America’s deadliest battle took place 100 years ago.

| September 24, 2018

It was America’s deadliest battle ever, with more than 26,000 U.S. soldiers killed, tens of thousands wounded and more ammunition fired than in the whole of the Civil War. The Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918 was also a great American victory that helped bring an end to World War I.

A remembrance ceremony took place on Sunday afternoon in the Meuse-Argonne cemetery, which is surrounded by green fields and forests in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, a village in northeastern France. More than 14,000 graves will be lit with candles to honor those buried there.

List of battles with most United States military fatalities

The Meuse-Argonne offensive produced warrior heroes like Sgt. Samuel Woodfill.

On Oct. 12, according to his Medal of Honor citation, Woodfill was leading his company through a dense fog towards the village of Cunel when it came under heavy fire. Then a lieutenant, Woodfill set out ahead of his line with two Soldiers trailing and located a German machine gun nest. Woodfill successfully flanked the nest and eliminated three of its four occupants with his rifle. The fourth occupant charged Woodfill. After a hand-to-hand struggle, Woodfill killed the enemy with his pistol.

The company continued its advance when it came under fire again. Woodfill once again rushed ahead. Despite being hindered by the effects of mustard gas, Woodfill shot several of the enemy while taking three others prisoner. Minutes later, Woodfill rushed a third machine gun pit and killed five men with his rifle before jumping into the pit with his pistol, where he encountered two German soldiers. With his ammunition exhausted, Woodfill grabbed a nearby pickax and killed both.

With the machine guns silenced, Woodfill’s company continued its advance through Cunel under severe fire.


During 47 days of combat, 1.2 million American troops led by Gen. John J. Pershing fought to advance on the entrenched positions held by about 450,000 Germans in the Verdun region. More than 26,000 U.S. troops were killed and about 96,000 were wounded.

The offensive that started on Sept. 26, 1918, was one of several simultaneous Allied attacks that brought the four-year war to an end, leading the Germans to retreat and sign the armistice on November 11.

Pershing said “the success stands out as one of the very great achievements in the history of American arms.”




Category: Historical

Comments (42)

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  1. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    “I’m tired of being a circus pony. Every time there is something doing they trot me out to perform.” CMOH Recipient Sam Woodfill

    Woodfill, Alvin York, and Charles Whittlesey were selected by Pershing to participate in the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknowns that was held on 11 November 1921. Two weeks after that event, Whittlesey, former commander of the so-called Lost Battalion, was on board the Toloa, a steamship bound for Havana. The ship was two days out when, on the 26th, Whittlesey walked to the rail and jumped into the sea. His body was never recovered.

  2. David says:

    I’m sure someone knows: how does a lieutenant awarded a Medal of Honor end up a sergeant? If a brevet rank, would seem a MoH would count for something.

    • 2/17 Air Cav says:

      Google is your friend: “Woodfill was promoted to captain in the Infantry on March 25, 1919. Unfortunately for Woodfill, the Army was in the process of a major drawdown after the First World War and Woodfill was discharged on October 31, 1919. He re-enlisted as a sergeant on November 24 and was later promoted to master sergeant.” I will add that he was commissioned a mjor at the start of WWII but later resigned, folling his wife’s death. He died in 1951, a simple man and a great one.

      • Hondo says:

        Bingo. According to this site, the US Army went from less than 110k soldiers in 1916 to nearly 2.4M soldiers in 1918 – and back down to less than 150k soldiers by 1922.

        Woodfill’s MoH almost certainly played a role in allowing him to reenter the military after he was RIFed. Given the magnitude of the reduction it may have been the deciding factor.

      • NHSparky says:

        IIRC, Chesty Puller went from the officer ranks to enlisted and back again, so not that unusual for the time.

        • Mason says:

          10 days as a 2LT before he was brought back down to the NCO ranks.

          This was the norm before WWII. War comes and people get all kinds of promotions. After the war, we return to a small standing army and everyone reverts to permanent grades several levels down. We all remember that after the civil war Custer (who had been brevetted up to major general) reverted to LTC.

      • Alan Cagle says:

        Would you believe the first officer over the Remagen R Bridge (Mar 7, 1945), Lt Karl Timmerman left the service after the war. He came back into the Army in 1948, and was given the rank of sergeant!!! Later in Korea with the Army expansion, he was made an officer again.

