1916-1925: America– War and Peace

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Author: Frederick Maurice  | Date: 1918

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The Last A.E.F. Drive to Sedan

THERE was no chance now for the leisurely retreat to the Meuse which Ludendorff had planned. It was essential to withdraw to the river as quickly as possible, but to do this without incurring irremediable disaster it was still as necessary as it had been since the end of September to delay to the utmost the British advance on Namur and the American progress towards Sedan.

This was the position of which Foch proposed to take advantage by continuing the general plan of his great battle. Gouraud and the Americans were to strike for Mezieres and Sedan and block the southern exits, while the British armies made for Maubeuge and Mons and threatened Namur before the Germans in western Belgium could get away. The advance on Namur would force the Germans to come out of the greater part of Belgium in a hurry or be cut off, and would save that sorely tried land from the destruction which was inevitable if it became the scene of pitched battles, while the advance on Mezieres and Sedan would have the same effect on the German center. The French armies in the center were, therefore, to continue their role of harassing and delaying the German retreat, and the Belgian armies were to keep the Germans busy on the Scheldt. The French troops on King Albert’s right, however, with the help of two American divisions sent up to reenforce them, were to assist the British advance by forcing the line of the Scheldt about Audenarde.

On November 1 the last drive began, as had that of September, with a Franco-American attack, and again there lay in front of the American left a stretch of mountain forest, the Forest of Bourgogne, a northern extension of the Argonne. Again the intention was to force the Germans out of the forest by a combined advance of the Americans to the east of it, and of Gouraud’s army to the west. This time the plan was completely successful. On the right of the American battle front the Third American Corps attacked in the Meuse valley, while the Fifth American Corps broke clean through such parts of the Kriemhilde [Hindenburg] Line as it had not previously captured, and made an advance of about five miles in the one day. Simultaneously Gouraud extended his hold on the heights on the eastern bank of the Aisne opposite Vouziers.

The Germans were in no mind for a repetition of the Argonne struggle. Before the battle started their morale had begun to give way under the steady pressure of the American advance, and now it gave way altogether, while the American divisions which had done most of the hard fighting in October had either been rested and their ranks refilled, or had been relieved by fresh divisions, with the result that the First American Army was as full of vigor and energy as it had been on September 26, despite the continuously wet and cold weather on the bleak hills of the Meuse.

On November 2 the First American Corps on the left of the First Army drove forward six miles, captured Burzancy, and lined the eastern edge of the Bourgogne Forest, Gouraud at the same time reaching its western edge throughout its length. The Germans immediately evacuated the forest and began a general retreat before the First American Army and Gouraud’s right.

During the night of November 3 the infantry of the Second American Division, giving the weary Germans no time to reorganize a defense, made a remarkable pursuit and advanced in the darkness straight through the German lines for a distance of five miles. This great progress enabled the Americans to bring forward long-range guns and to shell the railway stations of Longuyon and Montmedy, through which the Crown Prince was trying to get away as much as possible of his war material.

The clearing of the Bourgogne Forest had enabled Gouraud to join hands with the Americans on November 3 to the north of the forest, and he thus obtained a straight front of some nine miles beyond the Aisne east of Attigney. He was now able to threaten the retreat of the German troops holding the formidable Brunehilde Line farther west between Attigny and Rethel, by pushing forward his right wing in conjunction with the American advance. On November 4 he drove the enemy back from the southern portion of the canal which connects the Aisne near Attigny with the Meuse near Sedan. This maneuver compelled the Germans to fall back from the Brunehilde Line in order to avoid being cut off from Mezieres, and the French entered Rethel on November 6.

Meanwhile, by November 5 the American front had sprung forward another six miles, and on the evening of the 6th, despite the endeavors of the German machine gunners to delay the pursuit, a division of the First American Corps reached the Meuse opposite the southern outskirts of Sedan, twenty-one miles from its starting point of November 1. Gouraud, with a longer distance to go and with the resistance of the German troops, who had fallen back from the Brunehilde Line, to overcome, did not reach his objective, Mezieres, until the evening of the tenth.

