The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter 10, Part 3

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

On September 15, however, the 77th Division was relieved by an Italian division which, by the way, was commanded by a grandson of Garibaldi. The American Division had taken active part in continuous fighting for more than a month, and might be thought to have been in need of a rest. Very little rest, however, was to be its lot. It was now a proved division of combat strength, and shock troops were needed. So on September 17 the Liberty Division left its rest-camp, in the Coulonges-villers-Agron-Aquizy area. A long journey, in camions, brought them to Verrieres, whence they were to be plunged into the greatest battle of American history.

There were many people who thought that the St. Mihiel victory was the first move of a determined operation against Metz. Apparently, this was not the immediate intention of the High Command. Possibly the situation along the Western Front, as a whole, did not warrant the confinement of American effort to any one established sector of attack. Marshal Foch seemed to prefer to have the American forces so placed that they would be a mobile army, striking swiftly here, there or anywhere, within a half-wheel of range from its main base. Tactics had changed. The manoeuvres were more open, the movement of troops was quicker, the ground lost or won in a day was of greater extent then at any time since the Germans dug themselves in after their first great spurt in 1914. Open warfare had not yet come to be like that which the Americans had practiced in manoeuvres at home; indeed, there was still a formidable stretch of permanent trench front, to take which meant direct frontal attack of the kind that had thrown back the well-nigh superhuman efforts of the British and French during the four years of war. But the hold of the Germans had been shaken; the screws of the immense structure of concrete and steel were loosening. The Allies were getting used to advancing, and the German to retreating. But the latter, although driven back from the valleys of the Marne and lower Aisne rivers, still held the very important valley of the Meuse River north of Verdun, also the territory westward of that river through the forbidding forest of the Argonne, a distance of nearly twenty miles. This section was of vital importance to the Germans; it guarded their main trunk-line of railway through Sedan, one of the only two railways upon which the Germans were dependent for this supplies in France and Belgium. In case of complete disaster, the Germans must pass over these two systems or be irretrievably lost. For the allies, possession of the railway through Sedan would open the way to the Lorraine mining area, robbing Germany of her main mineral source of supply and so make it almost impossible for her to manufacture munitions to the immense extent necessary for operations of such magnitude as this War of nations called for. The defence of the Argonne was, therefore, vital to Germany, and would be the greatest of prizes for the Allies.

So, while our divisions swung from St. Mihiel to the new front that threatened the German in Lorraine, another American concentration quietly but quickly developed. The artillery, which the French had supplied us with for the St. Mihiel effort, moved with out own heavy corps and field artillery along the roads that lead past Verdun. Our big guns went along by rail.

For this offensive we were at the outset to use none of the St. Mihiel divisions; and of the veteran divisions the only ones to be in the new line were the 4th and 77th. We were to attack "a part of the old German line where no general offensive had been attempted since trench warfare began. Our right was to rest on the River Meuse and our left in the Agronne Forest, in junction with the French, who were to advance at the same times on a front as far west as Auberive-sur-Suippes." The British were to strike another blow toward Cambrai on the day after we begun. This was to be followed by an Anglo-Belgium offensive in the Ypres salient, and while these three major operations were at their height, the French were to blast the Germans out of the Aisne positions and continue to hammer them in the St. Quentin area. The flood of American troops had begun to have most marked effect. The Germans were on the defensive everywhere--and inmost places in desperate predicament--whereas, the allies were so rejuvenated, so reinforced by fresh troops anywhere, it seemed, by comparison with the stulted movement of previous years.

Probably, the most vital and difficult part of this comprehensive plan, or series of plans, was that which had been entrusted to the American Army. The sector had been the most vital to the French informer desperate years. General Pershing's headquarters were in the Mairie of the little town from which "Petain had directed the defence of Verdun and Nivelle, the retaking of Fort Douaumont, and Joffre had consulted with his generals. The road that runs past the Mairie is known as the 'sacred road'--the road which saved Verdun." Along that road had passed all the evidence of war during that tragic period when Frenchmen were fighting to the death under the inspiration of Petain's saying: "They shall not pass." And the Germans were now, perhaps, keyed to an equally high state of heroic desperation; for unless they held that front, the German legions in northern France would be pocketed. It can hardly be supposed that the German High Command was especially uneasy as to the ability of their Argonne Divisions to hold that line. The gloomy Argonne Forest contained the most devilish web of machine guns and barbed wire that the fiendish skill of war-mad man could devise. Favored by nature, the Germans had constructed such defenses as seemed to defy all the efforts of man to reduce. The French said that to capture the Argonne by frontal attack was impossible. They should know; and in four years they had not dared to face the loss in man-power that an attempt to pass through it would inevitably result. But the attempt must be at that point. The Americans thought that they could open it. At all events they were eager to try, and perhaps may be pardoned if they thought that they, in the first vigor of material manhood, had a better chance of pushing it open than the French of British, whose strength had been snapped by years of war.

