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

Monday, August 19, 2019

What Happened at Côte de Châtillon?

Barbed Wire Defenses of the Hindenburg Line,
Côte de Châtillon in the Distance

Highly fortified Côte de Châtillon was a formidable obstacle to the advance of Pershing's First Army in the middle of October 1918.  III Corps commander Lt. General Robert Bullard described the defenses in this sector:

The way out is forward, through the Kriemhilde Stellung, eastern section of the Hindenburg Line.... Not a line, a net, four kilometers deep. Wire, interlaced, knee-high, in grass. Wire, tangled devilishly in forests.... Pill boxes, in succession, one covering another. No 'fox hole' cover for gunners here, but concrete, masonry. Bits of trenches. More wire. A few light guns.... Defense in depth. Eventually, the main trenches. Many of them, in baffling irregularity, so that the attacker cannot know when he has mopped up.... Farther back, again defense in depth, a wide band of artillery emplacements

The centerpiece of this system, the Côte de Châtillon, was eventually captured by the 84th Brigade (mostly Alabama and Iowa troops) of the 42nd Rainbow Division. The brigade's commander was none other than Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur and his personal legend is deeply intertwined with the details and historical record of the fighting.  A contemporary news account summarized both the operation and MacArthur's decoration for his leadership.


John Edwin Nevin
International News Service:

Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, former Washington press censor, has been cited again. He now has the right to wear, in addition to the French war cross given him while serving as chief of staff for the Rainbow division, the distinguished service cross of the United States army, decorated with a bronze oak leaf as an indication that he won the coveted decoration a second time. Incidentally, according to a personal letter reaching here today. "Gen. MacArthur has been wounded again, although he since fully recovered and is back leading the 84th brigade of the 42nd division into Germany toward the Rhine."

Heights Strongly Fortified.

MacArthur received his latest citation for gallantry in leading his brigade at the taking of the Cote de Chatillon and hills 288 and 232. The first account of this operation of the world-famed Rainbow division as received here, says:

The Côte de Châtillon is 820 feet high and it dominated that part of the Kriemhilde Stellung which ran in front of [the villages of St. Georges and]  Landres-St-Georges. The Americans on Wednesday, Oct. 15. attempted its capture. Traversing Its slopes yard by yard, they found that the Germans had constructed a machine gun fortress on the heights and every minute of 40 hours spent there the troops were exposed to a merciless rain of lead from all sides. A 77 gun, ensconced on the summit of the height, also poured down its deadly messages. Slowly the Americans, cradling on their stomachs, faced a massed fire of machine guns and rifles which was accompanied by shrapnel and hand grenades.

Faced Deadly Fire.

Thomas Neibaur, 167th Infantry
Received the Medal of Honor for
 the Action at Côte de Châtillon
It was deadly work, trees all wired together made an almost Impossible barrier and volunteers had to face the fire to cut lanes through this belt of wire. It was decided, however, to bring up Stokes mortars. Through the mud and rain the Americans dragged them up to their positions and turned them on the Germans, Several of the enemy surrendered but a majority fought on. Hour after hour went by and brought no cessation of the merciless struggle. Yard after yard the Americans gained, stopping not for the darkness of the night. At last the greater part of the slopes were gained. The wire had been penetrated. Out came the bayonet, and with a wild hurrah the Americans fell upon the enemy. But these Germans were brave men. Standing beside their guns they fought to the last, dying where they stood. Finally the hill was ours, the 77 gun a prize, and the German garrison, except for a few prisoners, wiped out completely. It was a glorious victory.

Douglas MacArthur's citation for the action gives him full credit for achieving the objective: 

Brigade Commander Gen. MacArthur personally led his men and by the skillful maneuvering of his brigade made possible the capture of hills 288, 222 and the Côte de Châtillon Oct. 14, 15 and 16, 1918. He displayed Indomitable resolution and great courage In rallying- broken lines and In reforming attacks, thereby making victory possible. On a field where courage was the rule, his courage was the dominant feature."

