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Echoing Across the Generations: The Legacy of the Meuse Argonne Offensive a Century Later

11-07-2018

What you do in life matters, it echoes across the generations and into eternity.

One-hundred years ago this month, the United States was in one of the bloodiest and largest battles in its history.  Called the Meuse Argonne Campaign, this Franco-American attack included nearly two million men and was focused on seizing the German's vital rail network at the occupied city of Sedan, France.  Due to the strategic nature of this area, the German's defended it tenaciously, making the Allies pay dearly for every hill, valley, and village.  The Meuse Argonne Offensive was part of a larger effort led and planned by the first Supreme Allied Commander, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, to knock the Germans out of the war before the onset of winter.  After 47 days of relentless attacks, Foch's plan worked, with the Germans agreeing to an armistice that went into effect at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, in the 11th month of 1918.  Yet, despite the poetic end of the war, for the soldiers in combat, it was not at all glorious.  They were ordered to attack until the final minutes of the war, resulting in a needless loss of over 11,000 men in the last hours of fighting.  

    In the midst of the maelstrom of the Meuse Argonne Offensive, ordinary men rose to achieve extraordinary feats of bravery and courage.  Many of these heroes were dedicated Christians, who endeavored to live their lives in a way to please and honor God.  Their legacy and those of all the men to see combat in this cataclysmic clash of arms calls out to us 100 years later.

    There was a day when the word Argonne sent chills down the spines of everyday Americans.  The word was an immediate reference point to gas warfare and horrific casualties (up to 20,000 a week).  Yet, few know anything about the Meuse Argonne Campaign today.  There is great value to casting our eyes back across the millennia.  As Dr. John Lennox says, "New things are old things happening to new people."  There is much to learn from the past.  An example of this is found in Joshua Chapter 4 as the Children of Israel were about to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.  In the first seven verses, God commands Joshua,

"And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over Jordan, that the LORD spake unto Joshua, saying, Take you twelve men out of the people, out of every tribe a man, And command ye them, saying, Take you hence out of the midst of Jordan, out of the place where the priests' feet stood firm, twelve stones, and ye shall carry them over with you, and leave them in the lodging place, where ye shall lodge this night.  Then Joshua called the twelve men, whom he had prepared of the children of Israel, out of every tribe a man: And Joshua said unto them, Pass over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of Jordan, and take you up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder, according unto the number of the tribes of the children of Israel: That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones?  Then ye shall answer them that the waters of Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it passed over Jordan, the waters of Jordan were cut off: and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel forever."
            
    These memorial stones were to remind subsequent generations of what God did in the past.  Christians across the millennia serve as memorial stones to us today.  Revelations 12:11 says, "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives unto the death."  Our lives, as well as those who came before, leave a lasting impact and legacy that even destroys Satan and his works.  Indeed, even the seemingly most insignificant person in life may be the very one that changes history.  The examples of David, Gideon, Moses, Esther, and others in the Bible serve as evidence of how God can use anyone to change history.  Thus it is with the legacy of the Meuse Argonne Campaign.  

    The Meuse Argonne was part of a massive Allied attack designed by French Marshal Foch to crash into the German positions across the Western Front from the Verdun region of France all the way up to the English Channel in Belgium.  The concept of operations had the Americans kick off this "Grande Offensive" on September 26, 1918, and charge headlong into the German defenses.  The 1.2 million Americans to fight here were supported with masses of French tanks, aircraft, artillery, and 600,000 French soldiers.  

    The greatest nemesis of the Allies on the Western Front was the German strategic reserve.  Whenever the French or British broke through the line, the Germans rushed their reserves to the threatened sector.  Foch's plan was to have the Americans attack in the Meuse Argonne to draw off the German reserves.  In the end, the plan worked brilliantly, with the Germans sending nearly all of their twenty-plus reserve divisions to blunt the American attack in the Meuse Argonne Region, opening the way for French and British Armies further north to breakthrough.   

    The Argonne was among the most heavily defended region in France.  The Germans constructed a series of defensive lines across the region to hold it.  In addition to this, both the weather and terrain also favored the Germans.  The weather would turn out to be miserable in the autumn of 1918, making movement across muddy fields almost impossible.  As to the terrain, the Meuse Valley was flanked by the Argonne Forest to the west and Meuse Heights to the East.  This high ground was difficult to capture and gave the Germans clear observation of every move that the Americans made.  The final problem facing the Americans was an outdated approach to warfare.  The American commander, General John J. Pershing, refused to listen to the French and British about how to fight modern warfare and instead believed that an American soldier with a rifle and a bayonet would win the day.  The French tried a similar approach in 1914 and lost a quarter of a million men using antiquated tactics.  Pershing insisted that his 1914 approach to a 1918 problem would work. Out of frustration, the French Premier, Georges Clemenceau responded, "If the Americans do not permit the French to teach them, then the Germans will do so."  Indeed, the Germans would prove to be cruel masters in their instruction.

            The attack kicked off with a fierce artillery barrage of the German lines that lasted into the morning of September 26 when the soldiers, tanks, and aircraft swept forward.  The first day of fighting went fairly well for the Americans largely thanks to achieving surprise (the Germans anticipated the Americans to attack 100 kilometers to the east).  Yet, the German Army did not simply yield ground without a fight.  

