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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Best World War I Story I Know: On the Point in the Argonne, September 26–October 16, 1918

By Nimrod Frazer
Rainbow Division Veterans Foundation, 2018
Editor/Publisher Michael Hanlon, Reviewer

Machine Gunners of the 35th Missouri-Kansas Division in the
Opening of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Korean War veteran and banking executive Nimrod (Rod) Frazer has turned into a crackerjack military historian during the World War I Centennial. His father Will had served in the war with the 167th Infantry (formerly 4th Alabama) Regiment of the AEF's 42nd Rainbow Division. Convinced that his dad and his mates were slowly fading out of the nation's collective memory, about a decade ago Frazer initiated a multi-prong effort to commemorate the service of the 167th. He acquired the property on which the unit fought one of its early, defining battles, Croix Rouge Farm, located just north of the River Marne. Then he commissioned a memorial for the site by British sculptor James Butler. Today that "Rainbow Soldier" statue is a pilgrimage site for all Americans visiting the Western Front. Concurrently, he enthusiastically and successfully embraced the challenge of becoming a military historian, researching and writing a history of the 167th Infantry, Send the Alabamians, to which we gave a very positive review on 16 September 2014.

With one success under his belt, Frazer took on a bigger historical project, an examination of a major sub-campaign of the Doughboys' greatest and costliest battle of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In The Best World War I Story I Know: On the Point in the Argonne, September 26–October 16, 1918, the author examines the effort to break the Hindenburg Line on the west side of Pershing's broad advance to Sedan. The key defensive position of the German Army was along the third of four defensive positions in the sector, the Kriemhilde Stellung, located in a hilly area know as the Romagne Heights. Among these hills, Hill 260, or the Côte de Châtillon, provided the best observation post for the enemy, and consequently, was the most highly fortified. 

Click on Map to Enlarge

This Map from the New Trail System in the Region Shows the
Progression of the Three-Division Attack, and the Insert Shows
Its Position in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

In advancing the 12 miles to Côte de Châtillon and succeeding in capturing it, the U.S. First Army would exhaust three of its 28,000-man divisions: the 35th Missouri-Kansas National Guard, General Pershing's showcase 1st Division, and the 42nd Rainbow Division composed of select National Guardsmen from across the country. In telling us, "The history of how these three divisions managed such a feat is the best story I know from WWI," the author reveals to us the inspiration for his title.

The story proceeds chronologically, beginning on 26 September with the utterly inexperienced 35th National Guard Division, accompanied by Lt. Col. George Patton's tanks, advancing fairly well—three miles—over open rolling countryside on the battle's first day. But trouble soon arises as the enemy shows more resistance. The division's communications and logistics quickly break down—the generals don't know what's happening up front, artillery and infantry are out of sync, and incoming gas, the management of casualties, and the provision of ammunition become major problems. By day three, the division had lost the capability to sustain its attack. Pershing quickly realized he had no choice but to relieve the 35th and send it to a quiet sector.

One of the Most Famous Photos of the War Shows 1st Division Doughboys Fighting in Exermont Ravine During This Action

Next up was the highly experienced 1st Division, made up mostly of army regulars and commanded by future Chief of Staff, Major General Charles Summerall. As they resumed the offensive on 4 October, General Pershing had every reason for optimism, having thrown into the fight possibly his very best division. These men, however, were being deployed before some of the most readily defensible territory on the Western Front, the heavily wooded hills of the Romagne Heights. Here their enemy had lived for four years and had studied every hill, gully, and field of fire. The 1st Division, indeed, was up to the challenge, advancing systematically over every hill and stream until they were in sight of Côte de Châtillon. But by then, the division had, in a very literal sense, bled out. Its fighting units lacked sufficient manpower and officers to continue attacking. As Frazer recounts: "In closing out its part. . . the 18th Infantry [one of the division's four infantry regiments] reported 8 officers and 332 men present, having lost 38 officers and 1,384 men killed, wounded or missing. Not one of the officers who entered the battle with the regiment on October 1 would come out of it with the unit when it was relieved on October 11; all had died or been evacuated." [102].

The final assignment for capturing Côte de Châtillon would be given to another storied formation of the AEF, the 42nd Rainbow Division. It, too, struggled to gain ground on the heavily contested hill until General Douglas MacArthur’s determined 84th Brigade of “Alabama cotton pickers and Iowa corn growers” with both ingenuity and raw courage forced their way past the Germans. Those men who first reached the summit had a thrilling view. Looking north there were no more hills to assault, the rolling countryside had returned, and the road to Sedan was wide open. Victory was in sight and closer than anyone would have believed that day.

There's much I liked about The Best World War I Story I Know and much I learned. Rod Frazer has done a terrific job tying together a three-division campaign in a coherent fashion, but the thoroughness of his work doesn't stop at this overview level. There are excellent discussions of small unit actions—his discourse on the work of the 151st [Georgia] Machine Battalion in the last action is a classic, for example. More than any comparable military history works I can remember, he also remembers to honor the contributions of the individual Doughboys, and, in one case, a brave French liaison officer, Capitaine Maurice Drouhin. Let me not forget either, GREAT MAPS.

After the Victory
The 151st Machine Gun Battalion, 42nd Rainbow Division

I strongly recommend The Best World War I Story I Know to anyone interested in the AEF, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, or well-researched and written military history.

Michael Hanlon

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