For this new operation, Pershing decided to use more of the new division which had arrived during the late spring and early summer. Half of the divisions were of the National Army, and the remainder were of the National Guard, with the exception of one Regular Division. The 28th, 30th, the 33d, the 35th had been trained with the British. They were of the National Guard. The 77th and 80th National Army division had also been in British areas. In addition, there were the 37th, 79th, and 91st division. These assembled, with admirable secrecy, within two weeks of the St. Mihiel salient, ready to pounce upon the Germans on a front in which no American division had yet been seen. German aviators were very active; yet the roads as they observed them during the day were normal. Had they been able to pierce the blackness of night, they would have seen that by night we were busy ants with the eyes of owls, as we had been at St. Mihiel." Had the country been as bare as a the terrain along some of the war-blasted sectors, we could not have hoped to keep the movement secret. Here, however, vegetation was comparatively dense. The woods were "nature's camouflage of war.' In some stretches of the forest, our guns were hidden "literally in tiers"; and the foliage screened form view by day whole divisions of infantry that had marched up during the night. Beyond them in the front line, were the French, as usual. The German, therefore, had no reason to suspect that in that sector, at least, the normal would not continue. It was only a skeleton French force, but sufficient for the purpose, making it easier for our eight divisions to slip quietly into the places of the French units on the night before the attack. An indication of what infinite care was taken to keep the plan secret is seen in the work of the artillery units. A much greater concentration of artillery as effected here than at St. Mihiel. About 200 guns were massed along the front of the 77th division alone, and along the whole front to be attacked there were 3,000 guns. They were hidden in the dense woods, and to be of any use it would be necessary to clear the trees from the line of fire. But to do so before the night of attack would expose the plan. So each battery sawed through forty or fifty trees, wedging or wiring these until the hour set of the beginning of firing.

At dusk on September 25, the monarchs of the forest came crashing down. More than 1,000 trees were cleared from the way of one division. And at eleven o'clock that night, the barking of a signal gun caused lanyard to be pulled, and the greater part of 3,000 guns, ranging from small field guns to great naval guns, firing sixteen-inch shells, joined in a chorus which in official parlance is known as "drum fire," but which thunderous inferno would not have been produced by the massing and beating of all the drums in the world, no matter how zealous and strong might be the drummers. Such a bombardment would be likely to tear out the nerve centers of all who were not directly hit, one would imagine. How such an immense number could be massed along the front, and still leave other artillery concentrations shaking the very firmament on two or three other fronts is a marvel that no military expert a decade ago would have though possible. What the boys from America, who were waiting in the trenches for their zero hour, termed a "million dollar barrage," must have cost very much more every minute or two. It is said that the Americans blew from their guns that day more dollars than were spent on munitions during the four years of the Civil War. The official History of the 77th Division describes the drum fire thus: "Hell broke loose in scores of thundering voices. Suddenly the air was split with deafening explosions and the clamor and shriek of bursting shells, and soon way back in Florent and La Claon, the houses were rocking with the concussion. On left and right, the artillery of the attacking French and the other divisions of the 1st American Army joined in the chorus. Mount Vesuvius and the San Francisco earthquake and Niagara Falls rolled into one and multiplied by ten, blazed, crashed, and roared through the Argonne that night. Never had ancient quiet been shattered by a din so terrific. It was America's banner barrage of the whole War." Certainly, America was making herself heard now.

In the air she was also supreme, our Air forces having by this time become so strong and well organized that Boche plans had little chance to cross the line. It was cheering to the infantrymen to know that their own efforts were to be so well supported. One day a squadron of American airplanes flew over the line, and showered the infantrymen with leaflets, assuring them that all American branches would now coordinate their movements, to back up the men in the trenches. The leaflet read:

Your signals enable us to take the news of your location to the rear, to report if the attack is successful, to call for help if needed, to enable the artillery to put their shells over your heads into the enemy. If you are out of ammunition and tell us, we will report and it sent up. If you are surrounded, we will deliver the ammunition by airplane. We do not hike though the mud with you, but there are discomforts in our work as bad as mud, but we won't let rain storm Archies nor Boche planes prevent our getting there with the goods. Use us to the limit. After reading this, had it to your buddie and remember to show your signals.