While the First and Fifth American Corps were advancing northwards towards Sedan the right of the Third Corps began to strike out eastwards, and it crossed the Meuse and occupied Dun on November 4. Thence on the following days, the Third, Second Colonial and Seventeenth French Corps on the right of the First American Army gradually wore down the resistance of the Germans in the wooded Meuse hills, and on the morning of November 11, when the Armistice came into effect, the Franco-American front was within six miles of Montmedy, where the German Crown Prince had lived during the battle of Verdun, when he was not in his dugout on the Montfaucon Hill. Though Montmedy was not entered by the Allies until the Germans had withdrawn in accordance with the Armistice terms, they found on arrival that defeat had not changed the German nature, for the little town was pillaged by the enemy’s troops before they left. These operations on the east bank of the Meuse towards Montmedy were extended southwards by the Second American Army, which began the long threatened movement toward the Briey iron fields….

The opinion is widely held that the Armistice of November 11 was premature. It is argued that we had the German armies at our mercy, and that the foundations of peace would have been more sure if we had ended the war by forcing the surrender in the field of a great part of those armies, or failing that, had driven our beaten enemy back across the Rhine and followed him into the heart of Germany. The reception of the German troops by the German people, their march into the German towns through triumphal arches and beflagged streets with their helmets crowned with laurels, and the insistent statements in Germany that the German armies had not been defeated, that the Armistice had been accepted to save bloodshed, and to put an end to the sufferings of the women and children aroused amazement and disgust in the victors. There was very real anxiety lest after all we had failed to convince Germany that war did not pay; it was felt that we ought to have brought the realization of what war means home to the German people in their own country, and that, had we done so, the long-drawn-out negotiations in Paris would have been concluded more speedily and more satisfactorily. It is worth while, therefore, examining the situation as it was at the time of the Armistice, and considering the case as it presented itself to the men who had to decide whether hostilities should cease or not.

There is no question but that the German armies were completely and decisively beaten in the field. The German plenipotentiaries admitted it when they met Marshal Foch, and von Brockdorff-Rantzau admitted it at Versailles, when he said after the Allied peace terms had been presented to him: "We are under no illusions as to the extent of our defeat and the degree of our want of power…. We know that the power of the German army is broken."

Even if these admissions had not been made, the condition of the German lines of retreat to the Rhine is conclusive evidence of the condition of their armies. Every road was littered with broken-down motor-trucks, guns, machine guns and trench mortars. Great stacks of supplies and of military stores of all kinds were abandoned. Every railway line was blocked with loaded trucks which the Germans had been unable to remove. The sixty miles of railway in the valley of the Meuse between Dinant and Mezieres was filled from end to end with a continuous line of German freight trains carrying guns, ammunition, engineering equipment and other paraphernalia. On the Belgian canals alone over eight hundred fully charged military barges were found.

It is beyond dispute that on November 11 the lines of communication immediately behind the German armies had been thrown into complete disorder by the streams of traffic which were converging on the Meuse bridges, disorder greatly intensified by the attacks of the Allied airman. The German armies, unable to resist on the fighting front, could no longer retreat in good order, partly because of the congestion on the roads and railways behind them, which not only hampered the movements of the troops, but prevented the systematic supply to them of food and ammunition, partly owing to the fact that there were not horses left to draw the transport of the fighting troops.

If ever armies were in a state of hopeless rout, the German armies were in the second week of November, 1918…. But the Allied armies had reached, or very nearly reached, the farthest limit at which for the time being they could be kept regularly supplied. The reasons for this were twofold. In the first place the Allied lines of communication grew steadily longer as the Germans were driven back, and even before our victorious advance began the state of the railways and the amount of rolling stock in France had caused anxiety…. At the time of the Armistice the motor lorries were working in double and treble shifts, and the strain upon them caused by the bad roads and the incessant work was such that in the Fourth Army on November 11 more than half of the lorries at the service of the army had broken down. The troops were receiving no more than bare necessities, and at one time had with them nothing more than the day’s food carried by the men.

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Chicago: Frederick Maurice, "The Last A.E.F. Drive to Sedan," 1916-1925: America– War and Peace in America, Vol.12, Pp.139-146 Original Sources, accessed July 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PCMA3RBQ6QGS2ZF.

MLA: Maurice, Frederick. "The Last A.E.F. Drive to Sedan." 1916-1925: America– War and Peace, in America, Vol.12, Pp.139-146, Original Sources. 6 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PCMA3RBQ6QGS2ZF.

Harvard: Maurice, F, 'The Last A.E.F. Drive to Sedan' in 1916-1925: America– War and Peace. cited in , America, Vol.12, Pp.139-146. Original Sources, retrieved 6 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PCMA3RBQ6QGS2ZF.