1916-1925: America– War and Peace

Author: Robert Lee Bullard  | Date: 1918

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A Close-Up of the Great Argonne Battle

RARELY have I seen anything more carefully or completely planned and prepared for than the beginning of the battle of the Meuse-Argonne. I remembered the question of the French staff officer a year before in Lyons, when he saw one of our detachments lost and straying over France—"Have you no staff?" We now had a staff.

On the wonderful French maps the plans showed the immediate and remote objectives of each corps. The maps in many bright colors reminded me of the criticism of the American officer who a few months before had remarked to a French general that the French staff were going in too much for making "Easter eggs," referring to the many colored areas of oval shape on these maps. And now our own staff were making "Easter eggs.

In all these preparations there were some failures. Two brigadier-generals and one major-general who were slow and unenergetic or careless, who were not impressed by their responsibilities in preparation, shortly lost their commands upon my recommendation; and later, in battle, I know of two other major-generals who lost theirs in other corps near me. This of course is hardly believable as we read only American histories of our fighting in France. These never refer to any failure or laxity in battle or duty by even the humblest American soldier.

As I read some of these narratives I know we are now going to transmit to our children the same exaggeration of uniform American duty, bravery, and prowess as fill the popular histories of our Revolution—such histories as made it necessary for General Upton to tell the truth in his "Military Policy of the United States."

The hardest work that I did or saw done by others in France was the holding of men to duty in service and battle. In the early days some of our military theorists who had been little at the front desired to reduce the military police used for this purpose. As our fighting increased these military police had, on the contrary, to be augmented in every way possible. An unbroken line of them now followed our attacks.

This arrangement of all troops completed, General Pershing came on a visit of verification. He inquired about things in a very good-humored, agreeable, almost careless way; yet I knew that underneath his easy manner was inexorable ruin to the commander who did not have things right. He shows the least personal feeling of all the commanders that I have ever known, and never spares the incompetent….

Early on the morning of the 26th we attacked. That day my corps advanced almost as far as we had anticipated. I was feeling good. We crossed the awful wire entanglements of No Man’s Land and beyond; we crossed the Forges Brook; the enemy’s reaction in our front had not been violent and my corps that day had suffered no great losses. Yet we had had no walk-over. We had just made a start. More fighting and further advances were necessary before we should reach the final corps objective—the enemy’s third position.

The fighting was renewed the next day, the next day, and the next, before we reached that third position. On one of these days the whole army was gathered and made a concerted attack and advance. The resistance of the enemy was steadily stiffening. Wherever his machine guns were encountered—and they were encountered after the passage of his first line—the progress was exceedingly difficult. Indeed, his first defense seemed to be almost wholly machine guns. But now also, as my corps went forward, we began to catch a heavy artillery fire from the high ground on the right bank of the Meuse. It was becoming exceedingly annoying, more so as we advanced. Two days of the first four of the battle were used in my corps for cleanups of enemy machine gun positions that we had passed over in the advance….

In our halt in front of the enemy’s third position a very great difficulty was being encountered in reaching the advanced troops with ambulances, food and ammunition. From Montzeville across the old No Man’s Land and up to the enemy’s front line, a distance of perhaps seven kilometers, a road of pre-war days was shown on the map. As we passed over this distance in the first day’s attack there was no sign of this road except stones scattered in two or three years’ ploughing by the enemy’s great guns. It had been shell-cratered over and over. As our infantry line advanced, it was followed along this old road by a great force of engineers and pioneers who by sheer numbers, with tooth and nail, scratched and levelled and macadamized a road over which ambulances, food, ammunition and artillery followed almost as rapidly as the troops advanced.

The workman formed practically a continuous line on both sides of the road and swarmed back of the side lines like ants, gathering gravel and broken stone to be thrown upon the roadbed. They worked night and day without cessation, with a devotion not surpassed by the men who were risking their lives in the very front lines. They could use only the lightest implements, because their trains with heavier tools could not be brought for some time upon the ground. The men gathered stones by hand and brought them to the roadbed where they sank in the mud of late shell craters almost as if they had been dropped into a bottomless sea, so soft was the ground and so destructive the passage of vehicles. It was an exhausting, heart-breaking, discouraging, ever continuous operation that lasted all the time (three weeks) that I remained with the First Army—and long after, I am told. But the road worked, and gradually solidified and hardened. I consider it altogether—in making, upkeep and operation—the most wonderful piece of work that I saw executed during the World War….

