171: The Hundred Days Offensive Pt. 5 - War is Hell


The Americans give it a go in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and they found out that actually this whole war thing is pretty hard.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 171. Last episode we discussed the American attack at St. Mihiel, this week we will focus on their attack during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. It was here that Foch had tasked the Americans with attacking through and round the strong German defenses within the Argonne forest with the goal of capturing the rail lines that lay about 50 kilometers behind the front. These rails were critical to the German war effort, with the quadruple tracked rail line between Sedan and Metz being the sole east-west route in the area. The fighting here would be very different than during the first American attack. There would be some similarities, for example they would once again have a colossal advantage in terms of men and material, with over 1.2 million men at their disposal, including 220,000 French Pershing would have an 8 to 1 advantage in men and a 10 to 1 advantage in artillery. The similarities would mostly end here though, St. Mihield had been a quick and clean operation, Meuse-Argonne would be the opposite. The attack would begin on September 26th and it would run all the way until the end of the war on November 11th. During that time the German defenders would prove that they were not as easily defeated as the Allies believed, and they would once again prove what a determined defense looked like, even against a foe that was far superior numerically, if perhaps not tactically. The Americans would also find that they were not an unstoppoable force, and their goals for the first day of the attack would only be met after three weeks of fighting, and after that they would still have many problems. What Pershing and the Americans hoped would be a quick dash through the German lines would instead devolve into a very long slog. The end result would be a battle that would cause the most combat deaths for American troops in the history of the United States with over 26,000 deaths. For those wondering, according to Wikipedia, this is 7,000 more than second place which is the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

Many of the American troops that would take part in the opening days of the attack were new to fighting. Some had just gotten off the boats in Europe and had come directly to the front, barely having fired a rifle. For some this would be heir first action, and for almost all it would be their first experience in woodland combat. One of the key problems that this caused, especially for those that had little woodland experience in their civilian lives, was around navigation and positioning. It is very easy to get lost in the forest, especially when it is foggy like it would be for the opening days of the attack and especially in a stressful situation like combat. This confusion would cause units to get mixed up and out of position, and for entire battalions to become lost. That was all in the future , and on September 25th the troops, regardless of their abilities and experience prepared to move to the front lines. At this time all of their extra equipment was turend in and they took with them only what they needed for combat. This included an overcoat, helmet, gas mask, canteen, reserve rations, and of course a riles and two hundred rounds of ammunition. A small note on gas masks, when the American army had come to Europe they had decided to use a gas mask of British design which, while just as uncomfortable as any other gas mask, was at least effective but prone to fog up with extended use, a problem exacerbated by the wet atmosphere of the Meuse-Argonne fighting. Once the men were properly equipped they moved into their positions, some would find these positions closer to the front than others but one universal feeling was an extreme hatred of the waiting. One soldier would say that “slimy rats played tag with us while we waited for our artillery to commence firing. … Waiting was the hardest job … the minutes seemed endless.” Others had to do more than just wait, with some units receiving last minute additions to their gear. Here is Major Whittlesey, who we will get to know quite well next episode, discussing a late arrival for his unit “They issued us bombs, and at the last second, after dark of the night when we were to pull out—with no candles available and every one set to go—they tried to issue some new-fangled rifle grenade affair—very complicated with a tail.” The infantry would have the support of 4,000 guns, which would begin to fire before 5:30AM on the 26th. This allowed for a three hour bombardment before the infantry attack began, a relatively short time, but also roughly in line with what everybody else was doing in 1918.

Once the attack had started, back at headquarters the always nerve wracking game of waiting began. Major General Liggett, commander of the American first corps would say that a staff officer “has done everything he could before H day, or if he has not it is too late now. He can do nothing more until the first reports come in. To try to follow the infantry is folly; he can see much less than he can on a map at headquarters.” To try and pass that time he would play cards with his officers while they waiting for the first reports to begin rolling in. While the officers waited at the front things were very different. Private Joe Rizzi would say that “At zero hour we started on our greatest of all adventures, I cannot truthfully say that I was not somewhat afraid, yet I remember I did not in the least hesitate to scramble up the trench on the word, ‘Let’s go.’” Once the infantry did go forward their experiences differed wildly, one some areas they found the German defenses completely destroyed, as Private Ray Johnon did he would find the German positions “literally pulverized. Everywhere, on every side—nothing but yawning shell craters, cluttered with broken timbers, twisted bars of steel from dugout roofs, broken rifles, torn German packs, and all sorts of debris. It gave the impression that a gigantic series of dynamite charges had been exploded.” The attack was by no means a positive experience for most of the troops. During the morning of the 26th there was a thick fog that settled over the battlefield. Throughout the course of 1918 this type of morning fog had greatly assisted attackers in their attempts to assault the front lines but those had often been on very different battlefields. Here in the forest it often just resulted in confusion. The officers leading their units could not see very far in front of them, and when they ran into unexpected terrain features keeping on the correct line was almost impossible. That is without even considering the German defenses that theywould run into, even if it was just a few trenches and strong points that were scattered in the areas between the American positions and the primary line of German defenses that were positioned a bit back from where the Americans started. On experience that many soldiers were not prepared for was the smell, and this comes up in several first hand accounts. It was the smell of stagnant pools that had build up over the years as artillery fire and construction had disrupted the natural drainage systems. Added to this was the upturned earth of the recent artillery which uncovered the consequences of the past fighting for this area. While the smell may not have been pleasant it did not stop any of the attackers, but the Germans were doing a pretty good job of that themselves. Trhoughout the day the German machine gun nests caused constant problems for the American attackers. The American troops were brave, and they charged the German guns where ever they were found, with the expected results. They would often capture the positions, but only at heavy cost.

