Reorganizing While in Contact: 1–4 October 1918
With the advance stalled and the First Army’s rear area in disarray, by the end of September it had become clear to Pershing that he must make adjustments in his organization to reinvigorate the First Army’s offensive. His first act was to replace many of his corps’ tattered and combat-ineffective divisions with the veteran units that had redeployed and recuperated from the St. Mihiel drive. The V Corps underwent a short tactical pause while all three of its attack divisions were relieved by the 3d and 32d Divisions. In the I Corps, the 1st Division replaced the 35th Division. Only the III Corps’ organization remained unchanged.
Pershing planned to resume a general attack across the First Army’s front on 4 October. While the reorganization of the army and the planning for the 4 October advance were underway, the I and III Corps continued to launch attacks within their sectors. The Germans, however, also had used the lull in the fighting to replace their worn divisions and send reinforcements to the Meuse-Argonne. Even though they were under attack along virtually the entire Western Front, by 4 October the better part of twelve German divisions would confront the Americans. In the face of this hardening resistance, the I and III Corps attacks made little headway.
This slow advance was doubly the case with the 77th Division as it continued to grind its way through the Argonne. During the fighting on 2 October, Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey’s 1st Battalion, 308th Infantry; companies from the 2d Battalion; and elements of the 307th Infantry and the 306th Machine Gun Battalion found a seam in the enemy lines and pushed deep into the enemy defenses toward Charlevaux Mill. Whittlesey had followed orders from his regimental commander, Col. Cromwell Stacey, to press the attack with vigor and not to worry about his flanks. Unfortunately, the units on his battalion’s flanks had not kept pace with his advance, nor had other elements of the division followed up behind Whittlesey’s drive. After Whittlesey halted his attack on the evening of 2 October, the Germans infiltrated around his men and cut them off from the rest of the 77th Division. By the morning, Whittlesey and roughly 550 doughboys were isolated in a small pocket surrounded by the enemy. The men of what would come to be known as the “Lost Battalion” dug in on a hillside to hold their ground and wait for relief.
The Attack Resumes: 4–12 October 1918
In the waning days of September, Pershing was under immense pressure from Foch to show more results in the Meuse-Argonne. After the impenetrable traffic jams in the First Army’s rear area prevented him from visiting the American front, French premier Georges Clemenceau concluded that Pershing was not up to the challenge of commanding an army. He pressed Foch to relieve the American commander in chief and even threatened to write to President Wilson to request a new leader for the AEF. Although Foch managed to dissuade Clemenceau from taking such a drastic step, he also held reservations about Pershing’s ability to manage such a massive undertaking. On 30 September, he proposed to Pershing that the U.S. I Corps be placed under French command for clearing the Argonne region. Pershing, unsurprisingly, rejected the scheme out of hand, but he also understood Foch’s warning. The somewhat rested First Army would redouble its efforts in the Meuse-Argonne with a broad frontal attack beginning at 0530 on 4 October with the goal of cracking the Hindenburg Line.
The First Army’s plan for the resumed attack was clear-cut and uncomplicated. Clearing the hills of the Barrois Plateau was the key to breaking through the main German defense line. The V Corps again received the most difficult mission. The corps was to take the Romagne Heights and the high ground in the Bois du Moncy and Bois du Romagne. The I and III Corps would assist the V Corps in its endeavors by threatening the enemy’s flanks on the plateau while also clearing the enemy from their own sectors. The I Corps would continue to push through the Argonne and the Aire Valley to seize the hills in the vicinity of Cornay, Châtel-Chéhéry, and Exermont; clear the forest of troublesome enemy artillery; and establish unbroken liaison with the French Fourth Army. By taking the hills north of Exermont, the I Corps would weaken the German defenses that the V Corps faced on the Romagne Heights. At the same time, the III Corps was to capture the heights northwest of Cunel and move on to assist the V Corps in seizing the hills north of Romagne. Pershing hoped that the infusion of hardened and proven units, such as the 1st and 3d Divisions, would provide the impetus that the First Army needed to jump start the offensive.
What followed were two of the bloodiest weeks in American history. Faced with a nearly unbroken line of German defenses strengthened by the arrival of fresh reinforcements, the American assault degenerated into a series of costly frontal attacks. The Germans contested every American advance and often deprived the doughboys of their hard-won gains with counterattacks that were well supported by artillery. American drives in the I and III Corps sectors continued to be hamstrung by German artillery fire from the Argonne and the Heights of the Meuse. Bullard later described the struggle as “an exhausting, heart-breaking, discouraging, ever-continuous operation that lasted all the time.” Losses in the back-and-forth fighting were heavy. In the first week of October, the First Army suffered 6,589 battlefield deaths. By the end of the second week of October, over 12,600 Americans had been killed since the offensive began. These losses were greater than those suffered by both Grant’s and Lee’s armies in the first two months of the Overland Campaign in 1864, and were nearly double the nation’s combined losses in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2017.
Although the Germans stymied the III and V Corps’ attacks by tenaciously clinging to the Romagne and Cunel heights, the I Corps made steady if painful progress in its sector. In savage fighting from 4 to 7 October, the 28th Division took the high ground of Le Chêne Tondu and Châtel-Chéhéry. During the same period, the fresh 1st Division drove five kilometers into the German defenses and captured Exermont. Unfortunately, the 77th Division remained stalled in the machine-gun-swept thickets of the Argonne Forest.
