On this date 99 years ago, some 1.2 million American soldiers serving in The Great War in France were in day two of America’s largest and deadliest battle of WW I. The first all-American offensive had taken place the previous week, known to history as the St. Mihiel Offensive. This one, known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, overshadowed St. Mihiel four-fold.
Twenty-three U.S. divisions (of 43 in France) participated, making it the largest military force the U.S. Army had ever assembled up to that time. Many things would happen during the ensuing 15-day campaign, to include the saga of the Lost Battalion, Corp. Alvin York performing the most superhuman feat of the war that led to his being awarded the Medal of Honor, and the only battle between U.S. and Austrian troops that took place in Italy. Add to that the award of the first Medal of Honor to a U.S. Army aviator when Lt. Frank Luke Jr. shot down 18 German planes in 18 days before he was shot down. An Air Force base in Arizona was named for him.
The campaign ended on Nov. 11, 1918, when Germany finally threw in the towel and agreed to an armistice that ended four long years of bloody battles. The campaign began at 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 26 after a six-hour bombardment over the previous night. More than 700 Allied tanks were involved, and far more of them being disabled due to mechanical breakdowns than to enemy action.
Since American troops had proven their worth against battle-hardened German troops previously at Cantigny, Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, Aisne-Marne Offensive and Amiens, French and British commanders were willing to trust Gen. John J. Pershing, U.S. commander, by assigning him a larger sector of the impending front. He and his men proved more than worthy of such trust.
Although the campaign and its attendant battles were all successes, it was not without a huge cost in casualties. Of the dozen deadliest battles for the U.S. in WW I, the 26,277 battle deaths during the Meuse-Argonne Campaign were almost double the deaths in the other 11 battles combined.
The campaign might have gone on for more days or even weeks, but the Germans realized the end was at hand. Its citizens on the home front were starving and manpower was drying up, as were all categories of military supplies.
A sad note to the end of the campaign is that although both sides agreed to end the fighting at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, at one minute after 11 a.m., U.S. infantry Pvt. Henry Gunther of the 79th Division was killed while charging a German machine gun nest. What a way and time to go. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest decoration. The deadliest campaign for the U.S. Army was over, which also meant the war was over, and now planners had to figure out how to get two million men back from France and keep them busy doing useful tasks until their time to leave.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.