World War One: Meuse-Argonne; Attacks East of the Meuse 8-27 Oct. 1918

The Attacks East of the Meuse: 8–16 October 1918

After the III and V Corps endured weeks of heavy shelling from German artillery located on the Heights of the Meuse, Pershing ordered the French XVII Corps to launch an attack east of the Meuse River to clear the enemy from the hills. Général de Division Henri Claudel, a decorated and respected officer with four years of experience battling the Germans, commanded the corps. Claudel committed two French divisions, the 18th and 26th, and two American divisions, the 29th and 33d, to the assault. Their mission was to attack on line at 0500 on 8 October from just west of Consenvoye on the left to Beaumont on the right, seize the Heights of the Meuse, and push the enemy back roughly eight kilometers to Sivry-sur-Meuse and Flabas. Facing this Franco-American attack were the Austrian 1st Infantry Division and the German 15th Division. The Austrians’ morale was shaky, but shortages of manpower on the front had left Group Meuse East with no other option than to keep the unit in the line.

At first, the French XVII Corps’ attack went well. Under heavy enemy shellfire, the 33d Division crafted bridges across the Meuse and moved across the river to take Consenvoye. The division then pressed northeast nearly four kilometers toward the western tip of the Bois de Consenvoye and the Bois de Chaume. The 29th Division also rapidly advanced north three kilometers toward the center of the Bois de Consenvoye. The concerted attack by the American divisions all but crushed the Austrian division. The veteran French divisions east of the Americans moved much slower. The Americans would later complain that their French comrades failed to cover the doughboys’ flanks and left the hard fighting to U.S. divisions. The soldiers themselves failed to appreciate that four years of fighting with heavy losses had taught the French to be more cautious and judicious than the Americans in their attacks. Even so, the French 18th Division took Haumont-près-Samogneux and moved forward to Ormont Farm, while the French 26th Division gingerly advanced through the Bois des Caures.

In the afternoon of 8 October, the Allied attack began to slow as the troops entered the hills and woods of the Heights of the Meuse. The German commander rushed his only ready reserve, an infantry regiment reinforced with two battalions, to steady the wavering Austrian line with a counterattack on Hill 371. The Group Meuse East commander also began moving three more divisions toward the threatened sector of the front. After German resistance stiffened, the fighting in the Bois de Consenvoye and the Bois de Chaume quickly came to resemble the vicious fighting in the Argonne.

For six more days, the French XVII Corps battered away at the German defenses on the Heights of the Meuse. Gains by the 29th and 33d Divisions at Molleville Farm, the Bois de Consenvoye, the Bois de Chaume, and the Bois de la Grande Montagne were met with fierce German counterattacks and heavy enemy artillery and gas barrages. By 16 October, both American divisions were exhausted and the corps’ attack ground to a halt well short of clearing the heights and taking Sivry-sur-Meuse. Three years after the war, the chief of staff of the German XVI Corps, Maj. Hermann von Giehrl, argued that the French XVII Corps’ attack “was much too slight to have any influence on the situation on the western bank.” Although Giehrl’s assertion had much truth to it, the Franco-American drive nonetheless forced the Germans to displace some of their batteries from the heights, redirect the fires of many of their remaining batteries east of the Meuse against the French XVII Corps, and devote more of their dwindling reserves to the battle.

A Change of Command for the First Army

By the middle of October, the First Army’s bloody assaults still had not carried the Americans to their initial first-day objectives. No one felt the stress of this perceived lack of progress more than Pershing. Not merely under immense pressure from Foch to show more gains in the Meuse-Argonne, Pershing also desperately wanted to show the world that the AEF was a competent and capable force that was worthy of a true world power. In what was perhaps his wisest decision as the AEF’s commander, he admitted that commanding the large and far-flung AEF while also directing the operations of the First Army was too much for one man.

On 12 October, Pershing ordered the reorganization of the AEF. He relinquished direct command of the First Army and divided it into two smaller armies. Pershing turned over the First Army, which would continue to direct operations in the Meuse-Argonne sector and the area of the French XVII Corps, to Hunter Liggett. The new Second Army, under Robert Bullard, would be responsible for the eastern end of the American sector from Fresnes-en-Woëvre to Port-sur-Seille. Pershing was now free to oversee the larger business of the AEF and to direct its combat operations through his two trusted army commanders. The elevation of Liggett and Bullard led to the transfer of Maj. Gen. Joseph T. Dickman to command the I Corps and the promotion of General Hines to command the III Corps.

