The largest offensive in American military history began 100 years ago tomorrow when some 1.2 million Americans launched an offensive in northern France that helped end World War I.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which lasted until Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1918, resulted in over 122,000 American casualties including 26, 277 deaths. More Americans died in this forgotten World War I battle than in all American wars since 1975, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq.
America was a latecomer to the First World War but, American involvement in the final offensive of World War I on the Western Front proved decisive in ending years of stalemate and trench warfare.
The offensive also proved decisive in forcing the surrender of Germany and the other Central Powers. The offensive simply exhausted the will and resources of Germany after four years of constant war.
Initially President Woodrow Wilson had favored allowing American troops in World War I to serve under British and French command in order to secure his political goals. Luckily the chief American commander, General John “Blackjack” Pershing, a brilliant but forgotten hero, thwarted this idea, declaring, “We came American. We shall remain American and go into battle with Old Glory over our heads. I will not parcel out American boys.”
In the end a few Americans were re-assigned to help depleted allied units notably the 369th “Harlem-Hellfighters” regiment which fought with the depleted French Army during the campaign.
The offensive focused on an area of North-Eastern France located near the Belgium and Luxembourg borders. The Germans had seized the higher ground in the region in 1914, and built substantial defenses. The allies knew that if they could make a breakthrough here, the war could be ended after four years of stalemate and casualties on a scale no one had imagined at the beginning. American soldiers were coming off the successful offensive at St. Mihiel and were in good fighting spirit. This was war at its worst – hellish fighting on horrible and broken terrain. It was a series of battles where success was measured in clawing a few miles here and there against stone-walled resistance where the dense wood favored the German defenders.
The Meuse-Argonne offensive would create one of the most enduring heroic American tales, that of the Medal of Honor winner, Sergeant Alvin York, who led an attack on a German machine gun station that killed 25 enemy soldiers and captured another 132.
The battle was also notable for the valiant actions of the 77th Division, and America’s “Lost Battalion” which had been encircled by German forces but held their ground for six days.
The 369th “Harlem-Hellfighters” regiment, a unit of African-American soldiers almost suffered the same fate of being surrounded. The unit out performed its French counterparts in the opening part of the offensive advancing faster than the French could keep up and fighting its way through 9 miles of heavy German resistance before falling back. Perhaps as a result of its assignment to the French army the 369th saw more combat than any other American unit in the war.
It was also the cauldron for future American leaders such as Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, and George Patton.
This American-led offensive would go on until the end of the war and reshape the world forever. It was American troops that prior to the offensive stopped the last German attempted advance and then with the Meuse-Argonne offensive, broke the back of German resistance, which would ultimately lead to the day we now call Veterans Day, originally a commemoration of the Armistice created by the conditions of the Meuse-Argonne offensive on November 11, 1918. The Germans would be forced to sign a humiliating peace agreement on a railcar — the same one the Nazis would use in 1940 when accepting France’s surrender. In 1918, that was all in the future, the success of the Meuse-Argonne offensive put America on the path from world power to a superpower, changing the landscape of international relations forever.
The legacy of the Meuse-Argonne offensive is hard to calculate however, it likely ensured that Europe would not be divided up between exhausted-teetering democracies, expansionist monarchies, and militaristic communists. Although America would engage in self-defeating pseudo isolationism as a result of World War I’s cost, it enabled America to be in a position to succeed in the Second World War, the Cold War and beyond.
Lamont Colucci is a former diplomat with the U.S. State Department and a professor of international relations.
This article was originally published by AMI Newswire on 25 September, 2018.