World War One: Meuse-Argonne; 27-31 Oct. 1918 Preparing for the Final Push

Preparing for the Final Push: 27–31 October 1918 

By 22 October, it was evident to Liggett that heavy casualties, troop exhaustion, and tangled supply lines had taken their toll on the First Army’s momentum. As he recalled: The condition in the First Army was such that it was imperative to rehabilitate our divisions, get necessary replacements into condition for action, gather up a mass of stragglers and return them to their proper commands, and while keeping up pressure on the enemy, prepare for a powerful, well-coordinated effort . . .we needed rest and refit.

Reports from Liggett’s staff and commanders supported this observation. During its first two weeks fighting in the Meuse-Argonne, the 1st Division had suffered over 9,000 casualties. As the storied division’s inspector general noted, “the morale of the unit is not nearly as high as it formerly was. This is shown by the general demeanor of the men and the lack of snap and spirit which formerly prevailed in this unit.” Liggett was convinced that his army needed a short operational pause to sort out its problems and to prepare for a renewed and redoubled attack on the Germans. He originally planned to begin the assault around 28 October, but as General Henri Gouraud’s neighboring French Fourth Army also needed rest, Pershing and Liggett agreed that the Americans and French would resume their coordinated attacks on 1 November. This gave the First Army four days to replenish and retrain its depleted ranks and to plan and coordinate its all-important artillery and supply operations for the upcoming attack.

During this pause, the army’s engineers feverishly labored to build new roads and light rail lines and to improve the existing supply routes throughout the army’s sector. Likewise, First Army logisticians devoted much of their energies to moving forward the mountains of shells that the First Army would need for the coming attack. To aid in these efforts, Pershing directed the AEF chief of staff, Maj. Gen. James W. McAndrew, and the AEF chief of operations (G–3), General Conner, to focus their attention on ensuring the smooth flow of supplies from the SOS to the front and to correcting the army’s previous lapses in communications and in its command and control system.

Although the First Army’s operations greatly slowed during the last week of October, they did not stop. Liggett planned for a set-piece battle on 1 November and worked to give his forces every possible advantage on H-hour. This meant that the army’s corps continued to conduct local attacks to secure the best possible terrain for launching the main assault. The American front on 31 October ran from roughly a kilometer north of Grandpré on the army’s western boundary along a line extending east from just south of Landres-et-St. Georges and continuing through the northern edges of the Bois de Bantheville, the Bois des Rappes, and the Bois de Forêt near the left bank of the Meuse. East of the Meuse, the French XVII Corps occupied a line that ran roughly a kilometer south of Sivry-sur-Meuse, east through the Bois de Chaume and the Bois de la Grande Montagne, to just north of Beaumont.

Although the Americans had lost over 22,000 dead and well over 100,000 wounded since the beginning of the campaign, Liggett believed that the First Army was bleeding the enemy of his last reserves of strength. By the end of October, the German Fifth Army was in fact struggling to rotate its depleted units out of the line. On 31 October, the Americans faced ten German divisions west of the Meuse and nine more in the French XVII Corps’ sector east of the river. These numbers did not tell the whole story. Major Giehrl admitted that “the disintegrating influence of numerous forest combats” and increasingly heavy losses had sapped the combat power of most of these units. Sensing that the war was coming to an end, the German high command directed its subordinates to hold ground at all costs to try to win Germany a stronger negotiating position at the peace table. This forced commanders in the Meuse-Argonne to launch counterattack after counterattack to try to accomplish this task or to stave off tactical calamities. These counterattacks hammered the doughboys and often deprived them of their hard-won gains, but in doing so the Germans continued to hemorrhage their combat power.

By the end of October, the German Fifth Army had already lost nearly 25,000 men and had no reserves left to throw into the battle. Most of its frontline infantry regiments had been reduced to well below 50 percent of their authorized strengths. To fill the growing gaps in its ranks, the Fifth Army had to return its exhausted divisions to the battle before they had sufficient time for rest and refit. To make matters worse, the news that Austria-Hungary was seeking a separate peace led General Marwitz and General Max von Gallwitz to remove all their Austrian units from the front line. Simply put, the Germans were caught in an unsustainable exchange rate of casualties with the Allies.

The Americans were doing their best to unbalance the attritional scale. In the first month of the campaign, they had failed to adequately coordinate artillery support with infantry assaults, but nevertheless the First Army’s French and American artillerymen took a devastating toll on the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne. Learning by doing was hard-going in the AEF, but it was learning nevertheless. As American officers such as Summerall, and the First Army’s chief of artillery, Maj. Gen. Edward F. McGlachlin, came to master the iron hammer of artillery, the Germans could muster no response. In late October, an officer in the German 102d Infantry Regiment bewailed the “monstrous amount of artillery” that the Americans were able to employ against his positions, and other German officers lamented the devastating effect that the American artillerymen had on the strength and morale of their formations.

The First Army’s plan for the 1 November attack sought to capitalize on its strengths and the experience the Americans had gained since the start of the offensive. As the First Army began its preparations for a renewed assault, Foch pressed Pershing to focus the American efforts on the left of their sector in a combined attack with the French Fourth Army to clear the Bois de Bourgogne. Liggett rejected this approach, as the experience of slugging through the Argonne had convinced him that fighting in forests was too slow and costly to achieve any decisive results.

