America’s Biggest Battle, 100 Years On

23d U.S. Infantry during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. (National Archives )
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918 was the largest battle ever fought by Americans.

One hundred years ago this morning, at 5:30 a.m. Central European Time, the 1.2 million–man American Expeditionary Force launched all of its available combat strength into the largest and arguably the bloodiest battle in American history: the six-week Meuse-Argonne offensive that continued through the armistice at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The horrific and protracted battle brought a decisive end to the first war in which Americans fought on European soil. Though it was filled with then-famous incidents and notable Americans, the ordeal of the Meuse-Argonne is far less remembered today than Gettysburg, Normandy, Yorktown, Okinawa, or New Orleans. We should keep that memory alive, as it tells us a lot about the America of 1918 and the century that followed.

Amateurs at War
Even the name, “American Expeditionary Force,” speaks to a different era. The armies of America’s wars before 1941 came into being to fight a specific war, and disbanded at the end, leaving their names behind as monuments: the Continental Army, the Army of the Potomac, the Army of the Tennessee. The professionalized, permanent army and Marine Corps were tiny then; the Army in 1917 was less than 150,000 men, compared to some 11 million Germans under arms and 8 million Frenchmen, and ranked as the world’s 17th-largest army. Only after the Second World War would the United States develop what Dwight Eisenhower termed our “military-industrial complex.” Americans had put the world’s most formidable fighting forces in the field against each other in the 1860s but had mostly forgotten the arts of war by 1917, when about 14,000 Americans (two-thirds the size of the Continental Army in mid 1776) were all that could be put in the field in France.

The Marine Corps would do much to build its legend at Belleau Wood in June 1918, and would fight again at St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne under the command of Major General John Lejeune (namesake of North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune), but a small, elite force like the Marines cannot alone conquer a battlefield as vast and densely soldiered as the Western Front. And America’s industrial might was not the decisive factor it would be in the 1940s, when mechanized warfare ruled the battlefield; the American Army Air Service was not a notably effective factor in the battle, and many of the American tanks were borrowed from the French. It was the freshly recruited, still-amateur “Doughboys” of the Army, manning rifles, machine guns, and artillery, who made up the bulk of the estimated 600,000 men committed to the initial assault at H-hour on September 26. The six-week struggle would be the first and, as it turned out, the last time the AEF was fully committed to battle.

Professionals at Stalemate
The war the Americans finally joined for keeps in September 1918 was one of grim futilities and bitter ironies. The war was one of maneuver and battle in the open, punctuated by sieges, only for the initial campaigns of the summer and fall of 1914, and thereafter only on the Russian front and some of the collateral fronts such as the Middle East and Africa. After that, the armies settled into their famous trench lines, with nearly every offensive thereafter producing either a defeat or a Pyrrhic victory. And not only on the Western Front: The Austrians and the Italians bled each other white fighting eleven battles in the same place before German intervention broke the Italian army on the twelfth occasion, the Battle of Caporetto, in late 1917. The German army was superior in most ways to its enemies and its allies, with a few exceptions (the Germans were far behind the British in developing tanks). In 1917, the Germans had successfully gone on the offensive against Russia and Italy, knocking the Russians out of the war as the country collapsed into revolution, and effectively eliminating Italy as a serious combatant. On the Western Front, however, where their posture had mostly been defensive, the German Army had been immovable. Even with only a few clear-cut battle victories (Tannenberg, Caporetto), the German people and their army justifiably felt themselves to have the upper hand by 1918.

And yet, by 1918, the European combatants were fighting the war for no better reason than that they were already fighting the war. The immediate trigger of the war had been the regional ambitions of Serbia and the assassination by Serbian terrorist proxies of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, an offense that demanded Austrian retribution. But Austria was the first of the major powers to exhaust its manpower, and by 1918 had barely any state or honor left to fight for; and Serbia had suffered the worst of any of the war’s combatants, losing an estimated 60 percent of its male population after years of invasion and a typhus epidemic.

The same could be said of the broader driving force behind the escalation of that crisis into general war: the perceived destabilizing rise of Russian military and economic power after the 1905 fiasco of the Russo–Japanese War. German leadership had feared that the balance of power was tipping toward Russia, making it urgent that any war with Russia come sooner than later; French and British leadership had feared that Russia would no longer need them as allies, also making it urgent that any war with Russia on their side come sooner than later. Yet, after the fall of 1917, the Russian Revolution plunged the Russians into sufficient internal disorder to make them no threat to anyone beyond Finland or Poland for nearly two decades.

