red Baron, who had been killed on April 21, it was still an elite outfit, commanded since July by an ace named Oberleutnant Hermann Göring. The long, narrow shape of the Argonne enabled the Germans to fly into it from three sides. They roared along the defiles and popped over ridges to gun down American rear-area troops as they clustered around mess kitchens.

On October 4, the First Army attacked again along the entire front. This time the Americans did it without artillery preparation, trying to surprise the Germans, but machine guns and the murderous artillery fire from the flanks forced everyone to measure gains in yards. Only the 1st Division, lashed by its ruthless commander, Charles P. Summerall, made any progress, blasting and battering a narrow 7-kilometer-long salient up the Aire River valley. The cost was horrendous. In six days, the division lost 9,387 men and had to be withdrawn.

In the Argonne Forest, some 540 New Yorkers of the 77th Division were cut off and surrounded in the Ravin de Chaulevaux. Stubbornly refusing to surrender, they became the ‘Lost Battalion,’ a name coined by a newspaper that infuriated the New Yorkers ever afterward–they insisted they were neither lost nor a battalion. The Air Service made repeated attempts to drop food and ammunition to the surrounded men from minimum altitudes. One DH-4 crew of the 50th Aero Squadron, 1st Lts. Harold Goettler and Erwin Bleckley, was shot down on October 6, both men later winning posthumous Medals of Honor. But all the goods landed in German hands and stomachs.

The casualties were close to 70 percent when the survivors were rescued on October 7 by the tactical genius of Hunter Liggett. Relieving the exhausted 28th Division with the ‘All-American’ 82nd Division, he ordered a brigade to make a’sideways’ attack into the forest from the edge of the 1st Division salient. The daring maneuver worked, forcing the Germans to withdraw from the entire forest by October 10.

On the second day of that operation, a Tennessee mountaineer in the 82nd became a legend. Corporal Alvin York had grown up with a gun in his hands. He could knock the head off a turkey at 100 yards. When his company’s advance was stopped by German machine guns on a hill ahead of them, Future Sergeant York worked his way through the woods into the German rear with 16 other men. They captured the commander of the machine-gun battalion, but fire from the hill killed half of York’s men and pinned down the rest. With rifle and pistol York proceeded to kill 28 men on the hill without missing a shot. The German major blew his whistle and ordered the survivors to surrender. York marched them back to the American lines, scooping up more prisoners along the way, to bring his total bag to 132–plus a Medal of Honor.

York’s and the 82nd’s deeds were among the few bright spots in the renewed American assault. Flying overhead, General Billy Mitchell, the commander of USAS, groaned aloud as he watched the uncoordinated attacks. He said it was like watching a man butt his head against a brick wall.

On October 10, Mitchell dispatched three squadrons, the 94th, the 27th and the 147th, over the Argonne to flame a particularly annoying Drachen. The Germans summoned Jastas from all directions, and the result was an aerial battle royal–one in which the Americans claimed four victories and the German Jasta 10 claimed three American Spads. At the end of the day, however, the deadly Drachen was still aloft.

On October 8, Pershing had finally decided to do something about those murderous guns east of the Meuse. He ordered the 29th Division to attack, supported by the French 18th Division and part of the III Corps’ 33rd Division. The attack made some early gains, but the Germans moved in two fresh divisions and soon had the Allies pinned on the banks of the Meuse. On October 12, New Jersey National Guardsmen of the 29th’s 113th and 114th regiments took the Bois d’Ormont, at a cost of 118 killed and 812 wounded. Over the next 34 hours, the Germans bombarded Bois d’Ormont with high-explosive and mustard gas shells. Wisely, the 113th withdrew while the 114th held its ground–which only resulted in 706 more gas casualties in an area, permeated with persistent mustard agent, that the Germans had no intention of entering.

Meanwhile, despite an unwillingness by their French allies to keep up the pace, Maryland’s 115th Regiment overran Richène Hill, while the Virginian 116th took the heights of Malbrouck, Consenvoye and Molleville Ferme–discovering the last objective to have been defended by Austrian troops. Then, on October 18, the two units found their right flank exposed (due to the breakdown of the 113th and 114th’s assault) and under German attack from the directions of Ormont and Haumont. On October 16, the 79th Division arrived to relieve the 29th, and five days later the last of the ‘Blue and Grays’ were pulled out of the line, after having suffered 5,552 casualties in three weeks. Although pushed back as far as seven kilometers, the German Meuse batteries remained a menace until the last week of the war.

Elsewhere, the First Army was showing signs of severe strain. The traffic jams had become monumental again. The terrific casualties forced Pershing to cannibalize seven divisions as they arrived in France, sending green men into the lines to serve with strangers–never a good situation. More than 100,000 stragglers were wandering in the rear area, and Pershing finally issued a desperate order to shoot any man who ran away.

Pershing himself began to show signs of emotional collapse. Foch and Georges Clemenceau, the French premier, were hurling insults and demands for ‘results’ at him. Driving to the front, he buried his head in his hands and spoke to his wife, who had died tragically in a fire at the Presidio in San Francisco in 1915. ‘Frankie, Frankie…my God, sometimes I don’t know how I can go on.’

But the iron general summoned great reserves of mettle from somewhere within his warrior soul. Visiting the 90th Division, he told General Henry T. Allen: ‘Things are going badly…but by God! Allen, I was never so much in earnest in my life. We are going to get through.’ Even so, Pershing by now recognized that willpower was not enough. He decided to try brain power.

On October 10, he handed over command of the First Army to I Corps’ Hunter Liggett. The former president of the Army War College, Liggett was a thinking general. He was also 40 pounds overweight, but he parried criticism by declaring: ‘There’s nothing wrong with fat, if it isn’t above the collar.’

To focus Liggett’s task, Pershing created the Second Army east of the Meuse and put Robert Lee Bullard, III Corps’ commander, in charge of it. He also replaced George H. Cameron, V Corps’ leader, with the 1st Division’s ferocious commander, Charles P. Summerall.

Liggett waited until October 16 to take charge, meanwhile allowing fresh outfits, notably the 42nd ‘Rainbow’ Division, to make another try at cracking the Kreimhilde Stellung. The Rainbow, which included New York’s famous ‘Fighting 69th’ (redesignated the 165th U.S. Infantry), was assigned the forbidding Côte de Chatillon. On the night of October 13-14, Summerall visited brigade commander Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters and said: ‘Give me Chatillon or a list of 5,000 casualties.’ MacArthur replied that if they failed, the entire 84th Brigade would be on the casualty list, with his name at the top.

In the next two murderous days, MacArthur and his soldiers almost reached Summerall’s savage quota, with the brigade commander ignoring shrapnel and bullets to set an example for his men. By dusk on the 16th, they reached the crest of Chatillon and held it against a ferocious German counterattack. On their right flank, the weary men of the 32nd Division surprised themselves and everyone else by capturing another key height, the Côte Dame Marie, effectively piercing the Kreimhilde Stellung. It had taken the First Army three weeks and 100,000 casualties to reach the objective Pershing had assigned to it for the first day.

Liggett immediately announced it was time to rest and regroup. While rounding up the 100,000 stragglers and returning them to their units and restoring order in the rear, he replaced the exhausted 77th Division with the fresh 78th ‘Lightning’ Division and ordered that New Jersey-New York outfit to exert pressure on the enemy’s right flank around the town of Grandpré, which sat on a bluff north of the Aire River.

For 10 days and 10 nights, the 78th attacked, and attacked again, taking heavy casualties from Germans in the town and the nearby Bois de Loges. As Liggett had hoped, the Germans, convinced that the Americans’ next offensive would come from the left, shifted reserves from the center to meet the threat.

Meanwhile, Liggett tried to reform the First Army’s primitive tactics. He issued orders to stop charging machine guns and strongpoints that were holding up an advance. Regiments and divisions were no longer to consider boundary lines as no-trespass signs. They should assist their neighbors with flank attacks if they made better progress. Liggett also significantly added to his staff’s brain power by making Colonel George C. Marshall his operations officer.

