The 79th Division and “Baltimore's Own” at Montfaucon, Meuse Argonne -100 years

Started by ArizonaTank, September 30, 2018, 04:40:36 PM

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September 26 – 27, 1918

The initial phase of US Meuse-Argonne Offensive had 9 US divisions, organized into 3 Corps, attacking north towards Sedan and the Hindenburg Line.

In the center of the US line, was the prominent Montfaucon hill. The hilltop was a fortified German strong-point overlooking Allied positions to the south for many miles. The Germans took the site in 1914, and it became an important artillery observation post during the Battle of Verdun. The Germans built extensive fortifications to protect it, beating back several French attempts to take it in 1916 and 1917.

The US 79th Division, one of the most inexperienced divisions in the AEF, was given the job to take Montfaucon in one day.

A map of the opening phase of the US offensive from the US Army Center for Military History's publication on the Meuse Argonne Offensive. The 79th's sector with Montfaucon is in the center of the line.


In the 1930s, because of the excellent views of the surrounding countryside, and in recognition of the battle fought there, Montfaucon was chosen as the site for the US Meuse-Argonne memorial.

Montfaucon memorial site:

3D visualization of Montfaucon by the American Battlefield Monuments Commission:

Streetview of memorial:,5.1420945,3a,75y,344.35h,99.81t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sFZdOczPbbDbZRiMp9b4tiQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

The 79th Division
The US 79th Division was a National Army division made up of volunteers and draftees. The troops were from Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Based on the hometowns of the troops, the 315th, and 313th Infantry Regiments were known as "Philadelphia's Own" and "Baltimore's Own" respectively. 

The division was inexperienced and built from scratch. The pieces of the the division had only started to arrive in France in July, with some parts not coming in until August.  They only had a short period of a few weeks of training before the 79th was deployed as part of the AEF's massive Meuse Argonne Offensive.

A helmet with the 79th's insignia, the "Cross of Loraine"

The Attack
The 79th went "over the top" at 5:30am, September 26th, as part of the AEF First Army's 9 division push. A strict timetable of objectives had been laid out, and was enforced by a heavy handed Pershing. Failing to take ground quickly would allow the Germans to bring up reinforcements. For regimental, brigade and division commanders, not meeting the timeline could also get you sacked.

It is a mystery why the 79th was chosen to take Montfaucon. The 79th was a very, very "green" US division. At the same time, Montfaucon was one of the toughest German strongpoints. Apparently it was Pershing's intention for the 79th to get support from the 4th Division to its right. Possibly by having the 4th hit the flank or encircle Montfaucon from the rear. But the orders were unclear, and the 4th never helped the 79th. After the war, this caused a long smoldering controversy filled with conspiracy theories about general officers sabotaging each other, thus condemning the troops of the 79th to a brutal and unnecessary frontal assault. But the likely answer is just that the first hours of the Meuse Argonne offensive were confusing, communication and coordination were terrible, the orders were clear as mud, and an opportunity was missed.

But the 79th's attack did not start well anyway. An American smoke screen, combined with heavy morning mist, left the division's regiments disoriented, and they fell far behind the rolling barrage. As the mist burned off, and the 79th approached Montfaucon, dug-in German machine guns and snipers, slowed them down and caused heavy casualties. The Germans also had excellent artillery observation from Montfaucon itself, and German chemical and high explosive rounds made the advance even slower.

The problems with the advance started to stack up. In the afternoon, an attack by a company of French Renault tanks was wasted because the inexperienced doughboys did not follow up the attack to hold the ground. Then came the solid traffic jams behind the lines. These clogged the roads, and stopped the movement of supplies, food and water; the bad traffic was made worse by German artillery fire and aircraft strafing. In some units, the troops were so hungry and thirsty, that cohesion started to break down as troops left their positions to look for food and water. 

Traffice Jam behind the 79th's lines.  Photo from the official history of the 315th Regiment.

This is a Google streetview of the 79th's approach to Montfaucon. The hill, with memorial column dominates the landscape. This is approximately where the first day's assault stumbled against heavy German machine gun and artillery fire.,5.1593298,3a,60y,307.87h,90.45t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sxLZeciZ33e-QyIRcxX00hA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Pershing, kept an eye on the lack of progress, and he prodded the 79th directly. In the evening, he directly ordered regimental and brigade commanders to lead from the front. They complied, but the result was confusion. The Division Commander Major General Kuhn, now no longer knew where his brigade and regimental commanders were, and he could not contact them because constant German shelling cut land lines and killed runners. The delays caused by Pershing's intervention did not help.

The result of all of this was that the 79th did not meet its objective on the 26th. The division fell far behind the divisions on it's left and right. The 37th and 4th divisions now had exposed flanks, where the 79th should have been.     

