Lucid history of a military campaign so terrible that, writes Lengel (History/Univ. of Virginia; General George Washington: A Military Life, 2005, etc.), many of its survivors “swore that after the war ended they would never look at another tree in their lives.”
The Argonne, that dark forest in western France, had seen cruel battle in the years before the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force—one city alone, Verdun, had become a byword for bloodletting. The AEF was untested. Now, very late in the war, beginning in September 1918, it fought for 47 days in the forest and suffered terribly: By Lengel’s count, nearly 1.2 million American soldiers went into action on the Meuse-Argonne front; 26,277 of them died, and 95,786 were wounded. The campaign saw storied engagements, such as that involving the so-called Lost Battalion and Sgt. Alvin York’s one-man encounter with a German company in which he killed two dozen and captured 132 soldiers. It also necessitated attack after attack against heavily fortified defensive positions and entrenched heavy artillery, requiring exposure that the Allied and German armies had long ago learned to avoid. Lengel observes that the Meuse-Argonne campaign nearly bled the AEF to exhaustion. By the end of the campaign, replacements were coming to the line who had no idea what the command “fix bayonets” meant and no idea how to load a rifle. Late in the day, American commanders figured out how to use the tanks and airplanes driven by soon-iconic figures such as Billy Mitchell and George Patton, but the conclusion the reader will likely draw is that the campaign was sadly mismanaged at many points. Unsettling, too, is the fate of many veterans who figure in Lengel’s pages—among them York, who was haunted by the men he killed, and Lost Battalion commander Charles Whittlesey, who blamed himself for the loss of so many men and committed suicide soon after the war ended.
A harrowing episode in American military history, expertly recounted.