The success of the 1st Division’s attacks presented Liggett with an opportunity to change the fortunes of the I Corps and the First Army. The division had driven far enough down the Aire Valley to carve out sufficient maneuver space for Liggett to wedge the corps’ reserve, the 82d Division, into a position south Fléville and north of the 28th Division’s positions at Châtel-Chéhéry. Liggett’s plan was to use the 82d Division to drive due west into the northeastern edge of the Argonne Forest at Cornay and Hill 223. At the same time, the 28th Division would shift the direction of its attack from the north to the west to seize Hill 244.
Liggett’s goal was to threaten simultaneously the eastern flank and the rear of the main German defenses in the Argonne. If the plan succeeded, the Germans would be forced to abandon the forest or face the eventual encirclement and destruction of Group Argonne. In either case, the I Corps attack would relieve enemy pressure on the 77th Division, reestablish an unbroken line with the French Fourth Army, and aid in the relief of the Lost Battalion. However, the plan was not without its risks, as the right flank of the 82d Division would be exposed to enemy fire and counterattacks throughout the operation.
The I Corps gave the 82d Division less than a day to plan the assault and move the division’s roughly 28,000 soldiers nearly thirteen kilometers through the congested roads that led from its assembly areas to its attack positions. Although the unit had to make the difficult move at night during a steady rain, the 82d was in position to launch the attack at the designated time of 0500 on 7 October. Both the 82d and the 28th Divisions faced the daunting task of assaulting across the open expanse of the Aire Valley to capture high ground defended by a resolute, well-entrenched enemy. The assault units lost hundreds of men as they slogged across the bottomlands to reach the heights of the Argonne, but by the end of the day the 28th Division had claimed Hill 244 and the 82d had taken Hill 223.
In the midst of this terrible contest, a smaller drama played out in the little pocket defended by the Lost Battalion. For nearly five days, Whittlesey’s encircled men had endured both American and German artillery fire and fought off a series of enemy attacks. Fortunately, Liggett’s assault into the German flank had the intended effect of unhinging the enemy’s position in the Argonne. For the Lost Battalion, the Germans withdrew just in the nick of time: when the enemy abandoned their siege of Whittlesey’s position on the afternoon of 7 October, 107 of the 550 men in the pocket had been killed and another 249 were wounded or missing in action. For their courage and leadership during the battle, Major Whittlesey, Capt. George G. McMurtry, and Capt. Nelson M. Holderman were awarded the Medal of Honor. Two American aviators, 1st Lt. Harold E. Goettler and 2d Lt. Erwin R. Bleckley, also received posthumous Medals of Honor after being shot down on 6 October while attempting to resupply the pocket from the air.
The relief of the Lost Battalion was a welcome development, but the I Corps’ attack had not yet run its course. By nightfall on 7 October, the 82d Division still had not taken Cornay or cut the light rail line that supplied the Germans in the southern portion of the Argonne. Although the division fought off repeated German attempts to recapture Hill 223, the enemy was still able to use heavy machine gun and artillery fires to pin down the Americans on the hill and in the lowlands east of Cornay.
When the 82d resumed the attack on the morning of 8 October, the soldiers were met with a torrent of fire. To eliminate some of the machine gun nests holding up his advance, the commander of Company G, 2d Battalion, 328th Infantry, Capt. Edward C. B. Danforth maneuvered to attack the German positions. In the confusion, the commander of Danforth’s 1st Platoon, Sgt. Harry M. Parson, lost contact with the company and on his own initiative ordered acting Sgt. Bernard Early to take a reinforced squad of three corporals and thirteen privates to flank the enemy machine guns. Initially, Early successfully surprised and captured a number of Germans, but an alert enemy machine gun crew spotted the Americans and opened fire. When the German fusillade killed one corporal and severely wounded Early and another corporal, the command of the small detachment fell to Cpl. Alvin C. York. Under intense machine gun and rifle fire, York ordered his surviving squad members to remain under cover while he crawled to a position where he could enfilade the German defenders. The Tennessee marksman managed to kill fifteen to twenty-five of the enemy facing his squad before leading his detachment back to the American lines. Along the way, York’s squad forced the surrender of additional enemy units and the Americans returned to their regiment with 132 German prisoners. York also captured or destroyed thirty-five of the enemy machine guns that were holding up the advance of his battalion. For these actions, York was awarded the Medal of Honor and soon became the most famous doughboy in the AEF.
Similar acts of valor and perseverance by the soldiers of the I Corps began to pay off. Faced with the growing threat of being cut off by the advance of the 28th and 82d Divisions, and under increasing pressure from the French Fourth Army to the west, the Germans began to withdraw from the Argonne on the night of 8 and 9 October. On 10 October, Liggett relieved the battered 28th Division and ordered the 77th and 82d to redouble their attacks. Liggett wanted to exploit his success in the Argonne by pressing his divisions to rapidly pursue the retreating Germans, but the enemy’s rearguard defense and his own men’s exhaustion thwarted his desires. Pvt. Fred Takes, an infantryman in the 82d Division’s 325th Infantry, recorded that his company went into the Meuse-Argonne Campaign with 250 men, but nine days of continuous combat had reduced the unit to three five-man squads. Despite these challenges, the I Corps continued to push back the Germans, and by 11 October, Liggett’s doughboys occupied a line running from Sommerance in the east to the southern outskirts of Grandpré in the west.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: U.S. Army Campaigns World War I; United States Army Center of Military History
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan