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

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Dying Time: The Period of the Worst American Casualties in the War


Sunday Morning at Cunel, Capt. Harvey Dunn

Any man in those woods from the 4th to the 17th of October knows. . .the true situation. The shell-torn woods were wet and muddy; everything was wet and damp, raw, cold, and clammy. From all sides came the odor of death and decay, mangled bodies of men were everywhere. . . The mental strain was maddening, the physical strain exhausted us, yet we had to be alert. The enemy counterattacked, time and time again.

Sergeant Major James Block, 59th Infantry, 5th Division

Meuse-Argonne Sector: October 1918
Hindenburg Line Defense (Barbed Line); Romagne Height (Center); Cunel Heights (Right)

By some measures the Meuse-Argonne Offensive is still the largest battle America ever fought. To achieve the main objective of the operation—breaking the German rail network at Mézières and Sedan—Pershing's forces would need to battle through three ridgelines, the most formidable of which, the Romagne and Cunel Heights, were centered at Romagne about seven miles from the jump-off line of 26 September 1918. 

Meuse Heights
Assault of 33rd and 29th Divisions

Running through these formidable obstacles were the main German field fortifications in eastern France, the Kriemhilde Stellung section of the Hindenburg Line. Col. Hugh Drum, First Army chief of staff, had these heights in mind when he called the sector "the most ideal defensive terrain I have ever seen or read about." Further, any push north toward Sedan could be observed and be subject to artillery fire from the Meuse Heights that paralleled that river on its eastern side. The entire sector from Verdun to Sedan could be observed and be subject to artillery fire from these low hills. 

1st Division Attack at Exermont, SW Corner of
Romagne Heights

Côte de Châtillon, Northern Most Piece of the Romagne
Heights, Captured 16 October 1918 by the 42nd Division

It was while attacking the Romagne, Cunel, and Meuse heights in mid-October 1918 that American would suffer its most intense casualties of the Great War.  Over 11 days, the U.S. Army would suffer more killed and wounded per-day than in the Battle of the Bulge of the Second World War.

Madelaine Farm on the Road to the Cunel Heights. Cunel on the North Side of the Woods Was Secured by the 5th Division
on 22 October, Decisively Breaking the Hindenburg Line
in the Central Meuse-Argonne

The Fighting Described Here Is the Reason America's
 Largest Cemetery in Europe Is Located at Romagne

Just how vital the Meuse Heights were to the Germans was not lost in a field order sent from General von der Marwitz to his divisions. A copy was discovered by the Americans in an abandoned German trench and translated by First Army intelligence. “According to the news that we possess the enemy is going to attack the 5th Army and try and push toward Longuyon-Sedan,” Marwitz warned. “The most important artery of the army of the West… It is on the invincible resistance of the Verdun Front, that the fate of a great part of the Western Front depends, and perhaps the fate of our people."

Meuse Heights from the 8 October Jumping Off
Point of the 33rd Division

Molleville Farm, a Key Position East of the Meuse,
Taken by the 29th Division, 16 October

Despite the fierce German resistance by the third week of October, the First Army, now under tactical command of General Hunter Liggett, had cleared the Romagne and Cunel Heights, and suppressed much of the German artillery fire from the Meuse Heights. Preparations had begun for pressing on over the rolling terrain to the north, the route to Sedan. The number of killed, wounded, maimed soldiers that America had sacrificed to get to that point, though, was tragic.

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