The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the final, definitive battle of World War I. French, British and American forces hammered at German defensive lines during the second half of 1918. Losses were high on both sides, but the eventual defeat of the imperial German army led to the armistice that ended the war. The months-long battle was named for its location in France, in the Argonne Forest near the Meuse River.
Since 1914, the Allied forces, including France, Britain and Russia, had been locked in combat with the Central powers, including Germany and Austria-Hungary. The war’s infamous Western Front, stretching from France to the North Sea, was the site of trench warfare that caused tremendous losses on both sides. The United States was not involved during these early years; many Americans believed the country should stay out of the conflict, a philosophy called isolationism.
By 1917, however, it was clear the U.S. could not avoid involvement. Many American lives were lost because of German submarine warfare, and British agents intercepted a German telegram to Mexico, proposing an alliance against America. Mexico refused, but these events spurred the U.S. to enter the war, sending more than 1 million troops to join Allied forces on the Western Front.
The arrival of American reinforcements provided a morale boost to exhausted Allied forces. Bolstered by these new additions, the Allies pressed forward in a series of successful campaigns known as the Hundred Days Offensive. The last and greatest of these advances was the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Beginning on 26 September 1918, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was part of a coordinated attack on Central forces all along the Western Front.
Casualties were high in every action of World War I, but the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was especially costly. New weapons technology used in the war included machine guns, poison gas and aircraft, while the chief defensive measures were long interconnected holes in the ground called trenches. The worldwide Spanish Flu epidemic was also raging at this time, aided by unsanitary conditions on the front. More than 300,000 troops from both sides lost their lives during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 120,000 American dead led to this being called “the deadliest battle in American history.”
Over the course of 47 days, the Allied forces advanced slowly through the Argonne Forest, eventually breaking through the German defensive lines and capturing a railroad near the Meuse River that was essential to supplying German troops. This victory, combined with Allied triumphs elsewhere, led the German government to agree to the armistice, ending conflict on 11 November 1918. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, officially ended the war.