Pershing also used the reorganization to conduct a house cleaning of the AEF’s senior commanders. He believed that operation had contributed to the First Army’s doleful situation, and thus sacked General Cameron. Pershing hoped that Cameron’s replacement, Maj. Gen. Charles P. Summerall, would bring to the V Corps the same drive and tactical acumen that he had exhibited as the commander of the 1st Division. Cameron was not the last general to fall. Pershing had established a reputation for not suffering fools or failure lightly. As early as 28 December 1917, Bullard noted in his diary, “He is looking for results. . . . He will sacrifice any man who does not bring them.” Within four days of the AEF’s reorganization, Pershing removed 3d Division commander Maj. Gen. Beaumont B. Buck after Buck nearly battered the division to pieces in six days of ill-supported attacks against the Bois de Cunel and its adjacent heights. Similarly, he dismissed 5th Division commander Maj. Gen. John E. McMahon, who had mishandled assaults on the Bois des Rappes and the Bois de la Pultière. On 22 October, Pershing also relieved the commander of the 26th Division, Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Edwards, with whom he had long had a contentious relationship. These removals helped to create a climate of fear within the AEF’s senior ranks that sometimes led commanders to push their attacks long after the hope of success had passed.

Breaking the Hindenburg Line: 14–27 October 1918

When Liggett took command, the First Army was in crisis. The grinding attritional struggle to clear the Argonne, capture the Heights of the Meuse, and break through the German defensive belts had cost the Americans nearly a hundred thousand casualties. Liggett estimated that another hundred thousand men were straggling behind the lines. Although some of these men had deliberately removed themselves from the fighting, most of the straggling resulted from systemic problems with the army’s training, mobilization, and organization. The huge 250-man infantry companies proved difficult for the army’s inadequately trained officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) to control in the region’s challenging terrain. The failure of the AEF’s logistics system all too often meant that the soldiers in combat subsisted on a diet of hard bread, corned beef, or canned salmon. Many of the soldiers who left the line did so to search for food after they had eaten all of even these meager rations. Adding to this misery, in early October the weather had turned cold and rainy, and increasing numbers of doughboys came down with influenza and dysentery. For example, during the month of October, the 82d Division’s chief surgeon reported that an average of 700 soldiers from his unit were being hospitalized per day due to influenza, diarrhea, or exhaustion.

To make matters worse, the AEF’s unexpectedly high casualties in the summer and fall of 1918 led the army to ship large numbers of soldiers to France before they had completed their instruction. An officer of the Army General Staff Training and Instruction Branch was shocked to report on 2 October, that “enlisted men have had to be placed in overseas units before being trained; many of them receive only three weeks’ training,” which included one week spent in the detention camp for quarantine. It is no surprise that officers and NCOs in France often complained that their replacements lacked the basic skills to fight, much less survive, in battle. The commander of the 307th Infantry informed the First Army’s inspector general in October that 90 percent of the 850 to 900 replacements that his unit received just before going into the Argonne had never fired a rifle or thrown a grenade. Several officers reported that they had to teach their new men how to load their weapons and don their gas masks just before the novices went into combat. The poor preparation of replacements often led directly to tactical failure and unnecessarily high casualties.

In addition to the issues with the infantry, the fighting in the Meuse-Argonne also revealed problems with the AEF’s supporting arms. At the end of the St. Mihiel Offensive, the French reassigned many of the air squadrons that they had attached to the Americans for that operation. This left General Mitchell with far fewer aircraft to cover the much larger region of the Meuse-Argonne. Mechanical problems quickly pared the aircraft available for the operation from 840 down to 670 planes. The departure of the French further meant that three-fourths of Mitchell’s planes were flown by Americans. Many of these men were novices to flying, let alone combat. Throughout the campaign, poor weather and rugged terrain further hampered air operations. American air observers found the weather clear enough to accurately spot or target the enemy on only ten of the forty-seven days of the campaign. These issues meant that Mitchell’s decision to focus most of the American air operations against targets in the enemy’s rear area met with only limited success and drew the ire of many American soldiers. Although the airmen had some success in air interdiction, they could not prevent German air attacks on American ground forces.