Between the 7th and 10th I visited brigade and division headquarters of the 4th Division. They were fighting hard and uncertainly. They still had the Bois de Fay, whose southern edge was being swept by a terrible machine-gun fire from the enemy on both the right and the left flank. Passage or reinforcements to the troops in the Bois was impossible by day, and by night almost so. The division was almost exhausted. Their food was used up and their ammunition almost gone, but they still held on—weak, scattered and disorganized by heavy losses and repeated enemy counter-attacks, but still in the Bois de Fay. The division commander, General Hines, greatly concerned, half asked me to allow withdrawal from the wood. "No," I answered, "we’ve got to stay there; we give up nothing. Your division has done magnificent work and shown wonderful courage.

"Then tell them so!" he exclaimed. And I did so at once, from his German dugout headquarters at Cuisy.

I ordered a corps airplane to fly over and scatter down to the troops in that wood (that was the only way they could be reached) a citation for their bravery and an encouragement to stick. They did stick, while I ordered all the artillery and all the airplanes that I could lay my hands on to bombard Brieulles and the fort near it that was decimating these men with machine-gun fire, and to bombard also the enemy’s batteries in the hills east of the Meuse. Brieulles and its fort upon the hill were smashed and destroyed by airplanes and heavy artillery. Their destruction relieved the 4th Division. The troops in the Bois de Fay were reinforced, fed and saved. Their losses and the strain upon them had been very great, the greatest that I have known. I shall remember this as one of the finest if not the finest deed that I have known. They were gassed, bombarded with artillery, and riddled with machine-gun fire, but they had stayed, and the enemy was at last pushed out of the wood by their drive….

While my corps was at a standstill struggling at Brieulles, Bois de Fay and Bois des Ogons, it seemed to me that also the whole First Army was nearly at a standstill. Daily I heard reports of attacks by corps and divisions, but the gains were small and irregular and the losses too great for the results. In most of these attacks, both general and local, our infantry, on account of difficult ground, trenches, wire and enemy machine-gun nests, were unable to or did not follow closely our rolling barrage. These barrages did not annihilate the enemy. That enemy had learned to bury himself and, our barrage having passed over him, to rise from his pits and, with the skill of the trained soldier, stop or slaughter our advancing infantry, coming too far behind the barrage.

For a week, it seems to me, the First Army was practically at a standstill. Daily communiques told us of our Allies’ progress on other fronts: we were making none. Officers in high command, I know, were worried. I was among the number, but at last success at Brieulles, Bois de Fay, and the Bois des Ogons relieved me. My corps was in position now to take up a further advance. And of the Bois des Ogons an incident: The 80th Division had twice in strong attacks taken the wood and twice had been thrown out with severe losses. The general commanding, when I visited his headquarters, half asked me to be allowed to give up the attempt. "Give it up and you are a goner; you’ll lose your command in twenty-four hours. Make one more attack. This time you’ll take the wood and throw the enemy out." He did. He was given a corps shortly afterward….

Near my front lines—while still in the Bois de Fay—I witnessed a magnificent spectacle—four or five squadrons of our airplanes passing over to harass the enemy’s rear. The whirr of their wings filled the air with an angry, terrifying roar. So great a number—one hundred and twenty or more—I had never before seen. To the Germans, who must already have been feeling their inability to resist, so great a number at one time and place must have carried discouragement. The whirr of their wings is terrifying even to good troops. It makes them feel that they are helpless underneath, thus dominated from above. Our troops, especially new troops, had felt this and had made bitter complaint of being undefended against the enemy’s planes. Yet no such number of enemy planes ever appeared where I served. I never saw enemy planes at one time anywhere exceeding a dozen.

In the enemy’s surly retirement between the Marne and the Aisne his active airplanes gave ours all we could do. They destroyed many of our balloons: I once saw two or three go as fast as the enemy aviator could fly from one to the other. Now in the battle of the Meuse-Argonne I can remember seeing comparatively few enemy airplanes: only one as far back as my own headquarters, and it was then being pursued by two of our own—going for all the world like a wild bird in terrified flight before a hawk. Certainly now the enemy was outnumbered by us in the air. This was another sign that this great battle would have but one end, the defeat and driving of the enemy from the field.


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Chicago: Robert Lee Bullard, "A Close-Up of the Great Argonne Battle," 1916-1925: America– War and Peace in America, Vol.12, Pp.131-138 Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=EETYGB8FRGMV97M.

MLA: Bullard, Robert Lee. "A Close-Up of the Great Argonne Battle." 1916-1925: America– War and Peace, in America, Vol.12, Pp.131-138, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=EETYGB8FRGMV97M.

Harvard: Bullard, RL, 'A Close-Up of the Great Argonne Battle' in 1916-1925: America– War and Peace. cited in , America, Vol.12, Pp.131-138. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=EETYGB8FRGMV97M.