“It is Now or Never”: Final Victory in the Great War

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. To commemorate the historic battle, the National Archives is having a special document exhibit in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, from September 21 through October 31, 2018. Today’s post comes from Mike Hancock in the National Archives History Office.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the costliest battle in American military history in terms of casualties. In six weeks, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) lost 26,277 who were killed and 95,768 who were wounded. Pressured to split the American Army and have them under French control, the commander of American forces General John J. Pershing remarked, “It is now or never. The time has come when America was to show its teeth.”  

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Map illustrating the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, November 20, 1918. (Records of the American Expeditionary Forces, National Archives)

The campaign’s objective was the capture of the railroad hub at Sedan, which American planners hoped would break the railway network supporting the German Army in France and Flanders. Success meant control of the rail network, which would force the withdrawal of the enemy from the occupied territories.

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General John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief, A.E.F., 1918. (National Archives Identifier 86740084)

The battle was fought from September 26, 1918, until November 11, 1918, and was an ambitious and complex undertaking. American forces found themselves fighting through rough, hilly tree-covered terrain that the Germans had occupied and fortified over a four-year period.

In command of the American Expeditionary Force was General John J. Pershing. At 1.2 million men strong and growing, the AEF was poised to roll back the Germans from France and win the war. Pershing’s task was enormous—break the back of the Germans and force an end to the fighting once and for all.

Fighting took place in a landscape described by one American officer as “a bleak, cruel country of white clay and rock and blasted skeletons of trees, gashed into innumerable trenches and seared with rusted acres of wire, rising steeply into claw-like ridges and descending into haunted ravines, white as leprosy in the midst of that green forest, a country that had died long ago, in pain.”     

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Gun crew firing 37mm gun during an advance against German entrenched positions, 1918. (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives Identifier 531005)

With new divisions brought up, units reorganized, and orders issued, Pershing’s army went into action and found the Germans waiting, with strengthened positions and artillery shells raining down from the Heights of the Meuse. American forces advanced slowly against the barrage, so Pershing ordered the French XVII Corps to suppress the German guns on the Heights of the Meuse with a direct assault, initiating the opening actions of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

In the west, in the Argonne Forest, the 77th Division had a similar objective—to locate and stifle the big German guns—but fighting was fierce in the dense forest, and it effectively fractured regiments and was buttressed with German machine gun nests, snipers, and blockhouses.

The American 2nd and 36th Divisions took over a position from the French west of the Argonne, and on October 4 captured the Blanc Mont Ridge in difficult fighting. The Americans, with support from the French, pushed the Germans all the way to the Aisne River.

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Colonel Henry A. Meyer, Cavalry. Commanded 128th Infantry Meuse-Argonne Offensive; March to the Rhine; Army of Occupation, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 86727666)

By October 27 the French Fourth Army was finally situated alongside the American First Army. By mid-October, the Argonne Forest had been cleared, and the American main thrust was then concentrated between the River Aire on the left, just east of the Argonne, and the River Meuse on the right. German forces were now falling back en masse.

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Lt. General Robert L. Bullard, U.S.A. Paris, France, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 86706282)

The United States was now threatening with two armies. The Second Army, with more than 175,000 men under General Robert Lee Bullard, was east of the Meuse River covering the American right flank. The First Army, more than a million strong and under the command of General Hunter Liggett, held the center.

With the Hindenburg Line now penetrated, Liggett and his weary troops halted to reorganize and to anticipate the French advance to his position. Allied planning centered on a drive to victory in 1919, but now it seemed likely that an aggressive strategy could pound Germany into a far more rapid defeat.

In an effort to drive on even further, Pershing’s First Army overwhelmed the Germans. The Americans lined up three corps, left to right, I Corps, V Corps, and III Corps, with V Corps taking the lead. With an attack that began November 1, American soldiers secured a massive amount of territory to the River Meuse, and by November 5 they took control of the Meuse-Argonne sector.

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Patients being hauled to evacuation trains at Rimaucourt Hospital Center for home. These soldiers were all in Meuse and Argonne battles. They are first to stop at Chattel Guyon Hospital Center, Rimaucourt, Haute Marne, France, 15/15/1918. (National Archives Identifier 86709365)

An armistice took effect November 11, and the 47-day battle effectively proved to be the death knell for the German army and the end of the Great War.

See our Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the American Expeditionary Force website to learn more. And visit National Archives News for a full list of events, activities, and resources related to the 100th anniversary of World War I.

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