The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces
THE BIG SHOW
PART II: PERSHING'S REPORT
The Doughboys Lost Their Innocence in the Big Show
On the night of September 25, the 9 divisions to lead in the attack were deployed between the Meuse River and the western edge of the Argonne Forest. On the right was the Third Corps, Maj. Gen. Bullard commanding, with the Thirty-third, Eightieth, and Fourth Divisions in line; next came the Fifth Corps. Maj. Gen. Cameron commanding, with the Seventy-ninth, Thirty-seventh, and Ninety-first Divisions; on the left was the First Corps, Maj. Gen. Liggett commanding, with the Thirty-fifth, Twenty-eighth, and Seventy-seventh Divisions. Each corps had 1 division in reserve and the Army held 3 divisions as a general reserve. About 2,700 guns, 189 small tanks, 142 manned by Americans, and 821 airplanes, 604 manned by Americans, were concentrated to support the attack of the infantry. We thus had a superiority in guns and aviation, and the enemy had no tanks.
Click Here To See the disposition of US forces at the start of the battle.
The axis of the attack was the line Montfaucon-Romagne-Buzancy, the purpose being to make the deepest penetration in the center, which, with the Fourth French Army advancing west of the Argonne, would force the enemy to evacuate that forest without our having to deliver a heavy attack in that difficult region.
Following three hours of violent artillery fire of preparation, the Infantry advanced at 5:30 a.m. on September 26, accompanied by tanks. During the first two days of attack, before the enemy was able to bring up his reserves, our troops made steady progress through the network of defenses. Montfaucon was held tenaciously by the enemy and was not captured until noon of the second day.
View Eastward from the Montfaucon US Memorial
[Moving Upwards] The 4th, 80th and 33rd Divisions Advanced Over This Terrain at the Opening of the Battle
By the evening of the 28th a maximum advance of 11 kilometers had been achieved and we had captured Baulny, Epinonville, Septsarges, and Dannevoux. The right had made a splendid advance into the woods south of Brieulles-sur-Meuse, but the extreme left was meeting strong resistance in the Argonne. The attack continued without interruption, meeting six new divisions which the enemy threw into first line before September 29. He developed a powerful machine gun defense supported by heavy artillery fire, and made frequent counter-attacks with fresh troops, particularly on the front of the Twenty-eighth and Thirty-fifth divisions. These divisions had taken Varennes, Cheppy, Baulny, and Charpentry, and the line was within 2 kilometers of Apremont. We were no longer engaged in a maneuver for the pinching out of a salient, but were necessarily committed, generally speaking, to a direct frontal attack against strong, hostile positions fully manned by a determined enemy.
By nightfall of the 29th the First Army line was approximately Bois de la Cote Lemont –Nantillois—Apremont—southwest across the Argonne. Many divisions, especially those in the center that were subjected to cross-fire of artillery, had suffered heavily. The severe fighting, and the nature of the terrain over which they attacked, and the fog and darkness sorely tried even our best divisions. On the night of the 29th the Thirty-seventh and Seventy-ninth Divisions were relieved by the Thirty-second and Third Divisions, respectively, and on the following night the First Division relieved the Thirty-fifth Division.
Nantillois on September 29th
The critical problem during the first few days of the battle was the restoration of communications over "no man's land." There were but four roads available across this deep zone, and the violent artillery fire of the previous period of the war had virtually destroyed them. The spongy soil and lack of material increased the difficulty. But the splendid work of our engineers and pioneers soon made possible the movement of the troops, artillery, and supplies most needed. By the afternoon of the 27th all the divisional artillery, except a few batteries of heavy guns, had effected a passage and was supporting the infantry action.
MEUSE-ARGONNE, SECOND PHASE
At 5:30 a.m. on October 4 the general attack was renewed. The enemy divisions on the front from Fresnes-en-Woevre to the Argonne had increased from 10 in first line to 16, and included some of his best divisions. The fighting was desperate, except by the First Division on the right of the First Corps. By evening of October 5 the line was approximately Bois de la Cote Lemont-Bois du Fays-Gesnes-Hill 240-Fleville-Chehery, southwest through the Argonne.
Burial Party in Argonne
It was especially desirable to drive the enemy from his commanding positions on the heights east of the Meuse, but it was even more important that we should force him to use his troops there and weaken his tenacious hold on positions in our immediate front. The further stabilization of the new St. Mihiel line permitted the withdrawl of certain divisions for the extension of the Meuse-Argonne operation to the east bank of the Meuse River.
