Compiled by Randal S. Gaulke
On Friday evening, 21 September, 2018 American Randal Gaulke and German Markus Klauer hosted an international “Meet and Greet Dinner” for visitors to the Meuse-Argonne battlefields at the Hotel du Commerce in Aubreville, France. “Brining 26 September, 1918 to Life” is Randal’s presentation from that evening.
Over the next several minutes, I want our guests to clear their minds: Forget about the emails you need to write, the phones you need to charge, the list of places you plan to go tomorrow. For now, it is 25 and 26 September; and America’s biggest offensive in WW1 is just beginning. Listen, now, to the soldiers (and a few historians) tell their stories of that time–100 years ago today…
Marshall Plan (WW1)
Let’s start in early September:
Col. George C. Marshall “learned of his new assignment sometime on September 8 or 9 (he couldn’t remember which), when Brigadier General Hugh A. Drum, Pershing’s Chief of Staff, called him into his office.” (Lengel, p. 69.)
Historian Ed Lengel tells of Marshall, not sure where to begin, observing and sitting down by an elderly French fisherman. After a brief break to clear his mind, Marshall returned to his desk.
“Starting with the principle that “the only way to begin is to commence,” Marshall called a stenographer, spread out a map on the table, and set to work. In less than an hour he had come up with the outlines of a plan. Still unsure of himself, he sent it to Drum through a subordinate and then made himself scarce. The next morning Drum summoned Marshall to a meeting with the Commander in Chief. “That order for the Meuse-Argonne concentration you sent over last night is a dandy,” Drum remarked jovially as they walked to Pershing’s office. “The General thought it was a fine piece of work.” Marshall proudly remembered the plan as “my best contribution to the war.”” (Lengel, pp. 70-1.)
Make no mistake, the numbers behind Marshall’s plan were staggering:
“Moving up the vital support for the infantry that would soon plunge into the tangle of undergrowth and barbed wire was perhaps the biggest undertaking of all under the impromptu circumstances. There were 3,980 guns of all calibers that had to be in place by September 25th, the French crewing 1,464 of them, plus 40,000 tons of shells. Once they began firing, fourteen trainloads of shells must feed them daily from twenty-four ammunition depots established at nineteen railheads. The quartermaster needed nine more depots, the engineers demanded twelve for supplies, eight for water carts. Chemical Warfare required six. Trucks were going to transport 482,000 Doughboys, twenty-thousand at a time for an average haul of forty-eight miles, and these would need nine depots for gasoline and oil.” Etc. (Stallings, pp. 226-7.)
“The staff work, at Headquarters First Army, involved in moving, in a period of twelve nights, over roads insufficient in number the entire personnel and transport of 15 divisions can not be grasped by a person unfamiliar with such tasks. Of these 15 divisions 7 were involved in the St. Mihiel drive, 3 were in sector in the Vosges, 3 in the neighborhood of Soissons, 1 in a training area and 1 near Bar-le-Duc. To these must be added scores of batteries of French artillery, balloon units, American Army and Corps artillery and other auxiliary troops. The routes of all were bound to cross more or less…” (Bach, p. 165.)
Moving Into the Line
As the calendar advanced in September, troops began moving into the line:
“From the night of September 21st – 22nd until the night of the attack the troops of the Division were moving up, by successive stages, to the front, endeavoring in every way to conceal their movements from the prying Germans in the sky. One unit would advance from its bivouac, which would immediately be occupied by another unit. All the marches were short to enable the infantry to become settled and the artillerymen to locate and camouflage their guns before morning. The 7th Brigade was moved up first as it was to make the initial attack. It was followed by the Artillery Brigade and the latter by the 8th Brigade.” (Bach, pp. 157-8.)
“… considerable difficulty was experienced in the control of traffic. During the week preceding the attack on September 26, there poured through the bottle-neck at Fromereville an endless stream of artillery, transportation, vehicles, troops of every sort, and officers on reconnaissance–all intent on getting to the front as quickly as possible, regardless of traffic regulations and the insistence of higher authority upon the concealment of troop movements. It was only by the most drastic measures that offenders were controlled within the area of the 33rd Division and that all movements by convoys or troops were restricted to the hours of darkness between 8:30pm and 6:00am. Luckily, most of the week in question was marked by bad weather–always cloudy and often rainy–so that aerial observation was difficult, if not impossible. Another fortunate factor was the comparative supineness of the enemy artillery, which confined its operations largely to harassing fire, particularly against the roads and the forward areas which for several days prior to the battle were packed with troops and material.” (Huidekoper, p. 59.)