On November 1, a rested, replenished First Army renewed the offensive with a thunderous predawn barrage. The I and III corps attacked vigorously on the left and right flanks–but the main effort was a three-division smash up through the center by Summerall’s V Corps, led by the veteran 2nd Division and its Marine brigade. The Air Service roared in to strafe and bomb, in an early example of ground-air coordination. The German center virtually evaporated, and the 2nd Division gained an astonishing five miles. On its right, the 89th Division did almost as well.

The appalled Germans found their right and left outflanked and had no choice but disengagement and headlong retreat. Several times in the next few days, when the Germans attempted to set up a defense line, the Americans overran it before the enemy could issue orders to man it. On November 3, the 2nd Division marched an entire regiment through a wood by night, while the frantic enemy was trying to fortify it. In the morning the Germans found themselves in a trap. A despairing General Gallwitz was told: ‘All the front line commanders report the [German] troops are fighting courageously but just cannot do anything.’

The Meuse River became the one hope of containing the American surge, but that, too, vanished when the 5th Division raced across open ground under fire and crossed the river at Dun-sur-Meuse on November 5. The crucial railroad was soon within range of American artillery. Elsewhere, Foch’s grand offensive was making equally spectacular gains. On November 8, the Germans met with the generalissimo to discuss an armistice and peace talks.

Pershing already had told President Woodrow Wilson he thought that was a poor idea. He favored fighting until the Germans surrendered unconditionally. Wilson had furiously informed him that politics were none of his business. Pershing responded by ordering Liggett and Bullard, whose Second Army had also gone into action, to attack without respite.

The offensive’s main goal soon became the city of Sedan, where France had ingloriously surrendered to the Germans in 1871 to signal an unhappy end to the Franco-Prussian war. Pershing, still seething at Foch, decided he wanted Americans to capture it–Liggett ordered I Corps to make the city its target. The 42nd Division, which had replaced the 78th, led the advance. But V Corps commander Summerall had brought his beloved 1st Division back into action and decided he wanted the men to win the prize.

Summerall ordered the 1st to lunge across the fronts of the 77th and 42nd divisions in a dash to Sedan. The result was massive confusion that would have caused a military disaster if the German army had retained any fighting power. Doughboys shot at each other in the darkness, and a 1st Division patrol arrested a strolling Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a German spy. Liggett called the fiasco a ‘military atrocity’ and seriously considered court-martialing Summerall. But Pershing dismissed the episode as not worth fussing about. The 1st Division was his favorite, too.

By the time the mess was unraveled, Pershing had yielded to French complaints and allowed his hosts to capture Sedan. But at 11 a.m. on November 11, when the armistice went into effect, most divisions of the American First and Second armies were still attacking. To the end of his life, Pershing insisted that if the battle of the Argonne (and the other Allied offensives) had lasted another 10 days, ‘we would have rounded up the entire German army, captured it, humiliated it.’

Not a few military historians have differed strongly with Pershing’s view. Both the French and British armies were close to exhaustion, and the combination of 117,000 Argonne casualties, influenza, and a total lack of replacements rendered the ability of the First and Second American armies to fight a battle of annihilation against a determined enemy a dubious proposition. On the key to victory in the Argonne, however, there was no disagreement. The iron general confessed it on Armistice night in Paris. ‘The men were willing to pay the price.’ *

This article was written by Thomas Fleming and originally published in the October 1993 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

Ray City History Blog

Francis Marion Burkhalter (1886-1918), of Ray City, GA.

Francis Marion Burkhalter, the eldest son of Isaac Burkhalter, Jr. and Marentha Sirmans, was born December 3, 1886 in Rays Mill (now Ray City, GA). His father, Isaac Burkhalter, Jr (1863 – 1918) was a farmer of Ray’s Mill, with a 50 acre farm on Lot No. 422, 10th District. His grandfather, Captain Isaac Burkhalter, was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg while in command of Company G “Clinch Volunteers”, 50th Georgia Regiment. His mother, Marentha Sirmans, was a daughter of Benjamin J. Sirmans and Nancy A. Shaw.

Francis excelled at studies. He attended the Atlanta College of Medicine, and by the age of 22 had completed a degree in Medicine. He returned to Ray City and set up practice in 1909, joining the other medical professionals of Berrien County.

On Sunday, April 23, 1911, F. M. Burkhalter and Mattie H. Griffin were married by Judge W. D. Buie. Mattie and her cousin Mary Griffin operated a millinery store in Nashville, GA. She was a daughter of Kiziah Lenora Knight and Elbert J. Griffin, granddaughter of John and Sarah Knight, and grandniece of General Levi J. Knight.

Francis Marion Burkhalter and Mattie Griffin were married April 23, 1911 in Berrien County, GA

That September, 1911, Dr. Burkhalter moved his practice to Howell, GA, about 24 miles southeast of Ray City ( 13 miles due east of Valdosta) in Echols County. A drugstore at Howell was operated by Benjamin Franklin Rentz, brother of Dr. Lyman U. Rentz who later practiced medicine at Ray City, GA.

In the spring of 1913, a son was born to Francis Marion and Mattie Griffin Burkhalter, April 11, 1913. But tragically the infant died that same day. Francis and Mattie took their baby home to Ray City to be buried at Beaver Dam Cemetery.

Grave of the infant son of Mattie Griffin and Francis Marion Burkhalter, Beaver Dam Cemetery, Ray City, GA. Image source: Michael Dover

After two years in Howell, Burkhalter returned to Ray City to resume his practice there. The Medical Association of Georgia places Dr. F. M. Burkhalter at Ray City in 1917, along with Dr. Lawson S. Rentz. The Nashville doctors at that time were Dr. William Carl Rentz and Dr. Guy Selman, formerly of Ray City. Reuben Nathaniel Burch was a doctor at Milltown.

On June 5, 1917, Francis Marion Burkhalter and his brothers, William Thomas Burkhalter and John Allen Burkhalter, all completed their registration for the draft for the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, their registration cards being completed by Lyman Franklin Giddens and Charles Oscar Terry. William Thomas Burkhalter had returned to Berrien County to register for the draft. At the time he was working in Jacksonville, FL as a salesman for the John G. Christopher Company. John Allen Burkhalter went on to become a veterinarian and lived in Ray City for many years.

F. M.Burkhalter’s physical description was given as age 30, medium height and build, with blue eyes and brown hair.

WWI draft registration of Dr. Francis Marion Burkhalter, Ray City, GA

With America’s entry into World War I, Dr. Burkhalter was called into service, along with many other men of Berrien County. Dr. Lawson Rentz went to Camp Wheeler, then to the Embarkation Service in New Jersey. Dr. Guy Selman was sent to Camp Jackson, SC. Dr. Gordon DeVane was busy treating the victims of Spanish Influenza at home in Berrien County he was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Medical Reserve Corp, but died before he was deployed. In the summer of 1918 William T. Burkhalter, brother of Francis M. Burkhalter, entered the Veterinary Corps and served with Veterinary Hospital #16.

Dr. F.M. Burkhalter entered active service on March 25, 1918. He was sent to Fort Oglethorpe, then by July 19, 1918 he shipped overseas to France with the American Expeditionary Force as a 1st Lieutenant in the Medical Corps. Dr. Burkhalter was with the medical detachment of the 50th Engineers, serving in the Defensive Sector and in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, also known as the Battle of the Argonne Forest, was launched late on the night of September 25, 1918. American reinforcements in transit to Europe included hundreds of Georgia soldiers, dozens from Berrien County, who went down with the ill-fated troopship HMS Otranto off the coast of Islay, Scotland on October 6, 1918. Among the Otranto dead were Ray City residents Ralph Knight, and Shellie Lloyd Webb.

Arriving U.S. reinforcements were strengthening the Allied advance, but by this time the influenza epidemic was also beginning to spreading across the battlefields. Sammie Mixon of Allenville, GA, who was fighting in the Meuse-Argonne with Company “H”, 18th Regiment, First Division, was wounded in action and died from pneumonia a few days later. Bill Sapp died of bronchial pneumonia on October 6, 1918. Levi D. Clements of Ray City, serving with the 64th Artillery CAC contracted influenza and broncho-pneumonia and died October 11, 1918. In the early morning hours of October 8, 1918 Isaac R. Boyett, of Adel, GA was fighting with Company C, 328th Infantry in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive near the the French town of La Forge when he was severely wounded by machine gun fire. Later that same day, Boyett’s regimental mate, Alvin C. York, earned the Medal of Honor for his actions in capturing 132 German soldiers at the village of Châtel-Chéhéry. Boyett died of his wounds two days later. Carlie Lawson also fought in the Battle of the Argonne Forest with Company G, 11th Infantry he returned from the war and lived to be 100 years old. Rossie O. Knight, of Ray City, served with Company C, 1st Division Ammunition Train in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive he was gassed during the war and never fully recovered.

