Hunter Liggett was the personification of a soldier-scholar. He studied the character of war and considered its ramifications on the future. Liggett studied campaigns of old, constantly reading books of history that highlighted the campaigns of Grant, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Napoleon, and endeavored to pass this knowledge on to his subordinates. His keen eye and understanding were evident in a staff ride that he led in 1914 in Luzon, Philippines, where he intuitively identified the Lingayen Gulf as the best location to conduct an invasion. This beach would be used by Japanese Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma in 1941 and by General Douglas MacArthur in 1945 during World War II. Such foresight would serve Liggett well in World War I, especially in the Meuse–Argonne campaign of 1918.
Liggett was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on 21 March 1857. He graduated from West Point in 1879 and was assigned to the 5th Infantry Regiment, serving along the frontier in the Dakota and Montana territories, pursuing groups of Lakota Indians. Most of the frontier was secure in July 1881 after the surrender of Sitting Bull (the Apache Wars continued in the southwest for several more years). After this, Liggett and the 5th Regiment served in Texas and Florida. He deployed briefly to Cuba during the Spanish–American War and then to the Philippines. While there, Liggett met John J. Pershing, an acquaintance who would play an important role in his life during World War I.
In 1903, Liggett returned to the U.S. as a staff officer at the Department of the Great Lakes in Chicago and then held battalion command at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1907. Although not officially a student, Liggett furthered his military education at Leavenworth by monitoring classes at the School of the Line and the Staff School, thanks to the help of Lieutenant George C. Marshall. In 1909, Liggett reported to the U.S. Army War College as a student and was subsequently selected to serve as a member of the faculty. Liggett updated the curriculum with historic studies in the context of the changing character of war, as well as developing war plans for regional interventions.
Liggett’s career continued to prosper when he was selected to command the Department of the Great Lakes in 1913. This was followed by brigade commands in Texas and the Philippines. In 1916, Liggett was given command of the Department of the Philippines and by that time was one of the most experienced officers in the United States Army. When war was declared in April 1917, Hunter Liggett was quickly given command of the 41st Division and would rise rapidly to corps and army command.
On 22 September 1917, a group of 14 American division commanders, including Hunter Liggett, sailed from Hoboken to France to get a firsthand view of the war. After a tour of the British and French lines, they reported to Pershing’s headquarters at Chaumont where he briefed them on his vision for fighting the war. Pershing commented on the quality of the senior officers in the group, writing in his memoirs, “Quite a number of the division commanders… were either physically unfit or had reached the age when new ideas fail to make much of an impression and consequently, I recommended that both classes be left home for other duty or retired.”
Liggett, very overweight and 60 years old, seemed to fit into this class of officers. However, Pershing knew him from the Philippines and saw that, even in 1917, he was both an innovative thinker and a tireless leader. Nonetheless, the group of officers returned to Bordeaux for transport back to the States to prepare their divisions for deployment to France. However, Liggett’s 41st Division was soon to arrive and he remained in France to await them. When the unit arrived in December 1917, it was broken up and the men assigned largely to the 1st and 2nd Divisions. (The 41st was a designated replacement division.) Liggett later took pride in the performance of the 1st and 2nd Divisions, knowing that he had trained many of the men.
Pershing personally selected Liggett to command I Corps on 15 January 1918. His excellent character as an officer, and his reputation as a critical thinker and a brilliant student of history, continued to bless his career with success. I Corps was comprised of the 1st, 2nd, 26th, 32nd, 41st, and 42nd Divisions. The corps deployed to the Vosges, with the remnants of the 41st assuming training duties. The units assigned to Liggett’s I Corps were spread across France in various French training areas or supporting Allied operations. He organized his staff and did all that he could to ensure that they would be ready to plan and conduct corps-level operations.
Liggett’s chief of staff when he commanded the 41st Division was Colonel Malin Craig, a future chief of staff of the U.S. Army. They had met at the Army War College. Due to their friendship, Craig announced to Liggett that he would serve as the chief of staff, to which Liggett readily agreed. Liggett said that he “gave [Craig] a free hand and charged him with responsibility in selecting his section chiefs and otherwise building the machine.” Liggett diverged from Pershing’s penchant for micromanagement, and instead demanded that the staff sections “relieve [him] of all detail… permitting [him] to concentrate entirely on [his] job as commander.” Liggett’s guidance to his staff was that he wanted a “harmonious family” and that any troublemakers would be removed. This gave Liggett time to contemplate how best to employ his troops in the ever-changing environment without getting bogged down into unnecessary details.
