World War One: Meuse-Argonne, Preparations

On 26 September 1918, the American First Army launched a massive attack between the Argonne Forest (Forêt d’Argonne) and the Meuse River northwest of the storied French town of Verdun. By the time that the Germans agreed to an armistice forty-seven days later, the Meuse-Argonne Campaign would gain the distinction of being the largest and most costly military operation in American history. Over a million American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, as well as 135,000 French soldiers, participated in the offensive. Although the First Army had committed to this battle long before most of its doughboys had mastered the skills required to fight a mass industrialized war, the Americans persevered and gradually ground down the German units opposing them. Unfortunately, this approach came at a high price: 26,277 men killed and another 95,786 wounded as the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) learned how to wage a modern war against a skilled opponent. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the most important American military contribution to the Allied effort during the war. The AEF’s hard-won victory materially contributed to the collapse of the German Army and achieved President Woodrow Wilson’s strategic goal of securing for the United States a major role in crafting the peace that followed the Armistice.

The German Army in the Meuse-Argonne Region
By the time the Americans began their attack in the Meuse-Argonne, their German foes had occupied the region for four years. The area had been the scene of fierce fighting in 1914 and 1915, and the Germans used the region as the staging area for their attack on Verdun in 1916. To that end, the Germans had constructed fortifications and artillery shelters throughout the sector, and built a light rail line and other logistics nodes to support their operations in the region. After suffering an unsustainable rate of loss during the fighting at Verdun and the Somme, in September 1916 Ludendorff ordered a review of German defensive tactics and the establishment of a new series of fortifications, collectively known as the Siegfried Stellung (or the Hindenburg Line to the Allies), along the Western Front. The new German doctrine used a defense in depth to husband Germany’s declining manpower resources and to counter the growing effectiveness of Allied artillery and offensive tactics. The Germans planned to use skillfully sited field fortifications and interlocking defensive firepower to exhaust Allied attacks and serve as a base for timely, powerful counterattacks that would prevent the Allies from gaining any major foothold.

Although the Germans had dedicated less effort to engineering the defenses in the Meuse-Argonne than they had on the western sectors of the Hindenburg Line, nature provided them with ample defensive advantages to compensate for this shortfall. The western boundary of the U.S. First Army’s sector encompassed most of the Argonne Forest. The forest itself sat on a plateau bounded by the Aisne and Aire rivers. The Argonne was crisscrossed by a range of hills and draws running in a generally east-west direction; these features, along with dense vegetation, presented grave challenges to the mobility, command and control, and artillery support of the American attackers. To the east of the Argonne was the valley of the Aire River—a natural movement corridor for the Americans, but one dominated on the west by the hills of the Argonne and on the east by the large buttes of Montfaucon and Vauquois and other heights. The center of the American sector was the Barrois Plateau, a series of hills and highlands that started in the south at Montfaucon, ran to the northeast to Romagne-sous-Montfaucon and Cunel, and ended at the Barricourt Heights. East of the Barrois Plateau was the Meuse River valley, another natural movement corridor flanked by high ground on both banks. As Lt. General Hunter Liggett, commander of the U.S. I Army Corps, mused, “The region was a natural fortress beside which the Virginia Wilderness in which Grant and Lee fought was a park.”

To this “natural fortress,” the Germans added their own skills at defense to present the Americans with a formidable set of obstacles to overcome. Within the sector, the Germans had constructed four major defensive belts arrayed over a depth of fifteen to twenty-four kilometers. Most of their engineering efforts had gone into strengthening the third position, composed of two lateral sections of the Hindenburg Line, the Brunhild Stellung and the Kriemhilde Stellung. In the area of the main American advance, the line ran from Grandpré on the west across the heights of Côte Dame Marie, Romagne, and Cunel, to Brieulles on the Meuse. It consisted of warrens of concrete-reinforced shelters and machine gun nests, earthen strong points, and support and communications trenches. These defensive positions made adroit use of terrain and barbed-wire belts to canalize attackers into a web of interlocking machine gun fields of fire and preplanned artillery targets. The other belts in the sector followed a similar design but made less use of hardened fortifications.

The German high command had split the defense of the Meuse-Argonne region between the Third Army under General Karl von Einem and the Fifth Army under General Georg von der Marwitz. Each reported to different army group commanders, which would hamper German unity of command and effort in the opening days of the American offensive. The German Third Army was responsible for the Argonne Forest and the area running west into the French Fourth Army’s sector, while the German Fifth Army’s area of operation extended from the Aire Valley to east of St. Mihiel. The Third Army’s Group Aisne placed the 76th Reserve Division on the extreme left of the American sector, while the Group Argonne had the 2d Landwehr Division and the 1st Guards Division in line. The corps was responsible for the defense of the Argonne Forest and the area around Varennes. Although the Landwehr units had been stripped of most of their youngest troops to fill the ranks of the assault divisions for Ludendorff’s Spring Offensives, they had been stationed in the Argonne since September 1914 and early 1915 and were well acquainted with the terrain that they would defend. The 1st Guards Division, meanwhile, was an elite unit, but it had been worn down by four years of fighting and by being actively engaged in operations since March 1918.

The Fifth Army’s Group Meuse West placed the 117th Division and the 7th Reserve Division in the line facing the Americans. The AEF rated both of these as second-class divisions, and the 117th was still recovering from the heavy losses it had suffered at the Battle of Amiens in early August. When it became clear to the German high command that a major Franco-American attack was looming in the Argonne region, it sent two more divisions, the 5th Guards and the 5th Bavarian Reserve, to reinforce the sector. The 5th Guards was an excellent but battered unit that had seen action against the American 2d Division north of Château-Thierry in June. The 5th Bavarian Reserve Division had been spared much of the fighting in 1918, but the AEF still considered it to be only a second-class unit.