Shortly after the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was launched Dr. Burkhalter became a patient himself, contracting lobar pneumonia probably as a secondary infection resulting from influenza. He was apparently admitted to Base Hospital No. 15, located at Chaumont, France, about 160 miles east of Paris.

Dr. Francis Marion Burkhalter died of lobar pneumonia at Base Hospital No. 15, Chaumont, France, WWI

F. M. Burkhalter died at Base Hospital No. 15, Chaumont, France, on October 8, 1918. Of the 4,743,826 U.S. troops serving in WWI, 34,446 died from influenza-pneumonia and another 28,794 died of other diseases or accidents, totaling more than the 53,513 who died as a result of battle.

It was November 4, 1918 before Mattie Burkhalter would be informed of her husband’s death.

The Nashville Herald,
Friday, November 8, 1918

Dr. F.M. Burkhalter Died in France Oct. 8

A telegram from the War Department, received by Mrs. F.M. Burkhalter, of Nashville Monday, announced the sad news of the death of her husband, Lieut. Frances Marion Burkhalter. Dr. Burkhalter left for France last July, arriving at his destination “somewhere in France” on July 20th. The telegram stated that he died of lobar pneumonia on the eighth of October.
The news came as a great shock to Mrs. Burkhalter, who before her marriage, was Miss Mattie Griffin, a daughter of the late Rev. Elbert Griffin, and was the climax to a long series of trying experiences. For several weeks she has been in Ray City ill with influenza and during this time her deceased husband’s father, Dr. Isaac Burkhalter, has died, while Mrs. Burkhalter, Sr., is even now so ill with pneumonia that she is not expected to live.
The telegram containing the news of her husband’s death reached her Monday upon her arrival in Nashville from Ray City. She was one her way to Albany to make her home with her mother, Mrs. Griffin.
Dr. and Mrs. Burkhalter were married about eight years ago and until the fall of 1917 they lived in Ray City, where Dr. Burkhalter practiced medicine. Moving to Nashville, he practiced here until the call of his country came and he left to join the colors last spring. He was 32 years of age.
Besides his wife are surviving him his mother, two sisters and one brother at home and one brother, Lieut. W.T. Burkhalter, who has just arrived in Siberia where he serves.

Transcription courtesy of Skeeter Parker

The WWI service record of Francis Marion Burkhalter documents his entry into the Medical Corps, deployment to France, death and burial.

Francis Marion Burkhalter, WWI Service Card

He was buried in the American Cemetery at Chaumont, France, about 160 miles east of Paris. His was one of about 573 American graves at Chaumont.

“…the shady road to Neufchateau, curv[es] down the long hillside into the valley of the Marne. At the foot of the hill is the mossy wall surrounding St. Aignan’s Cemetery, with the facade and tower of the ancient church, as old as St. Jean’s itself, half hidden behind the tombstones and the trees growing among them. Beside the wall a by-road leads down toward the Marne where, on a sheltered little plateau above the stream, lies a spot more sacred to the soldiers from the New World than any other in Chaumont—the American Military Cemetery.
Slumbering in the deep peace of the valley, here lie buried 545 officers and soldiers of the United States Army and among them a few faithful nurses and welfare workers. Some of them died in the camps in and around Chaumont but most of them of wounds or disease at Base Hospital 15. The location and surroundings of the cemetery are most appealing. Close beside the parish cemetery it lies, the shadow of St. Aignan’s stretching across it in the afternoon and the soft tones of her bell floating over it at matins and vespers. Here, with the peculiar tenderness of the French for the places of the dead, come often the people of Chaumont, impartially bestowing their attentions upon these graves of allies and upon St. Aignan’s sepulchres planting and tending the flowers around the mounds or hanging upon the white crosses at their heads some of those pathetic funeral wreaths of beadwrought flowers and leaves which are the universal tokens of mourning in the cemeteries of France. How much better that they should lie there forever, marshaled with the comrades of their faith and watched over by the kindred people to whose aid they came in the hour of bitter need, than that their dust should be exhumed and sent across the ocean to be scattered in the private cemeteries of city and village and countryside, inevitably to be at last neglected and forgotten! For here they may rest, as the dead in America’s other war cemeteries in France may rest, still active factors for the good of the world as everlasting symbols of the union of free peoples in a high cause. Certainly to Chaumont, knowing scarcely a single American before the great war, the cemetery beside St. Aignan’s is a bond of sympathy with the people and the institutions of the United States more strong and abiding than the most imposing monument.
So, as the lights twinkle out among the trees of the hilltop city and evening with its deep peace comes down over the valley where the fragrance of wild flowers and mown fields drifts above the serried graves and the waters of the immortal Marne whisper at their feet, let us leave both Chaumont and them, assured that here among the hills of the High Marne, fallen comrades and living friends have together reared a shrine to which the feet of Americans will come generations after the last soldier of the World War shall have received his discharge from the armies of earth.

– Joseph Mill Hampton

The Marne: Historic and Picturesque

By 1920, Mattie Burkhalter had moved back to Ray City with her widowed mother. Her mother-in-law, Marentha Burkhalter, survived the pneumonia and continued to reside on the Burkhalter farm at Ray City. Mattie and her moter made their home next to Francis’ mother and brother, John Allen “Tete” Burkhalter. After the war Tete Burkhalter became a veterinary surgeon at Ray City.

In 1919, the United States Army authorized the Victory Medal in recognition of service in World War I. Mattie Burkhalter submitted an application for a Victory Medal for her deceased husband. F. M. Burkhalter, Eugene Rudolph Knight, Leon Clyde Miller, William B. Register, Henry Watts and Rossie O. Knight were among the Ray City men receiving the award.

Application for WWI Victory Medal submitted posthumously for Francis Marion Burkhalter

Despite the tender care shown the WWI dead by the town of Chaumont, France, the grieving families in America were desirous that the bodies of their loved ones should be brought home to rest. In 1921, the bodies in the American Cemetery, including the body of F. M. Burkhalter, were exhumed and returned to the States. The citizens of Chaumont erected a monument to mark the sacred ground where the fallen American soldiers had briefly rested.

Beside the road just in front of St. Aignan’s chapel is the site of the American Cemetery, which lay something like two years beside the older French Parish cemetery.

The weeds and rough grass now cloaking the upheaved ground sloping down to the Marne would hardly betray to a stranger that here had been the resting place of the bodies of hundreds of brave men, most of whom died in Base Hospital No. 15, until they were removed for return to the United States or final interment in one of our permanent cemeteries in France. But with the fine delicacy of feeling, so often shown by them in such matters, the French have commemorated the fact for years to come in the dignified monument beside Neuf Chateau road which bears on its face, side by side, the Coats of Arms of the United States and of Chaumont and the legend in French:

�-1921. This simple stone will recall to future generations that here has been a cemetery containing the bodies of more than six hundred American soldiers who fought at our sides for right and liberty.”

– Nora Elizabeth Daly

Monument to the Americans buried at Chaumont, FR. The bodies were exhumed in 1921 and returned to the States or moved to permanent American cemeteries in France. Image source: Doughboy Center http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/monument.htm

The remains of Francis Marion Burkhalter was returned to Ray City, GA and re-interred at Beaver Dam Cemetery. In 1934, Mrs. Marentha Burkhalter applied for a military headstone to mark his final resting place.

Application for a military headstone for the grave of Francis Marion Burkhalter.

The deadliest campaign in American History. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive

The operation began by the end of the all-known First World War that brought heavy losses and was recognized for being the deadliest campaign in American War History. The days between September 26 and November 11, 1918, erased about 28.000 German lives and 26.277 American ones. It also prompted the World War 1 massacre to an end.

General John Pershing led the First US Army General Henri Gourand was the head of French Fourth Army. After defending the German forces on Saint-Mihiel heights, he received the order: The clean up the Argonne forest.