Click Here To See the Advances of the First Army During October.
On the 7th the First Corps, with the Eighty-second Division added, launched a strong attack northwest toward Cornay, to draw attention from the movement east of the Meuse and at the same time outflank the German position in the Argonne. The following day the Seventeenth French Corps, Maj. Gen. Claudel commanding, initiated its attack east of the Meuse against the exact point on which the German armies must pivot in order to withdraw from northern France. The troops encountered elaborate fortifications and stubborn resistance, but by nightfall had realized an advance of 6 kilometers to a line well within the Bois de Consenvoye, and including the villages of Beaumont and Haumont. Continuous fighting was maintained along our entire battle front, with especial success on the extreme left, where the capture of the greater part of the Argonne forest was completed. The enemy contested every foot of ground on our front in order to make more rapid retirements farther west and withdraw his forces from northern France before the interruption of his railroad communications through Sedan.
We were confronted at this time by an insufficiency of replacements to build up exhausted divisions. Early in October combat units required some 90,000 replacements, and not more than 45,000 would be available before November 1 to full the existing and prospective vacancies. We still had two divisions with the British and two with the French. A review of the situation, American and Allied, especially as to our own resources in men for the next two months, convinced me that the attack of the First Army and of the Allied Armies further west should be pushed to the limit. But if the First Army was to continue its aggressive tactics our divisions then with the French must be recalled, and replacements must be obtained by breaking up newly arrived divisions.
In discussing the withdrawal of our divisions from the French with Marshal Foch and Gen. Petain, on October 10, the former expressed his appreciation of the fact that the First Army was striking the pivot of the German withdrawal, and also held the view that the Allied attack should continue. Gen. Petain agreed that the American divisions with the French were essential to us if we were to maintain our battle against the German pivot. The French were, however, straining every nerve to keep up their attacks and, before those divisions with the French had been released, it became necessary for us to send the Thirty-seventh and Ninety-first Divisions from the First Army to assist the Sixth French Army in Flanders.
Traffic Jams, Few Vehicles and Fewer Roads Plagued the First Army in the Early Stages of the Battle
At this time the First Army was holding a front of more than 120 kilometers; its strength exceeded 1,000,000 men; it was engaged in the most desperate battle of our history, and the burden of command was too heavy for a single commander and staff. Therefore, on October 12, that portion of our front extending from Port-sur-Seille, east of the Moselle, to Fresnes-en-Woevre, southeast of Verdun, was transferred to the newly constituted Second Army with Lieut. Gen. Robert L. Bulllard in command, under whom it began preparations for the extension of operations to the east in the direction of Briey and Metz. On October 16 the command of the First Army was transferred to Lieut. Gen. Hunter Liggett, and my advance headquarters was established at Ligny-en-Barrois, from which the command of the group of American Armies was exercised.
Local attacks of the First Army were continued in order particularly to adjust positions preparatory to a renewed general assault. The First and Fifth Divisions were relieved by the Forty-second and Eightieth Divisions, which were now fresh. An attack along the whole front was made on October 14. The resistance encountered was stubborn, but the stronghold on Cote Dame Marie was captured and the Hindenberg Line was broken. Cunel and Romagne-sous-Montfaucon were taken and the line advanced 2 kilometers north of Sommerance. A maximum advance of 17 kilometers had been made since September 26 and the enemy had been forced to throw into the fight a total of 15 reserve divisions.
During the remainder of the month important local operations were carried out, which involved desperate fighting. The First Corps, Maj. Gen. Dickman commanding, advanced through Grandpre; the Fifth Corps, Maj. Gen. Charles P. Summerall commanding, captured the Bois de Bantheville; the Third Corps, Maj. Gen. John L. Hines commanding, completed the occupation of Cunel Heights; and the Seventeenth French Corps drove the enemy from the main ridge south of La Grande Montagne. Particularly heavy fighting occurred east of the Meuse on October 18, and in the further penetration of the Kriemhilde-Stellung on October 23 the Twenty-sixth Division entering the battle at this time relieved the Eighteenth French Division.
Summarizing the material results which had been attained by the First Army by the end of October, we met an increasing number of Germany's best divisions, rising from 20 in line and reserve on September 26, to 31 on October 31; the enemy's elaborately prepared positions, including the Hindenberg line, in our front had been broken; the almost impassable Argonne Forest was in our hands; an advance of 21 kilometers had been effected; 18,600 prisoners, 370 cannon, 1,000 machine guns, and a mass of material captured; and the great railway artery through Carignan to Sedan was now seriously threatened.
