MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE (26 September–11 November 1918). In April 1917, when the United States declared war against the Central Powers, the contending European powers had long been deadlocked in trench warfare. The entry of the United States gave hope to the French and British, but hostilities persisted for another bloody year and a half before the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) were ready for a major part in the decisive Allied offensive.
When the war began in 1914, U.S. regulars consisted of only 5,033 officers and 93,511 soldiers. The National Guard had about 67,000 men; the U.S. Marines, a mere 10,386. The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 spurred Congress to enlarge the reserve and standing forces, but a concerted drive for battle readiness would not come until the formal declaration of war.
French and British leaders wanted the existing American regiments to replace veteran Allied divisions and for the new units to consist of infantrymen and machine gunners. Controversy smoldered over the U.S. decision—resolutely embodied by General John J. Pershing—to build the AEF into a power able to assume responsibility for a part of the front.
During the seemingly interminable buildup, American units reaching France were first trained by Allied instructors
and then given front experience under Allied commanders in quiet sectors, starting near Saint-Mihiel on 5 February 1918. Meeting the Champagne-Marne crisis of May–July 1918, Americans at Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood sealed a German break through the French lines. In these operations, the French practice of ordering open attack rather than a dug-in defense wasted lives and vindicated Pershing's stubborn insistence on leading an organic, self-contained American force. (Pershing later compromised, allowing the gradual allocation of about one division in every three to serve under the French, the British, or the Belgians.) By early August, Pershing had formed the First American Army, nineteen divisions responsible for one hundred miles of the Lorraine front. Pershing made ready for what proved to be the grand Allied offensive that ended the war.
The Meuse-Argonne offensive began on 26 September 1918, when the First Army advanced northward with the ultimate goal of reaching Sedan, thirty-five miles distant and the strategic hub of German lateral railroad communications. The American left deployed via the Argonne forest, the center for the towering Montfaucon bastion, and the right mustered along the Meuse River. The German defenses were entrenched in four lines ten miles deep. The third German line checked the advance on 3 October. The First Army had destroyed sixteen German divisions. While Pershing planned his next offensive, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg advised Kaiser Wilhelm II to seek peace.
During a relatively slack period while he awaited fresh troops and supplies, Pershing formed the Second Army under Robert L. Bullard and gave the First Army to Hunter Liggett. Pershing in the meantime had been granted equality with the commander in chief of the French armies, Henri Philippe Pétain, and the British commander in chief in France, Douglas Haig. The Americans dispersed the third German line on 31 October. In the clearing of the deadly Argonne was the saga of the "Lost Battalion" and the unparalleled exploit of Sergeant Alvin C. York.
All along the western front, the Germans were near exhaustion. Forty-seven of their divisions, one-fourth of their force, had been committed in a hopeless attempt to halt the American advance. On 1 November the Americans pushed six miles through the last German line and onto the heights of Barricourt. Capture of that high ground compelled the Germans to retreat west of the Meuse. More than 1.2 million men in twenty-one divisions took part in Pershing's climactic Meuse-Argonne offensive. Overshadowed by the giant American drive, ten U.S. divisions simultaneously fought under Allied control in other sectors. On Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, as supreme U.S. commander, Pershing commanded 1,981,701 men.
Cooke, James J. Pershing and His Generals: Command and Staff in the AEF. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.
Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917–1918. New York: Norton, 1999.
Palmer, Frederick. Our Greatest Battle: The Meuse-Argonne. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1919.
Pershing, John J. My Experiences in the World War. New York: Stokes, 1931.
R. W.Daly/a. r.