    The terrain facing the Americans when they "went over the top" was classic First World War One landscape, full of craters, trenches, and the carnage of war.  Once beyond this two-three kilometer wide area, the luscious French countryside awaited them.  One of the officers was given the mission of breaking through this man-made devastation was Major James Rieger from Kirksville, Missouri.  Rieger, like so many of his generation, was a strong Christian and a deacon in his church.  However, his Christian faith would put him at odds with the U.S. Army.  

    While stateside at Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma, Rieger was concerned that there were few wholesome diversions for the Soldiers to participate in.  To provide an alternative, he established a popular Sunday School program that was attended by hundreds of troops.  However, Rieger's commanding officer, Brigadier General Lucien Barry disapproved of Rieger's Christian faith and sought to fire him.  Having not found a just cause to relieve Rieger, Barry in anger and frustration told him that he would not succeed as an officer and that for all intents and purposes he was "hopelessly useless."   

    Rieger's task on September 26, 1918, was to sweep the Germans off of a devastated hill that sat astride the front called Vauquois.  For four years, the Germans and French fought for control over this hill, resulting in a stalemate.  The belligerents began tunneling under each other and exploding over 500 massive subterranean mines, that tore huge craters across the hill.  The "hopelessly useless" Rieger had to accomplish something that two armies could not do in years of fighting.  As the men in Rieger's unit advanced, they faced fierce German resistance by the vaunted Prussian 2nd Foot Regiment.  The first attack to secure Vauquois by another battalion was driven back.  It looked like the hill would remain in German hands unless Rieger could accomplish this seemingly impossible task.   Rieger laid out his plan to the men and then led them forward.  An eyewitness described the scene, "Our planes were buzzing all about… one fighter sailed in close over the crest, made a tight turn and exploded. [A German plane] came on a thirty-degree slant from our left rear.  The dirt was boiling and jumping through our platoon."   

    Despite fierce German resistance, Rieger swept across the hill with his men.  By late morning all hope of holding Vauquois was lost, with a large group of the Prussian 2nd Guards surrounded and trapped in the extensive tunnels below the hill.  Their last message was a heroic one, “We are being attacked from all sides by large masses of the Americans.  We will fight to the last man.  Long live the king!”   Rieger would go onto to liberate two French Villages and given the title of "the Hero of the Argonne."  For his leadership, selfless service and courage, Rieger would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.  Ironically, in the eyes of his secular leadership, Rieger appeared weak.  Yet, in combat, he proved to be a man of iron.  Perhaps I Corinthians 1:27 in part explains Rieger's heroism, "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty."  Like King David of old, God sees the heart, not just outward appearances, and He chooses to use the weak and foolish (in the eyes of the world), to confound the strong and wise.  At the same time that Rieger was accomplishing these feats of heroism, Brigadier General Barry was fired for incompetence.  

In the valley just west of Vauquois another officer of strong Christian faith was likewise leading his men in a daring attack against the German defenders.  His name was Lieutenant John Wingate, who was easily recognizable by his "long drooping mustache and a sort of swaggering, undaunted air."   Some said that he was "the best loved man in the division… and that he had a gentle kindly heart of pure gold."     The book, Thunder in the Argonne says of him, "In an army full of inexperienced men, and some glory seekers, Winfield stood out as a point of light and someone that soldiers respected and trusted, even with their lives.  Those who knew him best saw him as a leader that a soldier could follow, even against the gates of hell."  

Wingate, leading about sixty men, overcame a series of enemy strong points.  Among Wingate's men was Private Nels Wold, another fearless Christian.   Nels was a farmer from Minnewauken, North Dakota, who volunteered five times to single-handedly engage and eliminate four enemy machine guns.  He was fearless in the face of all adversity and had the heart and soul of a lion.  Sadly, in his attempt to clear a fifth German machine gun, Nels became entangled in a camouflage net, whereupon the Germans shot him.  Wold's dying words to his friends were "pray for me… and write my folks and tell them I love them all."   For his selfless service and bravery, Nels Wold was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, with his citation saying,      
       
"He rendered most gallant service in aiding the advance of his company, which had been held up by machinegun nests, advancing, with 1 other soldier, and silencing the guns, bringing with him, upon his return, 11 prisoners. Later the same day he jumped from a trench and rescued a comrade who was about to be shot by a German officer, killing the officer during the exploit. His actions were entirely voluntary, and it was while attempting to rush a 5th machinegun nest that he was killed. The advance of his company was mainly due to his great courage and devotion to duty." 

There were so many acts of heroism and courage on both sides.  Defending the German line in the Argonne was the 2nd Württemberg Landwehr Division with soldiers mostly from southwest Germany.  The Württembergers had spent so much time in the Argonne that they said it was like a second home.  This familiarity gave them the edge over the inexperienced Americans, whose outdated tactics melted away in front of German machine guns.  But, the Doughboys adapted quickly and within a few weeks had figured out how to conduct modern warfare despite the flawed beliefs of General Pershing.  This adaptation was thanks to the hundreds of combat experienced French liaison officers serving near the front who shared their ideas with men willing to learn.     