Most of the heavy equipment used for the offensive was provided by European Allies, estimating about 2,780 artillery pieces, 380 tanks, and 840 planes. By that time, there were approximately 1.2 million of American Soldiers in Europe.

All the German forces were set in the deeps or Argonne forest and on the surrounding hills, forming four defense lines. They were led by the skilled German General Max von Gallwitz.

The American barrage began September 26 at about 5.30 AM. Their mission was capturing the railway core located in the town of Sedan. It was supposed to break the railway network encouraging the German Army in France. During the first attack, about 2700 US guns were involved. In just a few hours, they spent more ammunition than it was during the whole American Civil War. This is the opening act of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

The initial attack brought blended results: The unskilled US division the 37th “Buckeye” Division failed to capture Montfaucon d’Argonne, as well as the 79th Division, lost control over the heights of Montfaucon. The 28th “Keystone” Division was smashed. Despite losses, the third, fifth and the 91st “Wild West” Division had a favorable outcome.

The next day, German fire pitted most of the First Army, but a few aims were accomplished: American troops captured Montfaucon, the village of Baulny, Hill 218, and Charpentry.

On September 29, six additional German divisions were sent into the battle to face the 35th Division.

For a while, German troops faced the attack, but the American forces demolished them under cover of Field Artillery.

The First Army broke deep into the German lines no matter the 35th Division was almost cracked, as well as a few of French key commanders killed.

“Far from their land as they made their stand

They stood strong, and the legend still lives on”

On the 4th of October, a few divisions from the fifth US Corp were replaced. An intense series of frontal attacks held by US troops led them deep into the Argonne forest and broke through the German lines.

By the end of October, US forces advanced deep enough (about 15 km) and cleaned up the Argonne forest. French allies finally reached out and later crossed the Aisne River.

The American troops divided into two armies and faced 31 German divisions. They cracked the German defenses at Buzancy and captured Le Chesne.

Finally, the Sedan and its railway core were captured by French troops and the hills around were taken by the two US armies on November 6.

It’s Now or Never! The Meuse Argonne Offensive

In this activity students use ArcGIS online to interactively explore a layered map showing the phases of the American advancement during the Meuse Argonne Offensive. They will also look at a variety of embedded primary source photographs from the battlefield.

  • How did geography and cultural landscapes impact American Expeditionary Force (AEF) advancements during the Meuse Argonne Offensive?
  • What were some of the topographical/geographical obstacles the Americans faced?
  • What were the American Expeditionary Force’s (AEF) objectives during the Meuse Argonne Offensive and how did these objectives change over time?

The student will be able to:

  • Explain how geography and German defenses impacted AEF advancements during the Meuse Argonne Offensive.
  • Identify and explain how AEF overcame a number of “seemingly insurmountable” obstacles during the Meuse Argonne Offensive.
  • Analyze images and primary documents to explain the significance of the Meuse Argonne Offensive in American history.

Instructional Procedures/Process/Teacher Notes

*Before using this lesson live make sure you test drive the online maps and check your technology functionality.

  1. Pass out the “It is Now or Never!” student directions and student answer sheets to each student.
  2. Have students go to http://arcg.is/1Tb12re and load, “It is Now or Never! The Meuse Argonne Offensive” web map. (Do not use Internet Explorer. It has compatibility issues with ArcGIS Online.)
  3. Demonstrate for the students how to use the interactive map. If necessary distribute a copy of the Getting Started with ArcGIS Online handout.
  4. Explain to the students that the Meuse Argonne offensive is the largest land offensive in US history and briefly explain where this battle took place. Explain that during the next 45 minutes they will interact with a web map to better understand the “seemingly insurmountable” obstacles the American Expeditionary Forces faced in helping end World War I.
  5. Have students navigate the online map and activities using the “It’s Now or Never” instructions and student answer sheet. Monitor their progress by helping with technical support, map analysis, and primary source analysis.

When the students have completed the activity review the questions and answers by using the ArcGIS Online map. Key discussion points to cover while reviewing the answers should include, but not be limited to:

  • The Meuse Argonne region was located in a very hilly area that was heavily fortified by the Germans. If the Germans broke through this area they could easily take Paris. Likewise, if the American and French forces could push the Germans out of this area they could deeply influence a surrender.
  • This battlefield was a very large, highly fortified area full of towns, hills, trenches, roads, and railroads. The only way to take it would be to get out of the trenches and go on the offensive. Hence the name, Meuse Argonne Offensive.
  • There were 5 important “heights” that needed to be taken in order to control this region. They were: Montfaucon, Romagne Heights, Heights of the Meuse, Argonne Forest, and Barricourt Heights.
  • Day One the American forces gained a decent amount of ground while trying to take Montfaucon an important height that would allow the Americans to have a good view of the other four major heights in the area: Romagne Heights, Heights of the Meuse, Barricourt Heights, and the Argonne Forest.
  • Phase One continued the AEF assault on Montfaucon and they also began to try to take the Argonne Forest (note Lost Batallion in the Argonne Forest)
  • Phase Two witnessed the American Expeditionary Forces continue to advance on the Argonne Forest and the Romagne Heights.
  • Phase Three witnessed the AEF continue to gain control of Romagne Heights, Barricourt Heights, and Heights of the Meuse. This phase will take nearly 4 weeks.
  • Phase Four witnessed the Americans essentially chase the German forces to Belgium border. That is why so much ground is taken in only 10 days. The battle ends up ending on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month on November 11, 1918.
  • The American Battle Monuments Commission was established at the end of WWI and one of the first monuments constructed was the Montfaucon American Memorial (Located where the “Primary Focus” marker is located on the ArcGIS Online map.) It consists of a massive granite doric column, surmounted by a statue symbolic of liberty, which towers more than 200-feet above the war ruins of the former village of Montfaucon. It commemorates the American victory during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. On the walls of the foyer are an engraved map of the operations with a narrative and a special tribute to the American troops who served here (Which students read). The observation platform on top of the memorial is reached by 234 steps and affords magnificent views of this battlefield.

Students will complete the attached question frame and the teacher will review and grade their answers and contributions to the classroom discussion.

  • If needed you can complete this activity using one computer and overhead projector.
  • Complete any of these activities: Honoring Service, Achievements, and Sacrifice: A Virtual Field Trip Geography is War: The Lost Battalion

1918: the largest battle yet fought in the history of the United States, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

1st Gas Regiment fires 4-inch Stokes, France 1918. Photo courtesy of the Chemical Corps Museum.

Over 47 days—from 26 September to the Armistice on 11 November 1918—the American Expeditionary Force was engaged in the largest battle yet fought in the history of the United States, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. More than 1.2 million American servicemen were committed to the battle, in a combined Allied effort to finally break through German lines and once again combat the enemy on an open battleground. The objective was to cut the Mezieres-Metz railroad, which would sever the main lines of communication for the German forces along a front stretching from the Meuse River east of Verdun to a point midway into the Argonne Forest.

Throughout this campaign, toxic chemical agents, first introduced on the battlefield in April 1915, would be used effectively by German forces, inflicting a great number of casualties among American forces building up for the attack. Indeed, from 1915 to 1918, the Germans held the initiative in most areas of gas warfare. This they achieved through the introduction of new agents (the most recent, mustard gas in August 1917) that allowed them to direct more systematic thought to the question of how the employ- ment of gas might alter a tactical situation. They were, for example, the first to use gas as an adjunct to maneuver in support of an infantry attack. The Allies struggled to keep up with such offensive doctrine, but they had to contend first with the development of effective defensive measures to counter German initiatives.1

Moreover, the use of toxic chemicals by the enemy was a hindrance to Allied forces and their ability to maneuver. Areas saturated by chemicals could be impenetrable for days and disrupt operations. Key to the suc- cess of the campaign was the newly-organized Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) which was tasked to provide offensive and defensive assistance to the American advance, in the form of gas training, providing smoke screens, and eliminating German machinegun positions with thermite. In addition, German chemical warfare material would be collected for inves- tigation at the CWS laboratory near Paris.

