Many of the American divisions derived from National Guard units which hailed from one State or maybe a couple of adjoining States. Memory becomes a ritual of those particular States involved with their divisions. Around Varennes-en-Argonne there are two examples. First, there is the large monument memorializing the actions of the 28th Division, which is up a side street from the clock tower erected where Louis XVI was captured trying to flee the Revolution. The 28th Division was known as the Keystone Division since most of the troops came from Pennsylvania – the Keystone State. The division fought along the ground just to the west along the eastern edge of the Argonne Forest. A couple miles to the east is the Missouri Monument erected in honor of their 35th Division – a National Guard unit from the Show Me State that included one artillery commander by the name of Harry Truman. The monument is in the area where the 35th Division attacked in the early stages of the offensive. Pennsylvania has erected one other monument in honor of the men of the 80th Division – the Blue Ridge Division – which was made of men from Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. These men fought in the second stage of the offensive and the monument is located in Nantillois, a few miles north of Montfaucon.
Unlike the other Allied powers, Americans were inclined to bring their war dead home with 40% of the dead being buried here in France or Belgium. French, German and Commonwealth soldiers were buried to a large degree near where they fell in action. Here, at Romagne, firmly off the beaten path in what was the biggest offensive ever launched by the American army is also the largest American military cemetery in Europe. Most of the 14,246 men buried here fell during the offensive with nine Medal of Honor winners buried among the dead: 2LT Frank Luke - known as the “Balloon Buster”, CPT Marcellus Chiles, MAJ Oscar Miller, LTC Fred Smith - who won his medal trying to rescue the Lost Battalion, 2LT Erwin Bleckley - who also died in the process of trying to locate and rescue the Lost Battalion, SGT Matej Kocak - a Marine, CPL Harold Roberts - a tanker, SGT William Sawelson – one of three Jewish Medal of Honor winners during WWI, and CPL Freddie Stowers - the only Black American to win the Medal of Honor in WWI and that was not awarded until 1991.
There are 1,412 burials set amongst the tall fir trees here on the west side of Romagne – the American cemetery is on the east side of town. One guidebook infers that with one-tenth of the number of burials of the American cemetery, the Germans must have been doing something right – even if they were forced to retreat all the way to Belgium. The problem with that hypothesis is that these men in this cemetery were buried having lost their lives in the Verdun battles. They had no time to bury their dead after the actions here during the Meuse-Argonne.
Set high on le Haut Chene – known in American hearts as La Grande Montagne – above Sivry-sur-Meuse is the monument dedicated to the US 316th Regiment of the 79th Division which overlooks much of the battlefield of the Meuse-Argonne to the west. The Germans had sited many artillery units along the heights east of the Meuse. This way they could fire into the flanks of advancing American units over on the west side of the river. As the American advance stalled along the face of the Kriemhilde Stellung in early October, attention fell to clearing some of these artillery parks away. To the heights to the south closer to Verdun a Franco-American push in late October were cleared – some of the defenders here were members of an Austro-Hungarian corps that had been sent north from the Italian front that summer because of the desperate manpower shortage the Germans found themselves with following the failure of their Spring Offensives. The Austrians had already been bloodied by the Americans at St Mihiel in mid-September. The hill here was cleared in the final days of the war as part of the final push of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive which began on 1 November and was extended to this side of the river on 6 November.
The US 1st Division – the Big Red One – was a favorite of Pershing’s because of its commander, Charles Summerall, a West Point artilleryman, who drove his men relentlessly. “He may be a son-of-a-***, but he’s our son-of-a-***.” is the description of one of Summerall’s 1st Division troopers. The 1st Division went in as part of the second wave of American units following in the wake of the Missourians of the 35th Division pushing their way up the east side of the Aire Valley into the heart of the Kriemhilde Stellung. When the American offensive stalled, Summerall was lifted to command the 5th Corps – which included the 1st Division. Finally, breaking the line, the division was in on the final rush to Sedan in the last few days of the war – which involve other interesting stories of egos and glory.
The monument here along the road near St Juvin is the same as nine other divisional memorials – five from WWI and five from WWII - you will find at places like Cantigny on the Somme – where the division saw their first action – or at Vigneulles-les-Hattonchatel – where they took part in the St Mihiel Offensive. An eagle drapes its wings over a list over the 1,790 men of the 1st Division who died here in the Meuse-Argonne – another 7,126 men were wounded.
The main German lines were not the ones the Americans overran in the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. These lines – the Kriemhilde Stellung – were set back some eight miles to the rear. Fighting against these positions stopped the offensive cold and was only overcome at a high cost of life. One of the areas of stoutest German defense was in these woods lying on a hill north of Nantillois on the road up to Cunel. Just off the road in the woods you can find the German Cemetery Nantillois. The German cemeteries you come across in this immediate area don’t contain the fallen of their 1918 defensive actions, as they were retreating, after all. The dead here are from the battles of Verdun in previous years. Jumbled gravestones at the back of the cemetery may have gotten that way as a result of the ferocious battle that took place directly on top of the graves. Looking back to the Nantillois-Cunel road is a farm, the Ferme de la Madeline. The Germans fortified the farm and made in a strongpoint for their defenses here. Further north along the same road takes you past a monument which marks the flank of one of the US 5th Division regiments that along with the US 3rd Division managed to secure Cunel 14 October.