This is not to say that the American pilots did not try to ease the doughboys’ burdens. In the ten sorties flown between 12 and 29 September 1918 over the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne sectors, 2d Lt. Frank Luke Jr. shot down fourteen German observation balloons and four enemy airplanes. As observation balloons were heavily defended and dangerous to destroy, his accomplishments were no mean feat. On his last mission, Luke shot down three balloons near Dun-sur-Meuse before being wounded and forced down behind enemy lines. After landing, he reportedly used his pistol to hold off a party of Germans advancing to take him prisoner before dying from his wound. For his skills and bravery in the air, Luke became the first American aviator to win the Medal of Honor.

Luke was not the only American aviator to gain fame in the skies above the Meuse-Argonne. Capt. Edward “Eddie” Rickenbacker, the commander of the 94th Aero Squadron, entered the campaign with eleven aerial victories to his credit. Between 28 September and 30 October, Rickenbacker shot down five additional German balloons and ten airplanes during his flights over the Meuse-Argonne. His twenty-six total kills made him the highest-scoring American ace of the war. However, despite the valor of aviators such as Luke and Rickenbacker, the Air Service obtained mixed results from its air operations throughout October.

The First Army also experienced problems with some of the new weapons of ground warfare. Although the army’s tankers had provided needed support to the infantry from time to time in the opening weeks of the campaign, their lack of training and experience in infantry-armor cooperation hobbled their efforts. Few infantry commanders understood the new vehicles’ capabilities and limitations, or how to work with them to overcome German resistance while providing mutual protection for both types of units. The fact that many of the American divisions had been supported by French tank battalions in the first week of the battle only exacerbated these difficulties. American infantrymen could at least communicate with their countrymen in an ad hoc form of coordination, but the language differences between the Americans and French made this almost impossible. High losses and mechanical breakdowns also limited the effectiveness of the tanks. When Liggett took over the First Army, half of his tanks were inoperable, a circumstance not uncommon in those early days of armored warfare.

The tankers’ inability to advance put even greater pressure on the artillery to support the infantry. Unfortunately, many divisions continued to wrestle with the challenge of properly coordinating artillery fires with infantry attacks. This often meant that while the AEF’s guns were able to suppress the Germans with preplanned fires, the time lag between the bombardment and the American infantry attacks generally gave the enemy enough time to emerge from their shelters and reestablish their defenses. When faced with unexpected enemy resistance, the infantry had difficulty communicating with artillery and arranging needed fire support.

Liggett and his staff worked hard to overcome these problems by sorting out the American logistical tangle and by putting divisions rotating from the line through hasty training programs intended to correct shortcomings in the AEF’s tactical skills and doctrine. The AEF GHQ also attempted to rectify some of the Americans’ shortcomings by publishing Notes on Recent Operations to pass on the army’s tactical lessons. The Notes on Recent Operations No. 3 that the AEF GHQ released on 12 October offered unit commanders from the platoon to the division level directions on how to best employ their tanks, artillery, machine guns, and logistical assets based upon the experiences at St. Mihiel and the first week of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. For example, it noted that much of the army’s difficulties in tank-infantry coordination stemmed from the fact that infantry commanders had failed to give their tanks specific objectives that would support the infantry’s operations. Some of the pamphlet’s advice, however, demonstrated that the AEF high command was still far too wedded to the notions of war that had dominated the tactical thinking of 1914. The publication chided commanders for being too concerned with avoiding casualties and too reliant on artillery fire to destroy enemy machine guns when they should have been using rifle fire to overcome this menace. Reflecting Pershing’s belief that the Americans needed to be more aggressive, it stressed, “It is seldom wrong to go forward. It is seldom wrong to attack. In the attack it is much better to lose many men than to fail to gain ground.” Given the pace of the First Army’s operations, it is unclear how many commanders had the opportunity to read the Notes on Recent Operations series, but combat experience and Liggett’s efforts to fix what he could in his army’s training and operations did lead to slow and steady improvements in how the Americans fought.

Despite Liggett’s best efforts, some of the army’s problems remained intractable. By early October, Foch’s decision to redirect the AEF to the Meuse-Argonne was beginning to have a negative impact on the First Army’s operations. Even though the men in the SOS worked diligently to keep up with the supply demands of combat units, the First Army’s railheads were still too far removed from the fighting. It was difficult to move supplies, ammunition, and units to the front, and the autumn rains and heavy traffic continued to overtax the region’s limited road network and to reduce logistical operations to a crawl. Most of the army’s supply wagons and artillery were horse-drawn, as were many of its ambulances. By 8 October, the First Army was short 50,000 horses and mules. Sickness, enemy action, and the exhaustion caused by pulling heavy loads through muddy roads and difficult terrain added to this shortfall in draft animals as the campaign dragged on.