With massive territorial gains on its Eastern Front, locked in by the March 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany’s leaders should have been eager to offer generous terms to end the war in the west, but nobody was in that mindset by 1918, and the growing arrival of the Americans re-created in a way the dynamics of 1914: Germany needed to act fast before the balance of power shifted back against it, while the British and French were eager to turn the tide with the help of their new ally. From March through July, the Germans launched a series of colossal offensives on the Western Front, mainly targeting the British-held sector, and yet again outfought their opponents, gaining miles of ground in many places that had previously measured movement in yards. But all for naught: With the Americans added to the defensive lines from the late spring on, and the arrival of the “Spanish flu” epidemic, the Germans simply ran out of men to press the attack. Like the British and the French, they no longer had any reserves of men left to draw on except teenagers waiting to be old enough to fight. Yet ship after ship, Americans kept arriving.

The Entente Powers went over to the offensive in August, using tanks to puncture the German lines. And by September, they were ready to commit American manpower to tip the balance for good.

The Hard Ground
Geographically, the Western Front formed a crescent, starting at the Belgian coastline, running gently southeast past the Somme river, then arcing much more sharply east along the Marne river after Paris (which lay around 50 miles behind the furthest advance of the Germans’ Spring Offensive of 1918) toward Verdun and eventually the German border. The north–south axis of the crescent was the British sector, which south of the Belgian army’s position was manned mainly by the British Expeditionary Force and the various British colonial and territorial forces; this was mostly low, flat, open land, making advancing infantry into easy targets. From the bend along the Marne was the French sector, featuring many more hills and ridges (such as the Verdun area) and the dense Argonne Forest. What this offered to advancing soldiers in terms of cover, however, it also added to the defender’s concealment, reduced the visibility and range of artillery, and thwarted the advance of tanks. The Americans, at the insistence of General Pershing that the AEF fight as a single unit, had been assigned defensive positions in the eastern half of the French sector, and for the offensive would be assigned the Argonne and its environs, a rabbit warren of hills and trees.

The Germans had long held a bulge in the line just south of the Argonne near the German border, the St. Mihiel salient, but with declining German manpower, both sides figured out more or less simultaneously that it was no longer defensible, and the Americans launched an attack in mid September as the Germans were in the process of evacuating; while the fighting was intense, the American victory was fairly lopsided, and cleared the American flank as the AEF prepared for the broader offensive. The plan called for the Americans to advance directly north through the forest and hills along the west bank of the Meuse river, across three German defensive lines (which the Germans, in a moment of theatrical flair, had named for witches from a Wagner opera) while the British and French pressed their own parallel assaults. Only one part of the AEF was left with the French: Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 order segregating the entire federal government made it easier for the 92nd and 93d Infantry, both manned by African-American soldiers, to fight behind a foreign flag than alongside their own countrymen. Yet, fight they did, despite the poorest leadership, training, and equipment the American army could give them.

The battle they all entered was hell on earth, against the hardened core of the German army’s most determined survivors, with snipers and machine guns buried in trees and artillery falling seemingly out of nowhere. The rain was endless, the ground sodden, and soldiers’ accounts of the battle were full of the slick muck and the terrors of death from enemies they couldn’t see. Progress was terribly slow: Only on October 16 did the First Division, the “Big Red One,” reach the objectives that had been set for it to claim by the end of the first day.

The most sensational of the disasters was the “Lost Battalion,” the First Battalion 308th Regiment, an American unit trapped and isolated and supported only by airdropped supplies, whose uncertain fate for days was duly reported home by reporters such as Damon Runyon until the survivors were finally relieved. Their leader, Major Charles White Whittlesey, was your typical American amateur soldier, a Harvard-trained New York banking lawyer. Whittlesey never recovered from the trauma of losing so many men under his command, and committed suicide at sea in 1921.

The Leaders
There was room for only one star leading the AEF, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, himself almost emotionally numb before the battle started, owing to the death of his wife and three of his four children in a 1915 house fire. But for the younger generation of U.S. Army leadership, men then in their thirties, the Meuse-Argonne was a crucial proving ground not only for themselves but for the future of war.

