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

Monday, September 6, 2021

Recommended: Historian Thomas Fleming Tries to Recapture the Experience of His Father in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Two Argonnes

By Thomas Fleming
Originally published in American Heritage, October 1968

Shoulder Patch of the 78th "Lightning" Division

Could I re-create the reality of the Argonne? As history, yes. I could see it with a clearer, colder eye. I could give reasons, make analyses that my father and his friends, struggling through the shell-churned mud, simply could not consider. But as for recapturing those singing, brawling Doughboys, what they really thought and felt about the rain-soaked, shell-shrieking days and nights, with the constant smell of death in the mind and in the nostrils, no. Their garrulous reticence (for that, I finally decided, was the only way to describe it) may be explained by a line Guy Chapman records in his story of the British front in World War I, A Passionate Prodigality. “The war, old chap, is our youth, secret and interred.” But I suspect a larger explanation. The Argonne was the last enormous expression of America’s youth, and perhaps they sensed the tragedy, sensed that this marvelous innocence had been violated there by old Europe’s grimmer, more terrible vision of life and death. Never again, after the Argonne, would we go to war with a smile and a song.

Time has created two Argonnes. Mine, a thing of words and terrain and memory, belongs to my generation. My father’s sleeps with him and his friends beneath the crosses at Romagne and other cemeteries, or hides beneath the banter at division reunions. Both are true.

Otherwise the reunion was a sad and somewhat frustrating experience. All my father’s close friends were dead. In discussing the Argonne, the surviving old soldiers were unbelievably vague about details. Like my father and his friends, they preferred the funny memories—stealing chickens, chasing French girls, outwitting second lieutenants or MPs. It made me realize, with something of a shock, how little death or wounds, fatigue or hunger, fear or bravery, had been mentioned in the stories I had heard when my father was alive. The commanding officer of the contemporary 78th Division, Major General John G. Cassidy, slashed all sorts of red tape to give me access to company and regimental histories. But I left Fort Dix with little more than the raw material of personal history. It was clear that if I was going to recapture my father’s Argonne, much would depend on what the place itself gave me.

Historian Thomas Fleming (Left) and His Father
Thomas (Teddy) Fleming of the 78th Division

The morning after I arrived at Verdun I hired a car and guide and took the highway that runs north along the banks of the Meuse River, a curiously placid-looking stream only a few hundred yards wide, with low, almost nonexistent banks. The road passed French and German cemeteries, monuments to that earlier cataclysm, the year-long struggle for Verdun that consumed almost a million soldiers before America entered the war. When the road swung west across the Meuse I unfolded a multicolored map and asked eagerly: “Where’s the Argonne?”

“The forest of the Argonne?” replied Robert Devillars, my guide. “That is many miles away. Let us first go to Montfaucon.” Soon our little Renault was straining up an ever steeper hill; it finally groaned to a stop before a towering monument, a circular column of stone that rose 327 feet to a figure of Liberty at the summit. Immediately behind it were the ruins of a church and other buildings, the remains of the once-thriving village of Montfaucon.

From this steep-sided height I learned the first and most important lesson about the Argonne: its immensity. “See there,” said M. Devillars. “There is the forest of the Argonne.” My eyes strained toward a thin dark line on the western horizon. In between, the land rose and fell in a vast panorama of rolling hills and clumps of forest past the foot of Montfaucon to the banks of the Meuse.

The Argonne was not a battle for a forest. It was fought for the control of a region, of which the forest, stretching some fifteen miles along a dominating ridge, was the western boundary. From Montfaucon the vision of that 26 September 1918, dawn, when 225,000 Americans in nine divisions had surged forward, suddenly made a mockery of the word personal. From the New Yorkers of the 77th Division, thrashing through the Argonne Forest, to the Illinoisans of the 33rd Division, up to their cartridge belts in the oozing swamps along the Meuse, each unit experienced its own distinct version of hell. Did the single human being, the single regiment, even the single division, matter in such a cataclysm? I wondered, trying to see the whole stupendous scene with the historian’s eye. Suddenly the answer was clear.


Yes, because the very immensity of the experience staggered the mind. One could, of course, write an objective article about the Argonne, discussing the tactics, the progress made by the various divisions on the first, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, day. But to rescue the Argonne from this kind of abstract, impersonal history, to find its human dimension, it was absolutely necessary to reduce it to a smaller scale. Yes, I thought, returning to the car and driving down the hill toward the forest, coming here was not a mistake.

The Lightning Division Ready to Depart Camp Dix for France

The intuition gathered momentum as we drove along the valley of the Aire River. It was a gray, sunless day, typical Argonne weather, and the landscape was in perfect harmony with the atonal sky. The Aire was as colorless as the back of a mirror and, seen from a distance, as inert as a dead snake. Dun-colored earth undulated to the right and left, broken by an occasional cluster of red-roofed farmhouses, or an isolated patch of woods. The long miles of open fields seemed peculiarly naked. The few fences were almost invisible wire, and there were no stone walls, no rocks, no hedges. It was all as bare as the Nebraska plain—but by no means as flat. Close up, the undulations became surprising hills or shallow ravines. It was a landscape in which only mass and density could make an impression, and the forest of the Argonne played this role with dark insistence. Mile after mile it was a brooding, impenetrable presence, on its twisting western height.

