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

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Objective Montfaucon

In the opening of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive the most important objective for the AEF was the German strong point and commanding observation point of Montfaucon. It lay over four miles north of the Doughboys' jump-off line of 26 September 1918.  The job to capture Montfaucon was assigned to the  79th Division, a unit that had never seen combat before and was commanded by a general who had not been in battle himself.  The men of the division were not quite "just off the troop ships," but had received much less training in France than most of Pershing's other divisions. One member of the division, novelist James M. Cain, assigned to the divisional headquarters, later summarized what happened that day.

1945 View of Montfaucon with the U.S. WWI Memorial Atop
Just a Little Hill in the Middle of Farm Country

On the 26th of September, 1918, when the old 79th Division hopped off with the rest of the AEF on the big drive that started that morning, the big job ahead of us was to take a town named Montfaucon, and it was the same town where the Crown Prince of Germany has his PC [Post of Command] in 1916, when them Dutch was hammering on Verdun and he was watching his boys fight by looking up at them through a periscope. And our doughboys was in two brigades, the 157th and 158th, with two regiments in each, and the 157th Brigade was in front. But they ain’t took the town because it was up on a high hill, and on the side of the hill was a whole lot of pillboxes and barbed wire what made it a tough job. 
From "The Taking of Montfaucon"

Your Editor Takes in the View from
Atop the Montfaucon Memorial
Some historians downplay the delay in the American advance caused by the failure to capture Montfaucon that day, but the effect was more long-term. Pershing's First Army had caught the defenders by surprise and in most parts of the sector were advancing fairly promptly. The failure to take Montfaucon that first day held up the advance somewhat but—much more important—allowed the trained observers atop the hill to get a more detailed and comprehensive estimate of just what the Yanks were up to. High-explosive and gas shells were directed onto the advance columns. Reserves were promptly forwarded to the best possible locations—the heights running across the sector  north of Montfaucon—by the German commanders based on the accurate reports they were receiving.

Over the years I've read many explanations as to why Montfaucon was not captured that first day. Lack of training, exhaustion of the troops, mismanagement by the division commander MG Kuhn, and the AEF-wide inexperience at coordinating artillery with infantry advances all make the list of problems and are serious considerations. However, over the years that I have visited the battlefield, two other matters have come to seem more important to me than any of these factors.

1.  What Were the Planners Thinking?
Why was a completely inexperienced division given the most important objective of the opening of the battle? Asking this question, of course, suggests that an experienced division probably would have taken Montfaucon that day. However:

2.  It's Long, Long Way to Tipperary.
The map below from Google shows the distance to be covered that first day (about 4.1 miles) and helps give an idea of what had to be accomplished that day by the 79th Division. First, the village of Malancourt needed to be captured, and that was no small task. It had been a German strongpoint since 1916. The intervening terrain up to Montfaucon was originally open across rolling hills but years of artillery fire had broken up the ground, and scattered all around were old trenches and  wire entanglements. Rainy weather ensured the troops would be marching across muddy fields as well. In the present day the 87-minute hike indicated on the map would be conducted along a paved road, with no mud, and no one shooting at you. In actuality, with the grimmest of wartime conditions, it was many hours later that the division reached the base of Montfaucon, and adequate artillery support was no longer available.

Approximate Route of 314th Infantry, 79th Division on 26 Sep 1918
from Jump-Off Line to Montfaucon

This next photo is from about a mile from the American Monument, which is adjacent to site of the former main German observation post, the ultimate target. Compared to the photo at the top, up close from this angle, Montfaucon looks pretty formidable, commanding the approaches—a little like Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Keep in mind also that it was guarded in 1918 by the "whole lot of pillboxes and barbed wire" Cain described. Try to project those details on the hill in this image. This is what the boys faced after slogging most of those four miles from the start line. A hornet's nest was waiting for them. 

View of Montfaucon from Intersection of D15 and D19

I usually try to avoid "what if" or revisionist history, but in this case I've actually visited the battlefield, and over the years it has made a strong impression on me. My thinking  is that I seriously doubt—given the level of challenge and capabilities of the AEF at that time—any of General Pershing's units could have taken Montfaucon that first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The men and officers of the 79th Division did as much as could be expected in a single day, and they took the Montfaucon the day after.


  1. I agree, by the standards of the time a feature like Montfaucon could not be taken on the run, but needed proper preparation and should be given to an experienced unit. Always good to go to the actual location and see what it was like for the troops.

  2. I visited this area with some friends as part of a tour of US AEF WWI sites (and a peek at the WWII Meuse crossings by Rommel :-). Montfaucon is the strongest memory from that trip.

  3. Petain said he doubted it would be taken by Christmas. The 79th took it on Day 2. Sounds very good to me.

  4. Consider also that the mutually supporting battle positions that Germans adopted along their front. These proved very effective against the British at Ypres and Passchendaele. By this time the Germans and Allies held the line with only a small screen and kept the bulk of their troops back for counterattack. I agree that up close study of the battlefield provides good feel for what happened. When I visited Gettysburg and stood on Cemetery Ridge and saw the ground as Hancock saw it, I smiled. Also seeing the battle from the other side, could provide clues why the assault failed on the first day.

  5. My paternal grandmother's brother, Paul Masem, served with the 106th Inf Rgt of the 27th Division. He was KIA 27 Sep 1918

  6. I was fortunate to have been in this area a few years back but must have missed a lot of this. My greatest memory was finding the ruins of a great church that had been destroyed and rebuilt over the last several centuries and finally abandoned in complete ruin. It seemed to be a sacred observer of all the past battles. A very humble feeling.