The 77th Division was gain to go into action literally shoulder to shoulder with its companion of the Vesle-Aisne area, the boys from Pennsylvania, the 28th division, taking position on the right of the 77th. On its left was the 1st French Division, the 77th being the western-most division in the American sector. So placed, the infantrymen from New York and Pennsylvania awaited the coming of zero-hour. They had not long to wait, for, following tactics like those of St. Mihiel, Pershing had concentrated all the power of his artillery into a few hours of terrible drum fire. At 5:30 on the morning of September 26, in a dense fog, the men of the 28th and the 77th leapt out of their trenches into the unknown. The Wilderness campaign had begun. Twenty days later, the 77th Division emerged from the forbidding forest--not by the way it had entered. They had accomplished the seemingly impossible. In terrain so vitally important that the gain of a "metre was as good as mile," as the catch-phrase had it, the 77th Division had been continually pushing forward, at an average speed of a kilometer a day. "On and on it pushed," writes the "Literary Digest,' "Major Whittlesey's battalion being lost and found, men dropping on every hand, incredible deed of valor being performed, machine gun nests being taken by corporals commanding handfuls, lieutenants leading a thousand men in an advance on and on, some days with food, because the food carriers could not get up to them; on and on, reeling with fatigue, never sleeping, scarcely eating; on and on until, on the twentieth day, the entire forest was cleared of the enemy. The River Aire, flowing along its northern boundary, had been crossed, the towns of Grand Pre and St. Juvin had been captured, and the line had been firmly established north of them. . . . And it was work well done. In those twenty days, the 77th had cleared the Argonne, admittedly the most difficult twenty-two kilometers to assail, and had advanced the American lines of mud and marsh and death, and corpses and sorrow."

After a brief rest, they accomplished even more. They advanced thirty-seven kilometers in ten days--"ten days of ceaseless fighting, ten days of agony, when the skies were lighted by the constant flares and there was no sleep to relieve tortured nerves." Only one power could and did check the onward sweep of the Liberty Division. On Armistice Day, November 11, the 77th was within two kilometers of the famous battlefield of Sedan, the scene of the ignominious defeat and surrender of the French Army forty-eight years before. Some of the New York boys had actually crossed the Meuse when the order came to cease firing. The war was ended.

At that moment, of all the American Divisions, the Melting Pot Divisions was nearest the German frontier. The men from New York had gone forward with all the vim and dash that could be expected of the finest type of American manhood. Psychically, the cosmopolitan may not have been as robust as some of the farm-bred boys from the Western States, but in courage and initiative they were equal to the strongest. The 77th wrote its name very legibly into American and world history. Quoting the Official Division History: "One name above all others had the 77th Division won from the map of France and written into American history--the Argonne. If ever the patriotism of our country should wane, and the National pulse beat show, let a veteran of the Argonne rise and tell the story of courage, self-sacrifice and endurance that carried the Liberty division through this wilderness of France--to victory. In the annals of the Nation the 'Spirit of Argonne' must be placed alongside the "Spirit of '76.'" Truly, the men of the Melting-pot Division "had been put through the fire and had come out as fine steel." In the end, they had the Germans "On the run," if not bending the knee. But what an appalling battering the New York doughboys had had to bear before the Teuton resistance had been finally broken. The twenty day in the wilderness of the Argonne were as trying to the nerves, as fatiguing to the body, as the human system could bear. "Through a tangled jungle of trees, clinging vines and thickly braided brush, through swamps and muddy morasses flooded by constant rains, over steeps and across wild valleys, through the mud and the wet and the cold, the unfaltering soldiers of the 77th Division were obliged to push day after day, against invisible machine guns, against trenches concealed by foliage and underbrush, against positions whose forward areas were perfectly protected by numerous lines of barbed wire and chicken wire interlaced among the trees, against an enemy who could not be seen to be fired upon and who could only be nosed out and routed out by attacking parties that crawled along the ground and scouted from tree to tree until they could engage him in hand-to-hand combat." Ambush succeeded ambush. The advancing Americans had to carry their lives literally in this hands as the lifted a leaf to peer beyond. From an advancing stride, one sometimes, at an instant's notice, had to fall into prone position until the hail of machine gun spatter had died down, or worm one's way around the flank, leaving the machine gun nest to be "mopped up" by supporting platoons.