        • desert says:

          You know, I have never heard anyone say “how bright the Army brass is!” LOL…But then never heard the remark said about ANY military brass ha ha..!

    • Red Ghost says:

      From “The Unknowns” by Patrick K. O’Donnell, Woodfill had a Tempory Commission and made it up to Captain. After the war he reverted to SGT. Durning WWII, he was commissioned as Major and served as an instructor. He died in 1951. I highly recommend the book.

    • Frank says:

      I’m sure there’s a few here that regard going from Lieutenant to Sergeant as a promotion.

  3. 5th/77thFA says:

    War is over! Dogs and Soldiers, Keep Off The Grass! Thank you for your service and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Politician soldiers were and have always been scared of Warrior Soldiers. You know the WPPA (West Point Protection Association) was hard at work during these drawdowns. Damn keeping a buncha breveted War Heroes, we got too many school trained wanna be heroes to look after.

    • Hondo says:

      Probably more due to hard numbers and the RA/”National Army” officer system in effect during World War I than any kind of behind-the-scenes efforts. Like today, if there was not a Congressional authorization for a “slot” the military couldn’t create it out of thin air.

      Regular Army officer slots, then as now, were based on Congressional authorizations and were considered “permanent”. The National Army (called the Volunteer Army in the NDA of 1916) was designed to be temporary. It was the vehicle for expansion during World War I and was entirely suspended thereafter.

      RA officers assigned duties in th National Army during the war often received a higher “National Army” rank that was temporary (and generally higher than) their permanent RA rank. Those commissioned directly into the National Army received only a National Army rank, which was strictly temporary.

      At the end of the war, reversion to RA (along with reversion to their lower RA rank) was the norm for RA officers, as their permanent RA positions still were authorized. National Army positions, in contrast, went away entirely. It’s my understanding that most in the “National Army” were simply let go. As noted above, the Army reduced by more than a factor of 15 between 1918 and 1922.

      The same system, with minor changes, was in place during World War II. With some more significant changes, but with retention of the dual officer rank system (now RA/AUS), it remained in place through Vietnam. It didn’t end until ROPMA DOPMA was became law in 1980.

      • rgr769 says:

        I was promoted to CPT in RVN, but my RA rank remained 1LT until my resignation of my RA commission three and one half years later. At that timeframe, most RA officers had an RA rank
        At least one grade below their AUS actual rank.

        • desert says:

          Sounds like the “Peter Principle” the Army is afraid if someone reaches their level of incompetence, they can back them off a grade LOL 🙂

      • AW1Ed says:

        For those without a Hondo decoder ring,
        NDA- National Defense Act
        RA- Regular Army
        RA/AUS- Regular Army/Army of the United States
        ROPMA-Reserve Officer Personnel Management Act
        There, think that’s it. My acronym OCD has abated.

        • rgr769 says:

          Excellent decoding. I didn’t bother cuz most of those interested likely already knew what they meant. Also, acronyms are your friend when commenting from your I-phone.

        • AH So, but what does the acronym OCD mean AW1Ed???

        • Hondo says:

          Thanks AW1Ed. Minor clarification: there was a typo above in one of the acronyms in my original comment. ROPMA in the original comment should have been DOPMA (Defense Officer Personnel Management Act). ROPMA didn’t become law until much later (mid-1990s, as I recall).

          Mea culpa, and it’s now fixed above.

    • MustangCryppie says:

      Excerpt from Tommy by Kipling

      “I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
      The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
      The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
      I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
      O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
      But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
      The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
      O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.”

  4. mr.sharkman says:

    This battle sounds nasty for certain.

    I want to say the battle of the Hurtgenwald was worst. Technically speaking, the Hurtgenwald was a series of bloody battles.

    Great writeup-

  5. DevilChief says:

    My Great-Grandfather earned the DSC during that offensive. One of the few in his unit that survived. He was gassed and charged a machine gun position.

  6. Sparks says:

    God rest them all well.

  7. HMC Ret says:

    Thanks for the great article and particularly the listing of KIA.

  8. Perry Gaskill says:

    There are some interesting aspects to World War I that I’m not sure are common knowledge even in standard textbooks. For example, when the introduction of U.S. troops first started, the French wanted to have those troops folded into existing French units. General Pershing didn’t like the idea and wanted the Americans to be led by their own officers and maintained as cohesive units.

