Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Last Battle

Argonne Forest 1918

The Argonne Forest is a hilly stretch of woods, a deep crease in the rolling landscape of northeastern France. It is so steep there is barely a place flat enough to set down a cup of coffee. Anyone moving through it is either walking uphill or down.

An American General, James G. Harbord who saw it in the fall of 1918, described the Argonne as a "dense forest gashed by steep ridges and deep ravines, littered by the debris of many storms, natural and man-made. It was a region forgotten when level ground was being created. No man's horizon was more than a few yards away."

That was where Tom Hogan was going in October of 1918. The American army, with the French, had taken on a 20-mile stretch of no man's land with the insane notion of walking across it and pushing the Germans back to Germany.

Topographically probably the meanest part of the battle line was through the forest, with its relentless up and down terrain and thick undergrowth. It didn't help that the Germans knew the woods intimately. After all, they had been in the area for four years, so long they turned that section of the battle line into an elaborate military city -- elegant underground bunkers with carpeting, hospitals, even a theater. They had placed concrete machine gun nests throughout the woods with criss-crossing fields of fire. An ant couldn't walk through there and not be in the sights of a German gunner.

A Long Walk to Hell
The Argonne front was about 50 miles north of St. Mihiel. There were and still are few roads that go in that direction and those few were gridlocked with supply convoys. The only one way to get there was to walk. So one day in late September Tom loaded a 50-pound pack on his back, picked up his rifle and headed north.

Try to imagine walking 50 miles, in the pouring rain, through knee deep mud, with the equivalent of a small trunk strapped to your back, after about 4 hours of fitful sleep in damp woods and nearly a week of combat, knowing you are heading into more combat and you will have grasped Tom's situation.

American troops in France on a rest break.

By the time Tom got to the Argonne in early October the fighting had already begun and it was getting meaner. The Germans were digging in and fighting back hard. His unit had to clear out the Argonne, which meant one machine gun nest at a time. It was slow, exhausting, dangerous, bloody work. The weather was miserable -- cold, rainy. The troops were freezing. Most were still wearing their summer uniforms.

The Bloodiest Battle in History
Once they got into the woods the men quickly discovered they were on their own. Supporting artillery was useless. Shells exploded against the trees before they reached their targets. The hilly terrain and dense forest forced the Americans to fragment into smaller, more vulnerable groups. There was no safe place in the rolling terrain. As the men quickly found out, to stand at the top of a ravine was to become an easy target for machine guns. To take cover at the bottom was to be a target for poison gas which was heavier than air and settled insidiously into the lower elevations.

The Germans had years of experience with gas which was in artillery shells and fired from their big guns. They devised various strategies. Sometimes they would lob just enough gas into enemy lines to scare soldiers into putting on gas masks. Since it was harder to breath with masks on, the men tired quickly. Other times Germans would mix poison gas shells in with regular explosive shells during an artillery barrage. By the time the soldiers realized they had been gassed it was too late. Finally German generals liked gas because it was cost effective. Someone calculated that three shells of poison could kill as many men as nine regular artillery shells under the right conditions. And the conditions in the Argonne Forest, with all its ravines and defiles, were ideal.

Chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas were the three killers of choice and the Germans used all three during the battle. Mustard gas was the worst. Its acidic fumes burned the skin, raised huge oozing blisters, and attacked mucous membranes, blinding any poor soul who didn't get his mask on fast enough. But all brought on choking and gasping fits and, among the survivors, permanent lung damage.

One wet and chilly October morning Tom Hogan found himself thrashing his way through the dense Argonne underbrush, possibly thinking how seven months earlier he leading a quiet, happy life, making knitting needles in a sleepy New England town, and now he was stuck in the middle of a place he never heard of, with the world blowing up around him.

Not much detail is known about what happened to him and his fellow troops, but what is certain that at one moment there was a the loud crack of explosion and in the next Tom was on the ground stunned and bleeding from shrapnel wounds. Lying nearby were other unlucky men from his unit. As they lay there, there was another explosion and a suffocating cloud of poison gently descended on them.

The battle was called the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, because the line extended from the Meuse River in the west to the Argonne Forest in the east. The Germans yielded ground slowly, making many Americans die for every yard. But by early November the Germans could see it was over and surrendered.

