The Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26th – November 11th, 1918), was the largest battle in U.S. military history as measured by either the casualty rate or the number of ground forces involved.

Twenty-two divisions saw action, about 1.2 million soldiers were deployed, 26,277 were killed and 95,786 were wounded.

The 1916-style attack began with a massive artillery barrage, followed by the advance of nine mostly green U.S. divisions and three French divisions along a front of about twenty miles. American divisions were more than twice the size of British or French ones, so this was an operation on a scale that the other Allies were no longer able to mount. Unlike in 1916 the attack pushed the German defenders back as much as about five miles in the first three days and these gains were held and consistently advanced as the German didn’t have sufficient forces to effectively counterattack.

Crown Prince’s Observation Post

The Germans had regarded this sector as ‘quiet’ since, due to the inhospitable nature of the terrain, it seemed an unlikely place for an attack. Some units were temporarily posted here for rest and reorganization, and many of the defenders were older reservists.

Intertwined with the Meuse Argonne Offensive is the story of the man proclaimed by the press as “America’s Greatest Hero” of WW1, Sgt. Alvin C. York (1887-1964), of Co. G, 2nd Bn., 328th Infantry.

On October 8th, 1918 York’s battalion was ordered to attack north of the village of Chatel-Chéhéry, France, with the objective being to cut the Decauville rail line. They were soon stopped cold by German machine gun fire. York was one of 18 men detailed to infiltrate behind a machine gun position and silence it.  His Congressional Medal of Honor Citation reads:

After his platoon suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.

It was widely reported that when the soon-to-be Sgt. York met his Brigade commander, Brig. General J. R. Lindsey, who supposedly said “Well York, I hear you have captured the whole damn German army.” York, who would become famous for his taciturnity, responded “No sir. I got only 132.”

The Sgt. York story is much too long to retell here. There is an excellent article in Wikipedia which you can read here. You can watch the 1941 movie featuring the also-taciturn Gary Cooper in his Academy Award winning portrayal of York, you can read a new biography or you can even visit the Sgt. York State Historic Park in Pall Mall, TN.

In recent years there has developed a fierce controversy over the exact location of York’s action. York himself led dignitaries and reporters to the spot in 1919 but nobody bothered to keep track of it. Two groups have done extensive research, one using modern geospatial techniques and the other traditional archeological mapping. Each says that they have found the place, but they disagree by about  500 meters. These teams are ‘The Sgt. York Discovery Expedition’, led by U.S. Army Col. (ret.) Douglas Mastriano, and ‘The Sgt. York Project’ headed by Thomas Nolan, Ph.D. from Middle Tennessee State University (York was from Tennessee). You can read a very extensive report about both of these here.

The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing are located just east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, Meuse, France, approximately 26 miles northwest of Verdun. The site covers 130.5 acres and contains 14,246 World War 1 burials, the largest number of American war dead in any cemetery in Europe.  Most of those buried here died during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Platted in eight sections on a hillside, the headstones rise upward in long rows from a wide central pool to the chapel at the top.

The chapel  is divided by a bronze screen with the foyer in the front. The chancel is decorated with stained-glass windows portraying American unit insignias and the flags of the principal Allied nations. Along the walls of the chapel area are the tablets listing the 954 missing who served in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the north Russian Intervention. There are 486 unknown burials in the cemetery. The site required almost two decades to complete and was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1937.

The Butte de Montfaucon is about eight miles south of the cemetery, and on its top the ABMC erected the Meuse-Argonne Memorial, the largest American war monument in Europe.

This was a key German bastion for four years of the war. Like the Butte de Montsec near St. Mihiel, this position gave the Germans excellent observation of the opposing lines. At the outset of the offensive the 79th Division was assigned the task of capturing the butte, but on that day they failed and a subsequent attack on the other side by the 37th Division also failed; after three days of hard fighting the 79th finally drove the Germans off.

This memorial was created by John Russell Pope (1874-1937), a prominent American neo-classical architect whose other works include the Jefferson Memorial, the National Archives building and the West building of the National Gallery of Art, all in Washington, DC.

For the ABMC he designed a massive, granite Doric column just over 200 feet tall, topped by a statue representing liberty, which sits upon a massive base. At the bottom of the column there is a foyer whose walls bear details of the Meuse Argonne Offensive. There are 234 steps up to the observation platform just below the statue which affords a spectacular view of the battlefield. It was unveiled on August 1st, 1937.

The style of the monument is deliberately evocative of French monuments, and the inscription includes recognition of the ‘previous heroic services of the Armies of France on the important battle front upon which the memorial has been constructed’.

The monument is built amidst the ruins of a French village and nearby there are several German bunkers including the observation point used by the Crown Prince Wilhelm, the eldest (of six) sons of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was the commander of the Army Group in this sector.

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he did work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and is affiliated with the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Salonika Campaign Society and the Gallipoli Association.