On the afternoon of September 12, 1918, in the midst of a bloody battle between the American Expeditionary Force and the German Army, two American Army officers, a thirty-two year old lieutenant colonel and a thirty-eight year old brigadier general, greeted each other on a small exposed hill. On either side of them, infantry and tanks maneuvered forward to the French town of Essey, a quarter mile to the north. Small arms fire and an occasional artillery burst kept the air alive and dangerous.
The lieutenant colonel sported a Colt .45 pistol with an ivory grip and his engraved initials. A pipe was clenched in his teeth. The brigadier wore a barracks cap and a muffler his mother knitted for him. As they spoke to each other, a German artillery barrage opened up and began marching towards their position. Infantrymen scattered and dove for cover, but the two officers remained standing, coolly talking with each other.
The Lieutenant Colonel, George S. Patton, had been in the Army for nine years, and the Brigadier General, Douglas Mac-Arthur, for fifteen, but the two West Pointers had never met. Their careers had taken them in different directions until this day during the First World War. Both officers became famous for their bravery and daring in the Second World War, yet both set the precedent for courage under fire in the First. That Patton and MacArthur did remain standing while an artillery barrage passed over is historically accepted, but what they said to each other as the shells began to drop remains a point of controversy.
During General Pershing’s desire to beat the Germans in the Argonne offensive thousands of Americans gave their lives. Others survived, like the famous US pilot Eddie Rickenbacker –
The 94th Aero Squadron, led by the man who would become the Service’s leading ace, former race-car driver Eddie Rickenbacker, arrived over the Argonne in time to catch the last of the artillery barrage. In the next few hours, Rickenbacker shot down a Fokker, and two of his squadron mates flamed German Drachen, as they called the enemy’s barrage balloons, an important contribution to blinding the opposition’s artillery.
On the 29th of September, 1918, the Germans engaged in an counter offensive –
On the 29th, the Prussian Guards launched a counterattack that caused a near rout. The diary of the German Third Army reported ‘concentrated artillery fire struck enemy masses streaming to the rear with annihilating effect.’ The oncoming German infantry were stopped by counterfire from the 35th’s field artillery, among which Battery D of the 129th Regiment, headed by Captain Harry S. Truman, performed with distinction. But on the following day, the shattered division was withdrawn.
The battle for the Argonne was brutal with thousands of casualties and numerous Americans receiving Medals of Honor for their heroics –
On the second day of that operation [early October 2018], a Tennessee mountaineer in the 82nd became a legend. Corporal Alvin York had grown up with a gun in his hands. He could knock the head off a turkey at 100 yards. When his company’s advance was stopped by German machine guns on a hill ahead of them, Future Sergeant York worked his way through the woods into the German rear with 16 other men. They captured the commander of the machine-gun battalion, but fire from the hill killed half of York’s men and pinned down the rest. With rifle and pistol York proceeded to kill 28 men on the hill without missing a shot. The German major blew his whistle and ordered the survivors to surrender. York marched them back to the American lines, scooping up more prisoners along the way, to bring his total bag to 132–plus a Medal of Honor.
The battle for the Argonne also took its toll on everyone, including General Pershing –
Pershing himself began to show signs of emotional collapse. Foch and Georges Clemenceau, the French premier, were hurling insults and demands for ‘results’ at him. Driving to the front, he buried his head in his hands and spoke to his wife, who had died tragically in a fire at the Presidio in San Francisco in 1915. ‘Frankie, Frankie…my God, sometimes I don’t know how I can go on.’
But the iron general summoned great reserves of mettle from somewhere within his warrior soul. Visiting the 90th Division, he told General Henry T. Allen: ‘Things are going badly…but by God! Allen, I was never so much in earnest in my life. We are going to get through.’ Even so, Pershing by now recognized that willpower was not enough. He decided to try brain power.
On October 10, he handed over command of the First Army to I Corps’ Hunter Liggett. The former president of the Army War College, Liggett was a thinking general. He was also 40 pounds overweight, but he parried criticism by declaring: ‘There’s nothing wrong with fat, if it isn’t above the collar.’
According to History.net, in the next few days, Americans would take thousands of casualties but gain ground –
Liggett waited until October 16 to take charge, meanwhile allowing fresh outfits, notably the 42nd ‘Rainbow’ Division, to make another try at cracking the Kreimhilde Stellung. The Rainbow, which included New York’s famous ‘Fighting 69th’ (redesignated the 165th U.S. Infantry), was assigned the forbidding Côte de Chatillon. On the night of October 13-14, Summerall visited brigade commander Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters and said: ‘Give me Chatillon or a list of 5,000 casualties.’ MacArthur replied that if they failed, the entire 84th Brigade would be on the casualty list, with his name at the top.
In the next two murderous days, MacArthur and his soldiers almost reached Summerall’s savage quota, with the brigade commander ignoring shrapnel and bullets to set an example for his men. By dusk on the 16th, they reached the crest of Chatillon and held it against a ferocious German counterattack. On their right flank, the weary men of the 32nd Division surprised themselves and everyone else by capturing another key height, the Côte Dame Marie, effectively piercing the Kreimhilde Stellung. It had taken the First Army three weeks and 100,000 casualties to reach the objective Pershing had assigned to it for the first day.
The Americans rested a few days and then in early November 1918 attacked the Germans again –
On November 1, a rested, replenished First Army renewed the offensive with a thunderous predawn barrage. The I and III corps attacked vigorously on the left and right flanks–but the main effort was a three-division smash up through the center by Summerall’s V Corps, led by the veteran 2nd Division and its Marine brigade. The Air Service roared in to strafe and bomb, in an early example of ground-air coordination. The German center virtually evaporated, and the 2nd Division gained an astonishing five miles. On its right, the 89th Division did almost as well.
The appalled Germans found their right and left outflanked and had no choice but disengagement and headlong retreat. Several times in the next few days, when the Germans attempted to set up a defense line, the Americans overran it before the enemy could issue orders to man it. On November 3, the 2nd Division marched an entire regiment through a wood by night, while the frantic enemy was trying to fortify it. In the morning the Germans found themselves in a trap. A despairing General Gallwitz was told: ‘All the front line commanders report the [German] troops are fighting courageously but just cannot do anything.’
By November 8th the Germans were beginning peace talks –
Pershing already had told President Woodrow Wilson he thought that was a poor idea. He favored fighting until the Germans surrendered unconditionally. Wilson had furiously informed him that politics were none of his business. Pershing responded by ordering Liggett and Bullard, whose Second Army had also gone into action, to attack without respite.
On November 11th, 1918, Americans were still charging forward –
But at 11 a.m. on November 11, when the armistice went into effect, most divisions of the American First and Second armies were still attacking. To the end of his life, Pershing insisted that if the battle of the Argonne (and the other Allied offensives) had lasted another 10 days, ‘we would have rounded up the entire German army, captured it, humiliated it.’