Taking a Musical Break at Exermont
The demands of incessant battle which had been maintained day by day for more than a month had compelled our divisions to fight to the limit of their capacity. Combat troops were held in line and pushed to the attack until deemed incapable of further effort because of casualties or exhaustion; artillery once engaged was seldom withdrawn and many batteries fought until practically all the animals were casualties and the guns were towed out of the line by motor trucks. The American soldier had shown unrivaled fortitude in this continuous fighting during most inclement weather and under many disadvantages of position. Through experience, the Army had developed into a powerful and smooth-running machine, and there was a supreme confidence in our ability to carry through the task successfully.
While the high pressure of these dogged attacks was a great strain on our troops, it was calamitous to the enemy. His divisions had been thrown into confusion by our furious assaults, and his morale had been reduced until his will to resist had well-nigh reached the breaking point. Once a German division was engaged in the fight, it became practically impossible to effect its relief. The enemy was forced to meet the constantly recurring crises by breaking up tactical organizations and sending hurried detachments to widely separated portions of the field.
Every member of the American Expeditionary Forces, from the front line to the base ports, was straining every nerve. Magnificent efforts were exerted by the entire Services of Supply to meet the enormous demands made on it. Obstacles which seemed insurmountable were overcome daily in expediting the movements of replacements, ammunition and supplies to the front, and of sick and wounded to the rear. It was this spirit of determination animating every American soldier that made it impossible for the enemy to maintain the struggle until 1919.
MEUSE-ARGONNE, THIRD PHASE
The detailed plans for the operations of the Allied Armies on the western front changed from time to time during the course of this great battle, but the mission of the First American Army to cut the Carignan-Sedan-Mezieres Railroad remained unchanged. Marshal Foch coordinated the operations along the entire front, continuing persistently and unceasingly the attacks by all Allied Armies; the Belgian Army, with a French Army and two American divisions, advancing eastward; the British Armies and two American divisions, with the First French Army on their right, toward the region north of Givet; the First American Army and Fourth French Army, toward Sedan and Mezieres.
Trenches on the East of the Meuse
On the 21st my instructions were issued to the First Army to prepare thoroughly for a general attack on October 28, that would be decisive if possible. In order that the attack of the First Army and that of the Fourth French Army on its left should be simultaneous, our attack was delayed until November 1. The immediate purpose of the First Army was to take Buzancy and the heights of Barricourt, to turn the forest north of Grandpre, and to establish contact with the Fourth French Army near Boult-aux-Bois. The Army was directed to carry the heights of Barricourt by nightfall of the first day and then to exploit this success by advancing its left to Boult-aux-Bois in preparation for the drive toward Sedan. By strenuous effort all available artillery had been moved well forward to the heights previously occupied by the enemy, from which it could fully cover and support the initial advance of the Infantry.
On this occasion and for the first time the Army prepared for its attack under normal conditions. We held the front of attack and were not under the necessity of taking over a new front, with its manifold installations and services. Our own personnel handled the communications, dumps, telegraph lines, and water service; our divisions were either on the line or close in rear; the French artillery, aviation, and technical troops which had previously made up our deficiencies had been largely replaced by our own organizations; and our army, corps, and divisional staffs were by actual experience second to none.
Click Here To See the Advances of the First Army During November..
On the morning of November 1, three Army corps were in line between the Meuse River and the Bois de Bourgogne. On the right the Third Corps had the Fifth and Ninetieth Divisions; the Fifth Corps occupied the center of the line, with the Eighty-ninth and Second Divisions, and was to be the wedge of the attack on the first day; and on the left the First Corps deployed the Eightieth, Seventy-seventh, and Seventy-eighth Divisions.
