Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Collapse At Meuse-Argonne

Division and regimental histories have long been a staple of military history writing, and the literature of World War I is no exception. Many units published an official history shortly after their return from France and modern historians have continued to study famous units.  Robert H. Ferrell traces the complex story of the 35th Division in Collapse at Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division. Although General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, said the 35th Division was the “best looking lot of men I have got in France,” the troops were pulled out of the Meuse-Argonne after just five days of fighting.

The 35th Division was composed entirely of units from the Missouri and Kansas National Guard. When called up for active service, the division was sent to Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma for training. Here a bitter rivalry between officers in the Regular Army and the National Guard developed. West Point trained officers doubted the abilities of their National Guard counterparts, while the Missouri and Kansas officers resented their commander’s elitism. The controversy resulted in the removal of many National Guard officers, in some cases just days before the division advanced in the Meuse-Argonne. These changes were very unpopular among the soldiers, and this factor alone, Ferrell argues could have doomed the division. Throughout the turnover, the soldiers learned the nuances of trench warfare, skills that were rarely used in France. By the fall of 1918, the deadlock of the Western Front had largely been broken and the troops would advance in open country against the German army. Upon its arrival in France, the 35th Division was assigned to a relatively quiet sector in the Vosges Mountains and was held in reserve during the St. Mihiel offensive. Unfortunately, none of these experiences prepared the men for what they would see in combat.

Ferrell identifies a number of factors that contributed to the division’s collapse. Although the 35th performed well on September 26, the first day of the offensive, disorganization quickly became a problem. Division headquarters could not communicate with forward units, and perhaps worst of all, there was not enough artillery support. Ferrell also argues that General Pershing bears some responsibility for the division’s shortcomings. Pershing insisted that the division continue to advance without understanding its disorganization and its artillery deficiency.

On September 29, its final day in the advance, the 35th was driven out of the Montrebeau Woods. The men retreated to a defensive position established by their regiment of engineers which they held until relieved by the 1st Division the next day. Although disappointed at being removed from the battle, the men were justifiably proud of the gains they had made and did not dwell on the losses. The army however, saw just the failings and criticism of their performance quickly mounted. Even more resentment against the Regular Army spread through the division’s ranks as both sides blamed each other for what went wrong.

Ferrell suggests the army could have learned from the experiences of the 35th Division. Although public hearings in 1919 exposed many of the problems, nothing more came of it. The veterans were anxious to get on with their lives and the army had no interest in learning from a National Guard unit.

Although not a complete history of the division, this book provides an excellent analysis of the 35th’s performance in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. Unfortunately, there is only one map of the division’s sector, making it difficult for the reader to visualize the advance and retreat. Additional tactical maps would have greatly enhanced the text, although this is a minor point. Ferrell’s case is well argued and as so often happens in war; ordinary soldiers paid the price for their commander’s shortcomings. The over 7,000 casualties suffered by the 35th Division are a stark reminder war’s human cost.