A Triumph of Set-Piece Battle: 1 November 1918
At 0330 on 1 November, the First Army’s guns began their planned devastation of the German defenses. When the doughboys moved forward at 0530, they found that the hurricane bombardment had largely worked as planned. As one infantryman exclaimed, “What a battlefield! The Kriemhilde Stellung had been torn to shreds by the American guns. Upon the fields, along every approach, and in the trenches, still lay the [German] dead.”
The doughboys also noticed a dramatic decrease in the enemy’s fires. In prelude to the battle, the Americans dropped over forty-one tons of mustard gas on German positions in the Bois de Bourgogne, a chemical assault that destroyed or displaced nine of the twelve German artillery batteries in the wood. All along the line, soldiers noted that they overran enemy machine gun nests and artillery batteries whose crews had been killed by the opening barrage. Those Germans not killed by the shelling were often so pinned down by the American fire that they could not offer much resistance. As the V Corps reported, “Many of the prisoners captured on the 1st stated that the reason that they were taken was that artillery concentrations were so effective as to confine them to shelters and to isolate them in small groups. Artillery prisoners stated that they were unable to leave their shelters to serve their guns.” To a great extent, the Americans had successfully put into practice the French military dictum that “artillery conquers, infantry occupies.”
The advance in the V Corps’ sector demonstrated that the AEF had finally come of age. The 2d Division overcame all resistance to its front, and by the close of the day the unit’s marines and soldiers had captured the redoubtable German defenses at Landres-et-St. Georges and pushed the enemy back over eight kilometers to a position just south of Barricourt and Magenta Farm. The division was led by the skilled and aggressive Maj.
Gen. John A. Lejeune, one of only three Marine Corps generals to command a U.S. Army division and the only marine to lead one in battle. On the corps’ right, the 89th Division strove to keep pace with the fast-moving 2d Division. By the end of the day, the 89th had advanced over six kilometers, captured Rémonville, and, in close cooperation with the III Corps’ 90th Division, seized the Bois de Barricourt.
In the III Corps’ sector, the 90th and 5th Divisions also accomplished their allotted tasks. In fact, both units went beyond the objective line set by the First Army. On the left of the corps sector, the 90th Division advanced nearly four kilometers and kept pace with the progress of the V Corps. Their success prevented German flank attacks against the army’s main effort.
On the army’s left, the I Corps launched limited attacks from Talma Farm to St. Georges. Despite heavy enemy resistance, the 78th Division still managed to push into the Bois des Loges and the 77th Division advanced to a position southeast of Champigneulle. The I Corps’ greatest success came on its right with the 80th Division, which took advantage of the 2d Division’s disruption of the German defenses to take Imécourt and push as far north as Fontaine des Parades.
The success of the 1 November assault bore immediate results. Capturing the Barricourt Heights placed Sedan and the vital German Metz-Montmédy-Charleville rail line within the range of the American heavy artillery. As Liggett expected, the breaking of the Freya Stellung placed the Germans in an untenable position. With no more prepared defensive positions south of the Meuse to compensate for the waning strength of their infantry, on the night of 1–2 November the German Fifth Army ordered its units to abandon their remaining defenses in the Freya Stellung between Grandpré and Buzancy and begin a fighting withdrawal to the north. The actions of the U.S. First Army and the French Fourth Army proved to be mutually supportive. The French gains eased the burden on the I Corps while the success of the V Corps ultimately aided the advance of the French Fourth Army by forcing the German Third Army to retreat behind the Bar River to prevent a gap from opening in the line between it and the German Fifth Army.
Exploitation and Pursuit: 2–11 November 1918
The success of the 1 November attacks gave Pershing and Liggett the opening that they had longed for since September. The Germans’ wary and weary retreat had, at long last, provided the Americans with the opportunity to achieve a breakout into open country. Sensing the change, Liggett ordered his corps to pursue the enemy with all possible vigor to prevent the Germans from recovering from their defeat and reestablishing a coherent defense.
In the V Corps sector, the 2d and 89th Divisions needed no encouragement to continue their assaults. On the evening of 1–2 November, the 2d Division launched night attacks and infiltrations of the enemy line to keep pressure on the Germans. Night operations were a rarity in the AEF, but the division’s initiative and drive kept the enemy off-balance. Unfortunately, inexperienced staffs and the friction of war temporarily halted the 2d Division’s advance on 2 November. The V Corps’ accomplishments on 1 November convinced Summerall that his unit could accelerate the First Army’s progress by changing the boundary between the I and the V Corps to allow the 2d Division to seize Buzancy. This plan did not sit well with Dickman, and Liggett ultimately rejected Summerall’s request.
