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

Tuesday, October 12, 2021


By Maarten Otte
Pen and Sword, 2018
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

Approach to Montfaucon Today

Disclaimer: Half of this book (Full title: The American Expeditionary Forces in the Great War: Montfaucon) is a travel guide for the Montfaucon area and the Meuse-Argonne battlefield, and although I’ve researched and written about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, I have never visited the battlefield. PLB

The failure of the 79th Division to take Montfaucon on the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive has been the subject of some historical analysis. This current book, by historian Maarten Otte, is the latest examination of the action at Montfaucon. Otte acknowledges two recent books describing the division’s terrible struggle to advance against the Germans in late September 1918. As Otte says, “there is no comparison to be made between this book, which should not be regarded as a major study, and these large-scale works” (p. xi). Indeed, Otte intends his book to be used as a reference to the battle for readers at home or visiting the battlefield. This is Maarten Otte’s second book in Pen and Sword’s Battleground series. The author lives in the area of the battlefield and makes good use of “his intimate knowledge of the ground” (p. viii).

Otte starts with an overview of the war and some key personalities; he then reviews the Montfaucon terrain as an observation post rather than as a fortified bastion. He also gives a nice overview of the famed observation tower in Montfaucon as well as a description of different types of German dugouts and fortifications in the area.

The meat of Montfaucon is a narration of the advance of the 79th Division, covered chronologically and referencing the left and right “halves” of the division’s attack formation. Otte gives more detail about September 26 and 27, the most important of the days on which the division fought, and less so for September 28 through 30. The author relies on only a few different primary sources in his description of the American attacks; a broader variety would have been helpful but would have lengthened the book and put it at odds with Otte’s primary purpose. Still, his use of these sources allows us to get a good feel for the tenacity of the men as they faced German machine guns and artillery with little food, water, and supplies.

Wounded Men of the 79th Division

The author’s historical scholarship is sound. While critical of some aspects of the American 1st Army, such as the overly ambitious objectives of the first day and the dreadful traffic jams behind the lines, he approaches the topic fairly and is thoughtful in his assessment. Otte makes good use of both American and German primary sources, such as unit histories and diaries. The nature of the book causes Otte to focus narrowly on one area and mostly on one American division; detailed examinations of strategy or operational concerns are absent.

Otte includes two car tours and three walking tours; their descriptions begin on page 159 and run about 70 pages. A numbered and labeled map accompanies each tour. For each walking tour the author gives an approximate duration and a distance. He also includes helpful hints about whether the terrain is difficult for hiking and what type of shoes to wear. Otte includes cautions and warns of places one can visit “at your own risk.” All the tours are accompanied by GPS coordinates of significant points and helpful tips about points of interest to visit along the way. These include places to stay, private museums, etc. Five appendices give orders of battle, statistics relating to the battle, and a list of 20 German observation posts and shelters in the area, accompanied by current photographs.

There are 27 maps and diagrams scattered throughout the text of Montfaucon. Some of these maps are reproductions of the American Battle Monuments Commission maps, and others are geared for each car or walking tour. There are dozens of photographs throughout the book; these are helpful in giving the reader a feel for the men and terrain involved. Especially helpful and interesting are present-day photographs of areas of the battlefield, including some monuments. There are no end notes and only an abbreviated “Selected Bibliography.” While this is not the “final word” on the American fighting at Montfaucon, it is a fine overview of the action of the 79th Division there, and it would be a worthy companion for anyone touring that battlefield. .

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. An excellent description of what the book covers and does not cover. This is very helpful for a potential reader like me. Thanks for a great job, Pete.

  2. I've read both of Otte's books, and I agree with David above on this one - excellent review. We're traveling to the area next year and I am currently using the itineraries in his books to build our travel plan.

  3. I visited the Butte in 2014 -- a great monument, an inspiring view from the top, and the remains of formidable German fortifications at the foot of the hill.