The Echoes of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Posted on March 29, 2022

by Jess Montgomery

Throughout my Kinship Historical Mystery Series, I’ve woven events of the 1920s era into each novel. The series is inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925 and is set in the Appalachian region of Ohio. The era, and the area, offer up plenty of historically-based events and issues to weave into my stories: worker’s and women’s rights, coal mining events such as the Battle for Blair Mountain, the rise of the Women’s KKK, bootlegging and bootleggers, Prohibition, to name a few.

Gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, firing 37mm gun during an advance against German entrenched positions (1918).
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

In The Echoes, the fourth novel in my series, I decided to explore Lily’s family of origin, particularly the story of her slightly older brother Roger. 

As July 4, 1928 approaches, Sheriff Lily Ross and her family look forward to the opening of an amusement park in a nearby town, created by Chalmer Fitzpatrick—a veteran of the Great War as people in the 1920s would have referred to World War I. The park, featuring amusements such as an outdoor dance floor, a fishing pond, shooting range, and such, is meant to honor veterans of the war, and provide a place of joy and respite for them and their families. But most particularly, Chalmer has Lily’s brother Roger in mind as he creates the park. Roger died in the Great War in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France. 

All Lily and her mother, Beulah, who co-narrates The Echoes, really know about Roger is that he died in battle and was buried in France (a marker bearing his name is in the Kinship Cemetery). As the story unfolds, they learn much more about Roger’s life and experiences in the war, and the circumstances of his death.

Part of my research for The Echoes was delving into the history of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. As writers of historical fiction know, only a tiny fraction of any research gets inserted into a novel. Yet, all that research is necessary for the author to write with confidence. 

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a major part of the final Allied offensive along the Western Front, was fought September 26, 1918 through November 11, 1918—a mere 47 days. 

And yet, it is the largest in U.S. military history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers; 26,000 of whom died in the battle, with 95,000 wounded. That’s twice as many deaths as the second-most costly battle in our history, the World War II battle in Okinawa, with almost 13,000 dead.

In the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery and Memorial in France rests the largest number of America’s military dead in Europe, just over 14,000, most of whom died in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. 

World War I ran from July 28, 1914-November 11, 1918, but the United States did not enter the war until April 2, 1917, declaring war against Germany, largely because Germany continued submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The U.S. then declared war on Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary in December 1917.

The American Expeditionary Forces were formed under the command of General John J. Pershing as a branch of the U.S. Army, with four million soldiers called up and fighting alongside its allies—the French, British, Canadian, and Australian armies—against the German army in various battles on the Western front. A small portion of U.S. troops also fought with the Italian military against the Austro-Hungarian army.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the main engagement of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during the war. The goal—cut off the communications and supply lines of the German Army in France, and force them to withdraw.

Why was the offensive so deadly and brutal? Partly because of the mix of old and new tactics—bayonets and soldiers on horseback, but also machine guns, tanks, and airplanes dropping munitions and mustard gas. Another was the Argonne forest itself—thick and difficult to press through, having been fortified by the Germans for years. 

Still, by November 4, the AEF took the Meuse River, and on November 11, a ceasefire was declared and the war was over.

At least, it was over on the battlefield.

Families mourned their dead. The course of lives were changed. The terrain of towns and countryside was destroyed or scarred. 

Veterans lived with physical losses, but also, in many cases, what we would call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but which was called shell shock during the time of the Great War. You can learn more about the history of PTSD and how our understanding has evolved, particularly through examining World War I, here.

It’s hard to fathom the numbers I’ve referenced, to bring it to a human level. But that’s the power of fiction. In The Echoes, through the character of Roger, and the veterans he fought with, I hope I’ve shown how the horrors and toll of war can echo on for years in the lives of soldiers as well as their loved ones.

Photo Credit: JP Ball Photography

Jess Montgomery writes a Writer’s Digest magazine column, “Level Up Your Writing (Life)” and was formerly the “Literary Life” columnist for the Dayton Daily News. Based on early chapters of the first book in the Kinship Series, The Widows, Jess was awarded an Ohio Arts Council individual artist’s grant for literary arts and named the John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at Thurber House in Columbus. She also hosts the podcast, “Tea with Jess: Chatting with Authors & Artists.” Jess lives in her native state of Ohio.

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