The Probus Club of Stokesley and District Minutes of the 365th meeting held at 10.00 in Stokesley Town Hall on Tuesday 19th June 2018:
Speaker Mike Mannix: ‘The Last Great Battle of World War 1’
Mike Mannix was welcomed back by the Chairman after his fascinating talk in September 2017 on the Gallipoli campaign. He gave a very informative, if rather sombre presentation on what he described as a forgotten battle. In the British narrative of the First World War, there are the great battles of Gallipoli, the Somme and Paschendaele which happened between the outbreak of war and the end of 1917. There is then a gap until the 11th hour of the 11th day of November. 100 years ago, the German attacks were petering out and on August 8th, the Allies launched their fight back. This is known as the 100 days offensive. Mike gave a detailed description of the part the U.S. forces played in the battle of Meuse Argonne. General John Pershing was in charge of the American Expeditionary Force. When President Wilson declared war on 4th April 1917, the U.S. effectively had no army. Wilson introduced conscription with the aim of creating an army of 3 million. John ‘Blackjack’ Pershing was given carte blanche to run the AEF as he saw fit. He went to France to be followed by his men, but at the beginning of 1918, he still had no equipment. Pershing did not want his troops to be integrated with other nationalities.
The U.S. were ‘Associates’ of Britain and France rather than Allies. Pershing did, however, release men to save Paris in 1917. Early battles included Bellau Wood and the St. Michael Salient before the US forces moved on to the Meuse Argonne. The objective was to capture the railway hub at Sedan, which was critical in supporting the German Army. Pershing’s plan was to use men armed with rifles and bayonets. This turned out disastrously as they were mown down by the German machine guns. One third of his army of 1.2 million men was wrecked within a week. Fit young troops were reduced to moving skeletons through dehydration and exhaustion. Under pressure from Haig and Foch to keep up with the battle plan, Pershing tried the same method again suffering 50% casualties. Captain Charles Whittlesey led a battalion of the 77th Infantry Division through the forest in October 1918. He outran the other units in the attack and his men were cut off. They became known as the Lost Battalion. Unable to move in any direction, they were bombarded by the Germans and by their own side. They managed to send a pigeon to their HQ pleading for help and to stop shelling them. This pigeon became a war hero after managing to fly after being shot by the Germans and losing a leg and the sight of one eye.
The 1941 film Sergeant York tells the story of their rescue by the 82nd Division. Of an original 554 men, only 192 survived. Some troops had never fired a rifle, which in any case was an unsuitable weapon for the terrain. Grenades were unknown to US soldiers at that time. Both Clemenceau and Lloyd George wanted Pershing sacked. Eventually he removed himself from operational control, handing over command to Hunter Liggett and Robert Bullard. It is generally accepted that the loss of 26,000 dead and many more injured and disabled was a disaster. This is one of the reasons why the story is not widely known. In 1921, Whittlesey committed suicide by jumping off a ship. Even today, this was the biggest battle ever fought with the greatest number of U.S. casualties. It was finally ended with the signing of the Armistice on 11th November. On that day, Bullard had ordered his men to attack the Germans. A further 3500 casualties were suffered.
The books Mike used to research his talk are 'To Conquer Hell'. Lengel, Edward G. Aurum Press Ltd (London) 2008. ISBN 978 1 84513 350 4 and for
Bullard's treachery: 'Betrayal at Little Gibraltar' Walker, William, Scribner, New York 2016. ISBN 978 1 5011 1789 3.
Useful websites are http://americanvictory1918.com/ and