Upon American entry into the war in April of 1917, the formation of a gas service was far from a reality. While our British and French allies were forming gas services in theater, the beginnings of the American program were much more disjointed. Stateside, research was being led by the Bureau of Mines and the eventual establishment of the American University Experiment Station in Washington, DC. Meanwhile in Europe, Brigadier General Amos A. Fries, chief of the fledgling American Gas Service, would seek the assistance of the British and French gas services to develop our capabilities. However, the race to combat this new form of warfare would see almost every branch of the Army having some connection to gas warfare:

The Medical Corps directed the Gas Defense production. Offense production was in the hands of the Ordnance Department. Alarm devices, etc., were made by the Signal Corps. The Engineers con- tributed their 30th Regiment (Gas and Flame) and the Field Train- ing Section. The Research Section was still in charge of the Bu- reau of Mines, in spite of repeated attempts to militarize it. And in addition, the Chemical Service Section had been formed primarily to deal with overseas work. While the Director of the Gas Service was expected to co-ordinate all these activities, he was given no authority to control policy, research, or production.2

In May 1918, Major General William L. Sibert, late in command of the 1st Infantry Division, was chosen to bring order to the chaos. An ex- perienced Engineer officer, Sibert brought his organizational skills to the Chemical Warfare Service. Rather than working at cross purposes, Sibert brought not only his ability to organize, but his aptitude for getting differ- ent organizations to cooperate and work together.

The campaign to recruit volunteers for the Gas Service emphasized the technical nature of their work. Everything from chemists to explosives experts along with electrical experts and mechanics were needed for the varied needs of the new service. The “Hell Fire Battalion” was advertised as an opportunity to see active service on the front lines before other units were to be fielded. The chance to be the vanguard along with the combat arms was made even more enticing by the thought that we could “teach the Germans the war game in the use of their own hellish weapons.”3 The American forces also had a firm faith in the inventiveness of our scientists and the availability of resources to get the job done.

On 15 August 1917, the War Department issued General Order No. 108, which authorized the creation of “Gas and Flame” regiments, one for each Army. In conformity with this order, Captain Earl J. Atkisson, Corps of Engineers, was assigned to the 30th Engineers and ordered on 30 August 1917 to report to the Commanding Officer of Camp American University,

Washington, DC to begin the organization of a “Gas and Flame” Regi- ment. On 16 October 1917, Company A and Battalion Headquarters were organized, and assignment of officers was made at once. On 3 Novem- ber 1917, Company B was formed two weeks later, non-commissioned officers were appointed for both companies and by 20 November 1917 the battalion was at full strength and ready for overseas duty. Regimental Headquarters, 1st Battalion Headquarters, and Companies A and B sailed for France on the USS President Grant on 26 December 1917 and reached Brest on 10 January 1918.4

These “Gas and Flame” troops would earn the distinction of being among the first American gas warfare specialists to arrive in France. With less than three months training after their organization, they would be on the front line performing their primary missions. The training they re- ceived stateside was brief. Out of the 640 hours of total instruction, gas warfare and defense accounted for only 14 hours of the training plan.5

The tactical employment of the gas troops was to support the infantry before and during the battle. Smoke, thermite, high explosives, and gas were to be used to take out enemy defenses, to assist local attacks and neu- tralize local resistance. Finally, the tactical use of gas troops could reduce the enemy morale and effective strength by the discharge of lethal gas against his defensive garrisons and sensitive points from which opposition or counter-attacks were expected.6

The AEF tactical doctrine for the employment of special gas troops cit- ed the advantages of using gas in terms of accuracy, the extended casualty producing area, and lasting results. The doctrine noted the effectiveness of gas for the elimination of well-entrenched targets that high explosive fires could not destroy. The amount and type of chemical agent employed depended on the tactical situation, as well as wind and terrain features.7

The creation of the Chemical Warfare Service on 28 June 1918, the 30th Engineers (Gas and Flame) was officially transferred to the CWS, and redesignated the 1st Gas Regiment. The CWS mission to provide gas support to the American efforts of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive fell to the 1st Gas Regiment. A regiment in name only, the 1st Gas was comprised of only six companies, with a total of about 1,500 officers and men, the remaining companies having not yet completed their stateside training. Rather than acting as a single organization, the 1st Gas was broken up by companies and platoons and attached to American units along the entire front- Company A with the 33rd Infantry Division, Company B to the 91st, Company C the 35th Division, D in support of the 79th Infantry Division,

Figure 2.2. Firing a bank of livens projectors. Photo courtesy of the Chemical Corps Museum.

E Company split by platoons in support of the 28th and 77th Divisions, F attached to the 80th, and a platoon each from Companies B and D went to the 37th Infantry Division. Making command and control more difficult was the loss of 13 combat-experienced company officers, either to staff duty or from being sent back to the United States to train the remaining battalions of the regiment.8

The primary weapons fielded by the 1st Gas were the Livens Pro- jector and the four-inch Stokes Mortar. Both systems were designed and produced by the British War Department, and provided to their American counterparts, who had no similar weapons of their own. The Livens Projector required a lengthy and labor-intensive process of emplacement, and with a range of about 1,800 yards, they were usually emplaced under cover of darkness, and just behind the front line positions. A “big shoot” might involve up to 5,000 projectors, making it necessary for the men of the 1st Gas to dig multiple emplacements nightly for a week before “zero hour.” At “zero hour” the weapons were discharged, hurling the projectiles through the air toward their target. The singular advantage of the Livens was that, unlike mortars and artillery, the projectiles detonated on impact with the target, and all within a few seconds of each other, instantly blan- keting the target, and without warning, often catching the enemy without cover and without their gas masks.

Figure 2.3. 1st Gas Regiment fires 4-inch Stokes, France 1918. Photo courtesy of the Chemical Corps Museum.

The Livens projector provided “the means for producing casualties and demoralization second to none.” When used aggressively, they could keep enemy forces off balance when employed on a quiet front, they could lessen considerably the likelihood of that front being used as a place to rest battle weary troops.9

The 4-inch Stokes mortar was designed specifically to fire chemi- cal-filled shells in fact, a conventional high-explosive round was never developed for it. Weighing 240 pounds, the mortar was light enough to be portable, and could be hand-carried forward by its crew as mobile fire support for advancing infantry. It fired a 25-pound projectile, or “bombs,” containing approximately 7 pounds of fill—either chemical agent, white phosphorous (for producing smokescreens), or thermite- to a maximum range of about 1,000 yards. A well-trained crew, with a good supply of prepared rounds, could fire one round every three seconds for a prolonged length of time and could be fired even faster for shorter durations.

Preparation for Battle

The Meuse Argonne Offensive was the largest American engagement of World War I. Following the success of the St. Mihiel Offensive, the American Expeditionary Force led by General John J. Pershing bolstered the Allied forces along the entire Western Front. French and American troops, along with British and Australian units, fought in the Argonne For- est and Meuse River in the Alsace Lorraine region of France in the fall of 1918. Although the German forces had the advantage of key defensi- ble terrain, the Allied forces had renewed momentum with the addition of fresh American troops.

Throughout the first weeks of September 1918, in addition to continu- ing their combat support of the St. Mihiel Offensive, the 1st Gas busied themselves cleaning and testing their weapons, checking the continuity of miles of electrical detonation wire, inspecting and repairing gas respira- tors, and moving tons of munitions up to forward area ammunition dumps, all in preparation for the upcoming Meuse-Argonne campaign.

