After almost an hour underground in 90-year-old tunnels, the senior leadership of the 405th Army Field Support Brigade had a new awareness of the primitive nature of the French-German conflict in World War I prior to the U.S. entry, as well as a new appreciation for sunlight and fresh air.

The tunnel system at Butte de Vauquois was just one of many sites the group visited during its Meuse-Argonne Campaign (World War I) staff ride Sept. 16-17.

The tunnels were part of nearly complete cities built by the French and German armies as they fought a war for more than two years only some 50 yards apart. The group viewed kitchens, hospitals and living areas, as well as battle lines and chambers designed to hold explosives to destroy the opposing enemy city.

The staff ride explored the opening phases of the Meuse-Argonne campaign by stopping at sites associated with American Expeditionary Force offensive operations in September and October of 1918. We visited an American hospital site, traced the single-track rail line that resupplied the force, stopped to explore the geographic location of the "Lost Battalion," discussed the assault on Montfaucon and the significance of the American Memorial there, and visited the U.S. Cemetery at Romagne. At each site, I or members of the group presented briefings on World War I tactics, technology, logistics and leadership to ensure the participants were aware of how the American Army operated in that conflict.

A staff ride is a historic tour of a battlefield or campaign designed to provide participants with a "boots on the ground" appreciation for the historic battle. The staff ride was implemented in 1906 in the U.S. Army, but has a much longer tradition in the German Army. All staff rides, however, have one idea in common - to place students on an actual piece of terrain, confront them with an operational situation, and stimulate them to reach conclusions or derive lessons from the experience. As this suggests, the classic staff ride asks the student to study a leader or a specific aspect of a battle or campaign.

Staff rides conducted by the ASC History Office modify the classic model by having the historian lead most of the staff ride and be the expert in chronology, leadership, and actual events. The students are provided a summary of the battle and asked to prepare short briefings on key topics.

The topics are picked in collaboration between the ASC Historian and the unit commander. This ensures that the staff ride meets training needs identified by the commander.

In the case of the 405th AFSB Meuse-Argonne staff ride, 13 of the 17 participants gave 15-minute briefings followed by discussions, while I provided six subject briefings in addition to presenting the overview and commentary at each site. The students, from battalion commanders to senior noncommissioned officers, discussed the Battle of Verdun, machine gun technology, medical support, Army training, division organization, communications obstacles and logistics support. In addition to the briefings and walking the battlefield, the students were able to hold and feel the weight and balance of a M1903 Springfield Rifle and the 14-inch long bayonet that was standard issue.

The 405th AFSB leadership also had a chance to experience firsthand the friendliness and devotion of the French people in the Meuse-Argonne area. The leader of the Butte de Vauquois Association, Denis Hebrard, refused payment when he discovered the students were all American Soldiers and Department of the Army civilians. The manager of the Hotel le Cleves, in Charleville-Mezieres, France, personally walked the group to a local restaurant where he knew the staff spoke English. The owner of the Argonne-Auberge Hotel and Restaurant in Apremont, France, sent out an English speaking guest to find the group to ensure they could find the hotel and then served a magnificent luncheon.

Each of these interactions taught the group how much French citizens still appreciate the U.S. effort in liberating their homeland more than 90 years ago.

On a more American note, a highlight of the first day was when the 405th AFSB group emerged from the tunnel at Vauquois at the same time that the tour bus carrying Gen. Carter Ham, commanding general of U.S. Army-Europe, and his senior staff, arrived. Ham and his staff were conducting a similar staff ride. Seeing the general and his senior staff on the battlefield reinforced to the 405th AFSB leadership the value of the staff ride - if the training value was high enough to excuse several general officers from their offices for four days, it must be a worthwhile venture.

"While I expected to learn something new about the battle, I was very surprised to find how similar the logistics and distribution constraints were in 1918 to what we have today. While we have better mobility, when we get stuck with only one mode of distribution, or the roads are impassable, we look a lot like the AEF in World War One," said Lt. Col. Roger McCreery, commander, 3rd Battalion, 405th AFSB, toward the end of the staff ride.

"This was a great opportunity to learn about the experience of the Army in 1918. I had never been on a staff ride. I learned a lot from the trip about some permanent aspect of logistics support to the Army and I know that the experience gained will enhance the performance of my duties," said Heidi Bodeit, director of the Army Oil Analysis Program-Mannheim Laboratory Center.

Col. Jack Haley, commander of the 405th Army Field Support Brigade, headquartered in Kaiserslautern, Germany, summed up the experience when he told his senior leaders if they only learned something about World War One and the Meuse-Argonne, and filed it away simply as a past event, then they had wasted their time. "The important thing is to recognize how many of the lessons from 1918 can be applied today and we can use the Army's past to influence how we support in the future."

Maybe that is a final lesson reinforced by meeting the Army's top general in Europe on the battlefield. Logistics is the required detail that enables our Army to fight and win our nation's wars. Logistics is the work done in the tunnels, often unseen by senior leadership - but it is the hard work underground that allows the warriors to see the top of the hill.

Page last updated Tue December 8th, 2009 at 14:27