Initial Phase of the Battle: 26 September–1 October 1918
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive began at 0230 on 26 September 1918 when the 2,711 artillery guns supporting the attack between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River began three hours of preparatory fires. The First Army’s fire plan was to pave the way for the infantry by obliterating barbed-wire obstacles, suppressing artillery batteries, crushing field fortifications, and killing or neutralizing the defenders. The bombardment was impressive.
Future U.S. president Capt. Harry S. Truman, an artillery battery commander in the 35th Division, admitted to being awed by the sight of the barrage, noting that, “the sky was red from one end to the other from the artillery flashes.” The continual firing was so intense that Truman and his artillerymen were rendered temporarily “deaf as a post from the noise.”
At H-hour, 0530, the infantry assault began. The day’s fighting was a mixed bag for the First Army. Some divisions performed well in battle, while others brought to light the many shortcomings in the U.S. Army’s mobilization and training. The First Army experienced its greatest success on the first day of the battle in the III Corps’ sector. Here, the artillery preparation disrupted the German defense. That morning, fog blanketed the front. Although the poor visibility hindered the Americans’ command and control, it also provided vital concealment from the German defenders as doughboys slogged across the marshlands of the Meuse valley to reach their objectives. Despite the artillery support, the infantry still had to overcome the surviving enemy machine gun nests in the Bois de Forges, Bois Jure, and Septsarges.
On the army’s right, Maj. Gen. John L. Hines’ veteran 4th Division made the III Corps’ greatest gains of the day, pushing eight kilometers into the German defenses before halting on the corps’ objective line. The division’s western brigade even advanced nearly a mile past Montfaucon and was in a position to envelop the German defenses holding up the V Corps by sweeping into Nantillois. At approximately 1400, Hines requested permission from the III Corps headquarters to cross into the 79th Division’s sector and attack the vulnerable flanks of the German 117th Infantry Division. But it was here that the friction of war intervened. To better manage the advance of its green units, the First Army attempted to impose strict control over the operation. According to the army’s orders, once its corps reached their intermediate objective phase lines, they were to obtain permission from First Army headquarters before moving any farther.
Furthermore, the army directed that the corps boundaries should not be crossed.
In response to Hines’ request to cross the corps boundary, at approximately 1530 the III Corps Chief of Staff, Brig. Gen. Alfred W. Bjornstad, directed the 4th Division to “send out strong patrols to the west to seize strong points” in the 79th Division’s sector. This push might force the Germans to abandon the defenses that were holding up the 79th Division’s advance. By 2000, Hines moved his 8th Infantry Brigade into position to launch an attack to the west early on the morning of 27 September. Unfortunately, as streams of often incomplete or inaccurate reports from the front buffeted headquarters at all levels, confusion and uncertainty hobbled commanders across the sector. Shortly after midnight on 27 September, the III Corps ordered Hines to cancel the 8th Brigade’s attack, and the opportunity to outflank the German defenses quickly passed.
The V Corps needed all of the help that it could get. All three of its assault divisions experienced their first taste of battle on 26 September. The 79th Division faced the difficult task of taking Montfaucon. The approach to the heights was covered with thick undergrowth, fallen trees, and shell holes from the previous years of fighting in the sector. The Germans had added to these obstacles by emplacing barbed wire, pillboxes, and dugouts on the heights. The 79th Division would have to carry these defenses in a frontal attack. This was much to expect from a unit that had arrived in France only in late July 1918. The 79th had been rushed by the AEF General Headquarters (GHQ) through less than a month of unit training and only ten days of service in the trenches of the quiet Avocourt sector before the V Corps committed the division to the initial assault in the Meuse-Argonne. Soon after the start of the operation, the green unit lost touch with its rolling barrage while picking its way through wooded slopes, and its regiments were caught in the open when the early morning fog lifted. A storm of German fire soon assailed the 79th Division’s men. One of the division’s officers, Maj. Charles A. DuPuy, discovered that his efforts to outflank the German positions only led his doughboys into the path of another well-concealed enemy machine gun. He confessed that “it was necessary a great many times to simply charge a gun from the front and both flanks, and take it regardless of our losses, which, per gun captured, averaged ten to twenty men.” Early on, the shell holes, bogs, and woods of the sector had stalled the French tanks intended to support the infantry. Without effective artillery or tank support, the 79th Division’s strength ebbed over the course of the day.