    What resulted was a compromise. The French agreed to Pershing’s request, but insisted that unit sizing for the Americans be based on the French convention of the division instead of the regiment. For example, the Third Infantry Division, Rock of the Marne, had never existed before. What the compromise also likely meant is that people such as Sgt. Woodfill would probably not have received the Medal of Honor fighting under French commanders. Croix de Guerre? Yes. MOH? Doubtful.

    Another curious aspect is that the entire stalemate on the French frontier, resulting in massive battles such as the Meuse-Argonne offensive, was ultimately caused by an interpretation of the word “neutrality.”

    As it happened, the initial German attack on France in 1914 was dependent on the Von Schlieffen plan which involved a carefully timed sweep through neutral Luxembourg and Belgium. The German General Staff assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that neither of those two countries would have a problem with German troops waltzing through sovereign territory. Belgian King Albert begged to differ, and although not able to defeat the German invasion, managed to slow it down enough to wreck the Von Schlieffen plan’s timetable.

    It’s interesting to consider that if King Albert had instead said “Welcome to Belgium. Enjoy your visit. Try the Stella Artois.” the Germans would have ended up in Paris, the French would have surrendered, and there would have been no World War II some years later.

    • Frank says:

      The Germans committed vile atrocities on the Belgians in 1914, a premeditated campaign of terror known as “frightfulness.” They then re-introduced slavery into Western Europe after a 1000 year absence. WWI was a war in defence of Christian Civilisation.

      • Perry Gaskill says:

        Frank, I’m going to disagree unless you can cite a reliable source. It’s doubtful if there was a premeditated plan to terrorize the population of Belgium. More likely is that German troops reacted to the resistance they encountered– and hadn’t expected.

        Your comment about it being a conflict to preserve “Christian Civilization” is also questionable. With the exception of the Turks, just about all of the major combatants were Christian countries. It wasn’t as if the Germans had declared an anti-Christian effort similar to jihad.

        It seems to me more accurate to say the root cause of the war was a tangled mess of interlocking defense pacts which once triggered couldn’t be stopped. Almost nobody actually gave a rusty rat about Archduke Ferdinand personally, but his assassination by the Serbs was enough of a provocation for the dominoes to start falling. Keep in mind, too, that Ferdinand was killed by the Serbian Black Hand who were pretty much terrorist poster boys.

  9. Ex-PH2 says:

    World War I was the first war in which mechanized armored tanks were used.

    The British Mark I tanks were used at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (part of the Battle of the Somme) on 15 September 1916, with mixed results; many broke down, but nearly a third succeeded in breaking through.

  10. CCO says:

    Mental Floss has been reviewing the events of and leading up to WWI. See their overview at Notable events are reviewed as their centennials come up.

    • Perry Gaskill says:

      It’s worth repeating that American entry into World War I didn’t happen until two years after the sinking of the Lusitania with the revelation of the Zimmerman telegram. What Mentalfloss also doesn’t mention is that the quid pro quo for Mexico entering the war on the side of the Central Powers was to be the restoration to Mexico of the U.S. Southwest that was lost as a result of the Mexican-American War in 1848.

      The Zimmerman telegram revelation was the result of British intercepts of German coded communications. Still, it created a problem for the British spooks involved because they didn’t want the Germans to know their cables could be read. In order to have that capability remain under wraps, the British secret squirrels made up a totally bogus story about how some clerk found a copy of the Zimmerman cable lying around a telegraph office in Mexico City.

      A very readable account of the sinking of the Lusitania is to be found in the recently published Dead Wake by Erik Larson. An upshot of the sinking was that the Lusitania’s captain, William Turner, was pretty much unfairly hung out to twist in the wind as a Cunard Lines effort to avoid liability.

      The commander of the German submarine U-20 that did the deed, Walther Schwieger, was killed later in the war. This was after the U-20 ran aground in 1916 and had to be abandoned. All that remains of the boat is the conning tower and deck gun, which is displayed to this day in front of a small museum on the coast of Denmark.

  11. 100E says:

    My grandfather was in that battle. His instructions were to ‘save the mules first’. Before the war brought him home, he put the gas masks on the mules first, ending up gassed himself. He died a dozen years later, never having recovered from the effects of the gas.