Richard Merry, The Great War in the Argonne Forest (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Mention the Argonne Forest and the likely response will be to remember the Americans who fought there so bravely in 1918. But in this quite unusual book, Richard Merry reminds us of all the others of various nationalities who sacrificed so much in this quiet, heavily-wooded part of France, including his great uncle Bob.
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Merry begins by describing the isolated but strategically important Argonne region in northeast France and its sometimes bloody history even before WWI. For one year from the Autumn of 1914, the Argonne was torn apart by the war, but that sector fell mostly quiet from Autumn 1915 to 1918. Having set that table, Merry gets into the details of the fighting and the role of Bob who joined the French Foreign Legion because he was too old for the British army but ended up in the British army anyway!
The book proceeds chronologically, Merry narrating the action in the forest during 1914. As with everywhere else along the Western Front, trenches soon appeared and the war of attrition with which we are so familiar set in as the hoped for Christmas victory faded into history. The New Year began with an assault by Italians, fighting with the French Foreign Legion, in the Argonne then more of the tit-for-tat attacks that typified trench warfare. That included underground fighting as the enemies tried to dig under each other, and the use of dogs to locate wounded men. One notable luminary on this front was Erwin Rommel who would remember this region well for another war. In 1916, the action shifted to nearby Verdun, leaving the Argonne relatively calm.
In 1917, America entered a war for which they were completely unprepared. That would have a great impact on the Argonne region in 1918. And that is where Merry goes next, with the Americans into the forest, including the stories of the ‘Lost Battalion’ and Alvin York’s heroics. On 10 October 1918, the Germans finally left the Argonne. Merry’s closing chapters narrate the aftermath and rehabilitation of the Argonne after the Great War only for it to become the scene of more fighting in World War II. As for great uncle Bob, he survived the war physically, though whether he did mentally is another question. Merry adds a brief guide for the Argonne to the modern traveller wishing to visit where hell happened.
Merry’s account of the Argonne is unusual for a military history narrative in that he focuses on a single region over the whole war and beyond. He makes this work by placing this local sector into the broader conflict and world events. For events in the forests, Merry uses local knowledge mixed with secondary source narratives and primary source quotes, including some from Uncle Bob, to illuminate the often confusing war in this region. A reasonable assortment of maps accompanies the text. The result is an engaging book that Great War enthusiasts will appreciate even if some of it treads familiar ground.