There in its little valley lay compact Varennes, famous in French history as the town where the fleeing Louis XVI was captured and sent back to Paris and his doom. Thousands of Pennsylvanians of the 28th Division died to drive the Germans out of it. A monument, one of the many that dot the Argonne region, commemorates their sacrifices. There was the village of Exermont, and that nearby narrow ravine where a German counterattack struck the exhausted, depleted Kansans and Missourians of the 35th Division on 29 September 1918 and almost turned the battle into a rout. There was Le Chene Tondue, a saw-toothed height jutting out of the Argonne Forest into the valley like the prow of a ship. From it German artillery dominated the lower half of both the valley and the forest. Next we passed the heights of Cornay and Châtel-Chéhéry, equally crucial to the upper half of the valley. Storming those nearly perpendicular slopes made men remember their elders’ stories of Lookout Mountain and Cold Harbor in the Civil War. The divisions fighting east of the Aire had “scalloped” away these strong points at a terrible price, while across the valley other outfits swarmed up the steep slopes of Montfaucon. Both had to fight their way up a huge amphitheater with enemies flinging destruction at them from three sides. Next we drove across the forest itself, pausing to stare down the shrouded slope where the famed “lost battalion” of the 77th Division was cut off but held out for five searing days against repeated German assaults. The round outlines of their foxholes are still visible after 50 years.

We were close to personal history now. The 78th Division had marched up through the Argonne’s blasted, shell-stripped trees in the wake of the 77th. The Jerseyans had spent the two weeks preceding the Argonne buildup, and the first week of the battle itself, holding a sector of the St.-Mihiel line, about thirty miles to the southeast. To confuse the Germans about American intentions during the build-up, they had orders to keep the sector boiling, and they obeyed them with enthusiasm. Their days and nights were devoted to aggressive patrolling and limited attacks. The Germans retaliated with intense bombardments. In the history of my father’s regiment, the unnamed historian tells how one of these barrages fell with special fury on my father’s Company C, killing Lieutenant Donat G. O’Brien and several other men.

My father was a tough, cocky Irishman from the downtown slums of Jersey City. When the chaplain urged everyone to take the full $10,000 insurance policy the government was offering at rock-bottom rates, Sergeant Fleming had sneered: “I can take care of myself,” and opted for only $3,000. After a night spent with his face in the shuddering St.-Mihiel mud with chunks of deadly metal humming around him, he signed up for the full $10,000. “I never thought I’d come out of it in one piece, after that night,” he said.

Troops of the 78th Division Resting During the
Meuse-Argonne Offensive


At the same time, my father retained his faith in something he called “Irish luck.” Those who scoffed at this superstitious philosophy must have wondered, after the death of Lieutenant O’Brien. As my father told it in later years, that first barrage caught them in the open. “You never saw anyone dig holes faster in your life,” he said. “I was down about three feet when the Lieutenant crawled over to me and told me to get out, he was taking over my hole as a command post. I told him to go dig his own goddam hole. Finally he ordered me out, and it was go or get court-martialed.” Fifteen minutes later, while Sergeant Fleming, still cursing fluently, was digging himself a new hole a few dozen yards away, a shell made a direct hit on O’Brien’s command post. “All we ever found of the poor guy,” my father said, “was a piece of his raincoat.”

Over 2,000 Lightning men had been killed, wounded, or were missing by the time Pershing ordered the division withdrawn from St.-Mihiel for service in the Argonne. They made some of the sixty-mile journey in trucks, but most of it they covered in traditional infantry fashion, “picking up one brogan and putting the other one down,” as my father liked to describe it. While they marched, they sang. The 6th Regiment’s favorite was “Smile, Smile, Smile.” Others preferred “K-K-K-Katy,” “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” or “Madelon.” It was a singing war.

But this sentimental streak (on the wall of his bedroom, my father had framed the words of that saccharine song “My Buddy”) was strangely combined with an almost primitive toughness. Frank Mueller, a member of Company C, told me, “The first time I saw your father, he was a bayonet instructor at Fort Dix. He made my hair stand on end, the way he’d snarl, ‘Stick it into his guts and pull it out the same way!’ ” Going into the Argonne, Mueller recalls my father getting into an argument with one of his best friends. “We were marching along, and all of a sudden, Red just flattened him. Right there in the road. Out cold, with one punch. Nobody talked back to your old man.”

Ahead were Argonne days and nights when both the sentiment and the toughness would be tested to their utmost limits.