  • Colonel George Marshall distinguished himself as Pershing’s right-hand man, mastering the logistics of a battlefield plagued by the same communications problems that had bogged down coordination throughout the war, laying the foundations for his central role in the next war.
  • Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, commanding the celebrated “Rainbow Division,” won rave reviews from the press for commanding from the front of his army, taking bullet holes through his sleeves; MacArthur was perhaps too free at times with the lives of his men — it was the disease of First World War leadership on all sides — but he never shrank from sharing their risks. (On the other hand, his flashy and unique outfits once got him arrested by men of the Big Red One who mistook him for a German officer.)
  • Colonel George Patton led the modest (and from his point of view, insufficient) American tank force (mainly French-made Renault tanks) into battle, but was shot by a German machine gunner on the first day of the battle and put out of action.
  • Colonel Billy Mitchell, leading the Air Service (against the German “flying circus” helmed by Hermann Göring after the death of the “Red Baron” that spring) quarreled regularly with the ground forces over his preference for strategic bombing of railways, roads, and supply dumps — an idea still before its time. Only in the battle’s last weeks did he relent and provide close air support for the embattled infantry.
  • Colonel Theodore Roosevelt Jr., later the oldest man to land on D-Day, commanded the 26th Infantry Regiment and almost created an international incident with the French army by following a highly impolitic order from Pershing to seize Sedan, a city of enormous symbolic importance to the French from the 1870 Franco–Prussian War.
  • “Wild Bill” Donovan, later the head of the Office of Strategic Services in the Second World War, won the Medal of Honor for braving machine-gun fire to lead his men under MacArthur’s command.

Not all American leaders were so distinguished. The agony of the battle broke the nerves of more than a few officers, including the white commander of one of the African-American regiments.

The Men at War
The generals were not the only famous combatants. Sergeant Alvin York became its most famous hero, capturing 132 men and taking 35 machine-gun nests out of action in a single fight by flanking them with superior marksmanship learned shooting turkeys in Tennessee. But Sergeant York’s heroics only underlined how dependent an inadequately trained and recklessly led force was on having some men in its command who knew how to sharpshoot without the help of the Army.

Harry Truman served as an artillery captain in the battle, delivering relentless barrages under frequent machine-gun fire while emitting streams of profanity that were considered impressive even by military standards. He inspired his men with a short speech before H-hour on the 26th by declaring, “Right tonight I’m where I want to be — in command of this battery. I’d rather be right here than be president of the United States. You boys are my kind.” In time, he would have more of that battle and more of the presidency than he could have bargained for.

Grover Cleveland Alexander, then the best baseball player in the National League (having won 30 games in 1915, 1916, and 1917), was in the artillery too, firing mortar after mortar with his powerful right arm until it was sore and his ears were shot. Alexander’s combat experience would exacerbate his epilepsy and alcoholism, though he still managed to return and be the best pitcher in the league in 1919 and 1920. Longtime National League third baseman Eddie Grant, then 35, was not so fortunate, dying in the Argonne on October 5.

The Americans had learned some lessons from the Europeans’ failures: Whereas the British wasted literally tons of explosives with a weeklong bombardment before the Somme offensive in 1916, failing to destroy the German defenders and in fact giving them enough notice to reinforce the sector, the American preparatory bombardment was only three hours, commencing at 2:30 in the morning. They also innovated: The Germans, who had used flamethrowers and poison gas without hesitation, were reduced to raising a humanitarian protest over the Americans’ use of sawed-off shotguns to clear trenches. Still, the American leadership spent much of the battle’s opening weeks repeating the errors that experience had beaten out of the European armies between 1914 and 1916, sending wave after wave of young Americans against uncut wire, prepared positions, and intact machine guns. The resulting casualties, while dwarfed by those endured by the European armies and spread over the 1.2 million men ultimately engaged in the fight, were nonetheless shocking: Over 26,000 killed and 95,000 wounded, about triple the number of Americans killed at Gettysburg even though Americans made up both sides of that battle.

And yet, in the end, it was the very fact that the Americans were so willing to spend their young men so cheaply in 1918 that demoralized the Germans the most; nobody else had enough young men left to spend to act that way in 1918, and the Europeans knew it. More than any advances of territory, more than any skill in fighting, the mere fact of the Americans on the field with no end of their arrivals in sight decided the war.

The debate endures over whether the American entry into the First World War was worth it, given how little of our interests were directly at stake, how badly the peace process got away from us, and how maybe the German people would have learned to accept the outcome better if the war had ended differently. If you are interested in learning more, I’d recommend Edward Lengel’s book To Conquer Hell, the best account of the Meuse-Argonne. But the American experience of the Meuse-Argonne, as hellish as it was for the men who endured it, was at least spared the years of futile breaking of armies against static positions that characterized the British and French war efforts, and that, too, shaped the optimism with which Americans took up again the cry of “Lafayette, we are coming” two decades later.

A hundred years ago this morning, they waited for the whistles at 5:30, and stood and charged into the unknown.


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