The Meuse-Argonne offensive, 26 September-11 November 1918, was the southern part of the great triple offensive that broke the German lines on the Western Front. It was also the biggest battle fought by the American Expeditionary Force during the war.
Ferdinand Foch’s plan called for three offensives aimed at forcing the Germans out of France and Belgium. In the north the Belgians, British and French would attack through Flanders. In the centre the British and Empire forces attacked the Hindenburg Line between Cambrai and St. Quentin. Finally to the south the French and Americans would attack between Reims and Verdun, along the Meuse and through the Argonne Forest.
The Meuse-Argonne offensive would be launched by the American First Army, under General John Pershing, and the French Fourth Army under General Henri Gourand. The Americans held the eastern part of the line, from Forges on the Meuse, north west of Verdun, to the centre of the Argonne Forest. The French Fourth Army then took over to Auberive to the Suippe, east of Reims. The Americans faced a very difficult task. The German lines were up to twelve miles deep, and had been under development since 1915. The second line was based on the hill of Montfaucon, the third line (the Hindenburg Line) on hills at Romagne. The entire area was hilly and wooded, cut by steep sided valleys, many running across the proposed line of advance.
The area was also badly supported by road and rail links. The Americans had only recently fought a battle at St Mihiel, (12-13 September 1918), east of Verdun, and Pershing had to transfer 600,000 men along three minor roads to reach his new front west of the city. The fighting at St. Mihiel had also inflicted heavy losses on some of Pershing’s best units, and so the attack in the Argonne had to be made with many fresh inexperienced troops.
The combined Franco-American attack began on the morning of 26 September. Over the first five days the French advanced nine miles, penetrating deeply into the German lines. The Americans did less well. Their attacks were enthusiastic, determined but not always well organised. Along the Meuse they were able to advance five miles, but in the Argonne forest they were only able to move two miles. By the start of October the divisions used in the initial assault were exhausted, and Pershing was forced to order a halt while new divisions replaced them in the line. During this period Foch came under great pressure from Clemenceau to replace Pershing, but Foch was well aware of the difficulties facing the Americans and stood his ground.
The second phase of the battle began on 4 October. The Americans launched a series of costly frontal assaults that finally began broke through the main German defences between 14-17 October. By the end of October the Americans had advanced ten miles and had finally cleared the Argonne Forest. On their left the French had advanced twenty miles, reaching the Aisne River.
The advance continued during the first eleven days of November. On 6 November the French Fourth Army and the US I corps were approaching Sedan, and the crucial Sedan-Metz railway line came under artillery fire, threatening a key German supply line. There was an element of confusion over which army would get the honour of capturing Sedan which saw the US 1st Division advance towards the city only to ordered to halt to allow the French to take the city, scene of a humiliating defeating during the Franco-Prussian War. The battle only ended with the final armistice, at 11.00 am on 11 November 1918.
The battle became known for the “lost battalion”. During the first phase of the battle, elements of two battalions from the 308th Infantry had become isolated in a steep sided gully between Bois d’Apremont and Charleveaux. The Germans held the ridgeline. From 2 October to 7 October the 650 men of the lost battalion held on against determined German attacks, suffering 450 casualties before they were finally relieved by the advancing 77th Division.
The battle was also noteworthy for the performance of three regiments from the American 93rd Division, manned by black soldiers. These regiments were operating with the French 161st Division, wore French uniforms and used French equipment. The US Army barely used its black regiments, having seemingly forgotten the lessons of the American Civil War where black soldiers had performed very well. In contrast the French had been using African troops throughout the war, and saw the 93rd Division as no different from other American troops. By 28 September all three regiments were heavily engaged in the fighting, taking part in the advance and capturing a series of villages. By the time they were relieved, the three regiments had suffered 2,246 casualties.
The Meuse-Argonne offensive cost the Americans 117,000 casualties, the French 70,000 and the Germans 100,000. The American casualties represented 40% of their total battlefield losses during the war. Amongst those losses were 48,909 dead. In a dreadful irony, the Spanish Influenza would eventually kill 53,000 American soldiers before the end of the war.