By early October, the American advance was virtually stopped and the burden to regain momentum fell to junior officers and soldiers.  There would be a Lost Battalion, a conscientious objector from Tennessee (Alvin York) and a regular army officer from the Midwest (Sam Woodfill) who would rise to the occasion and change history.  The saga of the Lost Battalion began on October 2, 1918 when the French and Americans launched a large attack to clear the western half of the Argonne.  The Germans managed to repel all except a group of 694 Americans who penetrated the line and dug in.  The Germans surrounded this element that soon would be called the "Lost Battalion," and endeavored to destroy them.  However, the Americans survived the five-day siege and played a key role in breaking the German grip over the Argonne.  

    During the siege of the Lost Battalion, the Americans committed the 82nd Division to strike against the flank of the Germans in the Argonne.  Among these men was Corporal Alvin York, whose amazing story of salvation and redemption was in a previous issue of Providence.  York's testimony is about a backslider, who committed his life and heart to Jesus as Lord and Savior during a revival meeting on January 1, 1915.  His conversion was real and lasting.  York went from a "good for nothing drunk" to a leader in his church in a matter of months.  However, his world turned upside down when he was drafted into the Army.  York could not reconcile killing for his country with his faith.  He went through training and even shipped off to France with the burden of failing to reconcile his Christian faith with military service.  On the fateful day of October 8, 1918, York found himself with seven other Americans behind German lines, cut off with all hope seemingly lost.  At that moment, all doubts faded and he knew what to do.  With great daring, York alone charged up the hill, wiped out a German machine gun, fought off a bayonet attack and capturing 132 Germans.  This action forced the Germans to retreat from the Argonne and York would down in history as one of America's most celebrated heroes.   

A few kilometers to the east of the Argonne, Lieutenant Sam Woodfill led his men in an advance towards the quaint French village of Cunel.  The Americans were abruptly halted by a hail of machinegun fire.  Without missing a beat, - Woodfill attacked, eliminating the offending machine gun and picking off two snipers, before resuming the advance through the village and up an adjacent hill where he wiped out two more machine guns.  It is incredible feats such as these that help the Americans to overcome the stout German defenses.  The American contribution to the end of the war was as complete as it was decisive.  

In the vicious 47 days of fighting, the Americans suffered 122,093 casualties, of which, 26,277 were killed in action.  In every way, the Meuse Argonne was a truly Franco-American operation, and nowhere is this more evident than in the blood spilled while serving side by side in this crusade to liberate France from the foreign invader.  In addition to the 122,093 American casualties, the French suffered more than 70,000 casualties while fighting alongside, in and in support of the offensive here.     The combined Franco-American attack inflicted an estimated 126,000 casualties on the German forces, of which 28,000 were killed in action. 150 French villages and towns were liberated in the 47 days of the Meuse Campaign.  840 planes, 324 tanks and 2,417 pieces of artillery were employed in this operation.   As part of the overall Allied broad front attack, the Franco-American advance drew off the precious and vital German reserve divisions, opening the door for al Allied penetration in the north of France.  Such a breakthrough would not have happened without the German strategic reserves not being committed to stopping the Meuse Argonne Offensive.   
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The Meuse Argonne remains one of America's most epic battles that shaped the modern U.S. Army and shaped the world we live.  Yet, there is more to this story than the movement of armies and clash of empires.  It is the tale of ordinary men, who, when faced with overwhelming odds, perform extraordinary feats of heroism.  Yet, acts of courage and bravery do not spring forth from the hearts of men suddenly, but are rather the fruit of a life lived well, or what I call "building your character muscle."  Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain described it this way,       

"We know not of the future, and cannot plan for it much. but we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes, that calls to noble action. This predestination God has given us in charge. No man becomes suddenly different from his habit and cherished thought."

This is reflective of a description of Private Nels Wold, 

"Although refusing to join in the excessive drinking of the French wine and avoiding flirting with the Mademoiselles on his time off made him seem a bit uncommon, the other soldiers respected Nels for living out his faith and beliefs.  It was such strength of character that made Nels a man of courage.  Courage and bravery are not attributes that suddenly spring forth from the soul of the man, but are the outward manifestation of the type of person he is on the inside.  Nels developed his moral character by endeavoring to daily do the right thing in life; by choosing the right over the expedient.  This, in effect, gave him "the heart of the lion" as it took considerable moral courage to maintain his Christian faith in the face of countless temptations and opportunity to compromise. "

The legacy of men and women of 1918 call out to us from across the century.  What they did changed history, and shaped the world in which we live.  In so many cases, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Yet, in the eyes of the world, they often seemed weak and inadequate.  What is clear from their legacy is that God has a perfect plan for each of us, and, if we are willing, he wants our testimony to likewise echoes across the generations and into eternity.   Indeed, what you do in life matters, it echoes across the generations and into eternity.

Dr. Doug Mastriano, Ph.D., is an award-winning author and recently retired U.S. Army Colonel, with more than 30 years of, seeing service along the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

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