To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918

If World War I was “the war to end all wars,” then the Meuse-Argonne offensive, fought in its waning days, should have been the “battle to end all battles.” From our perspective, we know that Omaha Beach, Ia Drang, and Fallujah loom in the even more dreadful future; but for the doughboy crouched in the trenches 90 years ago, the carnage of the Meuse-Argonne must have looked like an inconceivable hell.

Intending to recapture the region in northeast France from dug-in German troops, U.S., French, British, and other Allied soldiers assaulted the forests and valleys from September 26 to November 11, 1918. The battle involved 1.2 million American soldiers, leaving 26,277 of them dead and 95,786 wounded — about half the total American casualties for the entire war. The fighting was unrelentingly brutal — German forces mowed down advancing Allies with a blizzard of bullets from machine-gun nests, artillery barrages churned up the battleground, deadly mustard gas seeped everywhere, and those who made it through that wall of German defense frequently resorted to stabbing the enemy with bayonets. In one day alone, the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division suffered 2,057 casualties.

Today, the Argonne Forest is a lush, green resort for nature lovers and hikers. Farmers cultivate the surrounding fields that were once soaked with the blood of combat. The significance of the battle seems to be evaporating from the consciousness of all but the most dedicated military historians.

The publication of Edward G. Lengel’s new account of the Meuse-Argonne, To Conquer Hell, will go a long way toward putting it back in the forefront of our attention. Compiled from primary source material — including previously unpublished diaries and letters — the book is by turns grim, inspiring, and shocking in its frank depictions of battle. To venture inside To Conquer Hell is akin to entering a charnel house –everywhere you step, the floor is slick with blood and viscera.

Lengel compacts the beginning history of the war neatly into the book’s first 50 pages, making it clear, concise, and compulsively readable. By the autumn of 1918, he writes, the German army was weakened, “much of the muscle had been worn away, leaving a sickly frame of skin and bones with a fighting sparkle in its eyes.” Many in its ranks were elderly, underage, or infirm.

Even so, they’d had four years to prepare their defenses. They were determined to hold the area like a wolverine backed into a corner. This is what faced Allied forces as they planned their surprise assault. Seeking to act as “an independent American Army” (much to the consternation of French commanders), U.S. forces would lead the attack with ten divisions of the First Army, initially commanded by General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing and then by Lt. General Hunter Liggett. Among the ranks of the American Expeditionary Force entering the Argonne Forest, you’ll recognize several names: Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, George Patton, Harry Truman, mystery novelist James M. Cain, Damon Runyon (who spent the war as a newspaper correspondent), and, of course, Sgt. Alvin York, the aw-shucks farm boy whose heroism eventually mushroomed into legend and hyperbole, thanks in part to Gary Cooper.

However, it’s the lesser-known doughboy who takes center stage in To Conquer Hell — people like 13-year-old Ernest Wrentmore, the youngest soldier in the American Expeditionary Force, who saw things no child should ever have to see and who later recounted, “To become emotional over the loss of a friend, buddy, or comrade would be to lose complete control. You had to become a piece of wood, or you’d never make it.”

The book is filled with poignant, painful moments of soldiers huddled in foxholes, shivering with fear, cold, and exhaustion. So, we join people like Private Jack Barkley, of 4th Regiment, as he lies trapped in a shell hole after one battle:

The night all around was filled with cries, groans, curses. In English. In German. In languages I didn’t know. Cries for water, for help, for death. Once I heard one boy ask another if he had any chewing gum. I wouldn’t have minded having a little myself. Another boy babbled over and over for hours it seemed to me, “What is this war? What’s this war for? What is this damned war?”

Barkley, by the way, is one of the standout heroes of the book, eclipsing even Sgt. York’s bravery as he climbs into an abandoned French tank and, using a machine gun scavenged from the battlefield, single-handedly holds off an entire battalion of 600 German soldiers. Lengel’s account of Barkley’s bravery makes for lump-in-your-throat reading.

For every story of success, there are four of failure. Though the Meuse-Argonne ultimately helped bring about the deterioration of the German army and led to the signing of the Armistice on November 11th, it was not the swift, decisive victory Allied planners had initially predicted. From the outset, Lengel writes, “Speed, Pershing told his generals, was the thing. Each unit must attack, attack, attack, without wasting time worrying about casualties or its flanks.”

Pershing’s arrogance, stubbornness, and callous disregard for the enlisted men in the trenches led to several crucial mistakes. While Pershing and his generals come under critical scrutiny in the book, there were other factors that made the Meuse-Argonne a bloody hell: poor signal equipment, inadequate training, chaotic troop movements, officers who procrastinated in giving crucial orders, and transportation lines that became snarled with traffic jams when 600,000 men, 4,000 guns, 90,000 horses, and almost a ton of supplies all tried to converge on the region in the battle’s first days.

For many of the troops, this would be their first taste of combat. “In the Meuse-Argonne, many Doughboys died unnecessarily because of foolishly brave officers who led their men head-on against enemy machine guns,” Lengel writes. It’s not long before we start to see a pattern of battle: take ground?withdraw?retake ground?withdraw. Lengel graphically shows how this was a war whose victories were measured in inches.

The units are sometimes hard to keep straight, but just when it gets too confusing, the author brings it all home with a well-placed excerpt from a personal narrative, like this from Sergeant Edward Davies of the 315th Regiment, who wrote this in his diary while sitting in a shell hole up to his waist in mud:

Hungry and thirsty, I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning. About 10 p.m. the Germans started to shell our position, God it was awful. Saw a man blown to pieces just below where Monty and I were lying?. I am sick and disgusted with this life. It seems to me that the men who are killed are better off. This is simply a living death. Hell can hold no terrors for me after this.

Or this more gruesome account from Lieutenant Maury Maverick, who was wounded by a shell burst, then picked up by a medic:

As he lifted me from the ground, I looked at my four runners, and I saw that the two in the middle had been cut down to a pile of horrid red guts and blood and meat, while the two men on the outside had been cut up somewhat less badly, but no less fatally. It reminded me of nothing I had ever seen before, except a Christmas hog butchering back on the Texas farm.

Lengel, unfortunately, is not above resorting to trite clich?s like, “Midwestern farm boys had become men. Men had become soldiers. And soldiers had become comrades.” He is also strangely single-minded in his telling of the tale. You won’t find a German perspective, or even a French one, for that matter. This is almost wholly an American tale of guts and blood.

Still, it’s a tale worth telling, and it’s not hard to draw dotted lines from French forests to Baghdad streets. There are lessons to be absorbed from these pages, no matter what the reader’s level of involvement in military matters may be. Lengel will satisfy the armchair historian looking for a playbook of battle strategy, as well as the more pedestrian reader who needs the human side of war to put it in perspective. It’s in the latter where To Conquer Hell is most effective. We’re reminded that war is always hell — and soldiers are its brief, brave citizens.