WWI: The Côte De Châtillon
The entry of the Americans in 1918 utterly changed the complexion of the fighting on the Western Front. The horrible stalemate of the preceeding years, in which the two sides traded millions of casualties over a few yards of mud, came to an end. The toll would remain frightful, but the stalemate would not last.
Determined to win the war before the Americans could bring their fresh troops to bear, the Germans launched a series of all-out offensives in the winter and spring of 1918. The exhausted British and French gave ground but finally managed to halt the Germans. Then, with the Americans arriving at a rate of 300,000 men per month, the Allies began a counter-offensive that would win the war in less than six months.
In late August, after several months of reinforcing the French, America's General Pershing finally won his battle for a separate U.S. Army operating on its own front. By September 16, Pershing's forces had earned an important victory in eliminating a dangerous bulge, or "salient" in the German lines near St. Mihiel. MacArthur's Rainbow Division was in the thick of the fighting.
With the clearing of the St. Mihiel salient nearly complete, the Allies turned their attention to the north, in what would be called the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The key to this campaign was penetrating the Kriemhilde Stellung -- what historian Geoffrey Perret called a "dense network of prepared killing grounds the Germans had created between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest"-- at the eastern end of the famed Hindenburg Line, the last and deadliest of the major German defensive positions.
Here is how one eyewitness, Lt. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard, described the devilish German defenses in this area:
"The way out is forward, through the Kriemhilde Stellung, eastern section of the Hindenburg Line.... Not a line, a net, four kilometers deep. Wire, interlaced, knee-high, in grass. Wire, tangled devilishly in forests.... Pill boxes, in succession, one covering another. No 'fox hole' cover for gunners here, but concrete, masonry. Bits of trenches. More wire. A few light guns.... Defense in depth. Eventually, the main trenches. Many of them, in baffling irregularity, so that the attacker cannot know when he has mopped up.... Farther back, again defense in depth, a wide band of artillery implacements."
Unaware of what his men were stepping into, General Pershing launched the offensive on September 26. It did not go well. Here's how Perret described it: "The attacking force walked into a buzz saw. Woefully inexperienced, crammed into a narrow twenty-five mile front, the Americans got nowhere.... All he could think to do now was to push more men into the fight, take even heavier losses and hope something would give before the First Army was bled into defeat. He noted grimly in his diary, 'There is no course except to fight it out.'"
This was the ominous situation confronting MacArthur's Rainbow Division, called up from St. Mihiel, when it relieved the exhausted 1st Division on October 11. The Germans wasted little time in welcoming them. According to one American officer: "Late that night Gen. MacArthur came over to my headquarters on more or less of an inspection tour. While we were talking the Germans were constantly shelling the valley with gas shells, mostly mustard and tear gas. I remember well that both the General and I consumed so much of the gas that neither of us could hardly see or talk on account of the effect of the fumes."
The Rainbow Division found themselves in a key spot, since, as Perret describes, "If the Romagne Heights was the key to the Kriemhilde Stellung, the key to the Romagne was a low hill mass known as the Cote de Chatillon." The Rainbow was given two main objectives in this phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive: take the two dominant hills in the area, Hill 288 and the Cote de Chatillon; then drive the enemy north of the nearby towns [St. Georges and Landres-et-St. Georges] and establish a line on the high ground there. As historian James Cooke writes, "To do this the division placed, from left to right, the 83rd Brigade and the 84th Brigade. Douglas MacArthur's 84th would bear the responsibility of taking the two critical hills, while Lenihan's 83rd Brigade would attack toward [the towns]. While this looked like an equal division of combat power, MacArthur's 84th would have the benefit of fighting almost constantly in the woods."
On October 12, MacArthur went on a reconnaissance and was caught in another gas barrage. He became violently ill, for which he was later awarded a second Purple Heart. Even worse, the patrol revealed how well defended the area was. When asked by Rainbow chief Gen. Menoher whether he could take Chatillon, MacArthur said, "I told him as long as we were speaking in the strictest of confidence that I was not certain."
The attack began early on the morning of October 14, and the fighting was fierce. MacArthur's 168th Iowa regiment, fighting with great courage, took Hill 288 by noon. MacArthur had little time to savor their success, as he led the repeated but fruitless assaults on Chatillon, now the final key to the area. MacArthur planned a bayonets-only attack for the next day (to avoid the muzzle flashes which gave away their locations), but after listening to the protests of his men thought better of it and canceled the order.
October 15 was a bad day for the Rainbow Division. MacArthur's 84th attacked repeatedly, but could get no further than halfway between Hill 288 and the Cote de Chatillon. From the high ground, the Germans were able to pour machine-gun and small-arms fire on Lenihan's 83rd, preventing it from making progress toward the towns. That evening, furious at the lack of progress, Summerall relieved Lenihan of his command, and repeated to MacArthur his demand that he take his objective or die trying. That night, MacArthur led the night patrol and found a relative weak spot in the German lines.
The next day, MacArthur's men, led by the 167th Alabama and 168th Iowa regiments, exploited this weakness and finally took the Cote de Chatillon. MacArthur directed a massive barrage which pinned the Germans down while Major Ross of the 168th led a group through the wire and enveloped the Germans, who were routed and either killed, fled, or captured. There were numerous acts of personal bravery; it was perhaps the Rainbow Division's greatest achievement in the war. The Rainbows were too decimated to press their advantage, but the tide had turned with the taking of Chatillon. Menoher wrote in his report to Summerall: "The indomitable resolution and ferocious courage of these two officers [MacArthur and Ross] in rallying their broken lines time and time again, in re-forming the attack and leading their men that saved the day. Without them the German line would not have been broken. On a field where courage was the rule their heroism was the dominant feature. I regard their efforts as among the most remarkable of the war."