Even with the difficulties along most of the front the American advance did move forward, the French would advance 2 and a half miles and the American. The American First Corps had a hard time, but on some areas of their front advanced about 4 miles. To the right the Third Corps advanced even further. This meant that on the right the Americans were almost actually on schedule. But along most of the front the advances were less than was hoped, and many of the units, even those that had done well were very disorganized with units becoming lost or mixed up as they tried to continue the advance in such a confusing situation. The problem, and it would be for most of the attack, was in center, with the Fifth Corps and their attack on Montfaucon. Montfaucon was a hill that rose over a thousand feet in elevation, giving the Germans a perfect observation and artillery post. Pershing wanted it taken immediately, with the goal being to have an attack directly against the hill while other troops also moved around to get behind it. With advances on both sides of Montfaucon less than what was hoped it fell to the troops attacking it directly to try and take it from the Germans. Against the German defenses on and around Montfaucon the 79th division had been slowed and then stopped. The problems for the infantry around this area of the front would have been familiar to any troops on any of the battlefields of the war before 1918. The wire had not been sufficiently cut by the artillery and it had taken time to manually clear it. During this time spent clearing the wire the infantry had fallen behind the creeping barrage. Communication back to the artillery was difficult, and so instead of resetting the barrage the artillery just kept moving forward. This left the infantry to try and advance without the benefit of artillery support. It would not be until late in the afternoon that the officers behind the front would even realize what was actually happening, after the infantry had spent the entire day trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to continue the advance. At about 6PM, with troops barely out of the woods where they had started their attacks, the offensive was halted by officers on the scene. Officers here, with it growing dark, believed that the attack would be stopped and then restarted on the 27th. When Pershing learned of the situation he ordered General Kuhn, the commander of the 79th division to launch another attack immediately, at night. There would be no time to move up new troops and so those that had been fighting all day would just have to continue. Orders were sent out to the fron to begin the attack at once. When the attack started there was once again little artillery support falling in the riht places, and again the infantry was slowed by the wire, this time in the dark, and wire cutting teams just took even longer to clear lanes for the Americans to continue. Once again the infantry was on its own, and this time they were fighting an enemy that was hidden in the darkness. They tried to push forward, but any gains that they did make were often surrended back to the Germans due to the slow and steady attrition from German fire. Montfaucon would stay in German hands.

Behind the American fron traffic jams were the norm during and after the first day of fighting. This made it increasingly difficult to get anything to the front lines to continue the attack, and this also meant that any further advances would have to take place without the benefit of more ammunition, food, or water. Even the artillery was not immune to these supply problems and would have issues replenishing their stocks of ammunition before the 27th. There was no question that the attack would continue though, but without the ability to move more troops forward those that were already in line would continue the next day. For the troops in front of Montfaucon they would just have to stay in whatever positions they had taken during the day, often these were cold and wet positions, and they were forced to ration out their food, without any real idea of when more might reach them. Behind the front Pershing was livid about the situation. He believed that the failures on the first day were wholey due to a lack of drive among his officers. During the night he would send a message to all of his Corps commanders saying “Commanders will not hesitate to relieve on the spot any officer of whatever rank who fails to show in this emergency those quality of leadership required to accomplish the task that confronts us.” These types of threats would continue for basically the rest of the war as Pershing consistently believed that part of the problem was that his commanders were not pushing hard enough. On the other side of the line the Germans were still not convinced that the American attack was the primary point of effort on this sector of the front. The German leader, General Gallwitz, still believed that his was just a diversion, and a more direct move towards Metz would be the primary attack. It would not be until very late in the evening of the 26th that the Germans would be convinced that this was actually the primary attack, and only after several more prisoners were found and interrogated which confirmed this belief. German reserves then started moving toward the ARgonne, which was good because even though the Germans had put up a good defense on the first day, by the end of that day some of their divisions were down to just 3,400 men, a fifth of their establishment, and roughly the size of an American regiment.

During the night it would rain over the battlefield, a rough situation for the wounded strewn about due to the fighting on the first day. By dawn it was heavily raining on many areas of the front, and the fog had returned, a heavy fog that would persist throughout the morning. Again the Americans would attack, even though they were cold, low on ammunition, and by this point were running on very little food. The attack would be launched along almost the entirety of the Amerian front but for the most part they made very little progress. One positive advance was in the area around Montfaucon, where they took the village that shared its name. There were some small advances here and there, but nothing of real note. Pershing was once again quite angry, as he usually was. Attacks were then ordered for the next day as well, this time with deep objectives planned that mapped roughly to what had been the objectives for the first day of the attack. While the Americans were getting frustrated, on the German side the situation was improving. Gallwitz felt that his defenders had done a great job, and the German troops were getting stronger and stronger literally by the hour as more reserves were brought into the line. During the 27th they had lost a bit of territory but those defenders that had started the day in the line had held the defenses enough so that reserves, when they arrived came into a situation that was not in chaos. Positioning of units and the general situation was known and not the confusing mess that it sometimes was while defending against Allied attacks.

The Americans believed that the 28th would be a critical day. Pershing would send out a message to his troops that “There is evidence that the enemy is retiring from our own front. Our success must be followed up with the utmost energy, and pursuit continued to bring about confusion and demoralization, and to prevent the enemy from forming his shattered forces. I am counting on the splendid spirit, dash and courage of our army to overcome all opposition. Our country expects nothing less.” On this day the attack would once again continue, but for the troops at the front the situation would continue to deteriorate. The 28th would be another rainy day, and American morale would reach a new low as the troops in front had now been fighting for three days, with essentially no fresh food or water reaching them. When the infantry did go forward their advances were less than hoped and by the sun set it was clear that the Americans would probably had to change something if they wanted the attack to procee. The First corps on the American left was a particular worry for Pershing and so he went to visit General Liggett at his headquarters. During this drive it took Pershing an hour and a half to cover just 2 and a half miles on the roads behind the 35th division. This was even with the fac that Pershing had the highest possible transit priority. This is just one example of how bad the traffic situation was behind the American front, and why it was so difficult to get anything forward. After visiting Liggett Pershing decided that several divisions along the front, those which had suffered the highest casualties would probably need to be replaced and while they would take a few days he hoped that it would embue the attack with a new impetus. In the meantime the attacks would not stop, and instead on the 29th the attacks would once again continue.

The 29th was once again wet, and the Germand had by this point moved six more divisions into the defenses of the Kriemhilde Stellung. The presence of the new German troops was the most pronounced on the American right, up against the Meuse river, where the greatest American successes of the first day had been made. The German deenses in the Kriemhidle Stellung had been the objectives of the first day of the American attacks, but entering into the third day of the offensive they still had not been captured. As the Germans recovered from their earlier issues they began to criticize how the Americans were launching their attacks with one German officer reporting to General Gallwitz that the American troops would attack on the 29th with “attacks in thick columns, in numerous waves echeloned in depth, and preceded by tanks. This kind of attack offers excellent targets for the fire of our artillery, infantry and machine guns. Provided the infantry does not allow itself to be intimidated by the advancing masses but remains calm, it can make excellent use of its weapons, and the American attacks fail with the heaviest losses.” For many American officers the first great task of the day was just getting their men up and ready to try and attack. Some of the men that they tried to wake were dead, others had to be shaken repeatedly before they would wake up just to shear exhaustion. When they did wake up they found that there was once again no hot food, very little cold food, and they had another hard day of attacks to look forward to. Sergeant Triplet would write about the state of his men “The outfit looked terrible and I knew just how they felt, exhausted, sleepy, hungry, worn down, and sick. Worse, they didn’t feel lucky any more. They’d lost the soldier’s bullet-proof ego, that feeling that “others may get hit, but I never.” I knew how they felt because I felt the same way. I knew that the next time I stuck my head out in the open I’d catch a bullet in the teeth. Not even the clowns were wisecracking any more.” With the troops entereing their fourth straight day of combat, and being at the end of their endurance it should not be surprising that the attacks on the 29th were less than successful. By the end of the day even Pershing was forced to admit that he had to call a halt to further attacks. It was now critical to get new Amerian troops into the line, and fresh supplies as well, to meet the now much stronger German resistance.

September 30th would see far less fighting along the front, and everyone was thankful. That did not mean that the situation was pleasant, the troops had to stay in the line, in the cold, muddy, wet, line, but at least did not have to try further attacks. The exact number of casualties on both sides during this period had the normal huge variance, mostly due to the very short break in fighting between the end of September and October. American casualties are estimated to be between 26,000 and 50,000 during the last week of September. For this price they had pushed forward a maximum of 7 miles, but often far less. most importantly the strongest German positions still remained in German hands and they would have to be dealt with if the offensive was to continue. If it was to continue the logisitcal situation behind the front would have to be dealth with, by the end of the month the entire logistical train behind the American army was breaking down, nothing could get forward, nothing could get back, lateral movements were almost impossible. These problems were caused by American disorganization and also the large number of troops crowded into this small area of the front without good or plentiful roads. The logistical situation would not be an easy knot to untangle.