But it wasn’t just about troop movements, it was also about training:
“During this period from September 6 to 25, inclusive, a number of officers and enlisted men were sent away to various schools, but the maximum amount of instruction was given to the units consistent with the occupation of a so-called “quiet sector,” which, however, became more animated after the demonstration fire on the early morning of September 12…” (Huidekoper, p. 58.)
“Our ranks had been depleted by deaths, wounds and illness. While officers and platoon sergeants were assembled at headquarters for their thrilling instructions, a welcome issue of replacements was received from the 40th Division. Most of these new men had been in civilian clothes on the Pacific Coast in July. They had almost no practice with the gas mask. Very few of them, if any, had ever thrown a live grenade. Some had fired not more than 15 rounds with the service rifle. A Camp Upton veteran actually collected a five-franc note for teaching one of his new comrades how to insert a clip and thought he had pulled a good one! What he expected to do in the woods with a five-franc note, no one knew; yet it was just as safe in one pocket as in another.” Capt. Frank B. Tiebout, 305th Infantry, 77th Division. (Hallas, p. 240.)
And about equipping hundreds of thousands of men:
“…Each infantryman carried his rifle, bayonet, steel helmet and gas mask. He had 250 rounds of rifle ammunition, carried in his belt and two bandoleers, each one swung over one shoulder and under the other arm. On his back was his combat pack. This contained his raincoat, if he was not wearing it, his mess-kit and two days’ “iron rations,” which usually was two cans of corned beef and six boxes of hard bread. This is the improved form of the famed hardtack of the Civil War, and is issued now as a thick cracker, palatable and full of nutrition, but hard. A few men had a loaf or half a loaf of the excellent white army bread fresh from the baker. This was usually carried on the rifle with the fixed bayonet run through it. All carried a full canteen of water, about a quart. Occasional details carried Stokes mortar ammunition, four shells to a man, each shell weighing 10 pounds, 11 ounces. Infantry also carried ordinary explosive grenades, gas grenades, rifle grenades and incendiary grenades, but most of these were thrown away.” Clair Kenamore, 35th Division Historian. (Hallas, p. 242.)
“…Very pistols were issued to be used for signaling. Then ammunition was issued. It was for pistols of another bore. Just a few hours before the attack an appendix to battle orders was issued, giving the code readings of rockets and flares. It was a long and valuable thing. Six white balls of lights in a rocket was a call for a barrage, one white and one green meant one thing and two reds and a blue meant another, and so on down the list. Then the materials were obtained and they were all “yellow smoke.” There was no code on the list for yellow smoke. The signalers could only fire that one sign and it did not mean anything. Clair Kenamore, 35th Division Historian. (Hallas, p. 241.)
Then came the artillery barrage that started at 2:30am on 26 September:
“The air of expectancy grew as the hour of 2:30am approached. We were about to witness our first real barrage. Precisely on the hour, there came a crack of a 75 to our immediate rear. This appeared to be the signal for the vicinity, for it was followed immediately by a half dozen more, at various distances to the right and left, and then more and more in ever increasing numbers until the whole blended into a continuous crackling roar, interspersed with the full-throated navy guns several kilometers back. The close-up horizon to the rear was a thin line of lightning flashes, reaching as far to left and right as the eye could see. From then until 5:00am conversation was only possible by shouting close to the ear of the man one wished to talk to. Capt. Dale Brown, 145th Inf. Regt., 37th Div. (Hallas, pp. 242-3.)
Activities to Relieve Fear
As H-hour approached, soldiers turned to various diversions and activities to relieve their fear:
“Each enlisted man dealt with the tension and fear in his own way. The chaplain of the 313th Infantry Regiment heard eight hundred confessions on September 25 alone. Elsewhere in the same regiment, two privates spent the evening “discussing the strangely persistent presence of the number ’13’ in and around their immediate neighborhood. It had been Friday the 13th when the regiment had arrived in the Bois de Pommes, preparatory to taking the Avocourt sector. That day, as soon as midnight had gone, would be just 13 days ago. The date of the attack was just twice 13… Soldiers wrote letters home, cleaned weapons or clothes, or kept to themselves. Some cried. Others just stayed with pals and talked–anything to avoid thinking of the morrow.” (Lengel, p. 82.)
