Sunrise was still many hours away when the densely packed forest of the Argonne on the Western Front lit up with the whistles and cracks of fired and exploding artillery on September 26th, 1918 (the same day as the Saint-Quentin Canal offensive). The mountainous and wild woodlands of the Argonne had been scarred by the war, but plenty of trees remained standing. The thick forests became shrapnel as the Allied artillery groped to find and destroy the Hindenburg Line trenches that protected the southern flank of the critical Sedan rail junction along the Meuse river. As the Germans huddled in their positions, awaiting the inevitable infantry attack, they at least felt confident knowing the Allies would have to make their way across large sections of open terrain; perfect targets for machine guns and artillery.
Opposing them would not be the usual assortment of weary British soldiers or beleaguered French troops. 15 divisions of American “doughboys” would lead the charge, with 31 French divisions fighting alongside – 1.2 million Allied soldiers in all. The American divisions were twice as large as any European counterpart, but for many of the young men in the trench, this would be their first significant action in the Great War. Over the next 47 days, the United States would get it’s first – and last – taste of the horrors of the trench system of the Western Front. Reputations would be won and lost, including multiple Medals of Honor for the battle. And the Meuse-Argonne Offensive would claim more American lives than any battle in the nation’s history*.
For the better part of a year after their declaration of war, the United States’ participation in Europe’s death struggle had matched the dismissive evaluation of former German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg who declared that American support of the Allies would only result in the “delivery of food supplies to England, financial support, delivery of airplanes and the dispatching of corps of volunteers.” And for the part better of 1917, America struggled to even match that analysis. Continue reading