Many histories of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive include an anecdote that runs something like this.  Corps commander Charles Summerall in a meeting with MacArthur says, "Give me Chatillon or a list of 5,000 casualties," to which MacArthur was said to quickly respond, "All right general; we will take if or my name will head the list."  MacArthur's dedication to the mission shows up in other accounts. He was gassed in the front line just before the battle, writes one historian; he found the decisive weak spot in the German line in a personal reconnaissance, wrote another.  It's not an exaggeration to say that Côte de Châtillon gifted MacArthur with the reputation as the greatest combat commander of the AEF.

Côte de Châtillon Today

That is where things stood until 2008, when Professor Robert Farrell, author and editor of many admirable works on the First World War, decided to puncture MacArthur's  Côte de Châtillon legend in a brief work, The Question of MacArthur's Reputation: Côte de Châtillon.   Farrelll examined original documents and discovered that there is not much authentication of the details of MacArthur's actions during the battle, except that he spent much of the fighting time at the brigade command post, three miles to rear. He also reminds that his subject had a 50-year-long reputation for exaggeration and hyperbole.  Nonetheless,  Professor Farrell's singular position hasn't seemed to lead to a major shift in opinion about MacArthur's World War I service. More recent histories covering the Meuse-Argonne, by Mitchell Yockelson and Stephen Harris, describe MacArthur's actions at Côte de Châtillon in the conventional way.

The 42nd Division and French Officials Dedicating a Plaque
atop Côte de Châtillon

In any case, what should be most remembered about the action was its costliness.  The entire Rainbow Division suffered 3,000 casualties in five days of fighting in this sector. Well over half of these were on the slopes of  Côte de Châtillon.

Sources:  PBS American Experience, Rainbow Division Websites


  1. "Farrelll examined original documents and discovered that there is not much authentication of the details of MacArthur's actions during the battle, except that he spent much of the fighting time at the brigade command post, three miles to rear."

    Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story!

  2. The plaque shown is not "atop the Côte de Châtillon, but due south of Musarde Farm, along the road between Romagne and Sommerance.

  3. Haha...another typical "hate MacArthur" post. You know who the author Robert Hugh Farrell was the "authoritative expert" on? His idol HARRY S. TRUMAN! He is going to be so unbiased and fair to MacArthur with regards to this book, isn't he? That alone makes the book he wrote trashing MacArthur completely worthless and tainted due to extreme bias. It would be like claiming that a book about Harry Truman written by MacArthur fanboys like generals Courtney Whitney or Edward Almond is unbiased and objective.

    What is with you people hating on MacArthur for "being a coward" when real REMFs like Marshall, Eisenhower, Ernest King, and Nimitz all never served on the frontlines within 100 miles (mostly these men were thousands of miles away) of their armies in WWI and WWII? MacArthur himself on many occasions gave full credit to the two colonels subordinate to him who advised him to take advantage of the gaping hole in the barbed wire. And MacArthur refused to ever publicly talk about the tragedy that happened on a very important reconnaissance night patrol that he was a part of at Chatillon. On the night before the offensive he took about a dozen men with him into no man's land to check to confirm the gap that was theorized from aerial photographs. He was the ONLY one of the patrol to survive a German artillery barrage and machine gun fire that killed the rest of the men on the reconnaissance patrol with him while they were in no man's land. He never talked about this except secretly to his Adjutant at West Point, William Addleman Ganoe, who confirmed that MacArthur when he was in charge of West Point secretly told him this.

    Page 143-44*.html

    MacArthur deserved every single medal and foreign honor he was awarded. To his credit he was ambivalent and never fully proud of his Medal of Honor if it is interpreted to be his medal alone. He never ever wore the Medal of Honor while in uniform and always said that he accepted that award only on behalf of all of the U.S./Filipino forces under his command at Bataan and Corregidor. He refused to have any photos taken of him receiving the Medal of Honor in Australia when he was given the honor out of respect for the Bataan/Corregidor defenders. Nobody has a single photo of him either handling the Medal of Honor or wearing it.