Terrain along the St. Juvin-Grandpré Road

I drove out of the Argonne Forest along a road that runs through the towns of Lançon and Senuc. My father’s regiment had marched up this road on the night of 15-16 October 1918. The rain, by then a standard feature of the battle, came down in relentless sheets, and darkness was total. No one had the slightest notion where he was going. Guides who supposedly knew the way were as lost as everyone else. The confusion was par for the Argonne course. As they had moved up through the forest, the commanders of the 78th Division had been told that they would relieve the Sand Division. They had rushed their best young officers forward, to spend days mapping and patrolling the Sand’s front. Then, without so much as a whisper of explanation, they were told to relieve the 77th, along a front about which they knew no more than they could read on their maps.

The 78th Division was split into two brigades of two regiments each. Except for battalions held in reserve, both brigades were supposed to be in line at 5:30 A.M. on the morning of the 16 October, to launch an all-out attack on the town of Grandpré, on the Bois de Bourgogne beyond it to the left, and on a smaller woods known as the Bois des Loges, to the right. Because of the total confusion in which they marched, both wings of the division arrived late. The second battalion of the 310th Regiment, for example, marched all night in the rain and got nowhere. At 10:30 A.M. , under direct orders, they had to leave the shelter of the Argonne’s trees and move across the Aire River and an open field 500 yards wide, through an enemy barrage that cost them, one veteran remembers bitterly, “more casualties than we took in two whole weeks at St.-Mihiel.”

The German defenses known as the Hindenburg Line ran from the Bois de Bourgogne through Grandpré and the Bois des Loges into the little village of Champigneulle. In 1968 I sat in the farmhouse of André Godart, a bluff, barrel-chested citizen of Champigneulle who was 15years old when the 78th Division came across his father’s fields. The Germans had tunnels running from the cellar of the family farmhouse to the forward trenches and blockhouses. Godart took me out in the pasture behind his house, and to my amazement the eye could still trace the snaking line of the German trenches, while in the distance several of the concrete blockhouses were still visible, sunk deep in the earth, with only a slit, like a baleful mouth, for machine-gun fire. Here, as everywhere in the Argonne, the deceptive contours of the rolling earth were startling. The ground fell away in a long gradual incline across naked fields all the way from Champigneulle to the Grandpré-St.-Juvin road. In 1918 those fields, Godart said, were thick with barbed wire, huge belts of it every hundred feet. In the north, the British were using 4,000 tanks to open paths through the wire for their infantry. In the Argonne, the Americans had only 189 tanks, and most of these had been knocked out the first day. All Pershing could offer his infantry were artillery barrages to blast holes in the wire. More than one soldier died trying to find holes that were not there.

German Machine Gun Post Above Grandpré

I drove with Godart down the road from Champigneulle toward Grandpré. About halfway, he stopped the car and pointed across another naked field toward a clump of woods—the Bois des Loges. This was the primary objective of the right brigade of the 78th Division. It was only a few thousand square yards, but from the 78th’s viewpoint it might have been designed by the devil and handed to the Germans as a gift. It was a series of ravines, like a giant corrugated iron roof, thick enough to conceal machine guns and to protect the defenders from detection by artillery, yet thin enough to give them murderous fields of fire. The men of the 309th and 310th Infantry reached the edge of the woods, but that was only Act One in a terrible two-week drama. There were machine guns every forty yards firing down the ravines. When Company F of the 310th attempted to penetrate the woods from another angle on the eighteenth of October, the Germans let them advance 200 yards and then blasted them with machine gun fire from both flanks. In four searing days, the 310th took 800 casualties in the Bois des Loges, and the 309th suffered proportionately.

Again and again, with unquestioning courage, the companies tried to fight their way forward, destroying one machine-gun nest only to be cut down by flanking fire from another, grappling with repeated counterattacks which, in the undemonstrative language of the 78th Division’s history, “resolved” the fighting into “combats between small groups.” A special feature of the nightmare in the woods was gas. The shells plopped almost soundlessly around the fighting men day and night and the deadly swirls of phosgene and mustard settled in the ravines and even in the foxholes, forcing the men to wear their uncomfortable masks almost constantly. “We slept in the damn things,” one 310th man told me.

To continue reading the article go to page 4 at:


  1. Thanks Mike. I read this article when it first came out. It inspired me to write about my great uncle in the Great War. The result: "Duty, Honor, Privilege." Tom and I became friends after I sent him copy of my book and told him how he'd given me the idea to write it. I miss him every time I sit to write.
    Stephen l. Harris

  2. "...they preferred the funny memories..." I found this to be true regarding the WWII war stories from my Father and Stepfather. It took research to discover what they really encountered and endured.

  3. Very personal and touching article. It´s incredible when History touches our own personal story. I bought and already read "Duty, Honor, Privilge" and it is a privilege to write this directly to its author. Congrats both for their works to keep alive the memories and the importance of the Great War.

  4. I was a soldier''71-'74. Soldiers have that special place for the most terrible of memories. The best memories are of comrades, food, booze and rest.