Unfortunately, the First Army could not pause while it worked out these issues. Liggett understood that he must get the American offensive back on track by breaking through the Hindenburg Line. The army’s renewed attack began on 14 October. The objective was to rupture the German lines between St. Georges and the Romagne Heights in a double envelopment conducted by units of the V and III Corps. After the corps pierced the German defenses, they would exploit their success by pushing on to seize the Bois de Bantheville. Pershing and Liggett believed that taking the heights in the center of the enemy line would render the remainder of the Hindenburg Line within the sector untenable for the Germans. The I Corps’ mission during the attack was to protect the left flank of the V Corps by driving the Germans back to a line running from Imécourt in the east to the high ground in the Bois de Bourgogne in the west.

The left wing of Liggett’s envelopment was the V Corps’ seasoned 42d Division. The “Rainbow” Division was to advance through the Bois du Romagne and take the heights running from St. Georges to the Côte de Châtillon, and then swing east into the Bois de Bantheville. On the right wing of the envelopment, the III Corps’ 3d and 5th Divisions were to clear the Germans from the heights of Cunel and the hills east of Romagne before moving to the northwest to assist the V Corps in seizing the Bois de Bantheville. The 32d Division was positioned at the center of the envelopment. Its mission was to attack the Côte Dame Marie to prevent the Germans from shifting forces to block the wings of the main assaults. To draw attention away from the main attacks and ensure that the Germans remained in place, the 32d Division was to launch its attack three hours prior to the assaults of the 5th and 42d Divisions.

The attack did not go off as planned. To reach St. Georges and Landres-et-St. Georges, the 42d Division’s left flank unit, the 83d Infantry Brigade, had to cross a mile of open ground and work its way through belts of uncut barbed wire. Repeated surges against the enemy line soon decimated the brigade. Even with the desperate valor of its soldiers, the German defenses of Landreset-St. Georges proved too strong for the 83d Brigade to overcome. On the 42d Division’s right flank, Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s 84th Infantry Brigade managed to fight its way to the base of the machine-gun-studded slopes of the Côte de Châtillon and La Tuilerie Farm by the end of the first day’s fighting. MacArthur later claimed that on the eve of the attack the V Corps commander, General Summerall, had warned him, “Give me Châtillon, or a list of five thousand casualties.” Although MacArthur may have exaggerated this exchange, he understood the importance of taking the high ground in his sector. Between 15 and 16 October, MacArthur’s men painfully clawed the hill out of the grip of its resolute German defenders.

The 42d Division’s attack had secured Liggett an opening in the Hindenburg Line, but this success had come at a great price. In three days of fighting, the division suffered 2,895 casualties. A further indication of the intensity of the fighting was the fact that in those three days, three soldiers of the division won Medals of Honor. One famous recipient was Lt. Col. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, a battalion commander in the 165th Infantry and the future head of the World War II Office of Strategic Services. During his regiment’s fight to take Landres-et-St. Georges, Donovan personally led repeated sorties against enemy positions. Despite being wounded below the knee by a machine gun bullet, he refused to be evacuated, and he organized the withdrawal of his remaining troops from their precarious forward positions.

On the right wing of the First Army’s envelopment, the 5th Division also encountered grave challenges in carrying out its mission. The unit’s march to the front and its relief of the 80th Division occurred under constant German artillery fire from the high ground around Cunel and Romagne and from the stillunconquered Heights of the Meuse. Worse yet, poor planning and the confusion of battle resulted in the 5th Division’s 14 October attack lacking sufficient artillery support to cover the infantry’s advance. The absence of any meaningful suppressive fires allowed the Germans to rain machine gun and artillery fires down on the Americans from the front and from both flanks. Yet even in the face of this galling assault from above, the division managed to capture Cunel and push into the southern edge of the Bois de la Pultière.