However, while this high-level wrangling was in progress, the V Corps headquarters issued orders to its subordinates to redirect the attack and to shift the corps’ reserve forces for the assault on Buzancy. By the time that Liggett’s directive reached Summerall, the 2d Division was moving its units into place to launch the attack specified in the V Corps’ earlier orders. The resulting counter-orders to stop this move essentially paralyzed the 2d Division for much of the day. Despite this confusion, the 89th Division was able to push forward three kilometers to capture Tailly and outflank the Germans in Barricourt.
While the V Corps sorted out its command tangle, the I Corps was quick to capitalize on the Germans’ discomfiture. On 2 November, the corps surged forward over nine kilometers. On the right, the 80th Division captured Buzancy. In the center of the corps’ advance, the 77th Division rushed north against weak German defenses to take Champigneulle, Thénorgues, Harricourt, and Bar in quick succession. On the corps’ left, the 78th Division had slower going as it maneuvered to avoid German positions in the Bois de Bourgogne. By the evening, however, the division had advanced six kilometers and pushed the Germans out of Briquenay.
The day’s success put the I Corps in a good position to continue its pursuit of the Germans over the next two days. More importantly, the corps’ gains came with relatively light losses. On 1 and 2 November, the 80th Division lost 866 men killed and wounded while the 77th Division suffered only 291 casualties. From 1 to 5 November, the 78th Division lost a total of 680 soldiers. On the afternoon of 2 November, Liggett issued orders that changed the direction of the First Army’s attack from the north to north-northeast with the goal of widening the breach in the German lines by crossing the Meuse at points all along the army’s front and pushing toward the Germans’ vital logistics link, the Mézières-Sedan railroad. To prevent the Germans from establishing another strong defensive line, Liggett urged his corps commanders to aggressively pursue the enemy and seize the heights north and east of the Meuse. He ordered the I Corps to seize the high ground running from Vaux-en-Dieulet to St. Pierremont.
The V Corps was to take the heights of Beauclair and Le Champy-Haut and then press on toward Stenay and Beaumont. Liggett ordered the III Corps to capture the hills overlooking Halles-sousles-Côtes, Sassey-sur-Meuse, and Dun-sur-Meuse. Once across the river, the III Corps would push the Germans from their positions on the Heights of the Meuse that had long bedeviled the French XVII Corps.
The French XVII Corps would aid the advance of the III Corps by fixing the German defenders in place through local attacks on Hill 370 and on the Borne de Cornouiller. On 6 November, the French XVII Corps also would turn over the control of its sector to the headquarters of the French II Colonial Corps. Only two of the French II Colonial Corps’ units were French (the 10th and 15th Colonial Divisions); the bulk of its organization consisted of the U.S. 26th, 35th, and 79th Divisions in line, and the 81st Division in reserve.
With new orders in hand, the First Army’s pursuit gained momentum on 3 November. Over the next four days of fighting, Dickman’s I Corps surged forward to the outskirts of Sedan. The 77th Division exacted revenge on the Germans for the pounding it received in the Argonne by driving its foes over twenty kilometers between 3 and 7 November. Not to be outdone, the 42d Division returned to the fight on 5 November and pushed back the Germans over seventeen kilometers in just two days of fighting. The advance in the V Corps sector slowed due to stiffening German resistance and continued logistics tangles behind the lines, but despite these obstacles the 2d and 89th Divisions managed to reach the southern bank of the Meuse River by the night of 7 November.
The III Corps faced the army’s greatest challenge in carrying out Liggett’s new directive. Its eastern border sat on the Meuse River and the First Army’s order required the corps to immediately launch contested assaults across the water obstacle. The burden of this mission fell to the 5th Division. German positions on the Heights of the Meuse loomed over the river, and the division had to not only attack across the Meuse, but also cross two segments of a canal that ran just east of the river between Brieulles and Dun-sur-Meuse and from Sassey to Mouzay.
On the night of 3–4 November, a detachment from the 7th Engineers forded the Meuse at Brieulles and began building a footbridge across the river. At daybreak, the Germans discovered what the Americans were up to and promptly began inundating the area with machine gun and artillery fire. The American engineers were undaunted and quickly moved their operations to a more protected location 600 meters farther north. After nightfall on the 4th, the division’s 10th Infantry Brigade began to cross the Meuse in force. The next day, the brigade seized the high ground at the Bois du Châtillon and Hill 228.
