American Expeditionary Forces
- 1 Presidential policy
- 2 Raising a Vast Fighting Force
- 3 Over There: The AEF in France, 1917-1918
- 4 The Navy War: Convoys Overcome the U-Boat Blockade
- 5 The Air Services
- 6 Combat
- 7 Attacking along the Meuse-Argonne Line
- 8 Evaluating the AEF
- 9 Return
- 10 References
The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) was the American Army serving in Europe during World War I, 1917-1918. It comprised two million men (and thousands of women), under the command of General John J. Pershing. After playing a major role in the defeat of Germany it was brought home in 1919 and disbanded.
When war broke out in Europe in August 1914 and the European powers were mobilizing millions of men the U.S. had an army of regulars consisting of 5,033 officers and 93,500 men. They were split up into many small installations, including western forts left over from the days of fighting Indians (which ended in 1890), and coastal artillery batteries guarding major harbors. There were no large units, and only the most senior members had combat experience. The National Guard had about 67,000 men; the U.S. Marines, 10,400. There were no plans for expansion, and no draft. The Army had no war plans for operations in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson at one point grew angry when he heard the Army was preparing war plans, and ordered it to stop.
The U.S. entered the war in April 1917, and planned to send money, food and munitions to Europe. It did not officially join the Allies and had no intention of sending soldiers. "You're not going to send American soldiers over there, are you?" asked one senator incredulously. Washington soon realized that economic support for the Allies would not be enough to defeat Germany. An American army would have to go "Over There" and fight. Wilson’s military policy was poorly thought out. Of all wartime presidents, he paid the least attention to military affairs, either before the war or during it. As much as possible, Wilson avoided reading war plans, visiting camps or talking to his generals--or even looking at war maps. Baker and Wilson picked John J. Pershing as the commander of all American forces in Europe without meeting the man. Indeed, Pershing had only one meeting with the President before the war ended. The general expected to get some policy guidance about cooperation with the Allies, but Wilson ignored the issue and left Pershing to devise his own relations with Britain and France. Wilson always followed diplomatic issues closely, and sometimes military matters were involved--as with the maneuvers to threaten Mexico, the 1919 expeditionary force to Russia, and the proceedings of the advisory Supreme War Council in London, 1817-18. The central issue of how to fight the war against Germany he ignored. When the discussions turned to soldiers, weapons, strategies, tactics and timetables, he let the War and Navy departments make the decisions.
By contrast in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a hands-on approach that involved daily meetings with his generals and admirals, and involvement in the minute details of strategy and operations. Wilson's secretaries of War and Navy Newton Baker and Josephus Daniels were pacifists unfamiliar with military language or concepts. They largely ignored strategy and policy, and limited themselves to supplying men and munitions. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt made all the policy decisions for the Navy Department, allowing Daniels to concentrate on ceremonies, party politics and publicity.
The American tradition of civilian control of the military demands that the appropriate civilians (the president, secretary of war and Congress) actively assume their responsibilities, especially in time of war. Wilson, thoroughly steeped in government and history, knew this. His delegation of his duties to the generals was an astonishing act that every subsequent president avoided. The main exception was Baker's decision to send the Army to the Western Front. Army planners at first had suggested an indirect attack on the wobbly Austro-Hungarian Empire through Greece. However logistics for a large army would be hard enough stretching to France, and impossible to go much further. More important, the Western Front was decisive; if France fell, the war would be over, and Germany had to be defeated sooner or later. Baker insisted the main US role would be American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) fighting the Germans on the Western Front.
Absent civilian leadership, military decisions were left in the hands of the AEF commander, General Pershing. As a temporary major in the 10th Cavalry in 1898 he won fame leading black troops up San Juan Hill--and gained the nickname "Black Jack." President Roosevelt jumped him from captain to brigadier general in 1906, over the heads of 862 more senior officers-- testimonial to Pershing's impressive demeanor (and his powerful father-in-law, a leading republican Senator.) He had commanded 16,000 soldiers who in 1916 undertook a much publicized but unsuccessful chase of Pancho Villa through northern Mexico. Pershing had a command presence that officers and politicians alike appreciated. Although less experienced than any of several hundred British or French generals, he was the best available, so Wilson and Baker put their prestige behind him. Baker said he would give Pershing only two orders--"one to go to France and the other to come home, but that in the meantime his authority in France would be supreme."
