Meuse-Argonne Offensive

September 26 to November 11, 1918

Pershing's HQ in Chaumont is now a police training facility, at the time of my visit, inaccessible to the public.
Although the Central Powers knocked Russia out of the war in 1917, their blockaded economies were tettering on the brink of collapse and their spring 1918 offensives in France were halted in desperate fighting.  In places like Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood, American manpower helped stop the Germans.  Perhaps as important, the arrival of the Americans boosted the morale of the Allies, who now knew that victory was inevitable.  Although the commander of the American Expeditionary Force John J. Pershing had allowed American units to be detached for the emergencies of the spring and summer of 1918, he had strict orders to fight his army as a united army, not as auxiliaries of the French and British.  America, in fact, was an associated power, not one of the Allies, and President Wilson had more idealistic goals than the bloodied Allies.

With the repulse of the German offensives and the success of Allied counter-offensives, supreme commander Ferdinand Foch planned a general attack.  The Americans were supplied from ports in the west of France - to simplify the lines of communication, the American army massed near Verdun, south of the bulk of the Allied forces.  As part of a previous plan the Americans, with French help, reduced the St. Miheil Salient south of Verdun, a salient which had cramped the supply of Verdun since the early battles of 1914.  The Germans evacuated the salient during the offensive, and the Americans gained a quick success.  Rather than continue the attack toward Metz to the east, which would threaten German rail transport, industry, and coal mines, the Americans shifted their attention north to the Meuse-Argonne sector in accordance with Allied wishes.  Although this planned new offensive is sometimes described as following a massive shifting of troops, few troops were moved from the St Mihiel area as the new Meuse-Argonne operation had been in the making for some time.  Now the Americans would attack north through rolling hills and forests studded with four lines of German fortifications.  Sedan, the ultimate objective, was a point of enormous strategic importance.  The railroad through Sedan was used by the Germans to supply their armies in France.  If Sedan could be captured, perhaps a decisive victory could be won.

Nine American divisions, each twice the size of European divisions, vastly outnumbered the German - an 8 to 1 advantage.  On the right flank French divisions would attack on the east side of the Meuse River.  On the left flank, the French 4th Army attacked.  A three hour bombardment from 2,775 guns along a 40 km front announced the offensive at 2:30 am on September 26th.  Although first day objectives were not met, progress was good, with the advance passing Montfaucon on both sides.  The hilltop town would fall the next day, but the delay caused by Montfaucon allowed the Germans to bring in reinforcements, with seven divisions being added to the five already there.  Progress slowed around Romagne Heights, but on October 5th an attack forced the Germans to fall back from the Argonne Forest.  On October 6th, an attack east of the Meuse helped relieve flanking fire from the Meuse Heights.  German and American reinforcements were brought in.  On October 14th, the Americans broke through the Hindenburg Line.  A decisive attack on November 1st convinced the Germans to fall back behind the Meuse.

By November 11th, doughboys were overlooking Sedan and the railroad that supplied the German army in France, but French and British progress elsewhere along the front meant that cutting the rail line no longer held the importance that it once did.  The great American contribution to the Allied offensive had been drawing German reserves that otherwise would have faced the advancing British and French armies.  Although it perhaps does not reflect this drawing in of German reserves, this French animated map gives the bigger view, showing the disappearance of German reserves.  Elsewhere in the world, the Ottomans had exited the war, and following an Allied breakthrough in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary made peace, abandoning Germany and leaving them to potentially face an attack from the south.  On the Western Front the Allied and American armies had put enough pressure on the Germans to shatter the morale of the men in the ranks and force their commanders to commit most of their reserves.  German divisions were ground down to skeletons of their former selves.  Any additional defeats would be catastrophic.  Although some Germans after the war would deny it, Germany was well and truly beaten on the battlefield and was on the verge of political and social revolution.  Three days before a planned major offensive on November 14th, an offensive that was to include an American advance toward Metz that included the landing by airplanes of special attack troops, the Germans signed an armistice in Marshal Foch's rail car at Compiegne.  The "War to End All Wars" was over - the Kaiser had been forced to abdicate and America was now a major world power.

