The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s bloodiest battle happened 100 years ago this month. It claimed 26,000 lives.

Historians say it was the deadliest fight in U.S. history.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive in WWI started on Sept. 26, 1918. The battle in northern France left 26,000 American service members dead over 46 days. (Video: National Archives)

On the sixth day of the great offensive, U.S. Army Capt. Thomas H. Barber was watching his men line up for chow amid the wreckage of the battle when an anonymous chaplain stepped out of the fog.

It had been a rough couple of days. Barber was missing one of his pant legs, which had been torn off by barbed wire. He had just helped unload a festering dead body from a truck that was packed with wounded Americans. Now, here came the clergyman.

The captain recalled that he was thin, ascetic-looking and unhinged.

“Let’s see, I buried forty seven between Esnes and the top of that hill, and seven up there,” the chaplain said, Barber recalled in a memoir after the war. “That makes fifty four. I’ll bury a hundred before night! I am out for a record.”

The chaplain laughed manically. “Any of you fellows seen any dead ones around here?”

It was Oct. 1, 1918, near the start of the massive American offensive known as the Meuse-Argonne campaign that began 100 years ago this month, and ended with the Armistice that concluded World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.

The U.S. joined the 'Great War' 100 years ago. America and warfare were never the same.

Historians say it was the bloodiest battle in U.S. military history, claiming the lives of 26,000 Americans and wounding 95,000. Twice as many died there than the next most costly battle — the World War II fight for Okinawa, which claimed 12,900 lives, according to the late historian Robert H. Ferrell.

Fourteen thousand men, most of them killed in the battle, are buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, near the French village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon.

The campaign was fought with rifles, poison gas, bayonets, artillery and tanks, across a moonscape of shell craters, smashed trees and barbed wire.

Soldiers were machine-gunned and obliterated by giant artillery shells and, like the chaplain, driven to the breaking point.

“He was utterly beyond himself with the general horror of the situation,” Barber wrote in 1924. “And for the moment, at least . . . insane . . . He kept recounting horrors and bursting out into hysterical laughter. I saw similar cases at various times, but never such an aggravated one.”

The Meuse-Argonne offensive began in the corridor between France’s Argonne forest and the Meuse River about 150 miles east of Paris.

After four years of appalling warfare pitting Germany and its allies against, France, Britain, Russia, and eventually the United States, a huge German offensive in the spring and summer of 1918 had run out of gas.

Tens of thousands of men on all sides had been killed, and the combatants were exhausted. Then, a year after the United States entered the war in 1917, waves of fresh American soldiers and Marines began to reach Europe and pour over the roads of France to the front.

A World War I cross under siege

"These splendid youths from beyond the ocean, these beardless children of twenty, radiating health and strength . . . made an impression which bordered on the unreal,” a Frenchman wrote.

There were allied gains in June, July and August. Then came the big American push, along with the French, starting Sept. 26.

"The Americans are here,” a German officer wrote, according to historian Edward G. Lengel. “We can kill them but we can't stop them."

Maj. Hermann von Giehrl, chief of staff of the German 16th Army Corps, wrote later: “The American soldier went into battle in the first enthusiasm of war . . . in an ignorance of the horrors of modern methods of warfare."

Enlightenment would be costly.

One man at a time

Shortly before H-hour, at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 26, the commander of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, gave his 200 Missouri soldiers a pep talk, according to Lengel, the historian.

“I want to tell you this,” the captain said. “Right tonight, I’m where I want to be — in command of this battery. I’d rather be right here than be president of the United States. You boys are my kind. Now let’s go in! ”

The officer was a bespectacled, 34-year-old farmer’s son named Harry S. Truman, who would one day become president.

Truman was one of numerous illustrious Americans who fought in the campaign. They included future World War II generals George S. Patton Jr., who was wounded there, Douglas MacArthur, who was gassed there, and George C. Marshall.

Another was a poorly educated, deeply religious draftee from Tennessee named Alvin C. York.