In the days before the attack, the officers of the 1st Gas moved forward to reconnoiter their routes of advance and to identify likely targets. Plans focused on key targets such as gassing road networks and control points. As the area was still under French control, and not wanting to telegraph the impending arrival of American forces to the German forward observers, many of the Chemical officers carried out their reconnaissance in French uniforms. One observer in E Company described the ground over which the 1st Gas would soon fight:

The forest itself is a stretch of wild country some 70 kilometers long and about 15 wide, consisting of thickly wooded steep hillsand deep ravines, or gullies, the whole being wonderfully adapted to ambuscades and machine-gun work . . . artillery and machine guns had invested the underbrush and thickets. . . . Under these conditions it will not be hard to understand that here [would be]desperate fighting . . . and we were to start on a line of well-con- structed and complete defenses.10

In preparation for the offensive, Captain Laurent Lowenberg, former commander of C Company and now in command of the 1st Battalion, issued the operational orders for the event. In addition to their Stokes mor- tars and Livens projectors, the men would carry their rifles, with each pla- toon also fielding Chauchat automatic rifles. “Be prepared to act quickly and intelligently,” he wrote, “by throwing smoke, thermite and gas on such obstacles and targets which suddenly develop, and which give trouble to the advancing Infantry.”11

After a week of moving Stokes mortars and ammunition by hand, truck, and train to the closest railhead to the front, on 24 September 1918 Company B began hand-carrying their supplies to their forward positions. By the evening of 25 September 1918, all the men were standing by at their forward positions, ready for “zero hour.” Corporal Robert MacMul- lin, of E Company, later recorded:

Our mission was to give support to regular army divisions by laying down massive doses of lethal gases by [Livens] projectorsprior to attack to lay smoke screens with Stokes mortars, and to silence enemy machinegun nests with such nasty things as whitephosphorus, thermite, phosgene, skunk gas, etc. During an attack, the demand for our services grew rapidly and the regiment was spread pretty thinly, platoon by platoon, over a wide front reach- ing from Flanders to the Vosges.12

Early in the morning of 26 September 1918—with “zero hour” rap- idly approaching—Captain Roscoe B. Dayton, commander of Company E, tasked Corporal MacMullin and another Soldier to move forward and establish a weather station, as the company was slated to fire both gas and smoke from their mortars at the start of the assault, it was important to ascertain wind speed and direction. Returning to Captain Dayton, Mac- Mullin could report that unless the direction changed, the wind would not push the gas and smoke back on American positions.

The Battle Begins

For the 1st Gas, “zero hour” was 0530 on 26 September 1918. Com- pany A launched 1,000 Livens projectiles, including a recently-developed high-explosive version, where the liquid agent fill was replaced with 30 pounds of TNT. The plan was to use the new munition to cut through the aprons of barbed wire emplaced in front of German positions. The ex- plosive effect was greater than that of the 8-inch howitzer, and the mass firing of Livens batteries meant the devastation wrought on German wire, trenches, and bunkers was instantaneous and complete. Other companies used their Livens to fire smoke projectiles, which not only obscured the American advance from the watchful eyes of German machine gunners, but forced the enemy to don their protective masks, out of fear the smoke was actually poison gas, or at the least was mixed with poison gas. In other locations the Livens projectors were set to fire blank charges only, and in sequence, rather than in a single volley, in an attempt to fool enemy “flash and sound” detectors. It was hoped the enemy would suspect the Livens positions were actually artillery batteries, and mark them for counter-bat- tery fire, wasting their ammunition and efforts.

Due to the change and adaptation of the new German doctrine of elas- tic defense-in-depth in late 1916, the German defense consisted of three successive zones, the outpost zone, the battle zone, and the rearward zone. The outpost zone consisted of machine guns, mortars, and light artillery in order to contain enemy raids and patrols, to provide an early warning system, and to disrupt and slow down any enemy advance. Here the Stokes were called into service, to drop concentrations of smoke and thermite rounds on these positions as they were identified. “Our company used all of our different explosives, but largely smoke bombs,” wrote Private My- ron Edwards, of D Company. “Later reports advised us that the smoke added to the confusion of the Germans, making it very hard to . . . keep in contact with each other.” Continuing in his description, Edwards recorded “Our ‘D’ Company, with . . . smoke and thermite bombs, were of great help to the infantry in cleaning out machine gun nests and other points of resistance [and] our men were called on many times in similar cases.”14 Thermite was especially effective against machine gun nests, as the bomb produced a shower of molten metal burning at a temperature of 4,000 de- grees Fahrenheit, and was extremely difficult to extinguish. Molten ther- mite burned through the machine gun nest’s overhead cover, dropping on the weapon and crew below, making the position untenable.

C Company, was ordered to support the 35th Infantry Division’s at- tack in the well-fortified area of the Argonne Forest between Varennes and Mountfaucon, and used Stokes and Livens to deliver gas and smoke shells on German positions. This forced the German troops there to remain in their bombproof shelters, and so blinded their observers that when the attack took place the 35th Division was able to make rapid progress.15

In a memorandum dated 14 October 1918, the Office of the Chief Gas Officer proposed the “Use of Gas Troops in Proposed Operations.”16 One of the first daily tasks would be to establish smoke screens in combina- tion with lethal gas along the Meuse River between Bois de Chatillon and Sivry. Additional smoke screens not involving lethal gas will be used to neutralize and capture machine gun positions. Furthermore, Stokes mor- tars using thermite, smoke and small amounts of gas will also aid in taking out enemy machine guns.

Two days later, this was detailed in more depth in a memorandum on the “Study of Use of Gas and Smoke in Possible Operations.” Riv- er crossings would be assisted with the use of smoke, gas and thermite from Stokes’ Mortars, gas and H.E. from Liven’s projectors, by the First Gas Regiment, to aid the crossing of the river at points between Erieulles and Vilosnes.

Also, surprise bombardments would be conducted with lethal gas shells upon selected sensitive points along the Route Nationale No. 64, between Liny-devant-Dun and Vilosnes. These bombardments were car- ried out with special shell No. 5 (Collongite). Besides inflicting casualties, such bombardments will aggravate the confusion and surprise occasioned by the advance, and will interfere with the bringing up of reserves.

In order to occupy the forests, such as Bois de Sartelle, Bois de Sivry, and Bois de Fontaines, a continuous and slow fire of special shell No. 7 (Aquinite) and No. 9 (Martonite) upon certain or probable battery posi- tions, will at least decrease the rate and accuracy of their fire by compel- ling the enemy artillerymen to wear their masks. This slow fire should be preceded by a burst of fire of lethal gas on known positions to inflict casualties. As soon as the advance commences, a continuous and steady fire of special shell No. 20 (Yperite) upon the Bois de Mont and Cete de Chatel, one kilometer south of Sassey-sur-Meuse, and Cote de Saint Ger- maine (as soon as it is within range) will neutralize enemy activity from these positions.

From the beginning of the attack a steady fire of special shell No. 20 (Yperite) upon the enemy reserves in towns of Ecurey, Breheville and Re- ville would be of great assistance to the troops making the attack. These towns are admirable targets for Yperite, being in sheltered valleys and are not positions which it will be necessary for us to occupy as soon as we reach our objective. Yperite in these positions will not only inflict casual- ties in the reserves, thereby seriously interfering with reinforcements, but will also cause casualties among retreating enemy troops.

A smoke barrage placed upon the heights northeast of Sivry-sur-Meuse and maintained until as long as necessary, would aid in the crossing of the river. Special shell No. 3 should be used for this purpose, and only limited and important targets should be selected for screening by smoke, owing to the meager supply of smoke ammunition on hand. These positions, which are screened, should also be submitted to a burst of fire of lethal shell, before the establishment of the smoke screen, for the purpose of inflicting casualties.

A supply of No. 5 lethal shells and No. 3 smoke shells should be car- ried forward by batteries (or selected batteries) advancing with the attack, in order to fire immediately upon new artillery or machine gun positions at the borders of the woods being flanked, north of Haraumont, in order to neutralize fire and obtain casualties.17

Two very hard lessons learned by the American Army came at a very high cost: “how to neutralize the greatly enhanced power conferred on the defensive by the machine gun and how to use gas in the offensive.”18 The reluctance to use gas to our fullest capability coupled with the determina- tion to primarily use high explosives to counter enemy use of gas resulted in high casualties. The extensive use of gas shells by the enemy during this operation, together with the nature of the terrain, resulted in an appreciable number of gas casualties. More than 19,000 admissions were made to Gas Hospitals during this offensive, constituting about 19 percent of the total casualties incurred by the Allied Forces. Many of these casualties were caused by men not keeping their masks close by or not wearing them in the “ready” position uncertainty of when masking was required (not rec-ognizing the signs of gas attack, like the sight of a gas cloud, the smell of the agent, or the distinctive sound of a gas shell exploding as opposed to a HE shell) and unmasking too soon (for the same reasons, and because the mask limited vision, fogged up, and was uncomfortable).

