The battle of the Meuse-Argonne

(To Federico Gozzi)

In the autumn of 1918 Ferdinand Foch, commander-in-chief of the allied forces on the Western Front, gave orders to his divisions to assault the German defenses holed up on the Hindenburg Line.

The offensive took the name of "100 days offensive" and included a series of attacks on three main objectives: Ghent, Amiens and Sedan.

The British, assisted by the Belgians, attacked Ghent, while in Amiens the same subjects of His Majesty they were joined by the French. The southern sector, on the other hand, was the prerogative of the French-Americans, who initiated the offensive of the Mosa-Argonne that we will discuss in this article.

The attack in the southern sector provided for two main strands: the Ardennes would be taken by the Americans, while the Meuse, and then subsequently the Aisne, would be captured by the French. The Franco-American forces included at least 46 divisions (excluding 7 reinforcement divisions), 2780 artillery pieces, 340 tanks and 840 airplanes, while the Germans could only count on 44 divisions and the remnants of the artillery, armored divisions and air forces.

The allies launched the 26 September offensive. The Americans, led by John J. Pershing (known as black Jack Pershing, pictured), were blocked by the Germans in Mountfaucon and only one division managed to advance 8 km. The next day, however, Mountfaucon fell and were also conquered Baulny, Hill 218 and Charpentry. The German reaction did not wait and the imperial army launched a vigorous counterattack, with 6 divisions, the 29 September. After a bloody and hard battle, the US troops under the command of the future president Harry Truman, even with heavy losses, managed to repel the Germans and then proceed to the north-west of Reims, in Picardy, the scene of the bloodiest battles of the war. The French, despite the strong German resistance encountered, succeeded, in the first days of the offensive, to take more targets than the Americans, also favored by the terrain and the absence of the forest, which contained numerous Germanic fortifications.

The October 4 the Americans resumed the assault on German lines with determination. A gap was opened between the Germanic troops and a battalion of the 77 division remained trapped by its enemies. They were surrounded and with no way out. Their resistance was heroic and, as a last attempt of salvation, they released a carrier pigeon named Cher Ami, with the intent of contacting the other allied divisions. The message was delivered and the 7 October, 575 men remained surrounded, only 194 returned to the ranks of friends. This episode gave birth to the myth of the American "lost battalion".

In late October, after plenty of spilled blood, Pershing's soldiers had conquered the Argonne forest while the French had reached the Aisne. The last Allied offensive effort allowed the Americans (divided into two columns, one directed at Metz and one at Sedan) to conquer Buzancy, thus allowing the French partners to recover the Sedan rail junction, thus canceling the German logistics and compromising every their war effort.

Following this offensive, the 11 November 1918 was signed the armistice between the Allies and the German Empire. The war in Europe was over.

It must be said that the Allied offensive was not decisive on the military level but it was on the political one: the Allies never managed to completely overwhelm the German Empire, and even if the offensive had failed, there would still have been a peace, because Germany, bled by years of war, was weak and could not support further prosecution of the conflict. The Allies were exhausted and had suffered the consequences of Russia's exit from the conflict (ie the displacement of German troops on the western front and the Kaiserschlacht), but at the same time the US intervened to militarily support the Entente. This meant the arrival of new fresh troops, even if unprepared with respect to the Entente veterans, and consequently, the possibility of moving to the offensive. The Allies therefore had a numerical superiority, but not a tactical one.

Pershing, is famous for his ill-considered frontal assaults, which caused more losses than necessary. The frontal attack is excellent only when you do not have other possibilities, otherwise you risk turning the battle into a useless carnage, more than it already is. The tactics of the "elastic defense", elaborated by the French and applied by the Germans, instead, allowed to limit the losses and achieve better results. It envisaged arranging the front on three lines: in the first there were concentrated observation posts and a few soldiers, in the second there were pieces of artillery, bunkers and numerous fighters, while in the third there were the reserves. In case of attack, after a short skirmish, the first line would be back in the second, and the defense would be focused there, with the help of reserves in case of need. Needless to say, the use of this tactic contributed not to let the Germanic troops fall and to make the Western Front a bloodbath.

Although the Americans, during the offensive of the Meuse-Argonne, managed to snatch control of the forest from the Germans and, indirectly, Sedan, they suffered about 117.000 losses, as opposed to the approximately 120.000 German losses (also caused by the French), making this battle is the bloodiest and most losses in the history of the United States.

The statement is not intended to demonize the role of the US or Pershing in the conflict, since the tactics of frontal assaults were common to all WWI participants, since it was a new war in a world that was still old. The presence of aviation, tanks, machine guns, gas and innovations in the field of war, had not yet been fully understood and caused, together with imperialist motivations, unnecessary carnage, without logic. Let us remember that it was only a war to see which of the two political blocs, between the English and the German ones, would have to lead Europe.

Be that as it may, the Mosa-Argonne offensive was the last of the conflict, and helped end the Germanic Empire.

(photo: web / Bundesarchiv)