/ Published November 17, 2010
America’s Deadliest Battle: Meuse-Argonne, 1918 by Robert H. Ferrell. University Press of Kansas, 2007, 216 pp.
The World War I battle of the Meuse-Argonne, though many may have forgotten, holds many distinctions in our American military history. With over 26,000 men killed and just under 100,000 wounded, the battle is the deadliest in the entirety of American history. The 47-day (26 September–11 November 1918) battle involved 1.2 million frontline troops, making it also the largest American battle (p. vi). Despite these notable distinctions, very little is remembered today from this battle in a war that has slipped from American memory.
Dr. Robert Ferrell addresses the single Battle of the Meuse-Argonne in this first book on the topic since 1919. As an emeritus professor of history, Ferrell has written several books on World War I and is highly qualified on this subject. He begins with a brief overview of America’s entry into the war and an enlightening discussion on the woeful state of the United States’ preparation and industrialization for the war. “Industrial mobilization was nearly a failure because President Woodrow Wilson simply could not manage it” (p. 1). “The second national task—preparing the army to fight in France once war was declared—encountered the same difficulties that dogged industrial mobilization. Again, the trouble was a lack of leadership” (p. 11). These points establish a framework for analyzing the battle.
Describing a battle involving over 1.2 million men in any detail is a difficult task. Ferrell does an excellent job, ranging his discussion from a large
strategic overview of the battle to select tactical actions of individual soldiers. To help readers visualize the movement of forces, the book includes maps ranging from strategic to tactical views of the battlefield that provide a strong compliment to Ferrell’s descriptions of the attacks and the positions of forces.
Mixed in are anecdotes from generals to privates involved in the battle. These vignettes help to personalize the battle and provide a face to all involved. For example, Ferrell tells the story of Cpl Joseph Pruette, who encountered a German officer who refused to surrender to a corporal, preferring to surrender to an officer. Pruette replied, “To hell with that noise, give me those guns, or up you go in smoke” (p. 109).
While light, the author’s coverage of American airpower over the battlefield highlights the air service’s weaknesses, ranging from the feud between Brig Gens Foulois and Mitchell to the shortage of airplanes and the aviators being “too nonchalant” (p. 123). While General Mitchell claimed that the weather provided conditions suitable for reconnaissance missions during seven of the 47 days of the battle, “German spotting planes were everywhere, and enemy balloons were up” (p. 124).
The author does not gloss over the American failures during the battle. The failures of logistics (clogged and impassible roads, training new troops arriving without ever firing a weapon) and the lack of American-manufactured equipment figure prominently in the narrative. Additionally, Ferrell addresses the leadership failures of senior military leaders during the battle and any subsequent removal from command, closing the loop by discussing the new commander as well as the future fate of the outgoing leaders. In the end, Ferrell clearly places the blame for the high number of American casualties on the Wilson administration.
This very well-researched book is an excellent selection for anyone hoping to learn more about a key American battle in the Great War to end all wars. The book provides excellent insight into the United States’ role in the war and a grim reminder of the brutal nature of the First World War. Robert Ferrell’s text squarely and objectively addresses the successes and failures of the American efforts during the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne.
Lt Col Dan Simonsen, USAF
Commander, AFROTC Det 305, Louisiana Tech University
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."