Over the next month, the 1st Gas continued to support the American advance. Although under fire and taking casualties, their real struggle was with fatigue. Being the only chemical warfare specialists at the front, the 1st Gas had no relief, and could not be pulled off the line and replaced with another gas unit. Men struggled to move ammunition closer to the ev- er-changing front, and a three mile trip to the ammunition dump, carrying mortar rounds by hand forward to gun positions, through mud and under fire, wore the men out. Additionally, constant fire missions were taking their toll on the mortars themselves, forcing the supply sections to repair parts, or scramble to find replacements.

Although the fire support provided by the 1st Gas Regiment was help- ful in reducing enemy strong points, screening American advances, and creating confusion and misdirection among the enemy, the after action reports from the company commanders were less laudatory. While it was undoubtedly helpful, it could have been a greater success. Infantry com- manders were often reluctant to request the assistance of the gas troops, ei- ther from ignorance of their actual function, lack of knowledge about what types of weapons they employed, or from fear any requested gas would blow back on friendly troops. One division gas officer reportedly recom- mended to a division operations officer (G-3) that gas be used during a particular phase of the engagement. The staff officer replied that he would employ the artillery firing gas shells only if the gas officer stated in writing that the gas would not cause a single American casualty. This request was unrealistic in that a thorough staff planner in World War I “usually includ- ed an allowance for casualties due to a friendly barrage.”19 Another objec- tion raised to the use of gas was that commanders feared its employment would subject their men to unnecessary retaliatory gas attacks.

Unfortunately, many senior US Army officers remained oblivious to the potential use of chemicals by special gas troops in the offense. In pre- paring for the Meuse-Argonne campaign, for example, the US First Army Headquarters studied the spring offensives of 1918, where the Germans literally smothered the Allies with hundreds of thousands of gas shells in a relatively short space of time. To its credit, First Army Headquarters disseminated this information to its units and, in field orders during the campaign, urged subordinate corps and divisions to use gas. Gas was made available by the French to the Americans in a sufficient quantity to neutral- ize enemy batteries, strong points, and installations, and to produce casu- alties. The final decision to utilize gas, however, rested with the corps and division commanders. With little or no doctrine, training, or experience they were reluctant to employ gas. The offensive use of chemical weapons, according to one First Army general, “does not seem to be understood.”20 Army-level operational planning for the campaign included extensive use of gas, but its use by corps and divisions was halting. While the First Ar- my’s divisions did gain some confidence in the use of gas toward the end of the campaign, they never really mastered its employment. Had the 1st Gas Regiment more time prior to the assault to liaise with infantry commanders, or had infantry commanders received practical training or ob- served Stokes mortars and Livens projectors in use prior to “zero hour,” perhaps the results would have been even more beneficial.21

In the wake of the American advance, CWS officers and NCOs scoured the battlefield for German gas munitions and defensive equip- ment. The German munitions were delivered to the CWS Gas laboratory at Puteaux, a suburb of western Paris. In addition to the research conducted on captured German gas warfare materiel, the CWS laboratory at Puteaux was developing products for gas defense. Finally, the Puteaux laboratory’s Organic Division was developing a gas camouflage which, although too late for use in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, was hoped to reap benefits in the planned American gas offensive of 1919. By developing and adding a secondary chemical to the agent, one that would produce a smell like freshly-dug earth, a common smell secondary to conventional shellfire, it was hoped the agent would be camouflaged from olfactory detection, lead- ing to greater enemy casualties.22 The benefits of establishing a site for gas training and experimentation was realized at the same time the creation of a gas laboratory was first requested, in December 1917.

This idea was realized with the AEF Experimental Field, later chris- tened Hanlon Field, it had twin missions: to instruct unit and division gas officers and NCOs, and to conduct experimental work on new gas munitions and materiel.23 The Gas Defense School combined classroom instruction with “hands on” training designed to provide practical experi- ence and to build confidence in gas defense and decontamination opera- tions. By “training the trainer,” it was believed this knowledge would be passed down to personnel within the soldier’s home unit. By the time of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, the school had trained more than a thou-sand gas personnel. In August an offensive course was created, giving stu- dents the opportunity to plan and launch chemical agent attacks, using the gamut of weapons and agents available. To this effect, three ranges were created for the four-inch Stokes mortar, and for 75-mm and 155-mm guns. The target demographic for this training were officers destined for various staff positions at the division, corps, and army-level. Colonel Amos Fries, Chief of the Gas Service, knew that, by and large, division-, corps-, and ar- my-commanders were unfamiliar with the strengths and limitations of poi- son gas, and were therefore unlikely to incorporate their use in the plan- ning for upcoming offensives. With practical knowledge of gas weapons under their belts, these staff officers would be in a prime position to advise commanders on the benefits gas weapons provided. In addition to obtain- ing practical knowledge on gas delivery methods, these unit gas officers were expected to become advisers whose technical knowledge would be solicited “in the preparations of all plans involving the extensive use of gas, whether by artillery or by other means.”24 Despite the order, staff offi- cers too often told gas officers that their advice for offensive planning was not required and that they should concern themselves only with defensive duties. The success of division gas officers in integrating plans for the use of gas in offensive operations eventually depended on, in the words of the Gas Service’s Chief, their ability to “go out and sell gas to the army.”25

Additionally, Hanlon Field was used as the test facility for new gases and weapons, where the effects of weather and terrain on the behavior and persistence of gases could be ascertained. One new munition devel- oped and tested here played a role in the support given by the 1st Gas Reg- iment in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign that of the high-explosive filled Livens projectile.26

The Medical Section of the Chemical Warfare Service, through its work in the physiological laboratory at Hanlon Field, had conducted ex- tensive research in the effect mustard agent had on soldiers exposed during combat. Mustard agent, with its high boiling point, evaporates slowly, and soldiers exposed to it could unknowingly carry the agent on their clothing and skin for hours before the first signs of chemical burns appeared. Know- ing that rapid decontamination was key to preventing injury, the CWS pro- posed the creation of mobile decontamination teams, known as “degassing units,” attached to each American division, and capable of quickly moving into forward areas following an enemy mustard gas attack.

In training, the units performed well, moving quickly forward to as- sembly points, where “contaminated” Soldiers had congregated. The unit could roll onto site, erect a 50-foot hospital ward tent, assemble the shower unit, and begin bathing operations within 17 minutes. Each unit could then treat and clothe 1,000 men before their supply of towels and uniforms were expended and resupply required. Once the mission was complete, in nine minutes, the ward tent and shower unit could be broken down and repacked, and the units placed on the move.

In actual practice, the operation did not go as smoothly. During the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, these units had a difficult time traversing along the narrow, congested, muddy, shell-pocked roads of France, some- times not arriving until several hours after the attack. Still, these units did their job effectively, preventing injury and hospitalization of combat troops, and returning them to combat in an expedient manner.27

Today, the Army is preparing to conduct large-scale combat operations in a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) environ- ment. Through the process of assessing enemy capabilities, determining the appropriate protective posture and mitigating the threat of our adver- saries, the Chemical Corps will continue to support the combat arms as it has done since its inception. The experience by the officers and men of the CWS during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive illustrates lessons learned that are still applicable in large-scale operations 100 years later.

Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations, provides doctrine on how Army forces, as part of a joint team, conduct sustained, large-scale combat op- erations with current force structure and capabilities against a regional peer. As it states, “Historically, battlefields in large-scale combat opera- tions have been more chaotic, intense, and highly destructive than those the Army has experienced in the past several decades.”28 The Meuse-Ar- gonne Offensive was the very definition of large-scale combat operations (LSCO), a battle “at the far right of the conflict continuum and associated with war.”29 Throughout the 47-day offensive, the US Army was simulta- neously conducting offensive, and defensive operations aimed at seizing, retaining and exploiting the initiative, in order to shape the operational environment, and win this war for our nation as part of Unified Action.

It is important to note that while the United States, and specifically the Chemical Warfare Service, the historic predecessor of today’s Chemical Corps, used chemical munitions in World War I, this country is currently a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention, an agreement banning the use of chemical weapons that went into force 29 April 1997. How- ever, as FM 3-0 states, “The likelihood of the enemy’s use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) increases during large-scale combat opera- tions—particularly against mission command nodes, massed formations, and critical infrastructure.”30 German use of chemical weapons was very effective against poorly prepared US forces in the Meuse-Argonne. It is an old saying amongst historians that history does not necessarily repeat itself but it rhymes. Our study of past adversaries, such as Germany in World War I—combined with our understanding of emerging Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats today—drives us to prepare to fight and win our nation’s wars in a contaminated environment.

