Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Lost & Found - The Collapse of the 35th A.E.F. Division (1918)

On September 26, 1918, the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F) was sent into the abyss that was called the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The battle cost 26, 277 lives, making it the largest and bloodiest operation of World War I for the Americans. Among the casualties were many soldiers of the 35th Division, a unit that virtually collapsed under the strain of modern warfare. Footage showing the aftermath of this terrible battle was found recently by the authors in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.

Major General Peter E. Traub learning a few points about moving picture camera from Lt. Edwin F. Weigle. U.S. Signal Corps photograph taken by Weigle's camera operator Pvt. Thomas J. Calligan, 18 October 1918, Sommedieu, France

When zero hour came the American infantrymen discovered that General Pershing had sent them into terrain that was only a few removes from hell. Inside the Argonne Forest ravines, hillocks and meandering streams added to the obstacles created by the trees and dense underbrush that reduced visibility to 20 feet. Throughout the valley, the Germans had added every imaginable man-made defense. General Hunter Liggett, who commanded I Corps on the American left, soon realized the place was ‘a natural fortress, beside which the Wildnerness in which Grant and Lee fought was a park.’

The Lost Battalion (USA, 1919)

Film poster The Lost Battalion (1919)

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive provided film history with a suitable backdrop for The Lost Battalion (USA, 1919), a movie based on the actual experiences of soldiers from the 77th Division who had found themselves completely cut off and surrounded by German forces. While all of this was happening nearby their comrades of the 35th Division were at risk of being completely annihilated. After only 5 days of fighting the 35th Division rapidly became combat ineffective. One reason for the 35th Division's poor performance was inadequate training. But the division's greatest failure lay in grave lapses in its leadership as a result of mistrust between the unit's Regular Army and National Guard officers.

Collapse at the Meuse-Argonne

Author Robert H. Ferrell in his book Collapse at the Meuse-Argonne (2004) places the blame squarely on divisional commander Major General Peter E. Traub who sowed confusion within the unit by relieving all infantry brigade and regimental commanders and replacing them with Regular Army officers only days before combat started. As a result, when the attack was launched the chain of command ceased to function and the 35th Division suffered over 7,000 casualties.

Shortly after the division was pulled out of the line on October 1, 1918, the soldiers were transported to a quiet sector near Verdun where they could rest and recuperate. On October 18, cameramen Edwin F. Weigle and Thomas J. Calligan filmed General Traub on an inspection tour of his men. We could identify the cameramen because of a still photograph which has their names and shows how General Traub posed before their movie camera. As mentioned in a previous post, Weigle was the photographic officer of the 35th Division and an experienced war photographer who had previously covered the Great War for the Chicago Tribune. Weigle and Calligan on that same day also filmed men of  'C' Battery, 130th Field Artillery of the 35th Division, carrying ammunition in a wood near Sommedieue, as well as the sole surviving officers of the 1st Battalion, 138th Infantry Regiment. As an interesting side line, Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery Regiment of the 35th Division at this time was commanded by Captain Harry S. Truman, the future President of the U.S.A.

Opening scenes from our video clip

The smiling faces of General Traub and these surving officers, as recorded by Weigle and Calligan, do not reveal the true tragedy that had taken place only three weeks before. But the scenes remain an important source on the history of the 35th Division and the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.

For more information on the cameramen of the 35th A.E.F. Division in France check out this previous weblog.

We found the footage in a compilation film at the Imperial War Museum. The movie was produced by the U.S. Signal Corps in 1919, showing U.S. forces and French airmen on the Western Front (catalogue number IWM 501-3). Here is a clip from this film reel:


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