Preceded by two hours of violent artillery preparation, the Infantry advanced, closely followed by "accompanying guns." The artillery acquitted itself magnificently, the barrages being so well coordinated and so dense that the enemy was overwhelmed and quickly submerged by the rapid onslaught of the Infantry. By nightfall the Fifth Corps, in the center, had realized an advance of almost 9 kilometers, to the Bois de la Folie, and had completed the capture of the heights of Barricourt, while the Third Corps, on the right, had captured Aincreville and Andevanne. Our troops had broken through the enemy's last defense, captured his artillery positions, and had precipitated a retreat of the German forces about to be isolated in the forest north of Grandpre. On the 2d and 3d we advanced rapidly against heavy fighting on the fronts of the right and center corps; to the left the troops of the First Corps hurried forward in pursuit, some by motor trucks, while the Artillery pressed along the country roads close behind. Our heavy artillery was skillfully brought into position to fire upon the Carignan-Sedan Railroad and the junctions at Longuyon and Conflans. By the evening of the 4th, our troops had reached La Neuville, opposite Stenay, and had swept through the great Foret de Dieulet, reaching the outskirts of Beaumont, while on the left we were 8 kilometers north of Boult-aux-Bois.
The following day the advance continued toward Sedan with increasing swiftness. The Third Corps, turning eastward, crossed the Meuse in a brilliant operation by the Fifth Division, driving the enemy from the heights of Dun-sur-Meuse and forcing a general withdrawal from the strong positions he had so long held on the hills north of Verdun.
Bridge Built by 5th Division to Cross the Meuse
By the 7th the right of the Third Corps had exploited its river crossing to a distance of 10 kilometers east of the Meuse, completely ejecting the enemy from the wooded heights and driving him out into the swampy plain of the Woevre; the Fifth and First Corps had reached the line of the Meuse River along their respective fronts and the left of the latter corps held the heights dominating Sedan, the strategical goal of the Meuse-Argonne operation, 41 kilometers from our point of departure on November 1. We had cut the enemy's main line of communications. Recognizing that nothing by a cessation of hostilities could save his armies from complete disaster, he appealed for an immediate armistice on November 6.
Meanwhile general plans had been prepared for the further employment of American forces in an advance between the Meuse and the Moselle, to be directed toward Longwy by the First Army, while the Second Army was to assume the offensive toward the Briey Iron Basin. Orders directing the preparatory local operations involved in this enterprise were issued on November 5.
Between the 7th and 10th of November the Third Corps continued its advance eastward to Remoiville, while the Seventeenth French Corps, on its right, with the Seventy-ninth, Twenty-sixth, and Eighty-first American Divisions, and 2 French divisions, drove the enemy from his final foothold on the heights east of the Meuse. At 9 p.m. on November 9 appropriate orders were sent to the First and Second Armies in accordance with the following telegram from Marshal Foch to the Commander of each of the Allied armies:
|The enemy, disorganized by our repeated attacks, retreats along the entire front.
It is important to coordinate and expedite our movements.
I appeal to the energy and the initiative of the Commanders-in-Chief and of their armies to make decisive the results obtained.
In consequence of the foregoing instructions, our Second Army pressed the enemy along its entire front. On the night of the 10th-11th and the morning of the 11th the Fifth Corps, in the First Army, forced a crossing of the Meuse east of Beaumont and gained the commanding heights within the reentrant of the river, thus completing our control of the Meuse River line. At 6 a.m. on the 11th notification was received from Marshal Foch's headquarters that the Armistice had been signed and that hostilities would cease at 11 a.m. Preparatory measures had already been taken to insure the prompt transmission to troops of the announcement of an Armistice. However, the advance east of Beaumont on the morning of the 11th had been so rapid and communication across the river was so difficult that there was some fighting on isolated portions of that front after 11a.m.
Between September 26 and November 11, 22 American and 4 French divisions, on the front extending from southeast of Verdun to the Argonne Forest, had engaged and decisively beaten 47 different German divisions, representing 25 per cent of the enemy's entire divisional strength on the western front. Of these enemy divisions 20 had been drawn from the French front and 1 from the British front. Of the 22 American divisions 12 had, at different times during this period, been engaged on fronts other than our own. The First Army suffered a loss of about 117,000 in killed and wounded. It captured 26,000 prisoners, 847 cannon, 3,000 machine guns, and large quantities of material.
Doughboys at the Eleventh Hour, November 11, 1918
The dispositions which the enemy made to meet the Meuse-Argonne offensive, both immediately before the opening of the attack and during the battle, demonstrated the importance which he ascribed to this section of the front and the extreme measures he was forced to take in its defense. From the moment the American offensive began until the Armistice, his defense was desperate and the flow of his divisions to our front was continuous.
Sources and thanks: This document can be found in a number of official histories of the AEF. Elizabeth Weilbacher did a fine job with the manuscript.. Regular contributors Eric Mansuy, Herb Stickel and Ray Mentzer helped with the photos. MH
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