The river crossing in the 9th Infantry Brigade’s area proved much more difficult. On the night of 3–4 November, the division’s engineers laid a pontoon bridge across the Meuse at Cléry-le-Petit, only to have it shot to pieces by the Germans shortly after the sun rose. One of the division’s soldiers recorded that “the whole area was drenched with seemingly inexhaustible fire from the height.” Despite the enemy’s best efforts, the American engineers kept to their task, and by nightfall had bridged the river and the canal, allowing the 9th Brigade to cross to the east bank and move on to the heights beyond.
With their bridgehead secured, and the subsequent seizure of the Heights of the Meuse, the 5th Division’s soldiers broke through the German defenses east of the river. Between 4 and 10 November, the division advanced over 18 kilometers in depth and liberated 160 square kilometers of French territory east of the Meuse. The success of the 5th Division also allowed the III Corps’ other lead unit, the 90th Division, to cross the Meuse. Heavy enemy fire and the need to maintain close liaison with the V Corps stymied the 90th Division’s earlier efforts at a river crossing, but on 9 November the division bridged the Meuse at Sassey-sur-Meuse and Dun-sur-Meuse and moved to capture Mouzay and Stenay.
As his men continued to advance, Pershing believed that the First Army’s success in the first week of November vindicated his tireless crusade to form an independent American Army. However, he still smarted from the criticism leveled on the AEF by Britain’s Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and other Allied leaders that the American offensive had been too sluggish and costly for the gains it had made. Pershing’s desire to burnish his and his army’s reputation ultimately led to one of the most controversial episodes of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign: the 1st Division’s effort to capture Sedan.
Sedan was the site of the humiliating surrender of the Emperor Napoleon III and a large French army in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Taking Sedan would remove any lingering Allied doubts about the AEF’s fighting abilities. On a visit to the I Corps headquarters on the afternoon of 5 November, Pershing expressed to Dickman his desire that the Americans seize the opportunity to take the historic city. Later that day, General Conner arrived at the First Army headquarters to direct Liggett to execute Pershing’s guidance. As neither Liggett nor his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Hugh A. Drum, were at the command post at the time, Conner and the First Army’s operations officer, Col. George C. Marshall, drafted the following order:
General Pershing desires that the honor of entering Sedan should fall to the American First Army. He has every confidence that the troops of the I Corps, assisted on their right by the V Corps, will enable him to realize this desire.
Marshall, however, did not want to issue the order before Liggett or Drum approved it. When Drum returned to the headquarters, he accepted Marshall’s original text, but then added two further lines to the order: “In transmitting the foregoing message, your attention is invited to the favorable opportunity now existing for pressing our advantage throughout the night. Boundaries will not be considered binding.” The edited order was then transmitted to the I and V Corps commanders.
The trouble started when Summerall chose to use the last sentence that Drum added to the order as a license to grab additional glory for the V Corps and the 1st Division. Using the very loosest interpretation of the order, Summerall directed the 1st Division to conduct a forced march through the night of 5–6 November to capture Sedan, fully realizing that the division would have to cut through the I Corps’ sector to accomplish this mission. The debacle that followed not only hindered the operations of the I Corps’ 42d and 77th Divisions when the troops of the Big Red One cut across their lines of advance and supply, but also caused ill will with the French when several 1st Division units advanced so far west that they strayed into the French Fourth Army’s sector. Liggett did not learn of Drum’s order until 7 November when the French complained about the American incursion into their sector. He admitted that the news led to “the only occasion in the war when I lost my temper completely.” Liggett angrily directed the 1st Division to vacate the French and I Corps sectors with all dispatch. Summerall’s escapade resulted in confusion and embarrassment among the American ranks, and undermined Pershing’s goal of demonstrating to the Allies that the AEF had evolved into a smoothly operating machine. In the end, the Americans’ machinations were all for naught as the French would not be denied the honor of capturing Sedan. After their complaints about the 1st Division’s incursions stopped the American advance toward Sedan, the French IX Corps entered the city on 9 November.
As the Americans continued to press forward in the second week of November, the German war effort collapsed. In October, the German government had sent out peace feelers to the Allies. By the end of the month, the Germans’ quest to end the war was accelerating due to events inside Germany and the withering away of their allies. Bulgarian resistance had collapsed on 29 September, the Ottomans sued for peace on 30 October, and the long-suffering Austro-Hungarians reached a separate peace with the Allies on 3 November. On 26 October, German chief of staff Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg dismissed Ludendorff, thereby removing the last senior German officer opposed to peace. On 29 October, sailors in the German High Seas Fleet refused orders to put to sea, and their mutiny fueled civilian labor strikes and opposition to the government across Germany. On 7 November, a delegation from the German government crossed the lines to begin negotiations for an armistice. The abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on 9 November further hastened the peace process.
