Today, American tourists visit the haunting D-Day cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy in large numbers. Far fewer visit the Meuse Argonne cemetery near Verdun, although it is the largest of all such resting places in Europe, with 14,200 men and women of the American Expeditionary Force buried in orderly rows on its gentle rolling slopes. It is no less moving for all that—and indeed perhaps more so for its immaculately tended seclusion and loneliness. The truth is that Omaha Beach has a call on the public imagination that names like Chateau-Thierry once had and have now lost.
The World War I centennial matters far more in Europe than in the United States, which is understandable. For Europeans it is the great divide, the beginning of the short and awful 20th century that swept the continent with the two bloodiest wars in history, with revolution and the division of the home of Western civilization into blocs dominated by two superpowers who were at best only quasi-members of the European society of nations.
But Americans should still recall today that 100 years ago, in the summer of 1918, they were in the midst of a war that would ultimately cost their country more dead than Vietnam. Indeed, during the summer of that year the real struggles still lay ahead. Having entered the war in the spring of 1917 after much to-ing and fro-ing, the Americans were still gathering their strength. The Army of barely 120,000 was on its way to a more than 30-fold expansion. A million soldiers had been shipped to France; before long more than 200,000 strapping young men were marching off the ships every month. The Americans had had some early successes, but the real test of the Meuse-Argonne offensive in September lay ahead. That fierce month-and-a-half long battle cost 26,000 American dead, or over six times as many as the D-Day landings.
Like their country, the soldiers of the AEF were abundant, enthusiastic, and ill-prepared for what awaited. Having foresworn military preparedness, the Wilson administration was woefully unready to wage war, as Theodore Roosevelt among others had warned. The statistics are startling: Not one American-made artillery shell was fired by the U.S. First Army (the Second Army showed up only at the very end); not one American-manufactured tank was deployed. The United States Army had to buy some 4,500 artillery pieces and 9,600 machine guns from the French. American divisions were clumsily organized, and their logistics were, until near the end, an appalling mess.
Nor was the high command much to admire. General John “Black Jack” Pershing was adamantly determined to keep his forces separate and unified, even if it jeopardized the cohesion of a line that was close to breaking under the pressure of a series of offensives on the Western Front that the Germans launched in the spring and early summer of 1918. He believed, moreover, in aggressive tactics that reflected a naïve underestimate of how modern fire power had transformed the battlefield. Premier Georges Clemenceau of France sourly warned him that either the French could teach the Americans about modern battle, or the Germans would. To an unnecessary degree, Pershing opted for the latter.