Hunter Liggett also disagreed with Pershing’s cult of the bayonet view on how to fight in 1918. Pershing believed that the French and British had become flaccid during the years of trench warfare. To overcome this, he believed that the Americans should not train for trench warfare and rather focus on open “maneuver” warfare. This led to the over-emphasis on bayonet and rifle training, in the belief that once the American solider arrived, the AEF would break out of the trenches and drive the Germans back. This resulted in Pershing issuing orders to not heed the lessons learned from the Allies’ experience, as he feared this would take the aggressive fighting spirit from his Doughboys. Liggett disagreed with Pershing on this. Although he supported the idea of training the men in maneuver, he also thought it foolhardy to ignore the realities of the trenches. Liggett rightly believed that it was essential that the Americans were trained in both areas and used his position as commander to make this happen. The French and British were happy to accommodate this and eagerly accepted the rotation of American units into the trenches.
The collapse of the Russian Empire in November 1917 gave Germany an opportunity to knock the French or British out of the war before the late-arriving American Army could swing the balance against them in mid-1918. Ludendorff wrote of this:
With the American entry into the war, the relative strengths would be more in German favor in the spring than in late summer… unless we had by then gained a great victory… Only a far-reaching military success which would make it appear to the Entente powers that, even with the help of America, the continuation of the war offered no… prospects of success, would provide the possibility of rendering our embittered opponents really ready to make peace. This was the political aim of the Supreme Command in 1918.
With that in mind, Ludendorff transferred nearly a million men to the Western Front over the winter of 1917–18 to participate in a series of offensives that began in March 1918. The German hammer blows achieved some deep penetrations into the Allied lines, but never achieved a breakthrough. In the end, Ludendorff’s offensives failed to achieve the strategic success needed to win the war.
Liggett rushed his units to various parts of the Western Front to backstop British and French divisions as well as to occupy large segments of the line to free up additional troops to deploy to threatened sectors. As the American 1st Division launched an impressive attack against the Germans at Cantigny, the fourth German offensive (Operation BLÜCHER) kicked off north of the Marne, driving a 30-mile wedge south into the Allied lines at Château-Thierry. Liggett’s American I Corps joined the French Sixth Army to blunt the German attack and then drive them back in an audacious counteroffensive in July. The legacy of this campaign is still with the United States Army and Marine Corps. During the defense of the Marne River, I Corps’ 3rd Division absorbed a series of fierce German attacks and then drove their enemy back, earning the moniker “Rock of the Marne.” Meanwhile, the 2nd Division, comprised of one Marine brigade, dashed into Belleau Wood and drove the Germans back; earning the moniker “Devil Dogs.”
As the last of the German attacks faded in July, Liggett was ordered to support the French to drive the Germans back from the Marne. Liggett was given tactical command of the French III Corps in addition to his own I Corps – the first time that French soldiers served under American command since the 1781 Battle of Yorktown. The attack kicked off on 18 July 1918 and the Franco–American attack drove the Germans back. Liggett’s force included nearly 200,000 men from nine American divisions. The debut of the first American corps-level attack since 1865 showed immense promise. Liggett remarked, “Our officers, with very few exceptions, had measured up the most exacting requirements of modern warfare in the open.” With this impressive start of large American operations, Liggett’s corps was moved south of Verdun to prepare for the reduction of the Saint-Mihiel salient.
The Saint-Mihiel salient had existed since 1914 and was 25 miles wide and 16 miles deep. This wedge gave the Germans several advantages, chief of which was threatening the vital French Paris–Nancy rail network. Pershing planned this operation, with the approval of Foch, to test the American First Army. Liggett’s I Corps would fight here with two other American corps (the IV and V) and the French II Colonial Corps. The operation kicked off on 12 September and included 550,000 Americans, 110,000 French, 1,481 aircraft, 3,000 pieces of artillery, and 400 tanks.
Liggett’s I Corps was responsible for reducing the eastern flank of the salient and he appealed to Pershing for a more aggressive attack to cut off the Germans before they were able to escape. He also pushed for the element of surprise with a less lengthy preparatory barrage. Unfortunately, Liggett’s proposals were disregarded, denying the opportunity for what might have been an even more successful operation. B. H. Liddell Hart remarked on Liggett’s astute understanding of war:
Liggett’s early perception of the essential value of methods which the best of his allies only reached after years of trial and error, and which many of his contemporaries never arrived at, is a testimony to the superiority of study and reflection over mere experience, and to the value of a mind nourished on military history.
This reduction of the Saint-Mihiel salient was an astounding success, as Pershing remarked:
The rapidity with which our divisions advanced overwhelmed the enemy, and all objectives were reached by the afternoon of September 13. The enemy had apparently started to withdraw some of his troops from the tip of the salient on the eve of our attack, but had been unable to carry it through. We captured nearly 16,000 prisoners, 443 guns, and large stores of materiel and supplies. The energy and swiftness with which the operation was carried out enabled us to smother opposition to such an extent that we suffered less than 7,000 casualties during the actual period of the advance… After seventeen months… an American army was fighting under its own flag.
