This Day in History: The WWI Meuse-Argonne Offensive begins

On this day in 1918, the Meuse-Argonne offensive of World War I begins. Allied forces were determined to push the Germans out of France and back into Germany. More than 1.2 million American soldiers would ultimately participate in the multi-week offensive.

We lost a lot of good men during those long, brutal weeks. Today, more than 14,000 American soldiers are buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial. It’s the largest resting place for our military men and women overseas.

The American Expeditionary Force was then facing a tough task: The Germans had occupied this part of France for years, and they’d installed elaborate defenses. American soldiers would not only have to fight the enemy, but they’d be working their way through barbed wire and past machine gun nests to do it.

The offensive was scheduled to begin at 5:30 a.m. on September 26, but Pershing planned to lead with 3-hour bombardment. It must have been a sight to behold. “During the three hours preceding H Hour,” military historian Carlo D’Este concludes, “the Allies expended more ammunition than both sides managed to fire throughout the four years of the Civil War.”

The bombardment may have cost as much as $1 million per minute!

Some of that fire was delivered by then-Captain Harry S. Truman, who was in charge of one battery of field artillery. One private remembered Truman giving a pep talk to his men. “I want to tell you this, too, fellows,” Truman said. “Right tonight I’m where I want to be—in command of this battery. I’d rather be right here than be President of the United States. You boys are my kind. Now let’s go in!”

A fair bit of irony in the pep talk, given Truman’s ultimate destiny? 😉

As the artillery raged, one WWI Ace was in the skies overhead, leading five planes. He would speak of what the bombardment looked like from the sky: It was “a solid belt of flashes, lighting up the world.”

In the meantime, soldiers got ready for “H hour.” “We spoke to one another with subdued spirits,” one sergeant later described, “and arranged with one another to have our best buddy carry home a message to our folks just in case we didn’t make it.” Nevertheless, they were ready to go. “At zero hour we started on our greatest of all adventures,” one private reported. “I cannot truthfully say that I was not somewhat afraid, yet I remember I did not in the least hesitate to scramble up the trench on the word, ‘Let’s go.’”

The fighting was tough. Allied forces made advances, but not as many as they would have liked. In the weeks that followed, heavy rains would create problems, too. Tanks became bogged down in mud and resupply efforts were hampered. The Germans were fighting off a flu epidemic, but they had also gained reinforcements—and they had the high ground.

Nevertheless, after weeks of brutal fighting, the persistence of America and her allies paid off. The Germans began to retreat—and an armistice was finally signed on November 11.

World War I had finally come to an end.