One hundred years ago, my grandfather John “Jack” Lougee, along with 2 million other Americans, was in France. The First World War was not going well. France and Britain were bankrupt. American troops were needed to break the stalemate on the Western Front.
On Sept. 27, 1918, the American Army attacked in the Meuse Argonne battlefield. The country is hilly with open fields of fire. The Germans hid in extensive trenches and pill boxes on high ground. Machine guns were everywhere. The Germans called down heavy artillery fire on the Americans from hidden positions. The woods were full of poison gas.
The American soldiers were combat rookies. Gen. John Pershing’s plan was to attack with nine new divisions strung along a 24-mile front. In the center of the American attack was a large hill called Montfaucon. The hill had to be taken before any further attacks because the Germans used it for artillery observation. Behind the German defenses was a lateral railroad essential to supplying the German armies in France. Despite American inexperience, the strategic implications of Pershing’s attack were plain. The railroad had to be broken.
Eventually, the Americans made it through the forest. The German railroad was destroyed by artillery fire before the Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice.
My grandfather was in the 91st Wild West Division, composed of draftees from the Northwest. Its mission was to clear the right flank of the divisions attacking Montfaucon. The 91st advanced 5 miles into German-held territory. On the third day of the battle, my grandfather was wounded by shrapnel. He was one of the 100,000 casualties of the Meuse Argonne battle, which included almost 40,000 dead.
Last year, I went to the battlefield. The clearings include some of France’s most fertile agriculture. The forests remain forbidding as they were in 1918. Montfaucon still dominates the topography. There is a 300-foot American victory tower that can be seen for 30 miles. The Americans buried their dead in an impressive cemetery, larger than any other American cemetery in Europe.
No one goes to the Argonne cemetery anymore. It is meticulously maintained with a beautiful chapel. There are many crosses memorializing American soldiers “known only to God.” I felt a spirit of peace and calm in the American Cemetery comparable to my feelings at Arlington and Gettysburg.
Jack Lougee is my grandfather who is always with me but never here. He died at age 59, before my birth. I have never known him in life, but I know him better having been to Montfaucon.
He came home from the war and went to Utah State Agriculture College. He had excellent grades, graduating in agriculture. He tried and failed at homesteading a dry land wheat farm. He tried and failed at teaching school during the Depression to feed his family. When World War II broke out, he worked at Hill Field.
He was known as a man who was well-read and could converse knowledgeably upon most subjects. He grew famous gardens. He is buried in a small Bear Lake cemetery. His gravestone recognizes his Purple Heart.
I inherited much from my grandfather. He gave me courage along with my love of books. He gave me the desire to get my education. Most of all, I inherited resilience and fortitude forged on the Meuse Argonne battlefield.
As we pass the 100th anniversary of American participation in World War I, we should consider the victory tower at Montfaucon and the American Cemetery. Those brave American soldiers willingly went into the hills and forests of the Meuse Argonne battlefield. It was there that my grandfather and his comrades brought an end to four years of war. One hundred years later, I honor my grandfather and the memory of the American veterans of the First World War.
Kenneth Lougee lives in Sandy with his wife, Jan. He practices law and occasionally writes about the United States in the early 20th century. He is the author of “Pie in the Sky: How Joe Hill’s Lawyers Lost His Case, Got Him Shot and Were Disbarred.”