The corps’ other two divisions made better progress. The 37th Division managed to clear the Bois de Montfaucon and pushed to the southern outskirts of Ivoiry and the western slope of Montfaucon itself by the afternoon, but exhaustion and the disorder of battle prevented it from offering assistance to the beleaguered 79th Division. In the west of the V Corps sector, the 91st Division advanced eight kilometers, fought through the Bois de Cheppy, and briefly took Épinonville before being pushed back by enemy counterattacks. Despite these accomplishments, by nightfall Montfaucon remained in German hands, and the V Corps was far short of its objectives for the day.
In the First Army’s left sector, the I Corps also experienced a day of mixed success. On the corps’ eastern flank, the 35th Division captured Cheppy and the formidable mine-cratered Butte du Vauquois after fierce fighting. Throughout the day, tanks from Patton’s brigade aided the division’s attacks. Patton himself was wounded during the action around Cheppy while organizing an attack on a group of German machine gun nests. After taking Cheppy and Vauquois, the 35th Division pushed on to the southern environs of Charpentry before nightfall; heavy casualties, and leadership problems halted its advance. Five days before the battle, the division commander, Maj. Gen. Peter E. Traub, had relieved all of his infantry regimental and brigade commanders.
The replacements were virtually unknown to their soldiers and officers when the battle began. To make matters worse, in the midst of the first day’s fighting, two regimental commanders were incapacitated during the battle. Col. Clad Hamilton of the 137th Infantry was found immobile in a shell hole while Col. Henry Howland of the 138th—who had been appointed to command the regiment only the day before—was injured by German shellfire and spent much of the morning sheltering in a crater before being evacuated. Both units were essentially without direction for much of the day. The desperate fighting had undermined the division’s effectiveness, and ultimately its morale.
On the corps’ left flank, the 77th Division slowly and painfully fought its way through the labyrinth of ravines, tangled vegetation, and German defenses of the Argonne Forest. By nightfall, the division had progressed less than two kilometers, lagging far behind the other units in the corps, and it had lost contact with the French Fourth Army to the west. Liggett had planned that the advance in the corps’ center of the veteran 28th Division down the Aire Valley would force the Germans from their defenses in the Argonne and allow the 77th Division to quickly clear the forest. However, while the 28th Division overran Varennes, it faced stiffening enemy resistance north and west of the town as the day progressed. German artillery fire from positions hidden in the hills and draws of the Argonne slowed the division’s advance to a crawl and dashed Liggett’s hope for a rapid maneuver down the valley.
Just west of the I Corps boundary in the French Fourth Army sector, the U.S. 92d Division’s 368th Infantry was also fighting to break the German hold on the Argonne. This regiment, like the rest of the division, was composed of African American enlisted men and junior officers, and white field-grade and general officers. Liggett had detached the regiment to the French to plug a gap in the Franco-American line and to maintain liaison between his forces and those of the French Fourth Army. The remainder of the 92d Division served as the I Corps reserve. Although far removed from the regiment, the 92d Division still had to provide logistical support to the unit while it was under French command. The division also suffered from Army policies and prejudices that had hampered its effectiveness from the outset. Unlike other American divisions, the 92d’s units had been spread across several camps while it was undergoing mobilization and training in the United States.
This hindered instruction and the development of unit cohesion while the division was in its formative stages. Furthermore, the command’s white senior officers often held the racial prejudices of Jim Crow–era America, with obvious negative effects on morale.
The French ordered the 368th Infantry to maintain contact with the U.S. 77th Division and to seize Binarville as part of the French 1st Dismounted Cavalry Division. Much of the zone of the regiment’s attack lay within the Argonne Forest. As with the 77th Division, the 368th Infantry faced a determined enemy entrenched in difficult terrain. Unlike the 77th Division, however, the 368th Infantry’s operation in the Argonne was the unit’s first true exposure to combat. During its four-day struggle in the Argonne, the regiment’s logistics and command and control structure broke down under the strain of combat and the unit became ineffective in the fight. The French returned control of the regiment back to the U.S. First Army on 30 September. Although the four African American infantry regiments (the 369th, 370th, 371st, and 372d) of the U.S. 93d Division fought with distinction with the French Army throughout the war, the AEF leadership used the perceived failure of the 368th Infantry as an excuse to keep the 92d Division out of the fighting for the remainder of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign.
At the end of the first day, Pershing knew that the American attack had fallen well short of his expectations. The First Army’s staff was still pondering how to control and support a huge force engaged in a complex operation. At this point, the frustrated Pershing could do little more than to exhort his corps and division commanders to redouble their efforts in the coming days to get the operation back on track. To drive home the need to press the attack, he threatened his subordinates with relief if they failed to accomplish their tasks or did not show the degree of aggressiveness he expected.
