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World War I: Meuse-Argonne Offensive

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World War I: Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Gen. John J. Pershing, US Army

Photograph Courtesy of the US Army

Meuse-Argonne Offensive - Conflict:

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was one of the final campaigns of World War I.

Meuse-Argonne Offensive - Dates:

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive began on September 26, 1918, and ended with the conclusion of the war on November 11, 1918.

Armies & Commanders:

Allies

Germans

  • General Georg von der Marwitz
  • 450,000 by the end of the campaign

Meuse-Argonne Offensive - Overview:

On August 30, 1918, the supreme commander of Allied forces, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, arrived at the headquarters of General John J. Pershing's 1st US Army. Foch ordered Pershing to effectively shelve a planned offensive against the St. Mihiel salient as he wished to use the American troops piecemeal to support a British offensive to the north. Outraged, Pershing refused to let his command be broken apart and argued in favor of moving forward wit the assault on St. Mihiel. Ultimately, the two came to a compromise.

Pershing would be permitted to attack St. Mihiel but was required to be in position for an offensive in the Argonne Valley by mid-September. This required Pershing to fight a major battle, and then shift approximately 400,000 men sixty miles all within the span of ten days. Stepping off on September 12, Pershing won a swift victory at St. Mihiel and began moving his troops to the Argonne. Coordinated by Colonel George C. Marshall, this movement was completed in time to commence the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on September 26.

Unlike the flat terrain of St. Mihiel, the Argonne was a valley flanked by thick forest to one side and the Meuse River on the other. This terrain provided an excellent defensive position for five divisions from General Georg von der Marwitz's Fifth Army. Flush with victory, Pershing's objectives for the first day of the attack were extremely optimistic and called for his men to break through two major defensive lines dubbed Giselher and Kreimhilde by the Germans. In addition, American forces were hampered by the fact that five of the nine divisions slated for the attack had not yet seen combat.

Attacking at 5:30 AM on September 26 after a prolonged bombardment by 2,700 guns, the final goal of the offensive was the capture of Sedan which would cripple the German rail network. The initial assault made solid gains and was supported by American and French tanks. Falling back to the Giselher line, the Germans prepared to make stand. In the center the attack bogged down as troops from V Corps struggled to take the 500-ft. height of Montfaucon. Elsewhere the difficult terrain slowed the attackers and limited visibility.

Seeing a crisis developing on Fifth Army's front, General Max von Gallwitz directed six reserve divisions to shore up the line. The arrival of additional German troops ended American hopes for a quick victory in the Argonne. While Montfaucon was taken the next day, the advance proved slow and American forces were plagued by leadership and logistical issues. By October 1, the offensive had come to a halt. Traveling among his forces, Pershing replaced several of his green divisions with more experienced troops, though this movement only added to the logistical and traffic difficulties.

On October 4, Pershing ordered an assault all along the American line. This was met with ferocious resistance from the Germans with the advance measured in yards. It was during this phase of the fighting that the 77th Division's famed "Lost Battalion" made its stand. Elsewhere, Corporal Alvin York won the Medal of Honor for capturing 132 Germans. On October 8, Pershing made a push on the east side of the Meuse with the goal of silencing German artillery in the area. This made little headway. Two days later he turned command of the 1st Army over to Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett.

As Liggett pressed on, Pershing formed the 2nd US Army on the east side of the Meuse and placed Lieutenant General Robert L. Bullard in command. Between October 13-16, American forces began to breakthrough the German lines with the capture of Malbrouck, Consenvoye, Côte Dame Marie, and Chatillon. With these victories in hand, American forces pierced the Kreimhilde line, achieving Pershing's goal for the first day. With this done, Liggett called a halt to reorganize. While collecting stragglers and re-supplying, Liggett ordered an attack towards Grandpré by the 78th Division. The town fell after a ten-day battle.

On November 1, following a massive bombardment, Liggett resumed a general advance all along the line. Slamming into the tired Germans, the 1st Army made large gains with the V Corps gaining five miles in the center. Forced into a headlong retreat, the Germans were prevented from forming new lines by the rapid American advance. On November 5, the 5th Division crossed the Meuse, frustrating German plans to use the river as defensive line. Three days later, the Germans contacted Foch about an armistice. Feeling that the war should continue until the German's unconditionally surrendered, Pershing pushed his two armies to attack without mercy. Driving the Germans, American forces allowed the French to take Sedan as the war came to a close on November 11.

Aftermath

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive cost Pershing 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded, making it the largest and bloodiest operation of the war for the American Expeditionary Force. American losses were exacerbated by the inexperience of many of the troops and tactics used during the early phases of the operation. Germans losses numbered 28,000 killed and 92,250 wounded. Coupled with British and French offensives elsewhere on the Western Front, the assault through the Argonne was critical in breaking German resistance and bringing World War I to an end.

Selected Sources

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  3. Military History
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  5. Battles & Wars: 1900s
  6. World War I
  7. World War I Battles - Western Front
  8. Meuse-Argonne Offensive - World War I Meuse-Argonne Offensive

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