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The Meuse-Argonne Offensive Overview

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive remains one of America’s most significant battles in both men and equipment engaged, and in losses of dead and wounded. This offensive showed that the United States was prepared to take its place on the stage of world affairs. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive lasted from September 26 through November 11, 1918, a total of 47 days. The American involvement included 1.2 million personnel. During the offensive, 53 individuals were awarded the Medal of Honor. 26,277 were killed and 95,786 were wounded. Twenty two infantry divisions participated, supported by 840 aircraft and 324 tanks. 4 million shells and 2,400 artillery pieces were fired during the 47-day offensive.

Sedan, the goal of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 1918.

In September 1918, rapid increase in American troops in Europe and the resulting Allied and American successes during the summer of 1918 led to plans for a gigantic convergent offensive movement against the German forces on the Western Front. Under these plans the American Army was to advance northward between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest, supported on the left by the French Fourth Army west of the Argonne.

Meuse-Argonne traffic jam, 1918

The American attack was to be directed against a vital hub of the German controlled railroad, which converged in the northern French town of Sedan. An attack in the vicinity of the Meuse River, if carried far enough to gain control of the lateral railways, would divide the German armies.

The natural landscape of the Meuse-Argonne sector made it ideal for defensive fighting, favoring the Germans. The heights just east of the Meuse River were a formidable barrier and allowed for observation and artillery fire coverage of the country to the east and west. The Germans had organized these heights, the dominating hill of Montfaucon, and the broken hills of the Argonne Forest into an impregnable defensive line with the addition of machine guns, artillery, trenches and barbed wire.

This made the task of the American Expeditionary Forces extremely difficult. The only feasible strategy was to drive into the enemy lines by frontal assaults creating salients, and to exploit these penetrations. The Allied High Command, though recognizing the difficulty of an advance in this sector, understood that these operations would have far-reaching effects and that it would be essential to the success of the general plan.

Leading up to September 26, 1918, American troops moved into position for the Meuse-Argonne offensive under the cover of darkness. African-Americans of the 371st and the 372nd Regiments, assigned to the French, remained as outposts until the last moment to keep the enemy from learning of the large concentration of the arriving American troops. Remarkably, over 600,000 American soldiers moved into position without alerting the enemy.

Artillerymen under command of Col. William Tidball of the 35th Division, firing upon enemy lines beyond Verdun in the Argonne advance.

American forces overran the first German line on Day One of the offensive, and compromised the second with the capture of Montfaucon on September 27. Attacking into formidable defenses on a twenty mile front, American divisions had little alternative but to batter their way forward a few yards at a time. The Germans poured in reinforcements, committing forty-seven divisions by the end of the campaign. The American offensive ground on, pausing as exhausted units were replaced, losses of equipment made good, lines of communication restored, and logistics staged forward. General John J. Pershing reorganized American forces in mid-October, creating Second Army under Lieutenant General Robert L Bullard and putting First Army under Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett. Pershing became Army Group Commander. Renewed attacks jumped off on October 4, October 14 and November 1. The final German defensive lines cracked, and the Americans pursued the retreating enemy across the breadth of their front. At 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the war came to an end with the German capitulation and their acceptance of an Armistice, remembered ever since as Armistice Day.

64th Infantry Brigade, 32nd Division in Ecurey at the moment of the armistice 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.