As the Americans prepared to renew the offensive on 27 September, the Germans moved to prop up their wavering defenses. The 1st Guards Division had taken a beating on the first day of the battle, and Einem had been forced to commit his reserve, the 5th Guards Division, to restore the front of Group Argonne. Further to the east, Marwitz likewise had found it necessary to push the 5th Bavarian Reserve Division forward to stabilize the front of the battered 117th and 7th Reserve Divisions. Although the Germans’ situation was dire, they had been able to prevent the Americans from reaching their objectives and had bought enough time to rush reinforcements into the beleaguered sector. By the morning of 27 September, three full enemy divisions and part of a fourth were on their way to the Meuse-Argonne front.
As the Americans and Germans adjusted their forces, flaws in the First Army’s original plan continued to hinder its operations from 27 to 30 September. Repeating German General Erich von Falkenhayn’s mistake during the opening phase of the battle of Verdun, Pershing had not seen the necessity of clearing the Heights of the Meuse of enemy artillery. Instead, the First Army commander expected that counterbattery fire from the French XVII Corps would neutralize the German guns on the high ground east of the river. During the first two weeks of the offensive, the XVII Corps failed to accomplish this mission, and, in the absence of any threat of a ground attack the German artillery on the heights pounded both the III and V Corps sectors, helping to stall the American advance. The failed assumption that the French Fourth Army and the U.S. I Corps would unhinge the German defenses in the Argonne also hobbled the American drive. The Germans massed thirteen artillery batteries in the hills of the Argonne, and fire from those guns constantly interdicted the American advance through the Aire Valley.
In the face of stiffening enemy resistance, the First Army continued to grope forward in the waning days of September in an attempt to break through the German lines and reach its initial objectives. The 79th Division finally captured Montfaucon, and the 35th Division took Charpentry and briefly held Exermont before a strong German counterattack pushed it back to the Bois de Montrebeau. Unfortunately, both divisions suffered heavy casualties in the first three days of the offensive and lost much of their cohesion and combat effectiveness in the process. Although the I Corps continued to make a slow and costly advance through the Aire Valley and the Argonne, the V Corps made little headway against the German defenses on the Barrois Plateau. In the east, the missed opportunities of the first day of the battle now came back to haunt the III Corps. The Germans had taken advantage of the pause in the III Corps’ advance to restore their defenses and reinforce their wavering units. When the American attack resumed, the commander of the 80th Division’s 320th Infantry observed, “The enemy intrenchments [sic] afforded every advantage in position, concealment and for enfilade fire. Time and again rushes were made from the front and flank against the nests only to be met by a curtain of lead that was absolutely impassable. . . . Here lives were needlessly lost in trying to rush through this curtain of lead.” As the III Corps’ divisions battered their way through the Bois des Ogons and the Bois du Fays, the fighting, as in the other parts of the First Army’s front, assumed a seesaw nature as American advances ran into heavy artillery fire and German counterattacks.
Across the front, the American infantry routinely did not receive adequate support from artillery and tanks. The artillerymen had difficulty providing responsive fires given the limitations of the era’s tactical communications and the fluid and confused nature of the fighting. In the case of the tanks, the absence of support was the result of their own vulnerabilities. By the end of the first day’s fighting, the 1st Tank Brigade lost over a third of its strength to enemy action and mechanical breakdowns. The French tankers suffered similar losses in the V Corps sector.
All was also not well in the First Army’s rear area. The Meuse-Argonne region had an underdeveloped road network, and after four years of fighting and constant traffic the few existing roads were cratered and ill-maintained. Heavy rains throughout September and October exacerbated the problem. Each corps had only one major road artery in its sector to move and sustain its massive formations. Poor road discipline, few military police units, and inadequate staff work added to the problem, resulting in monumental traffic jams behind the front that nearly brought the First Army’s logistics operations to a standstill. As a result, the frontline soldiers often complained of being short of rations and water, and the wounded faced long and torturous waits before receiving medical attention. American medical personnel estimated that it took ten to twelve hours for the wounded to arrive at the field hospitals. The 79th Division’s inspector general reported that it was taking his unit’s ambulances fifteen hours to make the five-kilometer trip to the division field hospitals, which resulted in “hundreds” of unnecessary deaths.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: U.S. Army Campaigns World War I; United States Army Center of Military History
CONTRIBUTORS: Cade Pommeraan