The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces
Part III: The Air Service at the Meuse-Argonne
The Saint Mihiel battle had been brought to a successful termination. Fifteen thousand German and Austria prisoners filled our temporary detention camps. Cannon, transport, and booty of all kinds were brought in from every side. Our losses had been almost negligible, both in the air and on the ground, because we had taken the Germans by surprise. Not that they were fooled about where our attack would take place, but they were completely bewildered as to the exact time and method. They thought that we would be several days later, but, so rapid had been our concentration and so effectually had we kept them out of the air, that their ordinary information system was behind time in its operations.
9th Recon Sq.
Our new army had worked very well on its first trial; now it was up to us to hit the Germans at their vital point -- the Argonne-Meuse front. It involved a shift of from sixty to one hundred miles in a straight line. All moves had to be made under cover of night by the infantry and artillery, while the airplanes moved either very early in the morning or just at evening to conceal themselves.
Officers of 103rd Aero Squdron Receiving Decorations
Nothing approaching the size of the American First Army had ever operated in the Verdun area, and there were grave fears that this force could not possibly be supplied. Our staff was so confident that it could be supplied that they proposed attacking within a week after the conclusion of the operations at Saint Mihiel.
Under these conditions, it is not difficult to see what a problem confronted the Air Service. An entire new set of airdromes had to be built, in very rough and uneven ground; all the hangars moved and erected; a complete new telephone system of hundreds of miles of wire for the Air Service alone installed, and a complete new change of base made. For instance, every group of airplanes consumed an average of 1,500 gallons of gasoline and 400 gallons of oil per day, while each bombardment group dropped five tons of bombs. This whole move was so arranged by the Air Service that, first, an air barrage was kept up to prevent hostile reconnaissance, both by day and by night. In the latter case, the anti-aircraft artillery and searchlights were carefully disposed along the usual routes of enemy night reconnaissance. Then, our air reconnaissance of the enemy back areas was pushed with the greatest vigor in the combination with the air services of the armies on both our flanks.
Above all, we had to maintain as much secrecy as possible in the move. Artificial or camouflage hangars and airplanes had been constructed and set up on many of the new fields that we intended to occupy. Our construction squadrons took these down and erected the real hangars during the night, so that no difference would be apparent during the day from above. To make the deception as complete as possible, we feigned an attack on Metz. We talked guardedly about it to the men who, of course, passed it on confidentially from one to the other. Our long range artillery shot at the forts of Metz; our bombardment airplanes attacked the railway station and all their depots of supplies there, while farther away to the east we sent day bombardment and pursuit air groups as far east as Château Salins.
An amusing incident occurred in connection with our air demonstration in front of the French Eighth Army. For all but the first few months of the war, their front had been very quiet -- nothing more than a small trench raid or the pushing of air reconnaissance had taken place. Now the Germans made raids every night; air fighting went on at a great rate with every appearance that the attack was to take place there. The commander of that army became so alarmed over the prospect that he protested to French General Headquarters against the air demonstrations, because his army had been so depleted in personnel that he would be unable to resist a heavy counter-attack of the Germans which was, he believed, about to be delivered.
Aircrews & Aircraft, 11th Bombardment Squadron
The result of all these feints was to cause a great deal of uneasiness on the part of the Germans. Their troops were marched back and forth to points that they believed were threatened. We had completely taken over the "power of initiative;" they were on the defensive and had to wait for us to attack. There was one decided thing they did do, however. They well knew that we were going to hit in the direction of Trèves Gap, somewhere east of the Argonne. Their air service could cover this whole area from a central point, and, in addition, act against the flank of the French Fourth Army west of the Argonne Forest, in the Champagne. Furthermore, to any army on the defensive or retreating, an air service is of the greatest use because it is the only branch that may seize the offensive and hold it against advancing enemy troops that necessarily have to use the roads in going forward. Also, the faster an army advances, particularly in a rough and shell torn country such as this area was, the harder it is for the pursuer to build his airdromes and keep his aviation up with his troops. The amount of fuel that our airplanes could carry was little more than for two hours. If our airdromes were an hour's flight from the lines and an hour back, we could do nothing, whereas they, on the defensive, would be falling back on their own airdromes and consequently be getting nearer and nearer to them. Therefore, the Germans decided to concentrate the bulk of their whole aviation against our front.