Foch knew that the end of the war was near and wanted the Allies to be in the strongest possible position when the armistice talks began. On the afternoon of 9 November, he implored Pershing and the other Allied senior commanders:
The enemy disorganized by our repeated attacks is withdrawing along the whole front. It is important to maintain and hasten our action. I appeal to the energy and initiative of [the] Commanders-in-Chief and their armies to secure decisive results. Pershing needed little prodding; in fact, he argued that to secure a lasting peace, the Allies needed to push the Germans back across the Rhine and crush the remnants of their army on German soil. On 5 November, he had ordered Liggett’s First Army and Bullard’s Second Army to press the American attacks with maximum force “with the ultimate purpose of destroying the enemy’s organization and driving him beyond the existing frontier in the regions of Briey and Longwy.” Pershing’s message was clear: the AEF would not let up on the enemy until the moment the Armistice went into effect.
Pershing’s directive for the AEF to keep fighting right up to 1100 on 11 November was not without controversy. His orders meant that hundreds of American and German soldiers would be killed and wounded in the final hours and minutes of the war. Over the last two days of the fighting, the V Corps’ 2d and 89th Divisions drove across the Meuse in the face of determined German resistance, while doughboys in the I and III Corps sector moved forward to wrest one last hill or forest from the enemy. The experience of the 89th Division bears witness to the intensity of the fighting that occurred in November. The division lost 2,391 soldiers between 1 and 11 November. During the same period, five of the division’s soldiers won Medals of Honor, with three of these men receiving the award for volunteering to swim across the Meuse to locate enemy positions and places where their units could cross the river.
The death of American soldiers in the waning hours of the war was tragic. Pershing, however, deemed these losses to be a sad necessity of war. Both he and Foch maintained that the Armistice on 11 November was merely a cessation of fighting and not a formal end to the conflict. The Germans could resume combat operations at any time. As such, every German soldier that the Americans killed or captured in the last days of the war was one less potential enemy combatant that they might have to face if the Armistice broke down. Given what the Allied commanders knew at the time, they had a cold-blooded rationale in their decision to order their soldiers to keep attacking to the stroke of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November. The men did their duty, and the fighting continued to the very end. In one tragically fitting episode, artillery officer Bob Casey witnessed thirty-four men killed and another thirty-nine wounded around him in the last twenty-three minutes of the war.
The weather turned bitter cold; the rain became sleet. And Germany began to fall a part in the fact of the irreversible pressure.
In Mid-October, the Kaiser fired General Erich Ludendorff, his field commander. [General Grӧner, his successor, reported 5 November on the state of the army in the west: ‘We can hold out long enough for negotiations. If we are lucky the time might be longer, if we are unlucky, shorter…’] The British broke the German lines near Valenciennes; the German Navy mutinied, and the Germans asked for an armistice. [8 November the German armistice delegation met Allied representatives led by Foch in a restaurant car in a siding within the Forest of Compiegne….At five o’clock in the morning of 11 November 1918, the 1,586th day of the war, the German delegation signed the armistice.] But terms had to be argued out, and the end had to wait for the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th Month- at the cost of still more lives. On Sunday morning, November 10, the Kaiser fled to Holland. The next morning the Western Front fell silent. The carnage stopped. Those still alive now would live-even though the world was safe for absolutely nothing.
But in those final weeks of battle, the allies kept turning the screw, to make it clear there was no alternative to surrender. On November 1, while the politicians wrangled, the Marine Brigade entered its last battle. During the final 11 days before the Armistice, the brigade would suffer 277 killed and missing and a total of 1,263 casualties.
The vast battle the Marines now joined was already under way between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River. Across this 15 to 25 mile wide defile, the Germans manned intricate defenses in depth; above it, they commanded the high ground on both sides and on the watershed spine running up its centre. Here, while the Marine Brigade was fighting on Blanc Mont Ridge, half a million Americans and Frenchmen had attacked; and, by October 11, 75,000 men were dead and wounded and thousands more down by influenza. The need for replacements became urgent.
The 2nd Division (U.S.), rested and retrained and with recruits filling in for the fallen, now was brought to battle with the American First Army’s V Corps commanded by Major General Charles P. Summerall. V Corps had been fighting up the central spine; and the division was placed in the centre of the American drive, as its spearhead.