Pershing's main qualification was his command presence. Ramrod straight, dedicated to the Army Way, he looked and talked like a man in command. He was at ease in dealing with senior Allied officials, and with civilian experts. Time and again he stood up to the field marshals and prime ministers, insisting that his Americans would be an independent battle force, and would not be used as piecemeal reinforcements for Allied units.
Pershing's first year was consumed in planning and logistics, especially the establishment of training camps, supply dumps, and communications systems inside France. His challenge in the first half of 1918 was how to get enough shipping to send millions of men and their arms "Over There" to France. While he had scant interest in large-scale military strategy or tactics, Pershing had strong organizational skills, and built a staff dedicated to efficiency.
Senior officers like James Harbord and Peyton March (chief of artillery) were models of American efficiency, as were mid-level staff officers like colonels Fox Conner and George C. Marshall. By contrast with the AEF staff, the General Staff back in Washington had entered the war with fewer than 20 officers (compared to 650 officers in the German General Staff in 1914, or 232 on the British), and the Chief of Staff, Hugh Scott, and his deputy and replacement Tasker Bliss were bogged down in minutia. They did not have the President's ear and they lacked control over the key bureaus like Ordnance (weapon procurement) and the Quartermaster Corps (supplies). Divided command led to deepening administrative chaos until General March was brought back from France in March, 1918, becoming Chief of Staff with a free hand over all Army activities in the States, while Pershing remained supreme in Europe. 
France and Britain, running short of manpower, hoped to use American regiments as replacements for their depleted divisions. Pershing gave them several all-black regiments to be used that way, but otherwise insisted that the AEF would be an independent combat force, under his command, and would not be absorbed into French or British units. He planned for an AEF of 3 million men, including about 500,000 in combat units and the rest in supply and support roles. He demanded and got control of a separate geographical sector on the Western Front--the southern third.
Pershing arrived in France unfamiliar with large-scale warfare as it had evolved on the Western Front. The War Department had made no studies of the Great War, of the new tactics and technologies, or of appropriate American responses. When Pershing went to look for secret reports, he discovered "the pigeonhole was empty." What information he did obtain came from British officers, who hoped the Americans would serve as replacements inside experienced British divisions. Pershing distrusted British motives and preferred to rely most heavily on American organizational skills, as developed in industry and at the fledgling War College. Knowledge of the new battlefield tactics was irrelevant, because he opposed war of attrition and trench warfare generally. Pershing's solution to the Western Front was his doctrine of "Open Warfare." Savoring the flavor of the Indian Wars of 30 years earlier, it combined the firepower of the highly accurate Springfield rifle with the maneuverability of the infantryman; bayonets were much talked about. Europeans thought it resembled the mass attacks that had been mowed down so many times, but Pershing retorted that his riflemen were not going to be automatons but would use their own on-the-spot judgment, and would be trained to shoot down machine gunners. He demanded that training camps emphasize rifle marksmanship.
The folk hero of the war would be Alvin York the backwoods Tennessee pacifist-turned-warrior, the sharpshooter who single handedly destroyed a German company. The 1940 movie "Sergeant York" remains the best American film about the war, as Gary Cooper in the title role captured the Pershing doctrine of open warfare fought by individualistic Yanks with a rifle.
Raising a Vast Fighting Force
The population of the U.S.A. exceeded that of Britain and France combined, and by 1917 it had far more available healthy young men than all the powers combined. Wilson (who remembered the invaders who had burned and ravaged his beloved South in 1864-65) distrusted the regular Army, as did most Democrats. Few southerners, Democrats or ethnics were field officers (majors to colonels); very few were flag officers (generals and admirals). (The low-prestige enlisted ranks did include many ethnics and few Blacks and white southerners.) Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan in 1913 had humiliated career soldiers by telling them they ought instead to be in respectable civilian occupations.
The Democrats who controlled the government placed their hopes on the American volunteer tradition, expecting that millions of patriots would spring to arms in the emergency. They ignored General Staff warnings (in 1916) that the volunteer system was "undemocratic, unreliable, inefficient and Extravagant." (In the Progressive Era, "inefficiency" and "waste" were always considered evil.)