“Men prayed, held charms or performed superstitious rituals. Some chatted. Some even napped. Officers carried out a thousand duties and worried if they would show fear or let down their men. “Among the men there was no elation, no joy of battle,” recalled Sgt. Maximilian Boll of the 79th Division. “We spoke to one another with subdued spirits and arranged with one another to have our best buddy carry home a message to our folks just in case we didn’t make it.”” (Lengel, pp. 88-9.)
Finally, the time came for the first units to advance:
At 5:30, all their divergent thoughts merged into one. “This is it; this is what I’ve been preparing for; this is the moment to which all other moments of my life have been pointing.” Shouted orders erupted all along the line: “F Company, Over” “E Company, Ahead!” Third Platoon, advance! Combat groups about thirty paces. Scouts Out!”
Fog and smoke draped the battlefield as the soldiers heaved forward, their nostrils stinging with the odor of high explosives. Dim figures moved across the battlefield, dropping into shell holes and popping up again, covered with slime and mud, on the opposite sides…” (Lengel, pp. 88-9.)
“Special details had been previously sent out to cut dozens of paths through our barbed wire entanglements. Pouring out through these lanes like a black flood we formed our combat groups and began an orderly movement toward the German lines. We had no sooner begun our advance than the enemy sent up great flares. Myriads of star-shells burned overhead with bluish-white light; rockets burst in showers of little stars; broad fan-like flares mounted the heavens like the flames from a hundred smelters; green, red and white signal rockets, like fiery balls of Roman candles, hung in the sky, flickered and went out; long squirming “caterpillars” sailed upward to float high in the air, their little chains of lights burning steadily and then, one by one, disappearing. It was the most magnificent display of fireworks any of us had ever witnessed; the whole horizon seemed enveloped in a great conflagration, so stupendous in its proportions that we were momentarily awed and shaken.
Our advance continued steadily. Only the shrill whistles could now be depended upon to convey orders above the titanic, churning shriek and roar of shells. When the flares were brightest we crouched in the thousands of shell holes or froze rigidly in our tracks. We could see the bellying smoke and flying earth in the garish light when our barrage was falling. When the light died down we trudged on toward the goal. Pvt. Ray N. Johnson, 146th MG Batl., 37th Div. (Hallas, pp. 243-4.)
AEF casualties during the first five days fo fighting would be the highest experienced during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive:
“We advanced six kilometers over shell-torn roads. In some places we had to wait until engineers repaired the road. Dead Germans were scattered along the roads and fields. Some were cut up badly, with their legs and arms off, and quite a few had their heads completely severed.
While waiting for the small stretch of road to be repaired, our battery was halted in front of a first-aid station that had just been established in a shell-torn house. Immediately afterwards hundreds of wounded American boys were there. Many had their arms and legs hanging on by threads, others were shot in the chest, head and other parts of the body. It was such a piteous and sorrowful site.” Corp. David S. Garber, 107th Field Art. Regt., 28th Div. (Hallas, p. 248.)
“When we were attacking over that ground, I hadn’t thought about how many men we were losing because you can’t see everything, and when you make a report that you’ve lost six or a dozen men, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just figures, and you’re thinking mostly about the number of rifles and autos you have for the next shove.
But when you go back with time to look around and see ’em laid out in rows, or dotted all over, with fellows you know saying “Try to get a stretcher up for me,” it makes you feel pretty low… especially when you remember that the stretcher men are two or three days behind their schedule right now.” Sgt. William F. Triplett, 140th Inf. Regt., 35th Div. (Hallas, p. 251.)
“At the road where the litters were taken, we came upon two other stretcher cases just brought down the north slope… a couple of German lads. One had taken a piece of HE in the lungs. The other had a machine gun bullet through his guts. The boy with the belly wound was about 13 years old. He was jabbering to anyone who would talk to him. “This other boy is my brother,” he said. “His name is Rudolph. We haven’t been in this war very long… Only about a month… And the Red Cross man says we are going where there aren’t any shells.”