Imagine the state of the New Yorkers after a week of furious fighting such as this in the gloominess of the forest. September nights are chilly in France, October nights are worse; and the damp atmosphere accentuates the cold. The men were in a different position each night. To give themselves more freedom for the active fighting during the day, they had thrown away their packs. They had thrown away their slickers and most of them had neither overcoat nor blankets as they sank into muddy funk-holes to snatch a little rest in comparative safety at night. They had become used to the rain. The chilly rain had hardly ceased for one hour since they had gone over the top on September 26. These store clerks and gangsters, these merchants and bankers, these East Siders and West Siders of New York City had become "as hard as nails" in a year of training and campaigning, otherwise they could not have stood such strain upon nerve and body. Nevertheless, the strain was just as intense, even though they were strong enough to endure it.

The whole world knows of the experience of Major Whittesley and his "Lost Battalion," which is said to have answered a surrender demand with a positively impolite "Go to Hell!" Not even days of fighting to stave off the Germans who had surrounded his brave little band, or nights of grawing hunger, could bring the emphatic major to countenance the sending of a more gentlemanly message to the enemy. The "Story of the 77th Division" refers to the "Lost Battalion" thus:

In the heart of the Argonne forest there is a deep rectangular ravine so formed that it is enclosed front and rear and on both sides by steep wooded slopes. A little brook, coursing from east to west, had been joined in primeval days the a small tributary flowing directly from the south, thus disclosing nature's instruments in the production of this peculiar geographical formation, sunlight seldom penetrates into this valley, shaded by thick forest growth. It is always sombre and still there. Before the Americans went through the Argonne, the place where these two streams met had been known as the head of the Ravine de Charlevaux. Thereafter, for all time, it will be known as "The Pocket." It is the spot where the Lost Battalion fought. It is hallowed ground where starving heroes resisted against overwhelming odds with "No surrender" for their watchword.

More is written below of the "Lost Battalion" example of American grit. #1 Most of the units of the 77th--and for that matter of other American division--would have shown an equally stubborn front, had Whittlesey's predicament been theirs. Many a platoon found itself in a tight corner out of which it had to hack its way. Before it had hacked it ways through the Argonne Forest, the 77th division had suffered more than 3,600 casualties. The men from New York had essayed to pass through the Argonne. The toll was heavy, but they paid it without flinching and passed through.

"In their struggle through twenty-two kilometers of dense woods and cross the Aire, fighting against five German divisions, the 77th Division had taken, besides vast territory, included in the forest itself, the towns of Chevieres, Mareq, St. Juvin, and Grand Pre, and captured 10 cannon, 155 machine guns, and 631 prisoners," states the Division History. "The cost had been heavy. Our casualties included 24 officers and 537 men killed and 98 officers and 3,038 men wounded and missing. This was the story of the Argonne. The victory won the men of the 77th division was a moral as well as a physical one. They had shown to the world that the soldiers of America's National Army, in endurance, aggressiveness and spirit, were the equal of any soldiers on the Western Front. With the tenacity of a pack of beagles they had routed the snarling Boche tiger from the wilderness he had grown to consider forever his own. They had given a pull to the bell that was sounding the knell of German hopes. They had proved to Germany that America could accomplish the impossible. They had captured the forest of Argonne!

The 78th Division relieved the tired 77th before Grand Pre, the capture of which by the way, the 78th claimed, but, after a brief rest, the 77th division was again in the line. Then occurred an astounding rout. The haughty, imperious, imperialistic Prussian, who nine months earlier had proudly imagined that that it was God's superman, destined to rattle his sabre in all the capitals of Europe, if not of the world, had now begun to be doubtful of his glorious destiny. Teutons of other states of the German Empire had no doubts at all; they knew that Germany had lost the war; and they had had such examples of the vigor of the men from America that they were not very keen to run counter to them for much longer. In the final spurt by the 77th division, the doughboys advanced so rapidly that all previous records were beaten. But even then, they could not hold the Germans. At one time, the American generals seriously contemplated loading the infantry into motor trucks, so as to increase their mobility, but this was impracticable, owing to the state of the roads. So the doughboys had to trust their legs. Even then, the 304th machine Gun Battalion found it hard to keep pace with the first line of infantry, especially on November 2 and 3, with the regiments covered twenty-five kilometers. The machine gunners contrived to d so, but only by making each man of the battalion carry either gun, tripod or two boxes of ammunition.

