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Meuse-Argonne Offensive: Second Phase

 

The second phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive opened on October 4, 1918 and would continue to October 28, 1918.  During this period the Americans cleared the Argonne Forest but incurred high casualties due to a reliance upon frontal assaults.  No American troops have fought better than the doughboys who slugged their way through the Meuse-Argonne, but the field generals who led them ranged from mediocre to abysmal.  As for the commander in chief, Pershing had great strengths as a commander, but skillfully directing operations was not one of them.  In that he was akin to Eisenhower in the Second World War, but his generals had not a fraction of the talent of Eisenhower’s generals.

A  German assessment of the shortcomings of the AEF in the Meuse-Argonne was all too accurate:

The initial attack was carried out according to schedule but the successive waves showed great ineptitude in following up the advance. Officers as well as men did not understand how to make use of the terrain. Instead of seeking protection when they encountered opposition they merely fell back. To crawl backward or forward on the ground or to advance in quick jumps does not seem to by understood by the Americans. They remain lying on the ground for the time being, and then just stand up again and try to advance.

Neither in mass formations nor individually do the Americans know how to conduct themselves in an attack.

The higher command, also, did not understand how to grasp quickly the new situation and exploit it to the best advantage. After the infantry had reached its objective the higher command failed. They were not familiar with the tactical principles in the use of divisions and attack units for the destruction of the enemy. It was therefor possible for the [German] Army Detachment, under the most difficult conditions, to extricate itself from its precarious situation in one night, and, with only a short distance intervening between it and the enemy, to occupy new positions of resistance…

As the Offensive went on there were improvements.  Many of the more incompetent commanders were sacked, and the officers and men learned the hard and deadly way what worked in combat and what didn’t work.  However, considering the wealth of Allied experience in combat the Americans had to draw on, there is little excuse for the AEF’s failure to benefit from this experience.

In 1989 Army historian Colonel Rod Paschall summed up the situation:

 

There was no question that the individual American soldier [in the Great War] fought, and fought well. But the types of attacks they were conducting were extremely costly. Their leaders appeared to have no concern for losses. The American assault was little more than a human wave into the face of German machine guns, a weapon that the Americans treated with contempt. Their doctrine favored the rifle, yet except for a few highly skilled marksmen their use of that weapon appeared to be little different than that of their European counterparts. They insisted on huge divisions, perhaps because the knew they did not have the officers to direct a larger number of more reasonably sized units. However, [after the slow down in the Argonne ] they were in the process of reducing the size of these organizations. Pershing was also eliminating some of his more inept general. And, most important, they were attacking. Losses or not, the Americans kept coming on.

 

 

Here is General Pershing’s report on the second phase of the Offensive:

 

 

 

At 5.30 a.m. on October 4th the general attack was renewed. The enemy divisions on the front from Fresnesen-Woevre to the Argonne had increased from 10 in first line to 16, and included some of his best divisions.

The fighting was desperate, and only small advances were realized, except by the First Division on the right of the First Corps. By evening of October 5th the line was approximately Bois de la Cote Lemont-Bois du Fays-Gesnes-Hill 240-Fleville-Chehery, southwest through the 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 withdrawal of certain divisions for the extension of the Meuse-Argonne operation to the east bank of the Meuse River.

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, General 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 kilometres 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 1st to fill 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 dust be obtained by breaking up newly arrived divisions.

In discussing the withdrawal of our divisions from the French Marshal Foch and General Petain, on October 10th, 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.

At this time the First Army was holding a front of more than 120 kilometres; 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 12th, 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. Bullard in command, under whom it began preparation for the extension of operations to the east in the direction of Briey and Metz.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

4 Comments

  1. “As for the commander in chief, Pershing had great strengths as a commander, but skillfully directing operations was not one of them. In that he was akin to Eisenhower in the Second World War, but his generals had not a fraction of the talent of Eisenhower’s generals.”

    Don, I think you are correct. Same was true in the Pacific in WW2, where MacArthur’s lieutenant generals were also talented but were denied recognition. Why do you think this was so? Did we have these talented men in WW2 because they witnessed this loss of life in WW1?

  2. The US Generals in World War I were too young for the Civil War. The only wars they fought in, if they were lucky, were the Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurrection, small skirmishes by the standards of World War I. They were peacetime bureaucrats, most of them, suddenly tossed into situations at the very end of their careers that none of them were prepared for. The Generals of World War II, on the other hand, had early in their careers the experience of World War I and saw how badly it was handled. They learned hard lessons from that conflict, lessons that they used to good advantage a little over two decades later. In short, they had a combat officer’s view of the world and they trained the Army with that mindset after the big expansion of 1940.

  3. To Pershing’s great credit, he recognized he wasn’t getting the job done and kicked himself upstairs. And he picked as his replacement Hunter Liggett, who was the only American army commander who demonstrated a functional learning curve. Liggett gave the First Army a chance to refit, catch a breather and then sent it forward with smarter objectives, not trying to drown the Germans in American blood.

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