90th Aero Sq.
From our estimate of the situation we had considered it certain that this would happen. Now our air reconnaissance told us that it was in progress.
The high command had decided that, jointly with our attack in the Argonne, the French Army, under General Gouroud, would attack in the Champagne. This necessitated ad additional change in the arrangement of the French Air Division -- that splendid force of 800 ships. These were so placed that they could act as a reserve either for the American First Army or the French army. Think of the difference of a mobile reserve that now moves at the rate of one hundred miles an hour as distinguished from a reserve of infantry, such as we had in our former wars, that moved at from two to three miles an hour.
Oswald Boelcke, Codifier of German Air Tactics
The Germans in the Air
Now, a word about German aviation. Many supposed that, because France, England, and America were against Germany, their production and delivery of airplanes and their general efficiency would be much greater. This was not the case, however. The Germans well knew what noise the United States was making about a twenty thousand airplane program. They therefore, took stock, and decided that, while the Americans could not make and deliver anything like that number with the system they had adopted, to be safe they, the Germans, would adopt a ten thousand airplane program. This was adopted and carried out by them, while, on our side, the total number of squadrons in our air force, using American planes, was eleven on the day of the Armistice, with a strength of less than two hundred ships for duty; all the rest were French airplanes. The Germans adopted types easy to make, easy to transport, quick to set up, and easy to maintain.
The Argonne Compared with St. Mihiel
A study of our general problem showed a very different state of affairs from that encountered in the Saint Mihiel operations. Now we were attacking from a salient instead of against a salient. Our axis of movement was on the line Montfaucon-Romagne, or straight out from our center. It was quite certain that the enemy would quickly avail himself of these conditions and, on the ground, make use of the ridges to our left which ran out from the Argonne Forest, and on our right, the positions radiating from the Meuse River north of Verdun. In a corresponding way, he would attack us in the air from both flanks, attempt to scatter our aviation, and, having done this, he would strike straight at our center and the roads behind it, so as to interfere as much as possible with our troops advancing to the attack. While our air staff was studying this question, our infantry and artillery were incessantly marching at night from their Saint Mihiel positions to their new ones. In the daytime, nothing was to be seen. They were concealed in forest, towns, villages, or old dugouts, while our airplanes watched for the enemy reconnaissance ships.
Pilots of the 130th Aero Squadron
When our airplane groups moved to their new airdromes, they proceeded in battle formation close to the ground, well behind the line, and, upon arriving, were immediately put into their waiting hangars for concealment. They were always ready to go right into any fight, however, at a moment's notice. Within five days after the conclusion of the
Saint Mihiel battle, our signal officer reported that he had all the telephones, wireless, and other means of communication ready for a move to the new headquarters. So, when the word was given by General Pershing, all was ready at Souilly for our reception. In a day we changed from Ligny en Barrois to that place.
An Enemy Airplane Over G.H.Q.
