cover image To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918

To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918

Edward G. Lengel, . . Holt, $30 (491pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-7931-9

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 (George Washington: A Military Life ) 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. Photos. (Jan.)