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World War I Western Front: General Pershing Pushes for Meuse-Argonne

by William Stroock

At 0100 hours on September 12, 1918, German positions in the St. Mihiel salient on the Western Front were lit up by a massive artillery barrage. In all, more than 3,000 Allied guns of all sizes and calibers bombarded the previously quiet position. To the Germans’ surprise, the barrage ceased after only four hours, and American troops on the north and south sides of the salient emerged from their positions and started the perilous trek across no-man’s-land. The Germans were stunned by the speed and ferocity of the assault. Their lines were lightly manned, while many of the defenses had been neglected. German units were caught hunkering down in their bunkers in preparation for an expected renewal of the artillery barrage.
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Not since the Civil War had the U.S. Army assembled a mightier force. On the south side of the salient were two U.S. corps comprising seven divisions. On the north were an additional three divisions, one of them French. Seven American divisions remained in reserve. In all, more than half a million men supported by 267 tanks and 600 aircraft were gathered for the first grand American offensive of World War I. The American First Army was commanded by General John J. Pershing, a career soldier with much combat experience in Mexico and the Philippines.

A Silent Retreat?

German and Austrian resistance crumbled before the onslaught. Within two days, American forces had cleared the salient, establishing a line less than 10 miles from Metz, the German-held city and crucial crossroads. The attackers seized more than 400 artillery pieces and 700 machine guns, along with 16,000 prisoners. The Americans suffered 7,000 casualties. In truth, the Yanks were lucky. Although well planned and executed, the assault was carried out against a phantom enemy. Knowing that the St. Mihiel salient was an easy target and sensing that American forces were massing in the south for some sort of offensive, General Erich Ludendorff, the German commander on the Western Front, had begun quietly withdrawing troops from the sector two days earlier.

French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the supreme Allied commander, had tried unsuccessfully to prevent the St. Mihiel attack from happening in the first place. The day he turned over command of the sector to General Pershing, Foch visited his headquarters and proposed that the attack be drastically scaled back and that American reserves be dispatched to the Aisne sector. This was the revival of an old scheme, advocated by the British as well as the French, in which American troops would be dispersed piecemeal among Allied forces. The Allies initially demanded that the Americans simply be used as replacements for battered British and French units.

Foch Folds; Pershing Advances To Grandpre

General Pershing strongly disagreed. “The further we proceeded in the discussion,” he recalled later, “the more apparent it became to me that the result of any of these proposals would be to prevent, or at least seriously delay the formation of an American army.” The two generals argued for some time. Foch pressed his demand to divide the American army. Finally, Pershing said, “Marshal Foch, you have no authority as Allied commander in chief to call upon me to yield up my command of the American army and have it scattered among Allied forces where it will not be an American army at all.” “I must insist,” Foch said. Pershing replied, “Marshal Foch, you may insist all you please, but I decline absolutely to agree to your plan.”

As the price for Foch’s reluctant acquiescence, Pershing had to give up his old idea of pushing toward Metz; instead, he shifted his forces for a grand attack in the Meuse-Argonne in conjunction with French and British forces. Pershing’s task was to advance 10 miles and link up with the French Army on his left at the town of Grandpre, at the northern tip of the Argonne. This would be followed by a second drive another 10 miles north to a line between the towns of Stenay and Le Chesne on the River Meuse. He was instructed to push German forces off the heights on the east bank of the Meuse. For that task he had three corps: I, II, and V. Guarding Pershing’s right was the French XVII Corps, positioned on the east bank of the Meuse.

Hard Fighting Ahead

Several factors would make this attack much rougher going than St. Mihiel. First, the Germans were waiting for a fight. The battle area was occupied by Army Group Von Gallwitz, part of the German Fifth Army. Overall, there were five divisions in line, with another 12 in reserve. Most of these formations were understrength, some by as much as a third. General Max Von Gallwitz was an experienced general who had seen action in Russia and at Verdun and the Somme. Second, the American First Army would be pushing north through the Aire Valley with the Argonne Forest on its left and the Meuse on its right. The terrain was dotted by woods not yet leveled by artillery and by several hills, all of which the Germans fortified. There were also three lines of defense, including the Kriemhilde Stellung, part of the Hindenburg Line of fortifications, running across the Romagne and Cunel Heights, just north of the main line, and the Freya Stellung, three miles farther north.

The heights on the east bank of the Meuse were also well defended. German positions there could deliver artillery and machine-gun fire into the American flank and would have to be neutralized. Third, the logistical situation was much more difficult, with the American sector being fed by three narrow and badly neglected roads. Lastly, because Pershing’s best divisions had been deployed at St. Mihiel, where they now rested and regrouped, the attack would have to be made by tens of thousands of only partially trained troops. Five divisions, the 35th, 37th, 79th, 80th, and 91st, were hurriedly pulled out of training areas and thrust into line.

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