To Conquer Hell The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 The Epic Battle That Ended the First World War

Edward G. Lengel

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

528 Pages



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On September 26, 1918, more than one million American soldiers prepared to assault the German-held Meuse-Argonne region of France. Their commander, General John J. Pershing, believed in the superiority of American "guts" over barbed wire, machine guns, massed artillery, and poison gas. In thirty-six hours, he said, the Doughboys would crack the German defenses and open the road to Berlin. Six weeks later, after savage fighting across swamps, forests, towns, and rugged hills, the battle finally ended with the signing of the armistice that concluded the First World War. The Meuse-Argonne had fallen, at the cost of more than 120,000 American casualties, including 26,000 dead. In the bloodiest battle the country had ever seen, an entire generation of young Americans had been transformed forever.

To Conquer Hell is gripping in its accounts of combat, studded with portraits of remarkable soldiers like Pershing, Harry Truman, George Patton, Alvin York, Douglas MacArthur, and many other less well known soldiers, and authoritative in its presentation of the big picture. It is military history of the first rank and the first in-depth account of this important battle.


Praise for To Conquer Hell

"We're all familiar with D-Day, as we should be. But who knows anything about America's vital, bloodiest battle in World War I? In six weeks of autumn 1918, we suffered more than 120,000 casualties—26,000 dead—in the successful fight to oust the Germans from France's Meuse-Argonne region, leading to the Armistice. Fighting raged in swamps, towns and hills and Lengel captures the horror and the heroism in this chapter of American history that deserves to be remembered."—Billy Heller, The New York Post

"Each First World War battle deserves a historian; not every battle finds one. Those who fought on the Meuse-Argonne in 1918, and all Americans interested in their national heritage, are fortunate that Edward G. Lengel has written this deeply researched book—bringing the strategy, the commanders, the officers and men, the tactics, the horror and the heroism together in a moving, dramatic, and intensely human account. One of the most powerful war books that I have read."—Martin Gilbert, author of The First World War and The Somme

"There have been several efforts by American authors since the Armistice of 1918 to retell the story of the American Army's engagement on the Western Front during the First World War. Ed Lengel's book is a superior achievement and will be greatly enjoyed both by experts and by the general reader."—John Keegan, author of The First World War and The Face of Battle

"Edward Lengel has filled an inexplicable gap in the American history of World War I with this vivid, deeply researched account of the Doughboys' heroism—and agony—in the Argonne. Anyone interested in military history should have it on his bookshelf."—Thomas Fleming, author of The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I

"Ed Lengel's account of how American doughboys died in their tens of thousands to end the First World War is one of the great war stories of all time. In Lengel's skilled hands, the last great battle of the Great War is both riveting and deeply affecting. Authoritative, vividly drawn, and packed with arresting anecdotes and new material, To Conquer Hell is destined to be a classic. I cannot recommend it highly enough."—Alex Kershaw, author of The Few and The Longest Winter

"Lucid history of a military campaign so terrible that, writes Lengel, many of its survivors 'swore that after the war ended they would never look at another tree in their lives.' The Argonne, that dark forest in western France, had seen cruel battle in the years before the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force—one city alone, Verdun, had become a byword for bloodletting. The AEF was untested. Now, very late in the war, beginning in September 1918, it fought for 47 days in the forest and suffered terribly: By Lengel's count, nearly 1.2 million American soldiers went into action on the Meuse-Argonne front; 26,277 of them died, and 95,786 were wounded. The campaign saw storied engagements, such as that involving the so-called Lost Battalion and Sgt. Alvin York's one-man encounter with a German company in which he killed two dozen and captured 132 soldiers. It also necessitated attack after attack against heavily fortified defensive positions and entrenched heavy artillery, requiring exposure that the Allied and German armies had long ago learned to avoid. Lengel observes that the Meuse-Argonne campaign nearly bled the AEF to exhaustion. By the end of the campaign, replacements were coming to the line who had no idea what the command 'fix bayonets' meant and no idea how to load a rifle. Late in the day, American commanders figured out how to use the tanks and airplanes driven by soon-iconic figures such as Billy Mitchell and George Patton, but the conclusion the reader will likely draw is that the campaign was sadly mismanaged at many points. Unsettling, too, is the fate of many veterans who figure in Lengel's pages—among them York, who was haunted by the men he killed, and Lost Battalion commander Charles Whittlesey, who blamed himself for the loss of so many men and committed suicide soon after the war ended. A harrowing episode in American military history, expertly recounted."—Kirkus Reviews

"A number of books have been published lately concerning the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne (September 26-November 11, 1918), but they have been largely soldiers' memoirs or broad overviews, leaving the epic without the full history it deserves as the final conflict of World War I. American Expeditionary Forces were fully operative in the battle and suffered immense losses. Lengel delivers a compelling, lucid, and well-organized history juggling multiple narratives and much source material, as is evident from the extensive notes and bibliography. He skillfully keeps control of his subject, letting the momentum build of its own volition. The story of the young United States (compared with Europe) and its inexperienced army of 'doughboys,' driven by spirit but beleaguered by naïveté, is humbling and relevant—and told here with reverence. The important and bloody victory led to the Armistice but was not without great cost, showing the realities of modern war and transforming a generation of Americans in the process."—Ben Malczewski, Library Journal

"Coming at the very end of WWI, the six-week Meuse-Argonne offensive was the bloodiest single battle in American history, killing 26,000 doughboys and wounding another 95,000. In Lengel's gripping study, the struggle becomes a microcosm of the tragedy on the western front. New to the war and dismissive of the bitter lessons learned by the British and French, the inept and overconfident U.S. Army under the bullheaded John J. Pershing insisted that American fighting spirit, willpower and bayonets would carry the German lines. The results were predictable: badly trained and equipped U.S. soldiers mounting clumsy frontal assaults were massacred by German machine guns, artillery and gas. Historian Lengel delivers detailed accounts of the many separate engagements during the offensive, which coalesce into a grim panorama of highest-intensity conflict. Traumatized by the carnage, soldiers lapsed into despair and madness or murdered German prisoners. The author spotlights exemplars of individual prowess and heroism (including Corporal Alvin York, the erstwhile pacifist who killed 32 Germans and captured 132 more), but even they feel turned to 'wood' by the brutal fighting. An evocative narrative grounded in copious research and judicious historical assessments, Lengel's book will probably become the standard work on this neglected epic."—Publishers Weekly

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  • Edward G. Lengel

  • Edward G. Lengel is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books on military history, including General George Washington: A Military Life. A recipient, with the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project, of the National Humanities Medal, he has made frequent appearances on television documentaries and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.