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

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November 1918
reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November 1918
by Peter L. Belmonte
Schiffer Military History, 2015

The Regiment Arriving in the Argonne Sector, Near Cheppy

For an infantryman, war rarely exists above the plane of his vision at the time of combat. Vaguely, he may be aware of the events that brought him to a field in some nameless place where he experiences things that will change and shape his world forever after, but he seldom sees beyond those occurrences until well after the conflict has been resolved. Peter Belmonte's Days of Perfect Hell clearly shows how the men of the 26th Regiment, 1st Battalion, 1st Division, 1st Army saw their battle in this new work; it was a daily struggle to stay alive. The author spares us the overdone details of the Great War's political start, the formation of the American Expeditionary Force and all the arguments that preceded its entry into the trenches. This is specifically a book about the regiment's part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from 26 September through November 1918.

Belmonte begins with a brief but detailed picture of the American Expeditionary Force's organization from the top to the lowly soldier slugging through the mud. Leadership personalities are delved. Then he briefly covers the weapons that the soldier used and would have come into contact with including those used by the other side of the line. To round out what I saw as a basic introduction to the fighting man of the Great War, the author then gives a short history of the regiment's origin, training, and involvement in the war up to their exposure to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Covering these areas presents an in-depth profile of the unit that the reader will need as he accompanies the regiment through forests and across rivers and creeks.

Corpsman Axel Lundegard, 26th Infantry, Receives the Distinguished Service Cross
from General Pershing for Service in Action 4 October 1918

Belmonte is meticulous in the next chapters of Days of Perfect Hell, which are divided by dates beginning from 1 - 3 October when the regiment goes into preparation positions for the attack. Battalion, company, and platoon officers and men who will be part of the upcoming assault to begin on 4 October are presented. Through their diaries, after-action reports, and some letters home, the reader gets to know the very essence of the regiment. The author succinctly analyzes archival material to ferret out inconsistencies in some reports and truths in others. Throughout the pages I found the hand-drawn maps done by battalion and company commanders to be excellent references guides, far better than the overused maps of commercial origin which all too often don't indicate the points of the accompanying text. When the 26th Regiment finally goes over the top, I was as much relieved that the fighting was beginning as those soldiers were.

Contrary to what many have thought over the years, the German army was not as demoralized or inept in October 1918 as some have implied. Resistance to the Americans was staunch. The doughboys had to slug their way through a warren of cleverly hidden machine gun nests and other obstacles. I was appalled at the number of casualties incurred by the division and the regiment. From 4 - 12 October the division casualty rate was 196 officers and 7324 men, with the regiment hardest hit with the loss of 41 officers and 1600 men out of a beginning strength of 3300 men and 84 officers. It seemed that the American commanders were repeating some of the same mistakes the British and French made in 1914 which had caused horrendous casualties in the war's opening months.

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But an answer soon surfaced in the following pages. The Germans had been in the area since 1914. During that time they had conceived of a defense system in which pockets of resistance were so well developed that many machine guns and field artillery pieces supported each other. When one area was taken, the doughboys in a flanking attack designed to reduce casualties often found even stronger resistance on their flanks and in their rear. A front or definite line of resistance never existed. This book is a military historian's treasure chest. It is extremely rare to find orders of battle on any given day down to the company levels, as we do here. Moreover, the author's numerous details gleaned from archival sources are highly effective and make this a book not to be missed. Besides being a retired Air Force officer and author on World War One topics, Peter Belmonte is also a frequent contributor of book reviews on this blog.

Michael P. Kihntopf


  1. I walked past the Argonne Bar and Liquor Store every day on my way to and from grammar school. Eventually I found out about its name. Like its proprietor, it's long gone, but his stories aren't forgotten.

  2. Hey check out our blog
    We are a future graduating class of 2017, and we're planning to go to Europe and see all the World War 1 monuments, trenches and sights.

  3. Fascinating review of what looks like an excellent book. Now I have to buy it and read it. Many thanks for both the review and the book! DB