During the attack, one act of heroism stood out. A soldier involved in the 5th Division’s assault, 1st Lt. Samuel Woodfill, had served for over sixteen years in the Regular Army’s enlisted ranks and had fought in the Philippine Insurrection before earning a commission in 1917. Before the division’s main attack, Woodfill led his company on a reconnaissance patrol to Cunel. After his unit came under fire from multiple machine guns, Woodfill used his marksmanship skills to kill the crews of one gun after another. He proceeded to methodically clear the area of Germans, all while suffering from the effects of mustard gas. In taking out the last machine gun nest, Woodfill killed two gunners with a pick after his pistol jammed during the melee. For his conspicuous act of valor, Woodfill was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The bravery of men like Woodfill, however, could not rescue the 5th Division from its dilemma. On the morning of 15 October, the division resumed its attacks, but again the artillery failed to adequately support the infantry’s advance. The division managed to fight through the Bois de la Pultière and, after hard and costly fighting, its 9th Infantry Brigade reached the northern edge of the Bois des Rappes by nightfall. Unfortunately, later that night the division commander, General McMahon, received a false report that panic had swept the troops of the 9th Brigade, sending the unit into a full retreat. McMahon ordered the division to abandon their gains and pull back to the Bois de la Pultière without bothering to confirm the veracity of the report. Hundreds of soldiers would fall over the next four days as the 5th Division battled to take back what McMahon had so easily surrendered on 16 October. By the time the division pulled out of the line on 22 October, it had lost 779 men killed in action, 3,108 wounded, and 562 gas casualties.

On the 5th Division’s left, the 32d Division’s attack on 14 October highlighted the fickle nature of war. Although the unit’s advance was intended only as a holding action, its attack succeeded beyond expectations and the division cut another breach in the Hindenburg Line. Despite being repulsed in several attacks on the Côte Dame Marie between 9 and 13 October, strokes of good luck accompanied by acts of bravery and tactical good sense allowed the 32d Division to not only capture the deadly hilltop on 14 October, but also surge ahead to seize Romagne. Although the 14 October attack initially stalled on the left flank and in the center, on the right the 128th Infantry, supported by effective artillery fires, outflanked the German positions at Romagne and allowed the Americans to seize the defenses that had long held up the First Army’s advance. The 128th Infantry’s attack unhinged the German defenders in the division’s sector and caused a domino effect along their lines.

In the division’s center, a small party of eight soldiers from the 3d Battalion, 126th Infantry, discovered a gap in the enemy defenses at Hill 258 on the Côte Dame Marie ridge. This detachment, led by Capt. Edward B. Strom, skillfully used the terrain to flank the German positions and captured ten machine guns. Here, the fog of war worked to the Americans’ advantage. Unaware of the small size of Strom’s force, and fearing that they had been surrounded by the advance of the 126th and 128th Infantry, many other Germans facing Strom’s detachment surrendered or abandoned their positions. The slackening of the enemy’s fire on the ridge allowed the rest of the 126th Infantry to surge up the hill. The 126th and 128th Infantry’s successes in weakening the German defenses also allowed the stalled 127th Infantry to move forward on the 32d Division’s left flank. The division exploited these successes and pushed over two kilometers farther into the German lines before the end of the day. Subsequent attacks on 15 October cleared most of the Bois de Chavignon and secured the division a lodgment for later attacks against the Bois de Bantheville.

Although Liggett now had his breach in the Hindenburg Line, much fighting remained to clear the enemy from the rest of the line and finally secure the objectives that the First Army had intended to reach on 26 and 27 September. To continue the attack, Liggett’s first order of business was to rotate fresh units into the fight. The 4th, 33d, and 77th Divisions had been in the line since the beginning of the offensive and were in desperate need of relief. Furthermore, hard fighting had reduced the 3d, 5th, 32d, 42d, and 82d Divisions to under half their authorized strength of combat soldiers.

While these units were rotated out of the line for rest and refit, the First Army launched a series of local attacks both east and west of the Meuse from 18 to 27 October to gain relative positions of advantage across its area of operation. In the I Corps’ sector, the fresh 78th Division fought its way into Grandpré, the Bois de Bourgogne, and the Bois des Loges. At the same time, the V Corps battled to expand its breach of the German line by launching a series of local attacks to clear the Bois de Bantheville, the Bois du Romagne, and the Bois de Chavignon. Along the Meuse, the III Corps fought a brutal series of engagements to capture the Bois des Rappes and Les Clairs Chênes. East of the Meuse, the French XVII Corps attempted to restart its stalled effort to capture the Heights of the Meuse by launching attacks between Sivry-sur-Meuse and Crépion from 23 to 28 October. Despite these efforts, the corps’ doughboys and poilus made little headway against the area’s stubborn defenders.

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

World War One: Americans came to fight