On the morning of Oct. 8, Cpl. York’s battalion was assaulting a place called Hill 223 when German machine guns tore into them, according to Lengel’s 2008 book, “To Conquer Hell.”

As York’s platoon maneuvered in response, it surprised a group of enemy soldiers who surrendered. But as they did, a German machine gun nearby opened fire.

York, an expert marksman, took cover and got a bead on the Germans in a trench system about 25 yards away. Each time an enemy soldier raised his head, York shot him — “jes teched him off,” as he put it later.

Then, six Germans came charging toward him with fixed bayonets.

York got them one at a time.

“I teched off the sixth man first,” he said later. “Then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home . . . We don’t want the front ones to know we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all.”

The remaining Germans surrendered, and York and his men herded them back to American lines. Along the way, more Germans surrendered.

At headquarters, Brigadier Gen. Julian Lindsay said; “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole damned German army.”

No, sir, York replied. He had killed 32 enemy soldiers but had only bagged 132.

A wrecked 35th Division

“Obviously, I was dead,” Sgt. William S. Triplet remembered.

Triplet had already been hit in the shoulder. He’d been gassed. He’d had a pipe bowl shot out of his mouth. And now he could hear his buddies yelling that he had caught one “right through the head.”

He didn’t care. “It was quite comfortable being dead,” he wrote later. “And I wanted to stay dead so I could get away from the headache, which beat anything I’d ever had.”

But on Sept. 29, Triplet, a Sedalia, Mo., teenager known as “Slim,” wasn’t dead. As he and the men from his outfit assaulted the flyspeck village of Exermont in the pouring rain, an enemy bullet crashed into his helmet, splitting it down the middle and barely missing his skull.

For Triplet and many other Americans, Exermont and environs were horrors. His poorly trained 35th Division would be wrecked there, losing 1,100 men killed and 4,800 wounded, the historian Ferrell wrote.

That same day, as Company H of the 139th Infantry approached the village, a 21-year-old German-speaking private, Joseph Simpich, of New Franklin, Mo., saw a puff of dust pop off the back of his lieutenant’s coat. The officer, J.W. McManigal, had been shot through the chest and went down.

Then, a machine gun got Simpich, hitting him three times in the right leg and knocking him down.

With that, their platoon ceased to function, according to a 1919 history of the 35th Division by journalist Clair Kenamore.

But Simpich’s ordeal wasn’t over. He put a tourniquet around his leg, which would later have to be amputated, and tried to tend to McManigal.

As the men lay there, the Americans were driven back by a German counterattack, and the two found themselves in the midst of the enemy.

“We’re goners, Mac,” Simpich said to McManigal. As the enemy approached, one German soldier pointed a rifle at the lieutenant’s chest, called him a “dirty dog” in German, and prepared to pull the trigger, McManigal remembered after the war.

Then Simpich began to berate the enemy soldier in German. A tense back-and-forth ensued, and the German lowered his rifle and stalked away.

“What did you say?” McManigal asked him.

“I told him this spot was under observation by the Americans,” Simpich replied. He told the soldier “that our men undoubtedly could identify him through their powerful telescopes, and if he shot you, they would take him apart, [one] joint at a time.”

McMonigal wrote later: “I began to wonder why Simpich had not been promoted to a higher rank than private.”

Both men were taken prisoner and survived the war.

Enough fighting and killing

In the end, Exermont fell, and Vauquois Hill, and Montfaucon, and Cheppy, and many others, leaving behind a vast landscape of human wreckage.

A photograph taken the day the battle ended shows a line of slain doughboys arranged on the ground for burial near a place called Etraye. The line is so long it disappears into the mist in the background.

On Nov. 11, forty-seven days after the offensive began and the day the Armistice was signed, Alvin York went to church.

“There had been enough fighting and killing,” he said later. “My feelings were like most all of the American boys. It was all over and we were ready to go home.”

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