29 November 1914 – Argonne

Today, French troops abandon the road linking Four-de-Paris to Varennes (see above). This month, the 3rd Army had almost retaken all the territory lost in these wooded hills since mid-September, but strong new German attacks have pushed their lines back. Initially reluctant to dig in at all, now French soldiers only wish their shovels could dig deeper in the clay soil. The slightest rain quickly floods a shallow trench; rather than form a continuous front, the defenses here are a haphazard confusion in the rough terrain.

There are no belts of barbed wire in this sector yet, but below the dense beech, birch, hornbeam, ash and oak trees, the undergrowth of the Argonne Forest is almost as effective for stopping infantry assaults. The fighting here has never really slowed, but rather settled into a routine of men flinging grenades at each other all day, firing machine guns all night to harass the other side and prevent infiltration, broken up by the occasional bloody close-quarters fight with pistols and bayonets in hand.

The Great War assumes a special character here. The line of battle initially cuts across the grain of the terrain, bisecting the hills and ravines lying along the spur of land between the Aisne and Aire Rivers. Ten miles west of Verdun, one of the most iconic landscapes of the conflict has almost become a forgotten front during the battles of the Yser and Ypres, yet hundreds die every day in this sector, for it is one of the most active on a daily basis.

A trench in the Argonne

A trench in the Argonne ca 1915. Note the trees are being stripped by shrapnel from continuous bombardment

In recent days, the ridge of the Bois de la Gruerie has become the primary French defensive line against German attacks. Constant shrapnel shelling has already begun denuding the hillside of trees, slowly exposing the hardscrabble trenches and turning the forest into the familiar moonscape of no man’s land. The distinctive geography of the Argonne makes neat, orderly lines impossible; at one point during the October fighting, French and German troops reportedly even discovered that their trenches had actually intersected. Men are constantly killed and taken prisoner in their own trenches, or killing and taking prisoners on the other side.

When American soldiers arrive to take over this section of the front in 1917, French guides are absolutely necessary to keep them from blundering into the enemy’s line of sight, for the place is a chaotic, wrecked tangle of old and new digging — and what little remains of the forest is lousy with snipers.

German attacks in the Argonne generally aim at threatening the few dirt roads that allow movement of men and supplies through these woods, potentially cutting off the French salient at Verdun. But in practice, the opposing trenches are as close together here as anywhere else on the Western Front, so the actual fighting is a close-ranged knife fight by the standards of previous battles.

Daily French attacks usually involve small indirect fire weapons: improvised catapults to fling grenades and aerial torpedoes; trench mortars; rifle grenades. Both sides are no longer attacking in massed infantry columns, and even if they were, the ground here renders such tactics impractical. The fighting here is dominated by small unit actions, for there is usually not enough space for any formation larger than a battalion to operate in unison.

A camp in the Argonne trenches. Note that it's on the reverse-slope of a hill

A camp in the Argonne trenches. Both sides built shelters into the reverse-slopes of the hills, but the Germans used concrete

When they aren’t fighting, both sides dig. Trenches get deeper: on the German side, they are drained and improved, with semi-permanent blockhouses, hospitals, kitchens, bunkers, and other facilities. The French do not improve their trenches as much, and refuse to develop hard structures, because their commanders discourage acceptance of the stalemate among their troops. But defensive entrenchment soon masks offensive digging: by the end of December, both sides are sapping and detonating mines underneath one another.

During the first three months of 1915, French pioneer regiments dig nearly two miles of tunnels between the Four-de-Paris road and the Aire, firing off 16,000 pounds of explosives in 52 different chambers. By the time they hand this battlefield over to their American allies, French sappers will have detonated eight times that much weight in TNT. The resulting craters will change and scar this landscape, churning the destruction and leaving the Argonne one of the most devastated natural landscapes of the conflict.

The Americans are not the first foreigners to take a turn in these trenches. The 2nd French Corps clears the Four-de-Paris road in December, and then an Italian volunteer unit called the Garibaldians arrives with the new year — just in time for the next German offensive. In that time, this section of the Western Front has become a backwards S-curve, with Germans dying in their hundreds and thousands to hammer it straighter while Frenchmen doggedly resist them from the Bois de la Greurie. The Four-de-Paris road will change hands more than once, costing yet more hundreds and thousands. By the end of the war, this will be one of the most blood-soaked scenes of the Great War.

A view of the Argonne battlefield

A view of the Argonne battlefield from the southern side of the Biesme Valley