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The defensive importance of the Argonne for the Germans could hardly be overestimated, for if the railway line running through Sedan and Mezières were severed, they would be cut in two by the Ardennes and would be unable to withdraw from France the bulk of their forces, which, left without supplies, would suffer inevitable disaster. As a consequence the Argonne had been strengthened by elaborate fortifications which, taken in conjunction with the natural terrain, densely wooded, covered with rugged heights, and marked by ridges running east and west, made it apparently impregnable. The dense undergrowth, the bowlders, and the ravines offered ideal spots for machinegun nests. The Germans had the exact range of each important position.
But Pershing's confidence in the offensive valor of the Americans was amply justified. On the morning of the 26th of September the initial attack was delivered, the main force of the blow falling east of the forest, where the natural strength of the enemy positions was less formidable. By noon of the second day Montfaucon was captured, and by the 29th all the immediate objectives of the attack were secured. Losses were heavy, staff work was frequently open to severe criticism, communications were broken at times, the infantry had not always received adequate artillery support, but the success of the drive was undeniable. Before the American troops, however, still lay two more lines of defense, the Freya and Kriemhilde, and the Germans were bringing up their best divisions. On the 4th of October the attack was renewed, in coöperation with the French under Gouraud to the west of the forest who pressed forward actively;
particularly around Grandpré, which was taken and retaken, while on the east of the Meuse the enemy was pushed back. By the end of the month the Kriemhilde line had been broken and the great railway artery was threatened. On the 1st of November the third phase of the great advance began. The desperáte efforts of the Germans to hold were never relaxed, but by the evening of that day the American troops broke through their last defense and forced rapid retreat. Motor trucks were hurriedly brought up for the pursuit, and by the fifth the enemy's withdrawal became general. Two days later Americans held the heights which dominated Sedan, the strategic goal, and the German line of communications was as good as severed. The converging offensive planned by Foch had succeeded. At Cambrai, Le Câtelet, and St. Quentin, the British, with whom were operating four American divisions (the Twenty-seventh, Thirtieth, Thirty-seventh, and Ninety-first), had broken the Hindenburg line; the French had pushed the Germans back from Laon, north of the Aisne, and with the British were driving them into the narrow neck of the bottle; and now the French and Americans, by their Argonne-Meuse advance had closed the neck. The enemy faced an appalling disaster. A few weeks, if not days, of continued fighting meant the most striking military débâcle of history. Germany's allies had fallen from her. Turkey, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary had sued for peace and agreed to cease fighting on what amounted to terms of unconditional surrender. At home, the German Government faced revolution; the Kaiser was about to abdicate and flee. On the 6th of November, the Berlin Government begged for an immediate armistice and five days later agreed to the stringent terms which the Allies presented. On the 11th of November, at eleven in the morning, firing ceased. Until the last second the battle raged with a useless intensity dictated by stern military tradition; then perfect quiet on the battle front.
At the present moment we lack the perspective, perhaps, to evaluate exactly the share of credit which the American Expeditionary Force deserves for the Allied military victory of 1918. Previous to June the military contribution of the United States had no material effects. The defense of ChâteauThierry at the beginning of the month and the operations there and at Belleau Woods had, however, important practical as well as moral effects. The fighting was of a purely local character, but it came at a critical moment and at a critical spot. It was a crisis when the importance of standing firm could not be overestimated, and the defensive capacity of the French had been seriously weakened. The advance of American divisions with the French in the clearing of the Marne sector was of the first military importance. The Americans were better qualified than any European troops, at that stage of the war, to carry through offensive operations. They were fearless not merely because of natural hardihood, but through ignorance of danger; they were fresh and undefeated, physically and morally capable of undergoing the gruelling punishment delivered by the rearguards of the retreating Germans; their training had been primarily for open warfare. The same qualities were essential for the arduous and deadly task of breaking the German line in the Argonne, which was the finishing blow on the western battlefields.
The defects of the American armies have been emphasized by European experts. They point especially to the faulty staff-work, apparent in the Argonne particularly, which resulted in heavy losses. Staff-officers in numerous instances seem to have been ill-trained and at times positively unequal to the exigencies of the campaign. Mistakes in selection account for this to some degree, for men were appointed who were not equipped temperamentally or intellectually for the positions given them. Equally frequent were mistakes in the distribution of staff-officers. It is a notable fact, however, that such mistakes resulted from inexperience and ignorance and not from the intrusion of politics. President Wilson guaranteed to General Pershing complete immunity from the pleas of politicians and in no war fought by the United States have political factors played a rôle of such insignificance.
Finally, and aside from the fighting qualities of the rank and file and certain defects of the higher command, the Americans represented numbers; and without the tremendous numerical force