To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918

To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918

by Edward G. Lengel

The authoritative, dramatic, and previously untold story of the bloodiest battle in American history: the epic fight for the Meuse-Argonne in World War IOn September 26, 1918, more than one million American soldiers prepared to assault the German-held Meuse-Argonne region of France.

Six weeks later, after savage fighting across swamps, forests, towns, and rugged hills, the battle finally ended with the signing of the armistice that concluded the First World War. The Meuse-Argonne had fallen, at the cost of more than 120,000 American casualties, including 26,000 dead.

In the bloodiest battle the country had ever seen, an entire generation of young Americans had been transformed forever.

To Conquer Hell is gripping in its accounts of combat, studded with portraits of remarkable soldiers like Pershing, Harry Truman, George Patton, and Alvin York, and authoritative in presenting the big picture.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.09
  • Pages: 512
  • Publish Date: January 8th 2008 by Henry Holt and Co.
  • Isbn10: 0805079319
  • Isbn13: 9780805079319

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In 9 AD, in the depths of the Teutoberg Forest, a confederacy of Germanic tribes ambushed and annihilated a force of three Roman legions (read about the battle in Schamas Landscape and Memory and you will have Anselm Kiefer nightmares); in the fall and winter of 1944 a number of US divisions bled out in the Hürtgen Forest, where the Germans had nested machine gun teams in cunningly camouflaged log redoubts and artillery that fired into the treetops to make airbursts of razor-sharp of splinters. (The largest US military cemetery in France isnt in Normandy - its in the Meuse-Argonne.) Those are small numbers by the standards of the Western Front the British lost 19,000 killed on the first fucking day of the Somme but the American wastage stood out then, and stands out to historians now, because many of the casualties can be directly traced to US officers inexperience and ignorant, pigheaded disdain of French and British advice. Black Jack Pershing, actually thought his troops were stronger and braver than the supposedly timid, trench-cowering Europeans, and that the vaunted American rifleman, striding across No Mans Land with his bayonet fixed and his aim sure, could overcome the barbed wire, machine guns, gas, and artillery barrages - all the innovations of war - that had stopped the British and French the previous three years (Lengel describes US troops being shot down while struggling to cut through belts of wire already hung with skeletons in tattered French uniforms). Chauvinism much like Pershings had allowed three generations of European officers to ignore the data of the American Civil War and of their own colonial wars namely, that the range and accuracy of the infantrymans rifle, and the rapid fire of the machine gun, made frontal wave attacks against an entrenched defender suicidal. I didnt abandon To Conquer Hell because Ive always wanted to know how the US raised a million-man modern army, shipped it to France, and supplied, trained, and deployed it decisively all in 18 months. Pershing was right, in a way his soldiers were excellent, but only insofar as they ignored his tactics and adapted their killing skills to the tasks before them, belly-to-the-dirt tasks like infiltration of enemy lines and the patient outflanking and neutralization of machine gun nests.

There were some brave and competent field and company grade officers who led from the front; many of them got shot in the front. Also, officers were given senseless orders to "attack at all costs" without knowlege of local terrain or resistance. "Flung into the attack almost as soon as they arrived, alongside officers and men who did not know their names and clutching rifles they could not load, many died without firing a shot." And no one had been trained sufficiently in attacking machine gun emplacements: sometimes, a bayonet won't do. Having the advantage of defense, the Germans had registered many points along lines of the US attack--to deadly effect from moment of any attack: "At the beginning of the advance, Lieutenant Maury, later San Antonio Congressman Maverick's company numbered two hundred men.

Fought over a period of forty-seven days, from September 26 to November 11, 1918, the Meuse-Argonne sucked in 1.2 million American soldiers, leaving 26,277 of them dead and 95,786 wounded. No single battle in American military history, before or since, even approaches the Meuse-Argonne in size and cost, and it was without question the countrys most critical military contribution to the Allied cause in the First World War.It may have been "the most critical military contribution" but we should recognize that by the time of the Meusse-Argonne, Germany was mostly a defeated army. Those two nations did not understand modern warfare at the beginning of the war and it took them quite some time to finally understand that sending men "over the top" into the face of machine guns and artillery would simply yield a horrendous number of dead soldiers. (The British suffered nearly 20,000 fatalities on a single day - July 1, 1916 - in the Battle of the Somme.) I was frustrated that General "Black Jack" Pershing thought himself so much better than they that he couldn't have even ventured the observation that men with rifles and bayonets and a will to win were simply not enough.As a battlefield general, Pershing had been mediocre.

Raymond found himself in Company K, 309th Infantry, of the 78th Division probably in late Sep or early Oct 1918. Known as the Lightening Div, it had moved into battle lines during the night of Oct 15th and was ordered into the attack at 0600 on 16 Oct. The term fog of war literally came into play. The 78th was to have been guided into battle lines by soldiers of the 77th Div which was already in the fight. This went on for much of the day, until the attack stalled, on a line parallel with Hill 182, north of St. Juvin." It is almost certain that this is the action during which Raymond was killed.

This is possibly the result of the duration of the battle which is dwarfed by the activities of the previous 4 years and the preponderance of French and English literature covering WW1. Unfortunately history tells us that, despite the time, the casualty rate was unnecessary, and was the result of inexperience and hubris on the part of the US Army leadership particularly Pershing and his generals.

This is not an easy read, but overall, I gained greater respect for the American Soldiers and the contribution in blood and sacrifice in this war to end all wars.

I strive to capture that feeling in my writing, tours, and presentations to reduce the distance between our present and our collective past.