“The Army that went in to action on November 1, 1918, was the greatest America has ever sent to war,” wrote Major General Harbord. The 2nd Division (U.S.) faced a 2 Kilometer wide sector of the Hindenburg Line called Kriemhilde Stellung. The division’s attack preceded by explosive and gas shells that ripped the enemy defenses for two hours. The Marines jumped off at 5:30 A.M., “leaning on” a rolling barrage. Overhead, squadrons of planes covered the assault. The day, for abreif change, turned warm and sunny. In the lead were the 1st Battalion, 5th Matines on the right and the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines on the left. The other battalions followed in column of battalions. Beyond the Marines’ right were the 3rd Brigade and then the 89th Division; on their right, the 80th Division. After reaching their first objective, the Marines were to take over the entire division front and advance to the crucial heights of Barricount.
The Marines fought through a war pocked landscape, ruined villages, barbed wire mazes and the Germans’ protective barrage. On the right, heavy-machine-gun fire killed Captain Overton of the 76th Company and Captain Kirt Green of the 80th. The Marines plunged through the German lines. The divisions on both sides of the 2nd were held up, and a specially prepared Marine-infnatry battalion under Marine Major George A. Stowell came up to protect the Marines’ left flank and took the village of Imécourt.
By 8 A.M., as planned, the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines and the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Marines took over the lead. The former seized Landerville. The latter ran in to heavy going at Bayonville, where the Germans, resisting stubbornly, had a second defensive line called the Freya Stellung. Tanks helped the Marines take this position. About noon, the final Marine battalions leapfrogged into the lead and reached Barricount Heights, their day’s objective, by mid-afternoon. That night, the Germans pulled out.
The Marine’s progress had been spectacular and decisive, although against admittedly fall-away defenses. The Germans had been forced to retreat behind the Meuse and to fight only a delaying action in front of the river.
November 2 was a day of rest and probing patrol actions, and then the 3rd Infantry Brigade took over the division lead and advanced 6 miles through heavy rain during that night the next day and that night. The Germans were demoralized by the novel night attacks. The Americans were now racing after the withdrawing enemy. American divisions on the far right crossed the Meuse.
By November 6, the Marine Brigade had its front line along the Meuse. The retreating Germans had destroyed all the bridges, and the 2nd Division’s crossing was repeated postponed. By November 10, the Germans were fleeing with little pretense of trying to stop the Allies; but, to keep open a retreat route, several enemy divisions were holding at the river and on the ridge two to four miles behind it.
The 2nd and 89th Divisions were ordered to cross the river and assault the ridge. Enemy artillery and machine guns prevented the Engineers form floating foot bridges across the river at the Marines’ main crossing point, a mile northwest of Mouzon. But a second crossing point, a bit to the south near Letanne, the 2nd Engineers, under fire, managed to put one bridge in place. By 11:30 P.M., November 10, the Corps’ birthday, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 5th Marines, under Major George W. Hamilton, were over. They took heavy casualties.
After driving the enemy from their immediate front, the Marines waited until a battalion of the 89th Division joined them; and then all three battalions advanced eastward toward Moulins until they learned of the armistice. Some units did not get the word until 11:45 A.M. By then the 18th Company was a mile beyond the river.
The two Marine battalions that crossed the Meuse lost 31 Killed and 148 wounded-as it proved, unnecessarily.
Gunnery Sergeant Paradis, who fought the entire war without a scratch, figured that of the original 300 men in his 80th Company, only 44 were still there at Armistice. Of these, 36 had been wounded once or more and returned to the company; 12 had survived every battle.
The climatic six-week battle, which Americans call Meuse-Argonne, was enormous. Nearly a million Americans were engaged. It was fought by 26 American divisions and seven French Divisions. The U.S. First Army suffered 117,000 casualties. The Germans, who used 470,000 men in strongly fortified positions, had 100,000 casualties. Only the arrival of fresh American riflemen in overwhelming numbers had insured the final victory.
Major General Lejeune described the final moments of the war for the Marines: ‘During the last two hours before the Armistice, the enemy’s artillery fire intensified and our artillery sent as good as it received. A few minutes before eleven o’clock, there were tremendous burst of the fire from the two antagonist and then—suddenly—there was complete silence.”
That night, the men in the field warmed themselves and dried their clothes over small bonfires and fired rockets and flares into the air all along the front. The lights went on again. Slowly, the earth was covered green once more, marked with the red poppies and the new white gravestones.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: U.S. Army Campaigns of World War 1; United States Army Center of Military History
SOURCE: U.S. Marine Corps Story; BY: J. Robert Moskin
SOURCE: The Great War; BY: Correlli Barnett
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan