Primary Documents - John J. Pershing on the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, November 1919

John Pershing The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, jointly launched by U.S. and French forces on the Western Front in front of the Argonne Forest east of Verdun in late September 1918, comprised one of the key offensives of the war and by the armistice had successfully driven north up the west bank of the Meuse to the Belgian border.

Reproduced below is U.S. Commander-in-Chief John J. Pershing's official account of the offensive.

Click here to read the text of an address given by local German commander Georg von der Marwitz Click here to read Erich Ludendorff's post-war reflections on the offensive's significance: he attributed much of its success to American rather than battle-wearied French forces.

John J Pershing on the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, November 1919

The definite decision for the Meuse-Argonne phase of the great Allied convergent attack was agreed to in my conference with Marshal Foch and General Petain on September 2nd.  It was planned to use all available forces of the First Army, including such divisions and troops as we might be able to withdraw from the St. Mihiel front.

The Army was to break through the enemy's successive fortified zones to include the Kriemhilde-Stellung, or Hindenburg Line, on the front Brieulles-Romagne sous Montfaucon-Grandpre, and thereafter, by developing pressure toward Mezieres, was to ensure the fall of the Hindenburg Line along the Aisne River in front of the Fourth French Army, which was to attack to the west of the Argonne Forest.

A penetration of some 12 to 15 kilometres was required to reach the Hindenburg Line on our front, and the enemy's defences were virtually continuous throughout that depth.

The Meuse-Argonne front had been practically stabilized in September, 1914, and, except for minor fluctuations during the German attacks on Verdun in 1916 and the French counter-offensive in August, 1917, remained unchanged until the American advance in 1918.  The net result of the four years' struggle on this ground was a German defensive system of unusual depth and strength and a wide zone of utter devastation, itself a serious obstacle to offensive operations.

The strategical importance of this portion of the line was second to none on the western front.  All supplies and evacuations of the German armies in northern France were dependent upon two great railway systems - one in the north, passing through Liege, while the other in the south, with lines coming from Luxemburg, Thionville, and Metz, had as its vital section the line Carignan-Sedan-Mezieres.

No other important lines were available to the enemy, as the mountainous masses of the Ardennes made the construction of east and west lines through that region impracticable.

The Carignan-Sedan-Mezieres line was essential to the Germans for the rapid strategical movement of troops.  Should this southern system be cut by the Allies before the enemy could withdraw his forces through the narrow neck between Mezieres and the Dutch frontier, the ruin of his armies in France and Belgium would be complete.

From the Meuse-Argonne front the perpendicular distance to the Carignan-Mezieres railroad was 50 kilometres.  This region formed the pivot of German operations in northern France, and the vital necessity of covering the great railroad line into Sedan resulted in the convergence on the Meuse-Argonne front of the successive German defensive positions.

The distance between "No man's land" and the third German withdrawal position in the vicinity of the Meuse River was approximately 18 kilometres; the distance between the corresponding points near the tip of the great salient of the western front was about 65 kilometres, and in the vicinity of Cambrai was over 30 kilometres.

The effect of a penetration of 18 kilometres by the American Army would be equivalent to an advance of 65 kilometres farther west; furthermore, such an advance on our front was far more dangerous to the enemy than an advance elsewhere.

The vital importance of this portion of his position was fully appreciated by the enemy, who had suffered tremendous losses in 1916 in attempting to improve it by the reduction of Verdun.  As a consequence it had been elaborately fortified, and consisted of practically a continuous series of positions 20 kilometres or more in depth.

In addition to the artificial defences, the enemy was greatly aided by the natural features of the terrain.  East of the Meuse the dominating heights not only protected his left but gave him positions from which powerful artillery could deliver an oblique fire on the western bank.

Batteries located in the elaborately fortified Argonne forest covered his right flank, and could cross their fire with that of the guns on the east bank of the Meuse.  Midway between the Meuse and the forest the heights of Montfaucon offered perfect observation and formed a strong natural position which had been heavily fortified.

The east and west ridges abutting on the Meuse and Aire River valleys afforded the enemy excellent machine-gun positions for the desperate defence which the importance of the position would require him to make.  North of Montfaucon densely wooded and rugged heights constituted natural features favourable to defensive fighting.

When the First Army became engaged in the simultaneous preparation for two major operations, an interval of 14 days separated the initiation of the two attacks.  During this short period the movement of the immense number of troops and the amount of supplies involved in the Meuse-Argonne battle, over the few roads available, and confined entirely to the hours of darkness, was one of the most delicate and difficult problems of the war.

The concentration included 15 divisions, of which 7 were involved in the pending St. Mihiel drive, 3 were in sector in the Vosges, 3 in the neighbourhood of Soissons, 1 in a training area, and 1 near Bar-le-Due.  Practically all the Artillery, Aviation, and other auxiliaries to be employed in the new operations were committed to the St. Mihiel attack and therefore could not be moved until its success was assured.

The concentration of all units not to be used at St. Mihiel was commenced immediately, and on September 13th, the second day of St. Mihiel, reserve divisions and Army Artillery units were withdrawn and placed in motion toward the Argonne front.

That part of the American sector from Fresnes-en-Woevre, southeast of Verdun, to the western edge of the Argonne Forest, while nominally under my control, did not actively become a part of my command until September 22nd, on which date my headquarters were established at Souilly, southwest of Verdun.

Of French troops, in addition to the Second French Colonial Corps, composed of 3 divisions, there was also the Seventeenth French Corps of 3 divisions holding the front north and east of Verdun.

At the moment of the opening of the Meuse-Argonne battle, the enemy had 10 divisions in line and 10 in reserve on the front between Fresnes-en-Woevre and the Argonne Forest, inclusive.  He had undoubtedly expected a continuation of our advance toward Metz.  Successful ruses were carried out between the Meuse River and Luneville to deceive him as to our intentions, and French troops were maintained as a screen along our front until the night before the battle, so that the actual attack was a tactical surprise.

The operations in the Meuse-Argonne battle really form a continuous whole, but they extended over such a long period of continuous fighting that they will here be considered in three phases, the first from September 26th to October 3rd, the second from October 4th to 31st, and the third from November 1st to 11th.

Meuse-Argonne, First Phase

On the night of September 25th, the 9 divisions to lead in the attack were deployed between the Meuse River and the western edge of the Argonne Forest.

On the right was the Third Corps, Maj. Gen. Bullard commanding, with the Thirty-third, Eightieth, and Fourth Divisions in line; next came the Fifth Corps, Maj. Gen. Cameron commanding, with the Seventy-Ninth, Thirty-seventh, and Ninety-first Divisions; on the left was the First Corps, Maj. Gen. Liggett commanding, with the Thirty-fifth, Twenty-eighth, and Seventy-seventh Divisions.

Each corps had 1 division in re serve and the Army held 3 divisions as a general reserve. About 2,700 guns, 189 small tanks, 142 manned by Americans, and 821 airplanes, 604 manned by Americans, were concentrated to support the attack of the infantry.  We thus had a superiority in guns and aviation, and the enemy had no tanks.

The axis of the attack was the line Montfaucon-Romagne-Buzancy, the purpose being to make the deepest penetration in the centre, which, with the Fourth French Army advancing west of the Argonne, would force the enemy to evacuate that forest without our having to deliver a heavy attack in that difficult region.

Following three hours of violent artillery fire of preparation, the Infantry advanced at 5.30 a.m. on September 26th, accompanied by tanks.  During the first two days of the attack, before the enemy was able to bring up his reserves, our troops made steady progress through the network of defences.  Montfaucon was held tenaciously by the enemy and was not captured until noon of the second day.

By the evening of the 28th a maximum advance of 11 kilometres had been achieved and we had captured Baulny, Epinonville, Septsarges, and Dannevoux.  The right had made a splendid advance into the woods south of Brieullessur-Meuse, but the extreme left was meeting strong resistance in the Argonne.

The attack continued without interruption, meeting six new divisions which the enemy threw into first line before September 29th.  He developed a powerful machine-gun defence supported by heavy artillery fire, and made frequent counter-attacks with fresh troops, particularly on the front of the Twenty-eighth and Thirty-fifth Divisions.