The second day after our arrival there, an amusing incident occurred. As was mentioned before, we had taken every precaution against enemy aerial reconnaissance and were very proud to report that we had warded it off from all important points. Our pursuit airplane patrols, anti-aircraft artillery, and everything to prevent enemy observation had been carefully installed. High altitude reconnaissance is one of the hardest things to prevent in all air work. General Pershing had been very anxious to see all our group, wing, and higher air commanders to tell them personally how he felt about their work in the recent battles. I had informed him that, according to custom, they would all be assembled at my headquarters the following day to receive their final instructions from me about the coming battle, and that we would very much appreciate it if he could come over at that time; to which the General acceded with alacrity. Next day, I went down to get the General, going through the outer rooms where many commanding and staff officers were waiting to receive instruction, and reported to him that all the air commanders of our own and the allied forces were assembled and awaiting him. He started right up with his aide and me toward my headquarters, which was about three hundred yards away from his. We had proceeded about half way, during which time he had commented on the fact that we had been remarkably successful in preventing enemy reconnaissance, and that he had thereby been able to insure great secrecy as to the concentration of the army. Hardly had this been said when I noticed high up in the sky and coming toward us the explosions of our anti-aircraft artillery. It meant only one thing, and that was that a German ship had slipped through our barrage and would photograph the place where we were standing. The anti-aircraft fire was splendid, but the German ship, a Rumpler, was so high (about 6,000 meters -- 20,000 feet) and so well handled that it easily avoided the shots which, as a matter of fact, could not reach it. I knew that our high pursuit patrols were in place because I had inspected them myself that morning, and that the Rumpler had come along with the sun until he had gotten to the desired point, and then had made a break across the salient in which we were. I thought to myself that he would run squarely into one of our formations to the east, but I said nothing about it. The General made no particular comment, spoke to the assembled air officers about their former work and what was to be done in the coming battle, and then went back to his headquarters.
94th Aero Sq.
I walked down with him, thinking of the Rumpler and what his reconnaissance would show if he were able to get back with it, and what more we could do to guard against a recurrence. As I returned to my headquarters, I had decided that, with the force we had, it was impossible to do more and that it would be very difficult for the Rumpler to get away from the pursuit patrols that lay in his path. Imagine my satisfaction when, as I stepped into my headquarters on my return, the Information Officer reported that the Rumpler had been shot down in flames by a patrol from the 1st Pursuit Group, and that he had fallen on our side of the line and all his plates were in our hands.
Lt. Rickenbacker, Lt Campbell and Captain Marr
The Importance of Details
I mention this small incident to point out the fact that every little thing has to be thought out and arranged for ahead of time, and the object, aims, and exact method of operations of an enemy have to be thoroughly understood to counteract what he desires to do. In this case, the Rumpler had broken through our screen near the Argonne Forest where he could get the sun behind him. As soon, however, as the anti-aircraft artillery posts could look up away from the sun they found him and immediately opened fire to signal our pursuit patrols, which were twenty miles away. Other anti-aircraft batteries took up the fire with the result that the patrol, way up in the air, saw the shells bursting and immediately went in pursuit and discovered the German ship and shot it down. The plates, which he had exposed, had enough on them to show almost exactly where our concentration had been made.
The area over which our army was to operate was one of the worst in Europe. During the four years of the war, no substantial advance had been made in this locality. The Argonne Forest was very large, thickly wooded, hard to reconnoiter, and in which it was impossible to make a forced landing with an airplane (if shot down or in trouble); while, for the infantry and artillery on the ground, the mere fact of subjecting it to artillery fire and battle conditions piled the trees on each other so that they, in themselves, made a very formidable obstacle. From the Argonne Forest to the Meuse River (a distance of about forty miles) there were many little forests covering a succession of ridges running more or less parallel to our front, all converging on the town and position of Montfaucon, which was the Gibraltar of this part of the country.
The German Positions
Not only were the positions for defense very well concealed on the German side, but also their machine guns and artillery could be easily placed to enfilade and take in flank all the advances which our troops made. From the heights east of the Meuse River, their artillery could be very easily concealed in the woods to fire against our right flank. Our corps observation squadrons, protected by pursuit details, photographed and joined up the reconnaissance of the whole front so as to give all the information possible about the country to the ground troops. These photos consisted not only of views taken vertically from the usual altitude of about 10,000 feet, but also of oblique views taken of the positions immediately in front of the troops at very low altitudes. The average man does not get much out of a vertical photo until he becomes expert in the art of interpreting them, but, on the other hand, an oblique view is easily understood because it looks like the view he has been used to from the top of a high mountain at the valley below. He easily appreciates the perspective. Ordinarily about eighty copies of each photo were required in active operations, and the photographic sections worked night and day turning out from 2,500 to 3,000 prints per day for their respective army corps.
88th Aero Sq.
