Ninety-Eight Years Ago Today: A Look Back on Day 1 and Montfaucon

From 26  Sept. to 11 Nov. 2016–the 98th anniversary of the Meuse-Argonne–the webmaster plans to post a daily entry; some of which will be prepared by guest writers.  In most cases, the post will also contain a photograph of the grave of a soldier who died on that day and who is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.  During his recent battlefield tour the webmaster did a “random walk” of the cemetery; photographing individual crosses.  Readers are encouraged to provide any details on those persons via comment or via email.


War-time reporter turned author, Thomas M. Johnson, gave this summary of the first day of fighting in his book, “Without Censor:”


“Before dark the III Corps had broken through its part of the Montfaucon Line.  The 33rd Division had maneuvered perfectly on the Meuse.  The 80th had done well.  The experienced 4th had dashed ahead nearly seven miles, outflanking Montfaucon.  But this western wedge was still short of the Kriemhilde Line by three or four miles.

The western wedge, the I Corps, had gone not so far but fully four miles for the Grandpre Gap, breaking German resistance.  The 28th and 35th Divisions had knocked the weary 1st Guard Division almost for a loop.  The 77th had started well on its heavy task in the Argonne Forest.  The Corps’ front was not quite up to the Corps’ Objective, and was from two to four miles short of the Kriemhilde Line.

So both flanking wedges had gone far, but not so far as hoped.  The V Corps in the center had not taken its first great objective, the dominating height of Montfaucon.  The Germans still held it, and from it surveyed the battle-field.

The greenest division in that green corps, the 91st, had done best.  The Pacific Coast men had gone farther than the more experienced 28th and 35th, farther than any of our nine divisions.  It had gone seven miles, carrying forward also the left of the 37th.  But the 37th’s right and practically all of the 79th Division, were checked some two miles south of Montfaucon.  The situation was tense, for the 4th, east of Montfaucon, had passed far beyond it, leaving the 79th three miles behind the 4th’s left.  The Germans in Montfacon were in danger, but might possibly turn tables and split the two American divisions.  Luckily, they didn’t.”  (Without Censor, pp. 157-58.)


Montfaucon was taken by the 313th Inf. Regt., 79th Division on the morning of Day 2.  However, the delay has tarnished the reputation of the 79th Division and its CO, Major General, Joseph Kuhn.  It has also resulted in “what-if” speculation.  What if the advance had not been held up around Montfaucon?  Would the Meuse-Argonne Offensive have advanced more quickly, and with significantly fewer casualties?


Historian and Author William Walker covers the events of the 79th and 4th Divisions in his May, 2016 book, “Betrayal at Little Gibraltar:  A German Fortress, a Treacherous American General and the Battle to End World War I.”  Aided by the scribbled notes of a colonel in the 79th Division in the margins of a WW1 history book, William Walker began a two-decade search in archives across the country to piece together what really happened on that fateful first day.  He argues, quite convincingly, that the General Bullard, CO of III Corps, and key staff members should bear the blame for the failure because they deliberately misinterpreted of orders and, therefore, the 4th Division did not help the 79th Division take Montfaucon.  He also goes on to show how key players in the Meuse-Argonne, including General Pershing, would continue to cover the story up years after the war; so as to preserve the reputations of friends and minimize fall-out from such allegations.


The webmaster dropped the ball by failing to get Mr. Walker to write today’s entry; and he notes that the few paragraphs above do not do justice to Mr. Walker’s research or to the events surrounding the taking of Montfaucon.  However, readers are strongly encouraged to read Mr. Walker’s book; which presents a very vivid account of the 79th Division’s activities as well as the research to back up his arguments about a lost opportunity, a subsequent cover-up, and the reputations that were damaged / improved as a result of those actions.


Would the battle have been significantly shortened had Montfaucon been taken on day 1?  That discussion will require more research; including a look at the speed of German reinforcements arriving into the sector.




James A. Anderson; Pvt. 369 Inf. 93 Div.; New Jersey Sept 27, 1918