As the attack ended, Liggett’s I Corps, and most of the other American units, began a 60-mile move west to be ready for the Meuse–Argonne campaign, slated to kick off on 26 September 1918. The Meuse–Argonne campaign would be the largest battle in American history, and over the course of its 47 days included 1.2 million Americans and several hundred thousand French troops. The initial attack would include three American corps. Liggett’s I Corps was on the left third of the Meuse–Argonne area of operations; in the center was V Corps (under General George Cameron); and on the right, III Corps (under General Robert L. Bullard).
This area of operations was not new to Liggett’s staff; he had ordered them to study it eight months before as the best place for the American Army to attack. His thinking was precise; it was the narrowest part of the line along the Western Front where a successful offensive could threaten the vital German rail network at Sedan–Mézières. Germany had an extensive lateral rail network behind the lines along the Western Front, where it could shuttle some 20 reserve divisions to blunt Allied breakthroughs. Foch needed the German strategic reserves committed to fighting the Americans in the Meuse–Argonne region to open the way for a British and French breakthrough in the north. After the American attack in the region commenced on 26 September 1918, three other Allied Army converging attacks would follow in sequence.
Liggett’s I Corps was given difficult terrain to attack through. With a sector about 10 miles in width (west to east), the western half encompassed the entire Argonne Forest along the American boundary with the French Fourth Army. The Argonne is one of the rare ancient forests in Western Europe that withstood time, empires, and the industrial revolution. It is simply too rugged to navigate or exploit. The forest juts up above the western flank of the Meuse Valley along a north–south axis. It is filled with deep ravines, artesian wells, steep cliffs, and thick groups of trees. Control of the Argonne affords the occupant extensive observation and control of the Meuse Valley to the east, and was therefore considered key terrain for both the Germans and Americans in 1918. Everything about this forest gave the defender the advantage.
The eastern portion of I Corps’ sector was in the western Meuse Valley, intersected by the narrow L’Aire River and a series of hills and ridges running west to east (favoring the German defenders). The key terrain in the Meuse Valley facing Liggett’s men was the devastated hill of Vauquois. The hill once had a village on top of it, but it was completely destroyed as French and German engineers exploded more than 500 subterranean mines under the hill in an effort to drive each other off of it. A massive scar split the hill along what became no man’s land as a result.
Liggett had three divisions in his corps for the main attack. The 77th Division occupied the western half of the Argonne with its western boundary along the French Fourth Army area of operations. The 77th was a National Guard division mostly recruited from New York City; the division had the nicknames of “Metropolitan Division” and “Liberty Division.” It was commanded by Major General Robert Alexander who had a reputation for pushing blame down the line to his brigade and regimental commanders when things went wrong. The 77th was one of the AEF’s most experienced divisions, but had suffered heavy casualties and was in the midst of incorporating 4,000 new soldiers into the unit.
Given the mission of clearing the eastern half of the Argonne and the western edge of the Meuse Valley was the 28th Division. The 28th was also a National Guard division, had an excellent reputation in the AEF, and was commanded by Major General Charles Muir. The 28th likewise had suffered significant casualties earlier in the summer and was integrating green replacements before the attack kicked off. The 35th Division occupied the eastern third of I Corps’ area of operations and was given the daunting task of liberating Vauquois. The 35th was also a National Guard division comprised of men mostly from Kansas and Missouri. Captain Harry S. Truman commanded a battery of artillery in the 35th. The division was commanded by Major General Peter Traub and was one of the most inexperienced in the AEF.
As the Meuse–Argonne attack kicked off, Liggett’s men pushed ahead, meeting stiff German resistance especially in the Argonne Forest, where American gains were negligible at best. The forest was defended by the German 76th Reserve Division and the 2nd Landwehr Württemberg Division. The Württembergers spent most of the war in the Argonne and said that it was like a second home to them. They made the Americans pay dearly in blood and held them at bay in the Argonne. However, the 28th Division had success in driving the German 1st Prussian Guards back in the valley east of the Argonne, forcing the Württembergers in the Argonne to fall back to avoid encirclement.
The inexperienced 35th Division managed to secure Vauquois in just a few hours. This was due largely to the heroic action by several small-unit leaders, such as a battalion commander Major James Rieger, and a squadron of tanks led forward by Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton. But the 35th began to fall apart as German resistance stiffened when the strategic reserves arrived. A series of German counterattacks threatened to punch a hole into the 35th Division, but this was averted by several of the unit’s chaplains who took command of broken units and the swift arrival of the 110th Engineer Regiment. The 1st Division arrived on 30 September to take over the 35th’s area of operations.