Initial Attack:

77th and 28th Divisions in the Argonne

28th Division

Route Nationale

35th Division

91st and 37th DivisionsUnder Construction

79th DivisionUnder Construction

33rd DivisionUnder Construction

East of the Meuse:

29th Division  Under Construction

Butte Vauquois

The scene of stagnant mine warfare that had blown the top off a hill, creating two ridges, Butte Vauquois was one of the difficult areas in the American attack sector, and it dominated the land below it.  The Americans of the 35th Division abandoned the trenches here on the hilltop five hours before the attack.  The bombardment of the hill was intense.  When it lifted, two American companies advanced immediately behind the barrage, killing and capturing the Germans as they emerged from their bunkers.  Meanwhile, Americans on either side of the butte penetrated the German line.

1918 Trench Map From George C. Marshall Library

Missouri Memorial

The 35th Division was a Missouri and Kansas National Guard unit.  Harry Truman was an artilleryman in the division.  George Patton was wounded nearby leading the 1st Tank Brigade against an observation post in Cheppy.

Looking West From Memorial at Varennes

The 28th Division was a National Guard unit from Pennsylvania.  The Aire River is below.  The Argonne Forest is in the distance.

German Position

This concrete German position near Malancourt was taken by the 79th Division on its way to Montfaucon.

79th Division Area Looking West and North to Montfaucon


Montfaucon Church

An ancient town on a hilltop, Montfaucon was an early objective of the attack.  The American monument was built on the ruins of town.  Just to the north are the remains of a church.  The town itself was rebuilt nearby.


American Memorial at Montfaucon

There are 234 steps to reach the top.  The view is worth it.

South From Monfaucon Tower

Road at left extends to Consenvoye on the Meuse.  Le Mort Homme and Hill 304 were bitterly contested during the 1916 Battle of Verdun.  Verdun is something over 10 miles to the southeast.  The 79th Division attacked from Malancourt, skirting the Bois de Monfaucon, with the 37th and 91st Divisions attacking through the forest.  The 35th Division captured Butte Vauquois.  Varennes was the approximate border of that division and the 28th, which attacked through the Argonne Forest.

View From Southwest to North

The Argonne Forest stretches from behind Varennes to the right side of the panorama.  The 28th and 77th Divisions attacked through the forest from left to right.

From Montfaucon Tower Looking North

Romagne is beyond and o the left of Cunel.


Lost Battalion

Actually men from several units, the "Lost Battalion" was a group of 554 men lead by Major Charles Whittlesey who, on October 2nd, advanced too quickly and became isolated behind German lines.  The area was dominated by two hundred foot heights on either side, and the men were quickly pinned down.  One hundred ninety four were relieved, unscathed on October 7th, with 197 killed and the rest wounded, captured, or missing.  That day, Whittlesey refused a German invitation to surrender.  Among the many difficulties encountered was loss to 'friendly' artillery fire.  The unit was highly decorated, with Whittlesey himself being awarded the Medal of Honor.  Whittlesey, a New York lawyer, had volunteered for the Army.  The experiences of war and his post-war fame were too much for him.  He committed suicide in 1921.


Lost Battalion

This is to the west of the previous panorama, I believe near the Charlevaux Mill site, so the men were actually up this valley to the right, beyond the pond.  At the time of my visit in 2010, the area was being logged.


German Cemetery at Apremont

This German cemetery is to the east of the Lost Bn. site.

Romagne Heights  - Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

The cemetery sits on land fought over on October 14th - captured by the 32nd Division.  Men took cover in shell holes where the pool is at the bottom of the hill.  At over 130 acres, and containing the graves of 14,246, it is the largest American military cemetery in Europe.  


Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery - Chapel

The chapel features incredible stone work and stained glass with the symbols of the divisions involved in the fight.

Sedan - Marfee Heights

Reaching the heights above Sedan, the railroad supplying the German army was effectively cut.  


The Noyers-Pont-Maugis Cemetery has dead from both World Wars.

Copyright 2010-20 by John Hamill

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