Majors Huffer and Lufberry
Every opportunity was taken to make the ground troops familiar with the air units with which they had to work. This is always a very difficult thing to do, but we were making constant progress and developing additional cooperation every day. From our studies of the roads and communications behind the front of our army, which in the Argonne-Meuse district were very few and bad, we had noticed particularly the lack of roads behind our center. We always watch these things carefully because, if a tie-up or congestion in traffic occurs on a road where hundreds of motor trucks cannot move forward or backward, attack and bombardment aviation has its greatest opportunity.
94th Aero Squadron Members at Toul Aerodrome
The German System of Attack
The Germans had recently systematized their attack methods of aviation -- that is, the aviation which specializes in attacking troops and formations on the ground. They called this branch of aviation "battle squadrons," gave them special airplanes and an especial manner of operating. To counteract these, we organized a special branch of our pursuit aviation which we called "low flying pursuit." The patrols of this branch each had ten kilometers or six miles of front assigned. They operated in two tiers, at about 200 and 600 to 800 feet respectively. The lower patrols contained two planes, the upper ones three. They kept very close liaison with the anti-aircraft artillery and machine guns. The enemy usually attacked in a succession of battle flights of from four to six planes each. Our low flying pursuit planes were seldom able to see them, because the enemy flew so close to the ground The anti-aircraft artillery, however, could spot them with facility, and their fire would immediately call the attention of our low flying pursuit which, from its method of operation, would usually bring from seven to nine pursuit ships against a single battle flight of the enemy. The pursuit group which handled the low flying pursuit shot down 110 German ships, and lost only 10 of their own in the month of October. No other aviation specialized in this as ours did, on account of the difficulty and danger of operation.
Concentration of Air Forces
Having provided to the greatest extent possible for the aviation directly attached to the troops, and the pursuit aviation for the protection, we decided to concentrate the mass of our bombardment and ground attack aviation on the main axis of our advance, so as to clear the way as much as possible for the infantry in it advance, and at the same time cover our dangerous center from their attacks. From the manner of the German air concentration against us and from their methods, which I had watched in the battle of Verdun in 1917, I was convinced that they would commence by operating against our flanks, and particularly against our right flank on the first day, because they would think it possible that we would go in the direction of Metz.
On the night preceding the attack with the opening of the preliminary artillery preparation, our night bombardment aviation made a simultaneous attack against their airdromes, railway stations, and principal depots of supplies and command, so as to destroy as much as possible, and at the same time interfere with their system of command. Before dawn on the day of the attack, all our aviation was in the air--the corps observation and low flying pursuit working directly with the troops themselves, the pursuit barrages at medium and high altitude guarding the front and particularly the flanks, while our bombardment aviation hit directly at the enemy elements on our main axis of advance.
The First Day of the Attack
Aerial Photograph of the Argonne Forest
The effect on the enemy during the first day was staggering, as it always is when one has the power of initiative and makes a concentrated attack. Our artillery preparation was very well made, and the infantry advanced in fine style. On the second day the advance was a little slower, and the enemy aviation made very sharp attacks against our flanks, and endeavored in every way to attack our infantry with their battle flights. These were sharply replied to by our low flying pursuit, and most of the fighting was carried into the enemy's country.
The Germans, finding that their tactics did not make us spread a thin veneer of airplanes all along the front through which they could break easily at any point with a large group formation, immediately formed into masses of more than fifty to seventy pursuit ships, Fokkers, in a group. To make our infantry insist on a splitting up of our pursuit aviation so as to give local protection everywhere, the Germans made the most desperate attacks against all our balloons and put an additional spur into their battle flights. As we were on the offensive, most of the air fighting at altitude occurred on their side of the line.
Our principle was always to have two pursuit and one bombardment group concentrate on a single point from different directions. Each group had nominally 100 airplanes out of which about sixty ships were usually available for duty. In order to protect themselves from the bombardment, they were force to arise and accept combat with the result that a succession of great air battles took place. These were all to our advantage, until, as the Germans developed their whole strength, we were greatly outnumbered; but, with our system of concentration, were able to inflict much more loss than we received. Lastly, although still outnumbered, we had obtained the upper hand over them to such an extent that our units were always confident of attacking anything that showed up.
