And now, finally, on to 25 September, that famous date in history where so much happened. What, you ask? Well, there’s the battle at Stamford Bridge in 1066, where Harold the Unlucky beat back the last Dane/Norse invasion of England (before he lost it to the Normans a few weeks later; then there’s the birth of Robert Clive in England (you remember–explorer, first viceroy of India) in 1725; and Benedict Arnold went over to the British in 1780; and Henry Ford announced that his plants were to adopt a 40-hour, 5 day a week workweek in 1926; Smolensk was liberated in 1943, for the last time, as it happened; and finally, Sandra Day O’COnnor was sworn in as the first woman Supreme Court Justice of the United States. Too, who can forget that today is Math Storytelling Day (for the real geeks), and National Lobster Day (for…whatever). But today we talk about America in World War One, and one-hit wonders.
The United States only reluctantly entered the Great War in Europe (which took place from the mouth of the Yalu to the English Channel, and from the North Sea to the Horn of Africa), and then not as an ally but as an “associated power,” whatever that meant. Indeed, it took most of the summer of 1917 just to decide to send a sizable force. John J. Pershing was the best general the US had to offer, and he had enough political pull to be assigned as head of the BEF in June 1917. Because they had been pummeling each other for three years with little to show for it, both the British and the French wanted the Americans to become reinforcements for their battered units, but that was not what President Woodrow Wilson wanted. Wilson told Pershing, essentially, that he wanted a seat at the conference table when the war was over. To do that, Pershing was told, an independent American force had to make a significant enough contribution to end the conflict as it could possibly make.
At first the Americans arrived in driblets in 1917, drawing their first blood in a trench raid in November 1917. Gradually the pace increased, and by the summer of 1918 it was a flood. By September 1918, 1.4 million Americans were under arms in France. By that time Pershing had enough men to launch an offensive to the north of the old Verdun battlefield, a sector dominated by the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest. The Germans had been there since 1914, more or less undisturbed since 1916, and had built a line of pillboxes, wire entanglements, and prepositioned artillery strongpoints that made it a five-mile deep fortress. But behind it was Pershing’s objective–the railway hub at Sedan, through which most of the German supplies to the entire Hindenburg Line flowed.
But the Americans had had very little experience in the kind of warfare that had developed in France and Flanders. They had taken their first objective of the war, the small town of Cantigny, with the support of British planes and French artillery and three days of savage fighting that reduced the attacking companies to squads. They had performed well enough in a relatively small offensive at St Mihiel, and were considered to be stable, but not “savage” enough to do what the Canadians and Australians were doing in the Hundred Day’s offensives that had started in August. But this wasn’t a limited push: this was seventeen divisions in what would become two field armies totaling nearly three fourths of a million men. It was to be the biggest battle in American military history between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.
The opening moves were small parties of doughboy engineers that crawled forward on the night of 25 September to the first band of German barbed wire, cutting as much as they could and marking what they could not. At 2:35 AM on 26 September, over 1,400 American, French and British artillery pieces from 75mm to 15 inch railway guns opened up on a five-mile wide by three-mile deep band, expending more ordnance in that first three hours than both armies had used up in the whole four years of the American Civil War. Then, at 5:30, the ground troops started moving ahead. Then the bloodletting began.
In proportion to the French and British and even the Germans and Belgians, the American casualties from WWI were small. But, what the wags who argue that body count is the measure of sacrifice don’t say is that the Americans lost half (26k) of their total combat deaths (53k) in WWI during the last ten weeks of the war, at the Meuse-Argonne.
But the Americans barely knew what they were doing, and in their untutored zeal they died by the scores in open ground, where Pershing said they would be victorious because in the trenches lay fear and exhaustion. He was right, but just getting to that open-country warfare took hundreds of thousands of gallons of American blood. By the first week in November, American artillery was ranging across the Luxembourg frontier, and American troops had penetrated the Hindenburg Line. By then the German government had fallen, the politicians were taking over the scene, and by the time the first Americans were out of France and within a day’s march of Germany, the armistice came.
Scholars (myself included) have argued ever since as to whether the Meuse-Argonne was in any way decisive in itself. Part of the title for my essay for A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign (Wiley-Blackwell 2014) is “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them,” taken from a letter by a German lieutenant in the Meuse-Argonne sector to his wife. He was referring to the Americans, who in their ignorance kept getting killed while they continued to take ground. After the war, Paul von Hindenburg, the victor of Tannenberg and the architect of Russia’s defeat in WWI, said that it was the Americans, after all, who were most to be feared, not because of their fighting abilities (which he admitted improved with time), but because of their raw numbers and energy.
And, from his perspective and from that of all of Europe, he was right. There were plans to have two million American soldiers, sailors and Marines in France by the end of 1918, and by the spring of 1919, as many as three million (influenza notwithstanding). By the end of 1919 as many as four million Americans could have been under arms and either in Europe or on the way; more than Germany and France could field combined. If Germany had continued to fight after that disastrous fall of 1918, and the Allies had not accepted the armistice offered (and some senior officers did not want to), most of Europe might have been bystanders in an American victory parade through Berlin, Vienna and Budapest. Thus followed the Peace of Versailles, where Wilson was the first American president to not only leave the country while in office, but was the first to negotiate foreign treaties in Europe. That American victory parade through western Europe was delayed by a generation, even if the Soviets had captured Berlin, Vienna and Budapest.
Also, 25 September is National One-Hit Wonder Day:
MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down…
Say what, we said. What in the name of…and who is that, anyway?
We all (most of us, anyway) first heard the self-taught Irish actor Richard Harris belt out those immortal Jimmy Webb lines in April 1968. And, for most of us, those nonsensical lines and the rest of the lyrics stick in our heads as many One-Hit Wonders and ad jingles do. MacArthur’s Park was covered by Glenn Campbell, Donna Summer and Waylon Jennings amog others, but Dave Barry called it the worst song ever recorded in 1992, and Weird Al Yankovic parodied it a year later. Often forgotten by the industry, these tunes caught on for some reason, but the original artist was never able to duplicate that success with another song. Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime; One Tin Soldier by The Original Caste; One Toke Over the Line by Brewer and Shipley; and of course Brandy by Looking Glass are only a few. One-Hit Wonders have often been covered by other, better-known artists. Sad, but, like the Meuse-Argonne, necessary for everything to move on.