The Germans knew an attack was coming. They could read a map as well as anyone, and the situation in theater was particularly obvious. The St. Mihiel salient had been a problem for the French and Americans, and an American attack had reduced it. What was next? The French Army held the center of the line, near the river Aisne. The terrain here was flat and, once the Aisne was crossed, without natural barriers until an attacking army hit the River Meuse. Just beyond the Meuse lay a tempting target: the German rail junction at Sedan. Capture that, and the network that supplied the German armies in France would be cut in half.
But along the western line of that open terrain lay one forbidding feature: the Argonne Forest. Heavily wooded and on rocky ground, the Argonne was seemingly purpose-built for defense. If the Argonne remained in German hands, any French advance to the west would be taken under flanking fire by German machine guns and artillery, potentially crippling it. The Germans figured that any major offensive in the area would have to kick off with an assault on the Argonne.
Who would do it? That too was obvious. The massive traffic jam of American troops and supplies behind the lines was clearly apparent to German reconnaissance planes, and trench raids brought back prisoners for interrogation who spoke not French, but English with a peculiar accent. The German commander in the area, General Max von Gallwitz, was determined to give the Americans a stout welcome. He organized four defensive lines, fourteen miles deep and anchored by the Kriemhild Line at the rear. The Kriemhild was part of the larger German defensive system, the Hindenburg Line, that stretched from Switzerland to the Channel. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, the last organized German defense before the Heimat.
The American assault thus faced a daunting task. The German defenses were well-built and anchored in woody, uneven terrain that would make it difficult for the attackers to spot them. Worse, through the middle of the American attack lay the Meuse River, which meant that American forces would be cut off from each other as they assaulted. Whether Foch handed Pershing such a awkward position as a reward for the American General’s intransigence is speculative: tempting, but speculative.
The American plan of attack was to make the main effort to the east of the Argonne, while the French Fourth Army launched a supporting assault to the west of the forest. There would be a limited assault in the forest, to keep the German units there busy, but Pershing hoped that the side attacks would force the German defenders in the Argonne to retreat or be outflanked. That was the plan, and it survived about as long as plans normally do in warfare. In any case, at 5:30 AM the morning of September 26th, 600,000 American soldiers launched the assault after the overnight bombardment. There was a heavy fog as they attacked, which made it difficult for the German defenders to see them coming. The main goal of the infantry in the attack was to follow as closely behind the “creeping barrage,” an artillery bombardment that slowly crept forward through the German defenses and forced those defenders to keep their heads down. It was a delicate task: follow too closely and the shells would kill your own men. Follow too far away and the German machine gunners would be able to get out of their dugouts and scythe down the advancing soldiers.
That first day, things went reasonably well. The fog and the barrage combined to reduce the effectiveness of the German defenders, and the American assault got into the first and second defensive lines without overwhelming casualties. In the French Fourth Army, the American 369th (Colored) Regiment performed extremely well, reacting perhaps to their snub and to French officers who treated them with some respect. But there were some ominous portents. First, it was becoming clear that the artillery bombardment had not knocked out most of the German machine gun posts, and they were beginning to inflict casualties. In all, 9 Medals of Honor were awarded for actions on September 26th, a sign that there was sustained German resistance. Second, the American infantry was finding it enormously difficult to stay up with the barrage. Crossing the broken ground went slower than the commanders had expected. The infantry had no quick way of communicating back to the artillery units (they only had carrier pigeons), and so they dropped farther and farther behind the bombardment. Finally, the tanks used were breaking down at a rapid rate, leaving the infantry to handle strongpoints by themselves. Nonetheless, by the end of the day, Pershing had the sense that the attack was a success. The question that remained was could the Americans handle the inevitable German counterattacks and keep advancing?
In a word, no. German attacks the next day pounded into the American lines and brought the advance to a complete halt. von Gallwitz threw in his reserves as quickly as he could. Added to this was the start of several days of heavy rain, which bogged down everyone and thus worked to the German advantage. Most critically, the rain turned the supply roads behind the attack into quagmires and the logistics chain, which (under the organizing power of Colonel George C. Marshall) had been barely keeping pace, broke down almost completely.
What the Americans were discovering was the intricate knowledge necessary to fight this kind of war, and how much of it they lacked. The Germans would fire heavy gas bombardments at attackers to force them to put their masks on. The filters in the masks blocked the gas but did not allow enough air in for a soldier to keep moving. Experienced soldiers knew when they could take the masks off, quickly advance, and then put them back on. The Americans didn’t. The Americans were not prepared for the heavy casualties in their junior officers and non-commissioned officers. Those Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Corporals lead from the front and were thus frequently the first shot down. In experienced units, men far down the command structure understood what to do when their commanding officers were killed; American units frequently didn’t. The legendary exception to this, of course, was Corporal Alvin York who, after three officers and NCOs senior to him were killed, led the seven remaining men in his unit to the capture of 132 Germans. York got the Medal of Honor for his valor and the privilege of seeing Gary Cooper play him in a 1941 movie. Pershing, meanwhile, got his American attack and he was now, to his deep chagrin, in danger of it failing. The Germans, however, could not take advantage of the American weakness. The soldiers in the Meuse-Argonne area were worn down by four years of fighting and, in a sign of their bad morale, were often taking any opportunity to surrender to the Americans. They, and the rain, had halted the American advance, but they did not have the strength to push the Americans back. And Ludendorff could not shift substantial reserves into the area. Foch’s general offensive had put pressure all along the German line. To the north, the French had advanced deeply into German defenses, and the British had broken into the Hindenberg Line itself. Ludendorff felt his army shifting underneath him, and on 28th September, he told the Kaiser that it was time to ask for an armistice.
Negotiations were opened, but the war continued. Pershing, desperate to demonstrate his Army’s abilities, paused the assault, rebuilt his supplies, and rotated three fresh divisions into the line. He relaunched the attack on on October 4th and this time the Americans pushed the Germans back. Overwhelming force proved too much for German exhaustion, if at the price of heavy casualties. In the process, they rescued the “Lost Battalion,” a unit of the 77th Division who had gotten surrounded and cut off in the Argonne on October 2nd. Nobody realized they were out there until their last carrier pigeon, Cher Ami, made it back to her coop with a message pleading for help. The pigeon was wounded in the breast, blinded in one eye, and had one leg shot off, but recovered to receive the Croix de Guerre from the French, a wooden leg to replace the one he had lost, and the personal farewell of Pershing, who came and saw the pigeon’s boat off when it left France.
By October 14th, the Americans had successfully broken into the Kriemhild Line and achieved the objectives of the revamped offensive. It had cost them 117,000 wounded and dead, roughly half of all American combat casualties in the war. It had demonstrated to the French and British that the Americans could hold their own on the Western Front. Pershing had won his American battle. As part of Foch’s larger offensive, the attack had destroyed the last organized German resistance in the west. By the middle of October, what defense remained to the Germans was ad hoc and essentially futile. They were no longer fighting for victory but, as Ludendorff put it, for “better Armistice terms.”