The bone-chilling fog still drifts between the clusters of woods and farm fields that 100 years ago were soaked with over a month of seemingly endless rain. To walk on these fields then was to go ankle- to knee-deep in a limey, greasy mud that got into everything. It never got quite cold enough to freeze the ground or the rain, which would have been blessed relief. It was, in the words of one who experienced it, a “pluperfect Hell.”
It is now the location of the largest American burial ground outside of the United States, the Meuse-Argonne cemetery just outside the small village of Romagne sous Monfaucon in France. Originally, there were more than 26,000 Americans buried there. Reinterments back to the States, mostly in the 1920s, dropped the number down to under 15,000, but the effect of this serene, meticulously maintained place is stunning and somber for anyone who sees it. Even if Americans seem to have forgotten it, almost every day it is visited by young French students who research the names on the white crosses and stars and remember. It remains the source of wonder and awe to them that all of these men came all the way across the sea to fight for, and die for, French freedom. America’s first African-American Medal of Honor recipient is buried there, as are several others.
In 1918, Romagne was ground zero, the central objective of an American attack through what were considered by both the German and the French to be an impenetrable, deep defensive sector, miles deep, between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River. There was reason for the German focus on defense here: Just to the north, in Sedan, were critical railroad junctions that were essential to supplying the entire German front in France. Capture of Sedan would mean the collapse of the entire front. The French had spent four years trying to move back the Germans in this sector. In most places, what progress they had made could be measured in a few yards. Elsewhere, the gains were all German.
The Americans, under Gen. John J. Pershing, had a new, large, mostly very green army that had now been assigned this seemingly impossible task. The French and British, it seems, thought the Americans might keep the Germans occupied on this key flank while they pushed forward with their own offensives farther to the west.
What ensued was the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which remains to this day the largest battle ever fought by the American Army. Beginning on Sept. 26, 1918, and lasting 47 days, more than a million-and-a-half Americans succeeded where no one else expected them to under impossible conditions. At first, they all but stampeded through areas in a day or two that the French had been attacking without success for years. But the losses were galling, amplified by the inexperience of American commanders and inappropriate battlefield tactics. The Germans had targeted virtually every square yard of the battlefield, which meant no place, even miles from the very front lines, was safe. Field hospitals, kitchens and supply trains were regularly targeted by artillery using both explosive and gas shells.
The final and strongest point on the line, what the Germans called the Kriemhilde Stellung, ran in a trench line just south of Romagne and then through some very high, steep hills just to the west of the town. The highest crest of those hills had a name: Côte Dame Marie. Hundreds of feet above and overlooking the open plains around it, Côte Dame Marie and the Kriemhilde Stellung that it was part of contained a honeycomb of deep concrete bunkers and machine-gun nests with interlocking fields of fire that the Germans — who had developed considerable experience in such things during the war — considered to be absolutely impenetrable.
So intense was the fighting approaching the Kriemhilde Stellung, that at least one division, the 35th, a National Guard division out of Kansas and Missouri, fell apart and withdrew or, more accurately, “dissolved” from the assault. Replaced immediately, the Americans pressed forward to the base of the Côte Dame Marie. There, the 32nd Division, a veteran division originally made up of Wisconsin and Michigan units, was ordered to do the impossible: Assault and take the Côte Dame Marie. The idea was that the 32nd would keep the Germans occupied while the 42nd “Rainbow” Division and the Third Division would move to outflank the Germans.
However good that plan looked on paper, both the 42nd and the Third were stopped in their tracks. No one had bothered, however, to tell the doughboys of the 32nd that it wasn’t really thought that they would be able to take the Côte Dame Marie. In what is still one of the great feats of American arms in history, the 32nd took both the Côte Dame Marie and the small village of Romagne next to it. The startled and exhausted Germans were pushed back into a 4-mile salient behind the Côte Dame Marie where, in near desperation a few short days later, they would launch the single-largest gas attack on an American position in the entire war in an attempt to deny to the Americans any further advances in the sector.
Fred McComber Jr., of Hibbing, Minn., had been a replacement in the 32nd just two short months before Meuse-Argonne. He was a seasoned veteran now when he and others in his patrol entered Romagne to “mop up,” looking for prisoners and wary of numerous booby traps that had been left behind. There he saw an image that never left him. A doorway, the door locked with the key still in it, was all that remained of a small house. On the inside of the door on a small hook was a beautiful, white apron without a speck of dust on it. Nothing else was left other than collapsed brick, shattered timber, the standing door and the apron. So absurd was the image in his mind that he would recall it vividly when he brought out the key and apron that returned home with him to show family members.
Days later, huddled on the other side of the Meuse, he was waiting for the orders to, once again, go “over the top” when, 15 minutes before the end of the war, the Catholic chaplain of his regiment was shot by a sniper as he was moving from group to group, bringing encouragement in the face of the good news of the impending cease-fire. The chaplain was the last casualty of the division in the war. There was little need for further examples of waste and absurdity for Fred McComber to think about after the war.
McComber came back to a country that had relatively little time to think about its new veterans. He began a career in the postal service that lasted for more than 40 years, with his eventually becoming the supervisor of mail in Hibbing. Only once did his service come to the fore: When the banks were collapsing in the early days of the Depression, people on the Iron Range brought their cash to the post office and bought postal money orders. All of a sudden, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, was in the Hibbing Post Office, which had no large-enough safe or other way to safeguard the money. A rifle was found in the local armory and handed to McComber: “Fred, you’re the only one who knows how to use this.” He stayed on guard all night at the Hibbing Post Office until an armored car came to take the funds down to Duluth the next day.
Otherwise, Fred McComber Jr. lived a life every day he saw as a gift, as far from guns and war and as close to peace as he could make it. He served as the commander of the local VFW Post in Hibbing on one occasion (quite an honor for a “buck private,” he liked to say) and could always be counted on to give time to what needed to be done there. He lived to be 94, and until he was well into his 80s he was an active guardian for disabled veterans from the first war, then the next war, then the wars that followed. Family members all saw him working feverishly at his typewriter (which is still in the family), corresponding and taking care of “his men.” And, almost until the very end, he was haunted by nightmares of the war — the waking-up-screaming-in-the-middle-of-the-night kinds of nightmares — that never really allowed him to forget that he was among the fortunate ones who returned.
Fred McComber Jr., my grandfather, is now buried at the Fort Snelling Cemetery in Minnesota, beneath the exact same kind of white cross as the thousands of others there, and the thousands of others at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. The long, long shadow cast by the Second World War and all that has happened since often obscure the sacrifices of the veterans of the First War, and the extraordinary accomplishment of the Army at the Battles of Meuse-Argonne. The French do remember, though. So should we.
Frederic W. (“Fritz”) Knaak, of North Oaks, is an attorney and a former member of the Minnesota Senate.