These divisions had taken Varennes, Cheppy, Baulny, and Charpentry, and the line was within 2 kilometres of Apremont.  We were no longer engaged in a manoeuvre for the pinching out of a salient, but were necessarily committed, generally speaking, to a direct frontal attack against strong, hostile positions fully manned by a determined enemy.

By nightfall of the 29th the First Army line was approximately Bois de la Cote Lemont-Nantillois-Apremont - southwest across the Argonne.  Many divisions, especially those in the centre that were subjected to cross-fire of artillery, had suffered heavily.  The severe fighting, the nature of the terrain over which they attacked, and the fog and darkness sorely tried even our best divisions.

On the night of the 29th the Thirty-seventh and Seventy-ninth Divisions were relieved by the Thirty-second and Third Divisions, respectively, and on the following night the First Division relieved the Thirty-fifth Division.

The critical problem during the first few days of the battle was the restoration of communications over "No man's land."  There were but four roads available across this deep zone, and the violent artillery fire of the previous period of the war had virtually destroyed them.  The spongy soil and the lack of material increased the difficulty.  But the splendid work of our engineers and pioneers soon made possible the movement of the troops, artillery, and supplies most needed.  By the afternoon of the 27th all the divisional artillery, except a few batteries of heavy guns, had effected a passage and was supporting the infantry action.

Meuse-Argonne, Second Phase

At 5.30 a.m. on October 4th the general attack was renewed.  The enemy divisions on the front from Fresnesen-Woevre to the Argonne had increased from 10 in first line to 16, and included some of his best divisions.

The fighting was desperate, and only small advances were realized, except by the First Division on the right of the First Corps.  By evening of October 5th the line was approximately Bois de la Cote Lemont-Bois du Fays-Gesnes-Hill 240-Fleville-Chehery, southwest through the Argonne.

It was especially desirable to drive the enemy from his commanding positions on the heights east of the Meuse, but it was even more important that we should force him to use his troops there and weaken his tenacious hold on positions in our immediate front.  The further stabilization of the new St. Mihiel line permitted the withdrawal of certain divisions for the extension of the Meuse-Argonne operation to the east bank of the Meuse River.

On the 7th the First Corps, with the Eighty-second Division added, launched a strong attack northwest toward Cornay, to draw attention from the movement east of the Meuse and at the same time outflank the German position in the Argonne.  The following day the Seventeenth French Corps, General Claudel commanding, initiated its attack east of the Meuse against the exact point on which the German armies must pivot in order to withdraw from northern France.

The troops encountered elaborate fortifications and stubborn resistance, but by nightfall had realized an advance of 6 kilometres to a line well within the Bois de Consenvoye, and including the villages of Beaumont and Haumont.

Continuous fighting was maintained along our entire battle front, with especial success on the extreme left, where the capture of the greater part of the Argonne Forest was completed.  The enemy contested every foot of ground on our front in order to make more rapid retirements farther west and withdraw his forces from northern France before the interruption of his railroad communications through Sedan.

We were confronted at this time by an insufficiency of replacements to build up exhausted divisions.  Early in October combat units required some 90,000 replacements, and not more than 45,000 would be available before November 1st to fill the existing and prospective vacancies.  We still had two divisions with the British and two with the French.

A review of the situation, American and Allied, especially as to our own resources in men for the next two months, convinced me that the attack of the First Army and of the Allied Armies further west should be pushed to the limit.  But if the First Army was to continue its aggressive tactics our divisions then with the French must be recalled, and replacements dust be obtained by breaking up newly arrived divisions.

In discussing the withdrawal of our divisions from the French Marshal Foch and General Petain, on October 10th, the former expressed his appreciation of the fact that the First Army was striking the pivot of the German withdrawal, and also held the view that the Allied attack should continue.

Gen. Petain agreed that the American divisions with the French were essential to us if we were to maintain our battle against the German pivot.  The French were, however, straining every nerve to keep up their attacks and, before those divisions with the French had been released, it became necessary for us to send the Thirty-seventh and Ninety-first Divisions from the First Army to assist the Sixth French Army in Flanders.