At the same time the Americans were pushing their way north through the Meuse-Argonne region, the French 4th Army was attacking in the Champagne and along the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Here, just north of Binarville, is a monument devoted to the memory of the 9th Cuirassiers who captured the town from the Germans 30 September 1918.
The US 93rd Division was made up of Black Americans. America was a very segregated country at the time of the First World War. To say the idea of race has changed in the US since then is to probably put it mildly especially with the election of a President who is part African-American – though some Democrats claimed Warren Harding was the first of this genre. To think that racism no longer exists is to be ignorant, yet we have come, I think, a long way from the state of affairs in the early 20th century where the President, Woodrow Wilson was definitely in the racist majority. Black Americans were accepted – and drafted – into the Armed Forces, but they were not integrated into units with white soldiers. In late 1917 through mid 1918, American commander John Pershing was under intense pressure to simply insert American replacements directly into Allied units. He held firm, for the most part, to the idea of a separate, autonomous American Army able to impose its own will, as it did in the Meuse-Argonne in late 1918. Pershing was nicknamed “Blackjack” Pershing as he used to command Black cavalry troopers. It is a bit ironic then that Pershing made his one big exception to not using Americans as replacements for the British or French units was with the 93rd Division where he parceled out the individual regiments to be used in different French divisions. The symbol for the 93rd was chosen to be the Adrian helmet worn by the French poilus and by the men of the 93rd. Two of those regiments – the 372nd and the 371st served as part of the French 157th Division and were involved in the French drive northwards in the eastern Champagne of late September 1918. The 369th served with the French (Moroccan) 161st Division. Each regiment has remembered their actions with its own monument. This monument honors the 372ndregiment.
On 3 October 1918, Major Charles Whittlesey pushed a detachment of 550 men deep into the Argonne Forest. The men were a part of the US 77th Division – New York’s Own – which had been slowly slogging through the forest since the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive 26 September. Whittlesey’s unit got ahead of the rest of the division and was trapped in a little ravine not far from the western edge of the forest near Binarville. For the next 100 hours they were cut off, without food, little water or ammunition. By the evening of 7 October when relief finally reached the men, only 194 men could walk out – 107 having been killed outright. Several Medals of Honor were given to the men of the Lost Battalion and would be rescuers. Besides the little roadside marker along the road pointing into the ravine where the men had been trapped, there is another newer monument at Charlevaux recognizing the steadfast nature of the Lost Battalion.
Now, we come to the first of the two largest stories coming out of the American experiences of WWI. Both stories have been made larger than life by embellishing journalists in the post war years. Sergeant Alvin York on 8 October 1918 – he was still a corporal at this time – would be credited by his division – the 82nd Division – with single-handedly defeating a machine gun battalion, killing 25 German soldiers and capturing 132 prisoners along with some 35 machine guns. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Croix de Guerre and eventually the Medal of Honor. Now there weren’t 35 machine guns in the whole sector and he probably had some help from a couple of the other men in his squad when it came time for killing, but he did ensure the capture of 132 prisoners. More than 100 Medal of Honors were won during WWI – over half of them would be given for actions taken during the Meuse-Argonne – but York’s accomplishments still stands out foremost. A backwoods boy, York was drafted into the 82nd Division an 8 October was the division’s first day on the front of the Meuse-Argonne. York and his division would go on fighting north of the Aire River for another two weeks before going back into reserve 31 October. Publicity came York’s way following the armistice. Marshal Foch declared when he gave out the Croix de Guerre to York, “What you did was the greatest thing ever accomplished by any soldier of any of the armies of Europe,”
In the last few years, the little side valley along the eastern edge of the Argonne where York’s actions took place has been re-discovered. A trail has been developed to take you past several locations pertaining to York on that day in October 1918. The trail is an easy walk – though parts can be wet – today without all of those bullets flying about.
Atop the ruins of an old blockhouse is a Franco-American memorial remembering six companies of the 69th RI who vanished defending the villages of Haucourt and Malancourt during the initial German assaults on Cote 304 of early April 1916. The area was retaken by men of the US 79th Division in the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September 1918.
The chapel features huge doors with figures representing Grief and Remembrance above. The Allied flags are arrayed in a semi-circle around the altar. On the walls are nearly 1,000 names of Americans who went missing during the battles here. Outside, there is a list of those who went missing during the 1919 expedition to Murmansk, Russia. Marble inlaid maps show American actions in the Meuse-Argonne. Stained glass windows carry the designs of division emblems and higher units such as corps.
In the forests and countryside about 15 km northwest of Verdun is the village of Montfaucon - Mountain of Falcons. High on the hill lies the old ruined village - the newer town rebuilt below and to the west. Towering 200 feet above the ruins is a tall Doric column topped with a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The monument commemorates the victory of the US First Army in the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 26 September - 11 November, 1918 and to the heroic services of French troops on that battlefront. The hilltop was earlier a German observation post and was steadfastly defended in the first days of the American attack - a delaying action which allowed the Germans to bring in reinforcements which was to turn the Argonne operation into a smaller, but just as deadly, version of Verdun. 600,000 Americans were involved in the offensive. The American army had been hastily put together and their lack of experience showed - especially early on. American soldiers fought well but all modern materiel - artillery, tanks, planes and machine guns - had to be provided by the French along with the know-how to use the equipment. American tactics favored the rifle, using human wave attacks against machine guns - mistakes made by the other combatants early on in the war. 234 steps will lead you to the top of the monument where you can gaze out over the old battlefields. 26,277 Americans died in the offensive and another 96,000 were wounded.