Armistice Centennial: The Final Days Of The Great War Part Two – St. Mihiel & Meuse-Argonne

November 5, 2018 by oriskany

Supported by (Turn Off)

Welcome to Part Two of our article series commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War One. We’re also reviewing what would become known as the “Hundred Days Offensive” that finally led to this momentous, and solemn, milestone of history.

Great War 2A

Armistice Centennial: The Final Days Of WWI Interview

If you’re just joining us, take a moment to check out Part One, where we summarized the background of the Western Front in 1918 and the opening of the Hundred Days Offensive. This included French and American victories at the Marne and Soissons, as well as British, Australian, and Canadian action at Amiens and the Somme.

Now we shift to the southeast, back to the sections of the Western Front held by French armies, rapidly being reinforced by ever-increasing numbers of American troops. The next big phase of the Hundred Days opens here through September and October of 1918, with the Battles of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

"Black Jack" Pershing & The AEF

America had entered World War One early in 1917. But the US didn’t maintain a large standing army in those days, and so had to build one almost from scratch, then ship it over the ocean to the battlefields in France. Even for a nation with America’s population, economy, and industrial base, this was no small feat.

Great War 2B

Even after this army was in place (nothing approaching appreciable numbers until early 1918), there was the problem of experience. Outside of small wars against the dying Spanish Empire and a few incidents in Asia and the Caribbean, the vast bulk of the American military had never heard a shot fired in anger.

The commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. From the outset, Pershing faced strong pressure from British and especially French generals to immediately feed his new American divisions into Allied armies already standing in place, under British and French command, naturally.

Pershing, of course, would have none of it, and adamantly insisted that American divisions fight together, organized into American corps and armies, as an independent American command. Even as he eventually won this argument, Pershing had to admit that his men – strong, fresh, and eager as they were – lacked any battlefield experience.

Great War 2C

Accordingly, a compromise was reached, and earlier in 1918 select US divisions fought as part of British and French armies. Small numbers of Americans played a role in halting the St. Michael Offensive under British direction, and a larger role with the French in the Blücher-York Offensive. This led to the legendary Battle of Belleau Wood, covered in greater detail in our Great War series earlier this year.

But after American success alongside the French in the Second Battle of the Marne (July and early August 1918), the Americans felt ready to launch their own army-sized offensive as part of the overall Allied effort. The first phase of this operation would be an assault against the St. Mihiel Salient, in the Verdun-Metz region of northeastern France.

Battle Of St. Mihiel

The St. Mihiel Salient was a lopsided triangle of German-occupied France, about thirty miles across, running (very roughly) from Verdun to the northwest to St. Mihiel in the southwest to Metz in the northeast. The German Fifth Army had ten to twelve divisions plus support brigades and artillery entrenched here, a total of over 150,000 men.

Great War 2D

The position was a vestige of German advances during the bloodbath battles of Verdun as far back as 1916. The French called the salient “l’Hernie” (the Hernia), and as the nickname suggests, were more than keen to be rid of this position once and for all.

Although largely remembered as an “all-American” battle, it must be remembered that perhaps a third of the forces committed to the battle were in fact French. Although American divisions led the way, the French II Colonial Corps and three French divisions attached to US V Corps were tasked to provide support and reserve roles.

As a new army, the Americans were also sorely lacking in heavy equipment, like artillery and tanks. As a result, virtually all field guns and every one of the tanks used in the St. Mihiel Offensive were French. A young Lt. Colonel named George S. Patton fought his first big tank battle here, but we must remember he did it with French tanks.

Great War 2E

The battle began in the wee hours of 12th September 1918. In a driving rain, American artillery opened fire against German positions all along the St. Mihiel Salient. After working over German road centres, reserve positions, and artillery batteries, fire shifted to the front line at 05:00 to support the actual infantry assault.

The main assault came from the southeast, formed around seven American divisions of I and IV Corps. These included the 1st US Infantry (The Big Red One), the 82nd Infantry (later to become the famous 82nd Airborne), and the 2nd US Infantry (including the 4th US Marine Corps Brigade of Belleau Wood fame).

The lead assault companies were accompanied by squads of combat engineers equipped with wire cutters and “bangalore torpedo” explosive tubes for blasting gaps through German barbed wire. Bridging engineers were also there to breach rivers the Germans had incorporated into their defence.

Great War 2F

American tank units, equipped with French “FT” and “Schneider” types, supported the attack. In particular, 1st US Tank Brigade was commanded by a young Lt. Colonel George Patton. This brigade was split, with the 326th Tank Battalion supporting US 1st Infantry Division and the 327th supporting 42nd Infantry Division.

