Military History Meuse-Argonne Offensive
by
Edward G. Lengel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0038

Introduction

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, lasting from 26 September 1918 to 11 November 1918, constituted the largest and bloodiest engagement of American forces in World War I. Part of a series of concentric attacks devised by Marshal Ferdinand Foch against German positions on the Western Front in the autumn of 1918, it aimed at the capture of the important railway junction at Mézières, which supplied a large portion of the German forces in France. German forces in this area did not enjoy the luxury of trading space for time, and they were under orders to defend to the last. The offensive is usually said to have resulted in 120,000 American casualties, including 26,000 dead, most of them having fallen in the offensive’s first three weeks. Combat in the Meuse-Argonne was extremely intensive, and had a profound effect on all who participated in it, but whether it impacted the development of American military doctrine is debatable. The Meuse-Argonne is controversial in the sense that American historians have tended to emphasize its importance in overall operations on the Western Front in 1918, while many European historians have dismissed it as insignificant. Comparatively little has been published about the offensive in either article or book form. Only four general studies have been published—in 1919, 1987, 2007, and 2008—but none of these works are comprehensive in scope. Scattered writings exist on various aspects of the offensive, from celebrated heroes, such as Alvin C. York, to individual episodes, such as the saga of the Lost Battalion or the attack on Montfaucon. Numerous articles have been published, mostly in the 1930s and 1960s, about the role of artillery and gas warfare units in the offensive; however, aside from a single-volume collection of essays to be published in 2014, not much has been written about infantry combat, tanks and aircraft, or the problems of logistics and command. Next to nothing has appeared in any language on German or French participation in the Meuse-Argonne. Published American personal accounts exist in abundance, however, and vast archival sources remain untapped in the National Archives and at the US Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA.

General Overviews

Only four substantive studies of the Meuse-Argonne have been published, although these may be supplemented by other texts. Palmer 1919 was for many decades the only full study of the offensive, and it provides some useful contemporary perspective despite its journalistic tone. US Army General Staff College 1919 is likewise of interest as a contemporary description from the professional military perspective. American Battle Monuments Commission 1992 remains indispensable for any study of American military participation in World War I, particularly with regard to its in-depth consideration of local topography and maps. Braim 1987, the first academic monograph solely concerned with the Meuse-Argonne, is sparse and written solely from the top-down perspective. Ferrell 2007 covers the same ground as Braim but corrects a number of errors and presents new insights into how Pershing and his staff conducted the battle. Lengel 2008 is the only thorough tactical study of the Meuse-Argonne, and this work merges perspectives from both staff and from the soldiers. Lengel 2014 presents a collection of twenty-nine essays that reflect current scholarship on the offensive, including studies of French and German participation.

  • American Battle Monuments Commission. American Armies and Battlefields in Europe. Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1992.

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    A single-volume official history of American military participation in World War I. Compiled by a team of officers including then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, it provided a guide to all American battlefields including the Meuse-Argonne, accompanied by detailed maps, photographs, and text descriptions of the course of events. The study remains immensely valuable. Originally published 1938.

  • Braim, Paul F. The Test of Battle: The American Expeditionary Forces in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.

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    Originally a PhD dissertation, Braim’s study provides the first critical, albeit imperfect, study of American operations in the Meuse-Argonne. Only about half of the text deals with the battle itself, with the other half providing background information. The first edition of this book was highly critical of Pershing and his staff; a revised edition published by White Mane Publishers in 1998 somewhat toned down this criticism.

  • Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

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    Coffman’s work has long been the standard scholarly account of American military participation in World War I. It provides essential contextual information about the formation of the American Expeditionary Forces, the contest over amalgamation, and the development of strategic priorities in the autumn of 1918 that led to the Meuse-Argonne. Includes a brief but solid survey of the course of the offensive and its consequences.

  • Ferrell, Robert H. America’s Deadliest Battle: Meuse-Argonne, 1918. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.

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    This work covers much of the same ground as Braim 1987, and it is also sparse. Ferrell’s copious archival research nevertheless allows him to present an accurate and well-contextualized portrait of the campaign from the staff point of view. More sympathetic to Pershing and his officers than either Braim 1987 or Lengel 2008.

  • Lengel, Edward G. To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918. New York: Henry Holt, 2008.

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    Thorough narrative account of the battle that emphasizes the soldiers’ point of view, quoting extensively from accounts of veterans. As such, it reflects the bitterness with which many doughboys perceived the alleged mismanagement of the offensive.

  • Lengel, Edward G., ed. A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

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    A collection of twenty-nine essays by as many scholars on various aspects of the offensive, including command, logistics, equipment, tactics, French and German perspectives, commemoration, and memory.

  • Palmer, Frederick. Our Greatest Battle: The Meuse-Argonne. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1919.

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    Journalistic account, heavily colored by wartime propaganda. Palmer helped to publicize heroes and episodes such as Alvin C. York and the Lost Battalion.

  • US Army General Staff College. Staff Ride: Meuse-Argonne Operations. US Army, 1919.

    E-mail Citation »

    The US Army attempted to incorporate lessons learned from the offensive as evinced in this staff ride, which informed American Battle Monuments Commission 1992 and other subsequent official studies.

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