The Capture Of Dun
: Winning A Cause World War Stories
After the Americans had cleared the Saint Mihiel salient, Marshal Foch
gave them a task which was probably the most difficult and dangerous of
the whole war. They were to move north and west along the Meuse River
through the Argonne forest to Sedan. There they would cut one of the
two main communication lines of the Germans, the loss of which would
mean to them disaster and rout.
Just before the signing
of the armistice on November 11, the Americans
reached Sedan after fighting from September 26 over an almost
impassable country with few roads and against the strongest forces the
Germans could muster. For four years the Germans had been fortifying
this part of the line in every possible way, for they realized the
danger to them of a successful advance along the Meuse from Verdun to
Sedan. The railroad through Mezieres, Sedan, and Montmedy was called
in a German order our life artery. To cut it meant death to the
The Argonne forest is a very dense growth of trees and underbrush
covering a chain of hills running north and south. It is very
difficult for a large army to advance and be supplied with food and
munitions without good roads over which to move, and all the roads in
this region are poor and, with very few exceptions, run east and west.
The Americans, twenty-one divisions or about 750,000 men, took part in
the action. They were obliged to move through the valleys above which,
on the hillsides, the Germans had stationed innumerable machine guns
and light artillery.
It was bitter fighting in the woods, brush and ravines, over a region
perfectly registered and plotted by the enemy, where his guns, big and
little, could be used with the greatest efficiency. The original nine
American divisions in some cases were kept in the line over three
consecutive weeks. The American reserves were then thrown in until
every division not engaged on another part of the line had been put in
It is a fact commented on with pride by the American commanders and
complimented by the allies that seven of these divisions that drove
their way through this hard action never before had been in an active
sector, while green troops, fresh from home, were poured in as
The Associated Press dispatches from day to day told what these men
did; how the enemy was slowly pushed back from his strongest and most
vital positions, through one defense system after another, using his
finest selected troops, which had been withdrawn in many instances from
other portions of the line, in an effort to hold an enemy which he
derisively said last spring could not be brought to Europe, and if so
would not fight, and even if he tried to fight would not know how to do
As they advanced, they were obliged to cross the Meuse and capture the
town of Dun. This is a simple statement and might be passed over as
not very significant, but in its few words, it contains a story of one
of the bravest deeds of any army in any war.
The Germans knew, of course, that if they could prevent the crossing of
the river at this point, the Americans could not capture Sedan and cut
their line of communications. It may be that the Americans took them
completely by surprise when they attempted the crossing here, and that
if the Germans had in the least expected the attempt would be made,
they would have been better prepared to defeat it. As it was, however,
the Americans were met by a frightful and deadly fire from the enemy
behind natural defenses so strong that they believed no army would
think of attacking them.
The river at this point is about 160 feet wide. Beyond it lies a half
mile of mud, and then a canal 60 feet wide with perpendicular walls
rising several feet above the surface of the water.
On Monday afternoon, just one week before the war ended, the order was
given to cross the river, the mud, and the canal and to occupy the west
bank. The officers had hesitated to give the command for they realized
what it meant in dead and wounded; but the privates also knew and they
hoped they would be allowed to make the attempt, which with American
soldiers means to succeed. They were there to bring the war to an end,
and to press on against every danger was the sure way to end it quickly.
Those who could swim the river were first called out. Each one was
given the end of a rope long enough to reach across the river; then
they jumped in and swam exposing as little of their heads and bodies as
possible. The German machine guns were so placed as to cover by their
fire every foot of the east bank of the river, and the rifles also of
hundreds of Huns across the canal attempted to pick off the swimmers.
Many were killed and many others were wounded and left to drown, for it
would not do to stop to rescue them. A story is told, however, of two
chums swimming side by side. One of them was hit by a bullet in the
neck and was saved by the other who swam on supporting him until they
reached the opposite bank. Then he stopped long enough to bind up the
wound and leave his chum lying flat in the mud while he advanced
through the mud and across the canal. Both lived to return home with
the victorious army.
When the swimmers were across, they held the ropes, which were fastened
at the other bank, taut, so that those who could not swim could cross
by holding on to them. Some attempted to cross on hastily built rafts
and in collapsible canvas boats. More of these were lost than of the
swimmers who, partially submerged, were not so good targets for the
At the same time the engineers were building pontoon bridges and
smaller foot bridges. After the first wave of men had crossed the
river and the mud and were climbing up the further side of the canal,
the engineers were not so greatly delayed by rifle fire and soon had a
foot bridge ready over which the troops quickly rushed. The pontoon
bridge was destroyed by enemy fire. Many were lost in the mud where
progress was slow and where, obliged to stand erect, they made good
Those swimmers who reached the canal jumped in, swam across the 60 feet
of water, and climbed the opposite bank by using grappling hooks.
The Germans had not taken the precaution to build trenches beyond the
canal, thinking that the river, the mud, and the canal at this point
would offer protection enough. Therefore, when the Americans had
succeeded in crossing the canal, the Germans hastily retreated.
Probably there were fewer casualties among the Americans than if the
attack had been made at what seemed a less dangerous point, for
elsewhere along the river the Huns had intrenched themselves.
The action was one demanding skill and courage of the highest order.
It was carried through successfully because the Americans possessed
both of these qualities and realized they were fighting for the noblest
cause for which men ever fought. They were willing to give up their
today that others might have a secure and happy tomorrow.
The capture of Sedan forced the Germans to ask for an armistice and to
accept whatever terms were offered. In studying the war and the
masterly strategy of Marshal Foch, it should never be forgotten that in
a few weeks, the armies under his command would have won the greatest
victory ever recorded in history and that more than a million Germans
would have been obliged to surrender with all their guns and equipment.
A smaller minded or more selfish general than Foch might have declined
to grant an armistice in order to gain the credit of such a marvelous
victory; but Foch thought of the lives that might be saved by granting
the armistice and did not think of his own glory. He has lost none of
the credit that belongs to him by doing this, but has gained a higher
place in the esteem of men.
Nor should it be forgotten that if General Pershing's army had failed
in its almost impossible task, no armistice would have been asked for.
The war with its suffering and death would have gone over into another
year. The same would have been true if the British and French armies
had failed. All did the duties assigned them nobly, heroically, and
successfully, and the Hun realized that, as always, might was with the
forces of right.