I knew little about World War I and nothing about this battle. So it came as a big surprise to learn that Meuse-Argonne was the bloodiest battle ever in American history. During 47 days of fighting, 26,277 American soldiers were killed and more than 95,000 were wounded. Not during World War II or not even during the Civil War had so many men been slaughtered in a single fight.

The Armistice was signed in November. The War to End All Wars was over. The troops started coming home in late 1918. Tom was not among them. The Army couldn't seem to account for him at all. No one could tell the family if he were living or dead. The year 1918 ended, 1919 began and still no word.

"You're supposed to be dead."
My mother was about five years old and still remembers the moment. She was standing in her grandfather's living room when someone walked through the front door. He was a gaunt man in a brown uniform, his legs wrapped in puttees, a Sam Brown bell crossed over his chest and around his waist. What followed was mayhem: her aunts shreiking, sobbing, laughing. He was her godfather, Thomas Francis Hogan.

She remembers saying to him, "You're supposed to be dead."

It was only after the chaos of the battle was over that the Army realized Tom was missing. Eventually someone found him and his buddies. He spent time in a field hospital in France. When he recovered, he was loaded on a troop ship for the States for the ten-day trip across the Atlantic. He had entered the Army in April of 1918 and was released in February of 1919. In a mere 11 months he had been in three major battles and was nearly killed.

Tom never talked much about what happened in the Argonne. Once he told his daughters that he and his friends were too badly injured to get up and were lying on the ground a long, long time before someone finally found them. His only piece of good luck, if one could consider it such, is that by having been so badly wounded he was too weak to move and that may have saved his life. During gas attacks men who had been wounded and were immobile suffered less than men who ran. That only made them breathe in more deadly fumes.

After the war Tom got on with his life, returned to his job at the needle factory, married and raised two daughters. He had left the war but the war did not leave him. His daughters remember him making regular visits to a VA hospital in New York for treatments, possibly for his damaged lungs, and although he talked little about his experiences, one day not long before his death he lifted his pants leg to show his older daughter one of his injury. She gasped at what she saw, saying it looked like a chunk of muscle had been scooped out of his leg. That was all he ever shared of his war experiences.

My mother remembers two things about him, his happy go lucky personality, and his distinctive gasping cough. The lung damage almost certainly shortened his life. He died in 1948 at the age of 59.

Acres of Corpses
Today part of the battlefield where he was wounded has been transformed into the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. As the cheery young woman in the tourist office reminded me, it is the largest U.S. military cemetery outside the United States. More American soldiers are buried in its 130 acres of meticulously groomed grass -- over 14,000 -- than are even buried near Normandy beach, where over 9,000 are interred.

I drove there on a rainy June afternoon to have a look. The cemetery sits between two country roads in a vista of rolling farmland in the middle of nowhere. As I got out of the car the first thing that struck me was how ranks of white markers beyond the stand of dark trees had a translucent glow. A sudden rainstorm came over the ridge and swept down through the emptiness of the vast graveyard. The only sounds were the rustle of trees and raindrops splattering against the stone markers.

The rows of the dead men's markers converged towards the horizon. It was creepily quiet. Except for a groundskeeping crew, I was the only one here. Looking out over the acres of dead I recalled a quote from the writer Graham Greene: "There is poetry in a battlefield." Not to those slaughtered on it, I thought.

The Road
Recently I found an old Word War I photo showing a spectacular traffic jam of Army supply wagons and trucks on a road all to the Argonne. It was utter chaos, a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Supply convoy headed for the Argonne Forest

As I left the cemetery I drove back to Verdun down one of these roads, possibly the one in the photo. Today there is nothing -- no villages, no traffic, no signs of anything to suggest a World War was fought in the surrounding countryside. More than 90 years ago the air was full of the explosive thunder of dueling artillery and gunfire. Today the only sound I heard was the hum of my tires on the road and the click of the windshield wipers. All around was total emptiness. And I mean total. Here's a video of my last sights of the Argonne.

Fascinating graveyard fact: France is the foreign country with the largest number of American soldiers buried in its soil.

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