After the second day of the attack, a very serious congestion of traffic took place behind our center, that is, the road leading north to Montfaucon, and, although there was some congestion in other places, it was worse in this area than I had ever seen on a battlefield. In addition, the troops immediately behind the front, being new at the game, built any number of fires in the woods which at once disclosed their positions. When I first saw it, it looked like the best target that I had ever seen for aviation on any field. The Germans, I knew, would not be slow to take advantage of it. For the next week, they made the most desperate efforts to get their aviation into effective operation both day and night against these elements of ours in and behind our center army corps. We concentrated our aviation to protect it, and carried the fighting into their territory, with the result that, although they forced a few machines through from time to time, their formations were practically always broken up and badly mauled, particularly when they turned to go back as our concentration too, place behind them. during the long forty-seven days of this battle, things such as I have mentioned above were of daily occurrence. A great deal of bad weather was encountered and there was hardly a day without either haze, mist, or rain.
141st Aero Sq.
The bombardment kept on increasing in effect and importance. On one occasion, a heavy counterattack was being prepared by the Germans against the right of our line northeast of Verdun, at and near a place called Rambevillers. Troops, supplies, and all the necessary things for a determined counterattack had been accumulated, and it was about to start. To help us in holding up this attack, I requested the use of the bombardment aviation of the French Air Divisions, which was acceded to at once. Two formations of some 170 airplanes each, consisting of 3-seater bombardment Coudrons for protection of the flanks of the bombardment groups, together with pursuit squadrons to attack the enemy pursuit, were sent, which combined with our units already acting against this position.
The October day on which this attack occurred was clear, and, as this great aerial armada went over the troops, at an altitude of about 15,000 feet, our men cheered them from the trenches, as it gave a feeling of power which could be felt in no other way. The Germans saw it coming, and massed all their units available to counteract it. The blow came so swiftly, however, that they were able to make no effect on it. Not one of the Allied airplanes was lost or forced to land on the enemy side in this attack, while 12 enemy ships were shot down and destroyed, and many others driven down out of control. Thirty-nine tons of bombs were dropped in this one expedition, which, combined with thirty tons which our other units threw down during the rest of that day and the night, made a total of sixty-nine tons of bombs thrown down within the twenty-four hours, which, I believe, is the greatest weight of aerial projectiles ever launched in one day on a battlefield. The impending German attack was entirely stopped; it was indeed the dawn of the day when great air forces will be capable of definitely effecting a ground decision on the field of battle.
In thinking back over various battle panoramas that I have seen from the air, and it must be remembered that from the air one sees the whole thing on a clear day as if it were laid out on a table, my mind harks back to the last really great connected battle that I believe occurred on the Western Front. It was the 14th day of October, as I remember it, that I was starting from my headquarters at Souilly to make my usual inspection and reconnaissance in the air. I had the reports from the French Fourth Army on our left that they had broken through the enemy line and were engaged in battle, at the same time that we were pushing along our entire front from the Argonne to the Meuse.
Just as I was leaving I was asked very earnestly by a staff officer, who at a later dated commanded the aviation of our 2nd Army, if he could not accompany me. I consented and took my 2-seater Spad.
We jumped into the airplane at the Souilly airdrome, and I laid my course directly for Somme-Py in the Champagne. We rapidly obtained our altitude for some 4,000 meters, or 13,000 feet, and passed the Argonne Forest on our right. I had been looking carefully for the well remembered roads to the East of Somme-Py; they no longer existed. I looked for the villages; they were not to be seen, Never on any field has the ground been so completely obliterated as it was here. It is seldom that a place is so destroyed, particularly a road, that it cannot be quickly seen from the air. Glancing to the left, we saw the place where our gallant 2nd Division [and 36th] had broken the German line while acting with General Gourauds's army. No Man's Land, here, was the worst desert I have ever seen, and it will be remembered that this section in times past saw innumerable Roman battles, saw Attila and his Huns defeated, and, during the present war has been a perfect charnel house for human beings. I imagine that more men have been killed in this section of Champagne than in any other area of corresponding size in the world.
A Remarkable Advance
The Author in his 2-Seater Spad XVI
I had been with the French Fourth Army during their terrific assaults in April, 1917. These thoughts flashed through my mind as I looked north and saw that the old Fourth Army not only had completely broken through the German line but had crossed No Man's Land with all its artillery and trains -- a truly marvelous achievement. Not only had they crossed but at that moment they were attacking on a concentrated front with all their artillery equal well disposed and all in action. South of Mezieres the German Sixth Army was deployed in excellent order, with its artillery ranged in depth and all firing. It was easy to see at a glance that they were on the defensive and needed reinforcements, if they were to make any counterstroke. It was a battle in the open -- the first and last great one on this front, where both forces were maneuvering. The French were extending their right to occupy the gap in the Argonne Forest, which led to Grand Pre, and their cavalry was pushing on with the hope of effecting a junction with our 1st Army Corps, which formed the left of our army. We knew that, if they could, the Germans would assemble reserves south of Mezieres to hi hard in some one place, but I could detect no evidence of the presence or use. To help the junction of the French Fourth Army and our own army, our aviation attacked vigorously all the depots and concentration points around Grand Pre. The bombardment aviation made three trips over the lines on that day.
Over the Argonne Forest
After seeing this wonderful battle to the west of the Argonne, I turned sharply to the right or east. Our aviation was everywhere; very few enemy balloons were up, and they were ten miles or more behind their lines. On this day, the Germans, forced to such a defensive not only on the ground but also in the air, were somewhat demoralized. The German planes we saw were nervous, and we had no trouble in executing our mission. As we crossed the Argonne Forest, where the "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Division was surrounded, the first thing that caught our eye was the effect of our air bombardment in the form of fires in stations and at German troop concentration points near Grand Pre.
There seemed to be three battles in progress on our front, one for the possession of the Grand Pre Gap, another in the center around Romagne, and a third near the Meuse River. The Germans had, comparatively speaking, little artillery; what they had was placed so as always to bring an enfilade fire across the front of our advancing infantry. All of their men seemed to be equipped with machine guns, and it was on this arm that they placed their greatest reliance to oppose our advance through this difficult place. It was very evident that they were hard put to. . stem the advance, and now that the French Fourth Army was beginning to eat into the communications leading from the right of the Germans against us, it was evident that our continuous hammering would soon bring about the smashing of the whole Argonne-Meuse front, which really was the key to their whole position in France.
No matter in what condition the other armies might be the American Army had been engaged continuously for nearly a month. Whatever its mistakes might have been, they were those due to being a new army, and even these were extremely few and far between, and absolutely none of any importance were made. The Army had never been driven back on any field. It had proved that it had ability, and was getting stronger every day. This particular reconnaissance occurred at a time when the troops on the ground were having their hardest time and when in many cases it looked like almost an impossibility for them to get the Germans out of their circle of machine guns with which they had garnished the hills in our front.
The wheels of my Spad touched the ground on the Souilly airdrome just at dark, and within a few minutes I had placed the information we had obtained in General Pershing's hands, with the recommendation that he be ready for a vigorous pursuit at any time.
We had covered more than one hundred miles of front in this reconnaissance. Nothing else could have given the same amount or character of information in the same time, or for that matter, in any time.
Editor's Note: The late historian and Great War Society member, R.D. Layman, chronicler of World War I aviation would point out that in this concluding extended anecdote Mitchell demonstrates the greatest value of the air services of the Great War-- strategic and tactical reconnaisance.
Sources and thanks: This Doughboy Center Feature is dedicated to Great War Society Member Elizabeth Allor who was helping to assemble this when she surprisingly and tragically passed away. We will miss her. This article originally appeared in the August 1919 edition of World's Work magazine. The images used are from various US Army sources. MH
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