Meanwhile, things were not going well in the Argonne. Neither the 77th nor the 28th Division had made significant headway in the forest. To make matters worse, a joint push of the French Fourth Army to the west of the Argonne and I Crops in the Argonne failed on 2 October 1918. However, a mixed command of just under 700 Americans from the 77th Division found a gap in the German lines and penetrated about half a mile behind the enemy. Under the command of Major Charles Whittlesey, this element would be called the “Lost Battalion” by the Americans and endure a five-day siege, with every frontal attack by the 77th Division trying to save them being driven back. Liggett saw his opportunity. Borrowing a page from Stonewall Jackson’s brilliant flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville in 1863, Liggett ordered the 82nd Division to advance up the Meuse Valley, and, together with the 28th Division, attack in a westerly direction to cut off the Germans in the Argonne from the rear. If this worked, the Lost Battalion would be saved.
The American attack kicked off in earnest on 8 October 1918 and initially failed to make headway, until Corporal Alvin C. York from Pall Mall, Tennessee, rose to the occasion. Alvin was a Christian from a pacifist denomination and struggled with the morality of killing for one’s country. However, facing a hail of German bullets, and in an endeavor to save the lives of his fellow soldiers, Alvin York eliminated a German machine gun, fought off a bayonet attack, killed 25 of the enemy, and captured 132. His actions helped to break the German control of the Argonne and triggered their withdrawal from the forest.
Although making small gains in mid-October, the American First Army was facing stalemate and stagnation. Pershing was too caught up in the details of running the First Army and dealing with the Allied leaders as AEF commander-in-chief. Additionally, he planned on establishing a U.S. Second Army, and therefore decided to relinquish command of First Army to Hunter Liggett on 16 October 1918. The First Army was in bad shape after three weeks of continuous attacks and Liggett accepted command contingent on being given a free hand in reorganizing it, putting off the next major offensive until 1 November (in conjunction with the French Fourth Army), and not having constant interference from the AEF commander. To his credit, Pershing agreed, knowing that Liggett was the best man for the job.
The plan was for First Army units already in the line to maintain pressure on the Germans until the 1 November push. Liggett ordered integration of artillery, aviation, and tanks in the big push. He called for troops to use small-unit tactics to bypass enemy strongpoints and to maneuver to their designated objectives. Liggett wrote of this:
There was a lull of two weeks in the major operation while we tightened up. My staff and I traveled constantly among the troops, making every effort to profit from my past mistakes and to encourage the fighting spirit of the army for the impending attack on the enemy’s main positions, and never was the response more immediate or effective.
His view of Pershing’s handling of the First Army was not a positive one: “The defects of the American operation in this battle were such as were humanly inescapable in a not yet fully seasoned army…” Reflecting on the first large battle of the American Civil War, Liggett wrote, “I know that [Union General] McDowell had a perfect plan of battle at the First Bull Run , but that he made the mistake of assuming that he had an army instead of a well-intentioned mob…” Liggett’s First Army attack, which began on 1 November 1918, progressed superbly. Artillery fire was maximized, coordination with aviation improved, and the use of tanks was brilliantly executed. He managed to do in one day what the AEF had not been able to do over the previous five weeks – drive the Germans back into open warfare. For the next ten days Liggett’s First Army was largely in pursuit of the enemy. Pershing’s dream of open warfare had at last arrived.
Liggett’s more flexible leadership style had the added benefit of encouraging risk and individual initiative. In one case, the Army brigade in the 2nd Division used its native German speakers to advance on the flanks and in front of the unit at night to tell the enemy to “join the formation” whereupon they were captured. This ruse enabled the 2nd Division to advance 4 miles behind enemy lines and drive them off the last defensible terrain in the area.
The waning days of the war were not without its controversies. First Army issued orders to continue the attack on 11 November, and these orders were not rescinded when word of the Armistice going into effect at 1100 hours arrived. This resulted in men falling in the final minutes of the war and costly river crossing operations over the Meuse River and Meuse Canal. Then there was the disastrous order to seize Sedan that resulted in the 1st Division countermarching across the I Corps sector and thereupon stopping the advance of a third of the First Army. Liggett’s reaction was nothing short of furious, calling the entire affair a “tactical atrocity.”
After the war, Liggett took command of the U.S. Third Army during its brief occupation of the German Rhineland. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1921. He died on 30 December 1935 in San Francisco, after writing two noteworthy books on his experience as a leader in the AEF. Of his experiences, Liggett wrote, “I took command of the First Army on the sixteenth [October 1918]. It then consisted of seventeen American and four French divisions… a total of more than 1,000,000 men,” and “The war was a succession of lost opportunities on both sides.”
Despite Liggett’s advanced age and ponderous appearance, Pershing recognized a leader who had a brilliant mind, and whose grasp and understanding of history was unmatched in the AEF. Indeed, Liggett was a model of what a scholar-soldier could do as a senior leader. His keen mind was quick to apply the lessons of history in the context of modern warfare. His leadership and vision perfected the First Army and he was responsible for its superb performance in the waning days of the war.