At this time the First Army was holding a front of more than 120 kilometres; its strength exceeded 1,000,000 men; it was engaged in the most desperate battle of our history, and the burden of command was too heavy for a single commander and staff.  Therefore, on October 12th, that portion of our front extending from Port-sur-Seille, east of the Moselle, to Fresnes-en-Woevre, southeast of Verdun, was transferred to the newly constituted Second Army with Lieut. Gen. Robert L. Bullard in command, under whom it began preparations for the extension of operations to the east in the direction of Briey and Metz.

On October 16th the command of the First Army was transferred to Lieut. Gen. Hunter Liggett, and my advance headquarters was established at Ligny-en-Barrois, from which the command of the group of American Armies was exercised.

Local attacks of the First Army were continued in order particularly to adjust positions preparatory to a renewed general assault.  The First and Fifth Divisions were relieved by the Forty-second and Eightieth Divisions, which were now fresh.

An attack along the whole front was made on October 14th.  The resistance encountered was stubborn, but the stronghold on Cote Dame Marie was captured and the Hindenburg Line was broken.  Cunel and Romagnesous-Montfaucon were taken and the line advanced 2 kilometres north of Sommerance.

A maximum advance of 17 kilometres had been made since September 26th and the enemy had been forced to throw into the fight a total of 15 reserve divisions.

During the remainder of the month important local operations were carried out, which involved desperate fighting.  The First Corps, Maj. Gen. Dickman commanding, advanced through Grandpre; the Fifth Corps, Maj. Gen. Charles P. Summerall commanding, captured the Bois de Bantheville; the Third Corps, Maj. Gen. John L. Hines commanding, completed the occupation of Cunel Heights; and the Seventeenth French Corps drove the enemy from the main ridge south of La Grande Montague.

Particularly heavy fighting occurred east of the Meuse on October 18th, and in the further penetration of the Kriemhilde-Stellung on October 23rd the Twenty-sixth Division entering the battle at this time relieved the Eighteenth French Division.

Summarizing the material results which had been at-tamed by the First Army by the end of October, we had met an increasing number of Germany's best divisions, rising from 20 in line and reserve on September 26th, to 31 on October 31st; the enemy's elaborately prepared positions, including the Hindenburg Line, in our front had been broken; the almost impassable Argonne Forest was in our hands; an advance of 21 kilometres had been effected; 18,600 prisoners, 370 cannon, 1,000 machine guns, and a mass of material captured; and the great railway artery through Carignan to Sedan was now seriously threatened.

The demands of incessant battle which had been maintained day by day for more than a month had compelled our divisions to fight to the limit of their capacity.  Combat troops were held in line and pushed to the attack until deemed incapable of further effort because of casualties or exhaustion; artillery once engaged was seldom withdrawn and many batteries fought until practically all the animals were casualties and the guns were towed out of line by motor trucks.

The American soldier had shown unrivalled fortitude in this continuous fighting during most inclement weather and under many disadvantages of position.  Through experience, the Army had developed into a powerful and smooth-running machine, and there was a supreme confidence in our ability to carry through the task successfully.

While the high pressure of these dogged attacks was a great strain on our troops, it was calamitous to the enemy.  His divisions had been thrown into confusion by our furious assaults, and his morale had been reduced until his will to resist had well-nigh reached the breaking point.  Once a German division was engaged in the fight, it became practically impossible to effect its relief.  The enemy was forced to meet the constantly recurring crises by breaking up tactical organizations and sending hurried detachments to widely separated portions of the field.

Every member of the American Expeditionary Forces, from the front line to the base ports, was straining every nerve.  Magnificent efforts were exerted by the entire Services of Supply to meet the enormous demands made on it.  Obstacles which seemed insurmountable were overcome daily in expediting the movements of replacements, ammunition and supplies to the front, and of sick and wounded to the rear.

It was this spirit of determination animating every American soldier that made it impossible for the enemy to maintain the struggle until 1919.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A Daisy Cutter was a shell with an impact fuse to explode immediately upon touching the ground.

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