He instead argued that the key terrain in the First Army’s sector was the Barricourt Heights. The heights, which ran from Villersdevant-Dun northwest to Fossé, were the linchpin of the remaining German defenses south of the Meuse River. If the Americans broke through at Barricourt, the Germans would be forced to conduct a fighting withdrawal with their backs against the Meuse River. Liggett convinced Pershing to support his plan, but the new First Army commander understood that taking the Barricourt Heights would be no easy matter. The high ground dominated the American avenues of approach and offered the enemy good observation and fields of fire for the artillery and machine gun positions that studded its hillsides.

To crack this tough position, Liggett planned for an initial set-piece battle that would maximize the First Army’s advantage in manpower and firepower over the Germans. The V Corps was to spearhead the American effort. It had the mission of capturing the Barricourt Heights and breaking through the Freya Stellung, the last prepared German defensive belt south of the Meuse, by nightfall on 1 November. The III Corps would support the V Corps in overrunning the Barricourt Heights by seizing the hills north and east of Andevanne and by protecting Summerall’s flank from German counterattacks. On the First Army’s left flank, the I Corps faced strong German defenses running from Talma Farm through the Bois des Loges and Champigneulle to St. Georges. Given the strength of the enemy’s positions, Liggett ordered Dickman to launch only limited attacks with the goal of protecting the V Corps’ flank by capturing the high ground south of Thénorgues and fixing the German defenders in place. Liggett also directed the I Corps to prevent German artillery on the heights of the Bois de Bourgogne from hindering the V Corps’ attack. The First Army commander believed that if the V Corps succeeded in taking the Barricourt Heights, the Germans facing the I Corps would have to withdraw from their defenses and Dickman could then drive on to capture Boult-aux-Bois.

Most of the First Army’s efforts in the last week of October were devoted to ensuring that the V Corps’ attack would achieve the desired results. At long last, the Americans had recognized that tactical success on the Great War’s battlefields rested largely upon the ability of the attacker to crush the defender under the weight of artillery fire. This was a decisive rejection of Pershing’s focus on an “aggressive offensive based on self-reliant infantry.” In fact, Summerall went so far as to state in the V Corps’ attack order, “It is essential that fire superiority rather than sheer man power be the driving force of the attack.” To ensure this superiority, the First Army massed 1,576 tubes of artillery on the front, including three batteries of 14-inch railroad guns manned by crews from the U.S. Navy. To compensate for the loss of some of the First Army’s French artillery units since the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Liggett’s planners increased the daily shell expenditure for each gun. For the 1 November assault, the army would have roughly one gun per twenty meters of front and each piece would fire 235 shells on average per day.

Liggett also changed the First Army’s tactical approach. He rejected the AEF’s previous pattern of setting unrealistic objectives. Instead, he planned for relatively shallow advances by the V and III Corps on 1 November that would keep them well within the range of army, corps, and divisional artillery. The First Army’s initial attack would be preceded by a two-hour-long “hurricane barrage” designed to paralyze the German command and control and fire support system as well as to destroy the enemy’s machine guns and strong points. After these preparatory fires, the American artillery plan focused on providing maximum support to the infantry by maintaining a steady rolling barrage that kept within 1,000 meters of the advancing doughboys throughout the attack.

For the first time in the war, the Americans would also make maximum use of their chemical warfare assets and better coordinate their air effort to support ground operations. Liggett specifically directed that heavy concentrations of mustard gas be dropped on German artillery units on the Heights of the Meuse, the Bois de Sassey, and on the hills of the Bois de Bourgogne to neutralize the enemy’s ability to bring flanking fires on the American advance. In the last piece of the “firepower puzzle,” the First Army ordered the Air Service to change its approach. The doughboys had long complained that American aviators had not provided the infantry with enough air cover and direct support during the campaign. In response, the AEF’s pilots would now refocus their efforts in support of the troops by attacking German defenses and artillery in the direct path of the advance and by keeping enemy aircraft from harassing the ground troops.

This firepower-centric approach to war also permeated the V Corps’ preparations. Summerall planned to lead his assault with the fully rested and veteran 2d and 89th Divisions. These units would attack on line in a concerted push to overwhelm the Germans on the Barricourt Heights. To accomplish this, Summerall intended to crush enemy resistance by massing the overwhelming firepower of army, corps, and divisional artillery. He attached the field artillery brigades and machine gun units from his reserve divisions (the 1st and 42d Divisions) to the 2d and 89th Divisions for the initial phase of the attack. While the artillery blasted the German defenses and artillery positions, Summerall ordered all of the corps’ machine guns to join in with direct and indirect fire to pin down the enemy. As the V Corps commander noted, “The barrage plan was so constructed that throughout the advance, the entire corps front of more than eight kilometers would be covered by a sheet of shell, shrapnel, and bullets to a depth of twelve hundred meters.” Lastly, Summerall was to use the First Army’s remaining fifteen available tanks to assist the 2d Division’s advance.

Although Summerall had done everything possible to tip the scales in favor of his assault units, he was well aware that attacks in the Great War often bogged down as the strength of the attackers waned during the course of the battle. To prepare for this eventuality, he ordered the V Corps’ reserve divisions, the 1st and 42d, to follow close behind the lead divisions. If the 2d or 89th Division attacks stalled, the reserve divisions would maintain the tempo of the operation by passing through the forward units and resuming the attack.

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

SOURCE: U.S. Army Campaigns World War 1; United States Army Center of Military History
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan

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