Although all of the German divisions that the U.S. First Army would face in the opening days of the Meuse-Argonne were understrength, tattered, and tired, their core of experienced veterans and leaders intended to make the Americans pay heavily for the ground that the Kaiser’s army defended. They also had a massive array of firepower. When the German 123d Infantry Division entered the Meuse-Argonne sector at Cunel on 11 October 1918, it had been hammered by fighting the Americans at St. Mihiel and was down to only 89 officers and 1,705 men. However, the division could still field 198 heavy and light machine guns—one gun for every nine soldiers. The German defenders of the Meuse-Argonne were likewise well provided with artillery, leading one doughboy to bitterly note that it seemed as if “every goddamn German there who didn’t have a machine gun had a cannon.” Given the daunting terrain and determined enemy in the Meuse-Argonne, the doughboys would face a rough fight.

The First Army Plans the Campaign
Pershing’s insistence on conducting the St. Mihiel Offensive while preparing for the Meuse-Argonne Campaign gave the AEF and the First Army’s staff only twenty-three days to plan and organize the largest military operation in American history. The AEF was fortunate to draw on the talents of Brig. Gen. Fox Conner, Col. Walter S. Grant, and Lt. Col. George C. Marshall for this monumental task. The most important challenge was moving and staging the massive number of troops required for the operation and for relieving the French forces operating in the sector. The relief in place of the French Second Army by the U.S. First Army would be a complex ballet that would move 220,000 soldiers out of the front while simultaneously deploying over 600,000 soldiers and 3,823 artillery pieces to the sector. To further complicate matters, some units earmarked for the start of the Argonne drive were already committed to the St. Mihiel operation and had to start moving out of the salient before that battle had concluded.

The mass armies of the First World War required extensive logistical support to operate in the field, especially when conducting major offensives. The size of the AEF’s logistics command, the Services of Supply (SOS), dwarfed all previous American military logistics efforts. By the Armistice, the SOS contained 546,596 soldiers, more men than were in the combined armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in 1864. Despite the phenomenal growth of the SOS, the Supreme War Council’s decision to give priority to shipping infantry and machine gun units to France in the spring of 1918 meant that the SOS was still short of the men and special units it needed to properly execute its missions. The AEF’s logisticians persevered against great odds to establish nineteen railheads; thirty-four evacuation hospitals; and fifty-six ordnance, quartermaster, ammunition, petroleum, gas warfare, and engineer depots to supply the Meuse-Argonne drive. In the seventeen days before the offensive began, the SOS also pre-positioned 40,000 tons of shells to support the first five days of artillery fire.

The First Army’s operational plan was ambitious. Pershing envisioned that the American offensive would occur in four. In the first phase, three American corps would attack on a thirty-kilometer front stretching from the Argonne Forest to the Meuse River. On the first day of the battle, 26 September, these corps would drive sixteen kilometers through the first three German defensive belts. After breaking through the enemy’s main defenses, the Americans would reconnect with the other arm of the Franco-American offensive, the French Fourth Army, north of the Argonne Forest at Grandpré. Pershing’s decision to devote most of his veteran divisions to the St. Mihiel Offensive meant that five of the nine divisions slated for the Meuse-Argonne’s initial assault had little to no previous exposure to combat. Right from the outset, Pershing expected a great deal from his inexperienced soldiers.

The First Army anticipated that the second phase of the operation would begin on 27 September with another sixteen kilometer drive to push the Germans back beyond the line of Stenay to Le Chesne. In the third phase, the French XVII Corps, under American command, would attack east of the Meuse River to clear the Heights of the Meuse and protect the right flank of the First Army’s drive north. The last phase of the operation would carry the combined Franco-American attack to the rail heads of Sedan and Mézières.

During the first phase, General Liggett’s I Corps would attack down the Aire Valley on the army’s left flank. Working with units from the French Fourth Army, the I Corps would clear the Argonne Forest. In the center, Maj. Gen. George H. Cameron’s V Corps would seize Montfaucon and the other heights of the Barrois Plateau. On the right, Maj. Gen. Robert L. Bullard would push the III Corps through the valley of the Meuse and rout the Germans from their sector up to the town of Brieulles-sur-Meuse. In carrying out this phase, the V Corps faced the most difficult tactical challenges. The German defenses on Montfaucon loomed above the corps’ front and had withstood several French attacks in 1914 and 1915. To make matters worse, Cameron would have to rely on three green units, the 91st, 37th, and 79th Divisions, to storm the high ground in his sector. The First Army planners recognized the V Corps’ dilemma and gambled that the rapid advance of the I and III Corps on Cameron’s flanks would turn the Germans out of their defenses on the Barrois Plateau and thus aid the V Corps’ advance. To help its corps accomplish their missions, the First Army dedicated 419 tanks to support the 26 September attacks. Lt. Col. George S. Patton Jr.’s 1st U.S. Tank Brigade, with 127 American crewed Renault FT light tanks reinforced with twenty-eight French-crewed Schneider tanks, was directed to support the 35th Division in the I Corps’ sector. The First Army also assigned 250 French-crewed tanks to the 3d U.S. Tank Brigade to assist

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

SOURCE: U.S Army Campaigns of World War I (United States Army Center of Military History)
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan

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