Part of the 42nd Infantry was the 84th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General Douglas MacArthur. As 327th Tank Battalion moved up to support, Lt. Colonel Patton found and conferred with MacArthur on a hill overlooking the battlefield. The meeting was routine combat procedure but assumes fateful foreshadowing given the role these men would play in World War II.

In the end, the offensive on St. Mihiel was only a partial success. Although the American assault succeeded in clearing the salient, the Germans had plenty of warning – a Swiss newspaper had reportedly even published part of the timetable. Accordingly, the Germans had already drawn up “Plan Loki,” a phased withdrawal from the exposed position.

Great War 2G

Also, French cooperation was far from flawless. Although they provided the Americans with tanks plus 400 more tanks in their own brigades, II Colonial Corps did not pin down German units to prevent their withdrawal. Nor did they pursue once “Plan Loki” started. Thus, most of the Germans escaped the salient, frustrating American ambitions for a more decisive victory.

Still, Pershing’s detailed operational planning and “up front” tactical leadership by men like Lt. Colonel Patton made this an important win for the fledgeling AEF. Massive air cover also played a key role, with 1,431 aircraft supporting the attack (led in part by American air legend Colonel Billy Mitchell) - although only 40% of these were American, the other 60% were British, French, and even Italian.

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

General Pershing soon called a halt to the St. Mihiel Offensive, withdrawing units to assign them to a new, much larger operation, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This attack would include more French support, starting in late September and extending all the way to the very end of the war on November 11th.

Great War 2H

The Meuse-Argonne would be the largest (and bloodiest) military operation yet mounted in American military history. Historian Carlo D'Este writes that the three-hour artillery barrage would expend more ordinance than both sides fired through the entire four years of the American Civil War.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive would take its name from the two major terrain features on the battlefield, the Meuse River to the east (running generally south to north, toward the Belgian border) and the Argonne Forest, dominating the western landscape. In all the assault corridor would be about thirty miles wide and thirty miles deep.

Whereas the St. Mihiel Offensive had been a primarily American operation with French support, the larger Meuse-Argonne Offensive would feature much larger French formations in an equal role. In addition to the AEF’s First Army, the French Fourth and Fifth Armies would also participate, primarily off the American left wing.

Great War 2I

The offensive started on 26th September and although the Americans made good progress on the first day, disorganization and American inexperience (leading to very steep losses in some areas) stalled progress on the second day. German reserves were then mobilized for powerful local counterattacks, leading to further complications.

The French, meanwhile, actually exceeded initial American advances, partly because the terrain was more open in their sectors of attack. Renewed American advances starting on October 4th then outpaced the French, creating dangerous gaps in the Allied front, exacerbated by choppy coordination between American and French divisions.

Great War 2J

One such gap resulted in the infamous “Lost Battalion” incident with the 77th US Infantry on the far left of the American line. Garbled communications about just how far neighbouring French divisions had advanced resulted in part of the 77th being cut off by counterattacking units of 2nd Würtemburg Landwehr Division and 76th Reserve Infantry Division (LVIII Corps), recently transferred to the German Fifth Army.

Cut off for several days, shelled by their own artillery, and hammered by German attacks, survivors of the Lost Battalion were finally relieved by elements of the 1st US Infantry (Big Red One) and 82nd Infantry (future 82nd Airborne). Seven Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded for the action.

In the end, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was a success, despite 120,000 American and 70,000 French casualties. German losses were even worse, and the Allied advance was still underway (just ten miles shy of the Belgian border) when the Armistice of 11th November ended the fighting.

Great War 2K

Perhaps the most poignant perspective on American forces fighting in France can be taken from a simple inscription painted on the walls of the Verdun fortress, recorded years later in the Yank army weekly newspaper:

Austin White – Chicago, Illinois – 1918
Austin White – Chicago, Illinois – 1945
This is the last time I want
to write my name here.

Now it’s over to you, the OnTableTop community. What do you think of these closing battles of the Great War? Have you tried any of them on the gaming table? What do you think of the difficulties of coordinating allied units from other nations? Post below, and thanks as always for reading.

Come and take part in the discussion below and follow along with the article series as it develops...

"The first phase of this operation would be an assault against the St. Mihiel Salient, in the Verdun-Metz region of northeastern France..."

Supported by (Turn Off)

"One such gap resulted in the infamous “Lost Battalion” incident with the 77th US Infantry on the far left of the American line..."

Supported by (Turn Off)