STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A hundred years ago today, the largest and bloodiest battle in American military history began. We are not talking about more famous battles like Gettysburg or D-Day but the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during World War I. France and the United States have been marking the centennial of that battle at a ceremony in eastern France, which is where we find NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A U.S. Navy band plays as the ceremony at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery gets under way. The neat rows of nearly 15,000 white marble crosses and Stars of David make this the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe. More than a million Americans took part in the offensive, which was intended to dislodge the Germans from their heavily fortified positions here along the Western Front. Twenty-six thousand Americans died during the 47 days of fighting in the Meuse-Argonne campaign. Stuart Smith traveled from Salt Lake City to honor his grandfather, who was wounded on the very first day of the battle by a bullet that narrowly missed his lungs and spine but lodged in his hip.
STUART SMITH: There was no exit wound, and there was not a lot of blood. And so when the ambulance corps came by to pick up the wounded, they couldn't see the wound, and they thought maybe he was faking. So they left him there, and he remained out on the battlefield for 36 hours before they came back and gave him aid.
BEARDSLEY: Smith says his grandfather walked with a limp for the rest of his life. The U.S. joined the First World War in 1917. By then, the European combatants had been bogged down in muddy trench warfare for three years. The exuberant but inexperienced troops of General Pershing's American Expeditionary Force gave great hope to the weary French and British soldiers. Courtney Tollison, a history professor at Furman University, says the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was also important for African-American soldiers. Most never saw combat in World War I, but several African-American regiments distinguished themselves in the offensive.
COURTNEY TOLLISON: A 15th New York National Guard unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters, and they served with the French division in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. They fought on the front lines for 191 days, which was longer than any other American expeditionary forces regiment.
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BEARDSLEY: For the centennial commemoration of the battle, thousands of candles were placed on the headstones in what is called a luminary. But the wind and rain blew many of the candles out. Sevrine Gomeriux is standing amongst the white crosses in the pouring rain trying to relight a row of candles. The 38-year-old teacher lives in a neighboring village.
SEVRINE GOMERIUX: (Through interpreter) I come here for all the ceremonies. It's just a little gesture. It's not much, but they're far from home, and their families can't visit their graves. So it's important that we come and pay homage to the Americans who came to fight for our freedom.
BEARDSLEY: The American and French troops who fought and died in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive helped break the stalemate of the First World War. Their sacrifice helped force Germany's capitulation and bring about the Armistice of November 11, 1918. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.