There was something pathetic about this baby and his eager interest in the strange country that lay back of the lines. Somebody translated for the benefit of the Medical Corps Lieutenant who had examined our wound. He shook his head. “I guess there won’t be any shells where that kid is going,” he admitted. “He probably won’t live til they get him into the dressing station.”
The boy, who could not understand, seemed to think that the Lieutenant was agreeing with him in the matter of safety from shells. he pulled out of his blouse a thick nickel watch. Spare wheels and corners of brass fell out of it through a jagged hole. A bullet had gone clean through it. “Do you think I can get my watch fixed in this country?” he asked me.
I gulped. “I think so,” I said. “The French are very good at fixing watches.”
“I hope so,” he said. “My mother gave it to me just before I came into this war and I shouldn’t want her to think I had been careless with it.
I tried damn hard not to bawl at that. I don’t believe I succeeded. The kid was still smiling when they loaded him into the ambulance. Lt. Bob Casey, 124th Field Art., 33rd Division. (Hallas, pp. 256-7.)
A brief pause for levity. The Dutch were NOT the first souvenir hunters:
“The elements of the 79th advanced steadily against the withering fire of the machine guns, but with frightful losses in killed and wounded. The floor of the valley for several hundred yards was thickly dotted with their dead. The German gunners, though, paid dearly for their stubborn resistance. We saw a number of German machine guns along the ridge badly wrecked and broken. Surrounding their guns were the bodies of gun crews, shot and bayoneted, lying cold in death.
All of those enemy gunners were naked to the waist and for a moment we were puzzled. It was entirely too cold and wet for human beings to exist half naked, even machine gunners. But the truth soon dawned on us. It was undoubtedly the work of the loathsome ghouls, who had hesitated on their forward movement long enough to rip or cut the clothes from the dead and search the garments as they walked along, in their eternal quest for valuables or souvenirs.” Lt. Col. George M. Duncan, 3rd Div. (Hallas, pp. 247-8.)
The Translation of a German Document Dated 29 Sept., 1918
A translated German document dated 29 September–just four days into the offensive–provides an assessment of the American soldier from the German standpoint:
“The American infantry is very unskilled in the attack. It attacks in thick columns, in numerous waves echeloned in depth, preceded by tanks. This sort of attack offers excellent objectives for the fire of our artillery, infantry and machine guns.
On the condition that the infantry does not allow itself to be intimidated by the advancing masses and that it remains calm, it can make excellent use of its arms, and the American attacks fail with the heaviest losses. For example, the 150th Regiment of the 37th (German) Infantry Division yesterday repelled 10 American attacks and today 3, without losing any ground and suffering relatively light losses.
The Americans are very much afraid of the artillery fire and especially gas shells. A few yellow cross shells are sufficient to start the gas alarm and considerable confusion. Therefore, it is recommended to continue the use of salvos of yellow cross shells, especially at night.
As to the American tanks, the troops after recovering from their first fright have been able to defend themselves excellently. Several times it has happened that tanks have been put out of commission by grenades thrown through the loopholes by the infantry…
The general opinion of the troops of the Meuse West Group is that the American troops are not a dangerous adversary when their method of fighting is known beforehand.” (Hallas, p. 257.)
One hundred years later, we all know the outcome. The inexperience Doughboys and their leaders would move up the learning curve quite swiftly; but the cost would be high. High-level officers would be sacked; junior officers and men would suffer tremendous casualties relative to their German opponents. Divisions would be moved in and out of the line; sometimes within days. Forty-seven days later, the combined efforts of the AEF, French, BEF and Belgian Armies would bring about an Armistice. But none of that was known on the eve of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive–100 years ago.
Bach, Christian A. and Hall, Henry Noble. “The Fourth Division: Its Services and Achievements in the World War.” Issued by the Division, 1920.
Hallas, James H., ed. “Doughboy War: The American Expeditionary Force in World War I.” Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, CO, 2000.
Huidekoper, Frederick Louis. “The History of the 33rd Division A.E.F.–Volume I.” Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, IL, 1921.
Lengel, Edward G. “To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918.” Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York, 2008.
Stallings, Laurence. “The Doughboys: The Story of the AEF, 1917-1918.” Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 1963.