All was not completely lost. While planning, generalship and unit coordination clearly failed on September 26th, the heroism of the American infantry man overcame the obstacles at great cost. To paraphrase one historian, the '79th didn't "take" German positions, they "smothered" them with their flesh.

Prodded by Pershing, General Kuhn, ordered a new assault for the morning of the 27th. The 313th Regiment, "Baltimore's Own", was given orders to take Montfaucon by attacking up the final steep slope of Montfaucon hill. A communication breakdown left US artillery silent, and the 313th had to advance with only a handful of French Renault tanks in support.

In the book "A Machine Gunner's Notes France, 1918" Lieutenant Colonel Chales DuPuy reprints an article from the "Baltimore American" (newspaper) that describes the attack:

"The rat-tat-tat of the 'Brownings' sped the doughboys onward as they
rose, and, making tortuous ways through the mazes of barbed wire and trenches
approached the town. Many fell as they pressed forward, for the Maxims were play
ing upon the advancing waves. Did their speed diminish? It did not. Their momentum
could not be checked. Through the wire, around shell holes, up the steep hill in front
of the town and finally into the town itself they charged. The Colonel, as proud as
is Baltimore of those boys, grimly watched.
"As Major Jackson examined the inert figures which lay so plentifully along
a bit of trench he came upon one over whom an overcoat was thrown. Lifting the
overcoat, the surgeon, recognized Major Putnam, who still lay where he had gallantly
fallen the night before. He had died instantly, and in the midst of the struggle some
kind hand had found time to place the coat over his body.
"The Surgeon passed to the next body, a corporal who had just fallen at the
head of his squad, and lay gasping for breath. 'Where did it get you?" asked the
Major. The Corporal choked, shivered and sank into unconsciousness. 'Bind him up
well,' Jackson directed the medical sergeant, 'then get the major's overcoat and wrap
him up in it; the dead must yield service here to those who still live and suffer.' So
the corporal was carried to the rear wrapped in the major's coat.
"The Colonel needed no message to tell him of success. As the attack had
passed into the town, rifle shots mingled with the bark of the Brownings. The sound
of spitting auto-rifles rose amid the storm. Then came the sharp explosions, as with
grenade and bomb the town was wrested from the enemy. The first explosion bursted
in the little stone shed in the southern end of town; and with each succeeding ex
plosion the path of the doughboy was seen extending through the ruins. All the
while the machine guns whipped the flanks of the town and the 'heavies' played in
the valley toward the North.
"The attacking waves cleared the heights and advanced into this valley.
Request went back to have the fire of the heavy artillery lifted, and the message was
relayed to division. Soon the great explosions which had sounded far ahead died
away, and as the moppers-up entered the town the infantrymen again advanced
"More explosions followed, however, as the mopping parties sought the hidden
depths of the hill. Severe hand-to-hand struggles found place in the deepest and
darkest tunnels. Finally the town was quite cleared.
"The Colonel moved to the south of the height with his headquarters; Major
Jackson set up his first-aid station in a little hollow below the main road—once it
must have been a spot of idyllic beauty, but now it was undermined with trenches
and overgrown with shambles.
"A message came from the attacking battalion; the front line had advanced
500 meters north of Montfaucon. A company of machine-guns was sent around the
right of the hill, another company around the left, to protect the advance infantry.
The Colonel called his signal men and moved into the town. At 10:00 o'clock on
the morning of the 27th of September the laconic message was phoned back to the
"I have established regimental headquarters in Montfaucon.
"Sweezey, Colonel."
September 27th, 1918

Wargames and Books

Sadly, I know of no wargame that directly covers the 79th's battle for Montfaucon.  However, Decision Games does publish "The Meuse-Argonne." I have played it once...the game has some history lessons...but generalizes artillery support more than I would like.

In terms of books, I really enjoyed: "With Their Bare Hands: General Pershing, the 79th Division, and the battle for Montfaucon" by Gene Fax. The book does a great job in not just covering the US side of the battle, but the German side as well

An interesting read from the "controversy" point of view is "Betrayal at Little Gibraltar: A German Fortress, a Treacherous American General, and the Battle to End World War I", by William Walker. Personally, I thought the author hit the consipiracy theory a bit hard, but it was certainly a topic of much discussion in Army circles post-war, so is worth considering.

Johannes "Honus" Wagner
"The Flying Dutchman"
Shortstop: Pittsburgh Pirates 1900-1917
Rated as the 2nd most valuable player of all time by Bill James.


A great article discussing the German "Crown Prince's" artillery observatory on Montfaucon.

The telescope is on display at the US Army Artillery Museum at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.
Johannes "Honus" Wagner
"The Flying Dutchman"
Shortstop: Pittsburgh Pirates 1900-1917
Rated as the 2nd most valuable player of all time by Bill James.