Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, January 11, 2016

Was the Meuse-Argonne America's Deadliest Battle?

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was clearly the worst battle of the Great War in terms of killed in action for the American Expeditionary Force. How does it stand with respect to other comparable U.S. battles, specifically the Normandy Campaign of 1944? 

American Burial Service, 1918

Professor Robert Farrell titled his book on the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, "America's Deadliest Battle." I questioned that assertion when the book came out and eventually got around to doing a little research. The biggest questions involved some assumptions about the most likely competitor for the distinction, the Normandy Campaign of 1944. Some think of Normandy in terms of D-Day and the battle to get off the beaches, while others take it up to the St. Lo breakout of 25 July. However, I concluded the actual end of the campaign is best marked by the official ending date used by the British and Canadians (they were there, too) of 1 September 1944. On that date Patton's Third Army had reached the Meuse River and Montgomery's forces farther north had arrived in front of Arras. Events of that date, to me, indicate clearly that the Battle for Normandy was over and a new phase of the war had started.  

The argument could be made that the figures below are not a fair comparison. For instance, the casualties in the later battle had a much higher proportion of air casualties. There just weren't that many airplanes flying in the Great War. Also, the battles lasted different lengths, the Argonne six weeks, Normandy was twice as long.

Nonetheless, with these qualifications and stipulations,  the conquest of Normandy resulted in more American deaths.  Here are the figures (U.S. dead only are listed)

1. Normandy Campaign, 6 June –1 September 1944
29,000+

2. Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 26 September–11 November 1918
26,000+

Among the First to Perish in the Normandy Campaign: American Dead on Omaha Beach


6 comments:

  1. So the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the worst six weeks of battle..you could claim all the battles of the 1918 offence as one battle. Who wants the title anyway.

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  2. That comparison of absolute death numbers is useful.
    Have you calculated them as proportions of engaged troops?

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  3. Interesting question. What is for certain is that Robert Farrell did a terrific job bringing to light the intensity and horror of that campaign. His exhaustive research was a great resource for me in putting together the final chapter of my 2014 book 'Imperial Germany's Iron Regiment of the First World War; the History of Infantry Regiment 169.' (This storied unit was destroyed by the American 2nd Division on the final days of the war in the Argonne Forest, those interested can find out more on this story at www.ironregiment169.com)

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  4. Dr. Peter Wever & Dr. Leo Bergen, military medical historians in the Netherlands wrote recently an excellent article on "Death from the 1918 pandemic influenza during the First World War" (see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4181817/ ), proposing that the Battle with Disease (primarily the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918), which ran concurrently with the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in the Fall of 1918, was the greatest battle for Americans of WW I (it even trumps WW II Normandy battle casualties).

    In the military, among 4.7 million Army & Navy servicemen, 25 % were infected in this battle with disease that killed 58,199 (51,154 due to influenza and its end stage pneumonia during the Meuse- Argonne campaign). It dwarfed even the largest American war casualties of the largest single battle campaign of the war, in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in the Fall of 1918, where 26,000 Americans were killed. This battle was waged concurrently with the 1918 flu, that killed 21,000 American solders "over there" in France and over 30,000 in U.S. training camps "over here."

    Dr. Carol Byerly, a medical historian for the U.S. Army Surgeon General, writes the best synopsis of the impact of the 1918 flu on our military in WW I (see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862337/ ).

    Surviving the 1918 flu was the most common experience of returning WW I veterans in 1918. Also, many WW I veterans returned home to their families to discover the devastation of the flu on the home front, with veterans visiting the graves of thousands of parents, spouses, siblings and children felled by the flu in the Fall of 1918 while they were away serving their country "over there" and "over here."

    Rarely are deaths due to disease in our wars discussed as "battles," yet in most of our wars through WW I, disease killed more troops than any battle in a conflict and accounted for more war casualties at the end of the war than total combat action losses. Yet when we discuss our wars, the massive impact of disease on casualty figures receives little prominence in our war stories or is excluded altogether from the war narrative.

    This story is told on this site well in a 2013 entry on the impact of the 1918 flu on the U.S. military (see: http://roadstothegreatwar-ww1.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-influenza-pandemics-impact-on-us.html ) and in a December 2015 entry noting the impact of the 1918 flu on the American civilian population on the home front where 25% of the 105 million U.S. population was infected and 675,000 were killed (see: http://roadstothegreatwar-ww1.blogspot.com/2015/12/the-spanish-influenza-in-america.html ).

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    Replies
    1. Excellent comment, David. Worthy of a post.

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  5. Because I study WW1, and the Meuse-Argonne in particular (my Grandfather survived his service in the AEF and the M-A), I happen to lay in bed last night thinking of the 26,000 that perished in those 47 days. Rounding, that is 553 men killed per day, 23 men per hour. THIS is the rate/statistic I find terribly tragic.

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