The tactical employment of the gas troops 100 years ago during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the same as the Chemical Corps’s current mission, to support combat arms before and during the progress of the bat- tle. Then and now, the importance of chemical defense specialists embed- ded at every level of command cannot be overstated. Again during World War I, Soldiers received 640 hours of instruction, with 14 of that being chemical-related. While today the brigade combat team (BCT) program ofinstruction consists of 568.1 academic hours with 9.5 hours of that cover- ing CBRN specific training. The CBRN specific training covers 13 CBRN common Army tasks and the Mask Confidence Training (MCT) Exercise.

Combat commanders must be aware of what support is available to them in the arena of chemical defense and decontamination. The fledgling efforts of CWS “degassing” units of 1918 have grown to become more plentiful, more portable, and more effective than they could have imag- ined, and able to provide mass decontamination in support of large-scale combat operations.

One mission of the Chemical Corps, to take samples of enemy CBRN material and deliver it safely to a laboratory, remains relevant today. Un- derstanding rapidly emerging threats can enable our success during large- scale combat operations. Our ability to assess CBRN threats, protect our service-members, and mitigate consequences of an attack, are the corner- stone of what the Chemical Corps provides our Army today. FM 3-0 iden- tifies WMD as a threat on future battlefields. “The use of WMD and theconstant pursuit of materials, expertise and technology to employ WMD will increase in the future. Both state and non-state actors will continue to develop WMD programs to gain advantage against the US and its allies.”31 This trend compels the United States Army Chemical Corps to not rest on our success supporting maneuver over the last 100 years. We must con- tinue to prepare for the future. The Chemical Corps must seek tactically and technically competent recruits, which are capable of advising their commander in any situation. We must competently support movement and maneuver on tomorrow’s battlefields while remaining technically compe- tent and tied to the science and technology community. In World War I this meant developing ways to increase our mobility of the gas troops by pro- viding means for carrying forward more easily the ammunition needed for mortars. General William L. Sibert summarized it best: “It is my humble judgment, however, that the same rule will hold in the future as has held inthe past, that is, the next war will begin ahead of where the last one left off, and that a nation that is not up-to-date in chemical warfare both offensive and defensive will be so seriously handicapped as to be practically out of the fight in the very beginning.”32

Innovative training and leader development, ensuring our units are or- ganized for combat, continual force modernization, and working with our Allies are as essential to our success on the next battlefield as they were to US and Allied forces during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Preparedness for fighting in a contaminated environment decreases the potential lethal- ity of future CBRN attacks. The US Army Chemical Corps continues to enhance the mobility of today’s Army by fulfilling its mission of “Protect- ing the Force.”

Meuse-Argonne Offensive - History

September 26 to November 11, 1918

Pershing's HQ in Chaumont is now a police training facility, at the time of my visit, inaccessible to the public.
Although the Central Powers knocked Russia out of the war in 1917, their blockaded economies were tettering on the brink of collapse and their spring 1918 offensives in France were halted in desperate fighting. In places like Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood, American manpower helped stop the Germans. Perhaps as important, the arrival of the Americans boosted the morale of the Allies, who now knew that victory was inevitable. Although the commander of the American Expeditionary Force John J. Pershing had allowed American units to be detached for the emergencies of the spring and summer of 1918, he had strict orders to fight his army as a united army, not as auxiliaries of the French and British. America, in fact, was an associated power, not one of the Allies, and President Wilson had more idealistic goals than the bloodied Allies.

With the repulse of the German offensives and the success of Allied counter-offensives, supreme commander Ferdinand Foch planned a general attack. The Americans were supplied from ports in the west of France - to simplify the lines of communication, the American army massed near Verdun, south of the bulk of the Allied forces. As part of a previous plan the Americans, with French help, reduced the St. Miheil Salient south of Verdun, a salient which had cramped the supply of Verdun since the early battles of 1914. The Germans evacuated the salient during the offensive, and the Americans gained a quick success. Rather than continue the attack toward Metz to the east, which would threaten German rail transport, industry, and coal mines, the Americans shifted their attention north to the Meuse-Argonne sector in accordance with Allied wishes. Although this planned new offensive is sometimes described as following a massive shifting of troops, few troops were moved from the St Mihiel area as the new Meuse-Argonne operation had been in the making for some time. Now the Americans would attack north through rolling hills and forests studded with four lines of German fortifications. Sedan, the ultimate objective, was a point of enormous strategic importance. The railroad through Sedan was used by the Germans to supply their armies in France. If Sedan could be captured, perhaps a decisive victory could be won.

Nine American divisions, each twice the size of European divisions, vastly outnumbered the German - an 8 to 1 advantage. On the right flank French divisions would attack on the east side of the Meuse River. On the left flank, the French 4th Army attacked. A three hour bombardment from 2,775 guns along a 40 km front announced the offensive at 2:30 am on September 26th. Although first day objectives were not met, progress was good, with the advance passing Montfaucon on both sides. The hilltop town would fall the next day, but the delay caused by Montfaucon allowed the Germans to bring in reinforcements, with seven divisions being added to the five already there. Progress slowed around Romagne Heights, but on October 5th an attack forced the Germans to fall back from the Argonne Forest. On October 6th, an attack east of the Meuse helped relieve flanking fire from the Meuse Heights. German and American reinforcements were brought in. On October 14th, the Americans broke through the Hindenburg Line. A decisive attack on November 1st convinced the Germans to fall back behind the Meuse.

29th Division Under Construction

The 35th Division was a Missouri and Kansas National Guard unit. Harry Truman was an artilleryman in the division. George Patton was wounded nearby leading the 1st Tank Brigade against an observation post in Cheppy.

Looking West From Memorial at Varennes

The 28th Division was a National Guard unit from Pennsylvania. The Aire River is below. The Argonne Forest is in the distance.

This concrete German position near Malancourt was taken by the 79th Division on its way to Montfaucon.

79th Division Area Looking West and North to Montfaucon

An ancient town on a hilltop, Montfaucon was an early objective of the attack. The American monument was built on the ruins of town. Just to the north are the remains of a church. The town itself was rebuilt nearby.

American Memorial at Montfaucon

There are 234 steps to reach the top. The view is worth it.

South From Monfaucon Tower

View From Southwest to North

The Argonne Forest stretches from behind Varennes to the right side of the panorama. The 28th and 77th Divisions attacked through the forest from left to right.

From Montfaucon Tower Looking North

Romagne is beyond and o the left of Cunel.

Actually men from several units, the "Lost Battalion" was a group of 554 men lead by Major Charles Whittlesey who, on October 2nd, advanced too quickly and became isolated behind German lines. The area was dominated by two hundred foot heights on either side, and the men were quickly pinned down. One hundred ninety four were relieved, unscathed on October 7th, with 197 killed and the rest wounded, captured, or missing. That day, Whittlesey refused a German invitation to surrender. Among the many difficulties encountered was loss to 'friendly' artillery fire. The unit was highly decorated, with Whittlesey himself being awarded the Medal of Honor. Whittlesey, a New York lawyer, had volunteered for the Army. The experiences of war and his post-war fame were too much for him. He committed suicide in 1921.

This is to the west of the previous panorama, I believe near the Charlevaux Mill site, so the men were actually up this valley to the right, beyond the pond. At the time of my visit in 2010, the area was being logged.

German Cemetery at Apremont

This German cemetery is to the east of the Lost Bn. site.

Romagne Heights - Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

The cemetery sits on land fought over on October 14th - captured by the 32nd Division. Men took cover in shell holes where the pool is at the bottom of the hill. At over 130 acres, and containing the graves of 14,246, it is the largest American military cemetery in Europe.

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery - Chapel

The chapel features incredible stone work and stained glass with the symbols of the divisions involved in the fight.

Reaching the heights above Sedan, the railroad supplying the German army was effectively cut.


  1. Cormick

    remarkably, the very funny phrase

  2. Wilmar

    A good example of your post can be seen on many sites, go ahead

  3. Rabbani

    I probably promolchu

  4. Shaktirn

    I fully share her point of view. In this nothing in there and I think this is a very good idea. Fully agree with her.

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