As the resistance thinned, the line was so extended that the advance was in line of brigade. On the last days of the war, the 77th Division was holding a whole corps-front of twenty-five kilometers, a single regiment holding as much as seven kilometers. #2

News of the flitting of the German peace dove over the Allied lines, of the abdication and flight of the Kaiser and Crown prince and of the political chaos behind the German lines was positive enough indication to the Allied forces that the war had been won. But until peace had been declared, or an armistice agreed to, the fighting must go on, of course. On the night of November 10 there were no casualties along the line held by the 77th Division; and the next day brought no recurrence of fighting such as developed along some part of the Western Front, owing to the yearning of some embittered German generals to make the most of the last opportunity to "strafe" the hated Yankee. By comparison with the intensity of action and shellfire in earlier days, the line held by the 77th Division on the morning of November 11 was a region of comforting quietude. Still, the absolute silence that occurred at eleven o'clock, when the order to "cease firing" became effective, was uncanny. The Armistice was not signed by the Germans until they were completely spent; but the allies were humane enough, or foolish enough, to desist from punishing the disturbers of the peace of the world a it seemed they deserved.

Maybe, the majority of the men who had done the actual fighting, the gallant French and Britons and Americans, and all the brave soldiers of other Nations who had made buttresses of their bodies to stop the bloody advance of the Teuton Moloch, were content to let the punishment of the Prussian be more mental than physical. But undoubtedly, there was a very strong tendency in America to deny peace to Germany until she had at least, in her own homes, felt some degree of the torture that she had inflicted upon Belgian and French non-combatants during the terrible four years of war.

As Floyd gibbons wrote in the last days of October, 1918: "Unconditional surrender is the song of the dove of peace perched on our bayonets as we march into the dawn of victory." The bayonets of the 77th American Division were almost reaching into Germany when, with the Armistice, the German people to all intents unconditionally surrendered.

Had the American Army not be so decisively victorious in the Battle of Argonne, the Germans would probably have held their position during the coming winter; and who can say that some political change, detrimental tot he Allies, might not have occurred before the fighting of the next year began. Altogether about 800,000 Americans were engaged in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, although only about 300,000 at any one time. It is estimated that the American losses in this battle were greater then the entire force commanded by Napoleon at Waterloo, or Meade at Gettysburg. The preliminary bombardment, which marked the opening of the offensive during the night of September 25, consumed more ammunition, it is said, than was used in the whole four years of the Civil War.

The battle ended with the surrender of Bulgaria, the collapse of Turkey, the unconditional surrender of Austria, the downfall of the Hapsburg dynasty, the fall of the great German Empire, the dethronement--the abdication was not made until this was the almost certain alternative--of the emperor of Germany, the establishment of republican rule and the crushing of the militaristic power that had threatened the liberty of the world. We may be glad that America was not found wanted when the Nations of the Old World proved to be too weak to combat this monstrous militaristic power. When our own interests were assailed by the war-crazed Teutons, we had not instinctively taken to the sword--not even in defence; we have been patient, tolerant, long-suffering. But when it became clear to us that human liberty itself was in the balance, shackled by the offending militaristic caste, we hesitated no longer. For what we deemed to be the only worth-while civilization we would fight--to the death if needs be. Our young manhood went o France imbued with as fervent a spirit as that of the Crusaders. We were ready to give our lives in the defence of liberty, justice and fraternity. No dominating human group should be permitted unchallenged to flout the principles of brotherhood, or ignore the dictates of human sympathy. The inherent liberty of man must be respected. As President Wilson phrased it, we would fight to "make the world safe for democracy." We would fight a war "to end all wars."

Whether the appalling sufferings and disasters of the World War in which 60,000,000 men were mobilized, will do so is a question that only the future can decide. Pessimists are not wanting, however, in most countries, who look upon the future with apprehension and gloom, believing that the 16,800,000 deaths caused by the most terrible of all wars will scarcely deter one incensed human group from flying at the throat of another human group, to avenge some National affront. Not even the cries of the 6,000,000 human wrecks--men who went into battle strong, physically-perfect men and emerged permanently disabled mentally or physically--will be heard above the angry clamor of impetuous Nations who would resort to arms rather than to arbitration. Such it seems is the illogical, uncontrollable characteristic of mankind. The United States, for instance, in a moment of anger, would hardly be deterred by the thought that 120,000 of its noblest citizens laid down their lives in bringing the militaristic German to reason, nor would they think of the billions of National wealth that the operation cost. One hardly imagines that the State of New York, when confronted by some supposed National insult in the future, would at once recall that the State was bled to the extent of more than 14,000 #3 of its finest manhood by the World War. However, the future must tell its own story; that of the past is glorious, though harrowing.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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