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

Monday, May 25, 2020

George Marshall Reflects on the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Marshall at Ft. Benning
Former chief of operations for the U.S. First Army during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive,  Lt. Col George C. Marshall led the Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning during the post-World War I period from 1927 to 1932. In 1931, one of his former instructors, Capt. Lloyd Winters, then assigned to the 21st Infantry Regiment in Hawaii, wrote Marshall to ask for comments for a lecture he planned to deliver for on the Meuse-Argonne operation. Below is the response. I have underlined some points I found particularly striking

Critical reviews of the Meuse-Argonne operation are usually concerned with strategical and larger tactical aspects of the battle. The most instructive phases would seem to be those related to smaller affairs, matters of direction and method within the brigade, and especially in the battalion and the company. However, every lesson should be learned with a clear understanding of the special conditions under which the battle was fought—a tired and outnumbered enemy, unable to strike a heavy counter-blow but extraordinarily skillful in the employment of artillery and machine guns; our troops [were] strong and vigorous, but deficient in training and lacking that finesse of troop leadership which comes from experience.

To me, the following were the most instructive aspects of the battle:

The chaotic conditions which usually developed within a few hours of a formal “jump off”. Troops could be lined up for a set assault and carried through the first phase in comparatively good order, but as the necessity for local decisions, maneuver, adjustments and cooperation developed the efforts became disorganized or confused to a remarkable degree, and only the courage and determination of the natural leaders enabled the troops to press on. Leaders understood how to deploy but seldom how to [re-de]ploy or regroup their scattered forces without bringing the action to a standstill. Fighting of this character will be normal to open warfare.

The inability of subordinate leaders to achieve a combination of fire and movement. Under the stress of battle headlong attacks were usually launched, and while often successful, heavy losses and disorganization usually robbed the unit of further striking power.

Inability of local leaders to approximate any idea of the situation beyond their immediate flanks. The misunderstandings and unfortunate results, due to the above reason, made tragic history over the entire battlefield. The strain of the fighting was so intense that the brain of leaders seemed a blank to all but the violent impressions of their immediate front.

The small part pure tactics played in the handling of most situations. Local decisions were usually dominated by reasons other than tactical,—fatigue, inability or unwillingness to alter existing dispositions, and response to orders to renew the attack by efforts straight to the front. Yet in our training we usually consider only the tactical problem.

Doughboys Advancing in the Argonne

The serious effect of poor arrangements to provide hot food to the fighting line. In the few divisions where the supply of hot food was rigorously required, the more so when the fighting was desperate, troops performed feats utterly beyond those who received cold food or went hungry. The former were able to remain “in the line” for much longer periods, to the great saving of the army reserves being collected to stage a renewed general assault. In prolonged fighting the delivery of food is as important as the maintenance of communications.

The small understanding of the practical proposition of maintaining morale. Few officers understood the fatal effect on their troops of a pessimistic attitude and of criticism of seniors. Where the opposite condition existed the troops often achieved the impossible. Their success was seldom due to tactics or technique, unless it was the technique of leadership. It might truthfully be said that in most instances the performance of the troops could be accurately measured by the mental attitude and bearing of the leaders. It was seldom that a determined, resourceful leader failed. It was seldom that a dispirited or disgruntled or critical leader succeeded. Courage was a common trait, but not fortitude and unquestioned loyalty.

In general, it has seemed to me that we discuss the battle in a large or ponderous fashion, ignoring those features which really determined the issue in the hundreds of local situations which made up the great operation. Unless we deal with the facts about these, the errors will all be repeated, and to a more serious degree in warfare of movement with an army taking the field in the first month of a war.

Source: Lloyd N. Winters Papers, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia.


  1. Print is too small to read comfortably.

    1. Try holding down the control key and then press the + sign.

  2. Thank you for offering this insightful excerpt from one of the great"s WW1 experience.

  3. Generally, seems like a pretty good life lesson as well for today!

  4. Thanks for this article, show's Gen Marshal's keen mind. I also think some of these thoughts also crossed over into that excellent book - Infantry in Battle - published during Gen Marshal's tenure at Ft Benning.

  5. Enjoyed Marshal's reflections. It is amazing they accomplished what they did. Very difficult transportation issues.