In 1916, Congress had expanded the Army to 175,000 men--about what Greece had. A fighting Army had to be 25 times larger: by war's end, 4.3 million soldiers were in uniform, plus a half-million in the Navy and Marines. Reliance on volunteers would have been inefficient because it would have drawn essential managers, talented engineers and skilled machinists away from critical jobs--shutting down industrial production when it was most urgently needed. Wilson reversed positions in March 1917 when ex-President Roosevelt (his great political enemy) publicly demanded to raise two elite divisions and lead them into battle, much like the Rough Riders regiment of 1898. Wilson vetoed Roosevelt's proposal and accepted the General Staff plan for conscription, with the option of volunteering left open. The first national draft was begun, shaped by Washington but administered by 119,000 local officials in 4,600 draft boards. It was the model of Progressive expertise. "The business now in hand is undramatic, practical, and of scientific definiteness and precision," said Wilson. Some 2.8 million doughboys were drafted, 400,000 entered as National Guardsmen, and 1.6 million (including nearly all sailors and Marines) were direct volunteers. The draft was compulsory in a sense, but it was so well organized that the vast majority volunteered.
DoughboysThe "Doughboys" (as they called themselves) joined for patriotism and excitement. Some were aroused by the atrocity stories, others fought for democracy. Only a few clearly understood their motivations, like Lieutenant Philip Shoemaker, who fought "for freedom and justice to all"
If I am fortunate enough to come home alive after the war, I will be able to handle any kind of job, a better man than any one that has not been in the war. If I don't come back, I will of first had a chance to see the country, have a good time and be an AMERICAN soldier in the World War.
"Don't worry about me," Elizabeth Lewis Knight assured her mother, "for this is an experience of a lifetime. There are many nurses [who] would give anything if they could be here."
The doughboys were a cross section of the entire population of young men; they served an average of 12 months. Half went to Europe, staying an average of 5.5 months. Only 34% of the enlisted men were assigned to combat specialties. This was the first industrial war, and the Army's "tail" was twice as long as its "teeth." One third of the men were assigned as laborers or service workers (including 80% of the blacks); 22% were mechanics and craftsmen; 12% held clerical or technical jobs. Col. George Patton observed, "It is remarkable how much easier these [drafted] men are to teach than the old soldiers we used to have. They had no brains at all. These men have plenty." Women enthusiastically volunteered for the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, and thousands served in hospitals in France (none of which were near the combat zone, though a few were raided by plane or hit by artillery.) 16,000 civilian American women served in France in non-combat support roles; they were were under the command of the AEF but not officially part of it. The Navy and the Marines enlisted 11,000 women as clerks (coded "Yeoman-Female," they were nicknamed "yeomanettes"); they handled much of the paperwork and telephone traffic in France. Thousands of civilians (especially college youth) served overseas as volunteer ambulance drivers and Red Cross social workers.
Creating 200,000 Officers
America needed 200,000 officers to command its Army; it started with only 6,000 officers among the Regulars and 3,000 National Guardsmen. Few had any combat experience. The generals who fought the war were nearly all West Pointers; most had also attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Pershing insisted that youth and physical vigor made for the best leadership; he wanted his brigadier generals to be younger than 45 and in perfect shape. The major generals could be as old as 50 if they were fit enough. Regular army officers were promoted rapidly; cadets who graduated from West Point in 1915 or 1916 routinely became temporary majors or lieutenant colonels by age 25.
They reverted to captain after the war, and if like Dwight Eisenhower they stayed in the Army, they might take another 20 years to become a lieutenant colonel again. Pershing and the regulars deeply distrusted the National Guard officers. No matter how talented they were, they rarely were promoted or allowed to command regulars.
Commissions directly from civilian life went to 42,000 physicians, 2,000 chaplains and 26,000 other specialists. 25,000 commissions went to enlisted men. Finally, 96,000 men (mostly college educated) who passed rigid mental and physical tests were whisked through a 90-day training program that stressed offensive tactics. Lessons from the Western Front did not reach the camps quickly; Dwight D. Eisenhower recalled that he and other instructors relied on newspapers to learn about new tactics. These "Ninety-Day Wonders" then pinned on a lieutenant's bar and rushed off to command new draftees.
The most glamorous roles were the fliers, young officers in perfect physical condition who had survived intensive training programs. In every nation they were celebrated as knights of the modern age who single handedly did battle with the enemy. The "Ace" accolade given the pilots who shot down five enemy planes further built up their celebrity status. A mere 4% of the pilots accounted for half the victories.
On the ground, train, train, train was the watchword. Most doughboys received seven months' training in the states, plus two months in France, before entering the front lines. Eight hundred French and British instructors helped a great deal--especially regarding gas and artillery. Pershing thought the French were defeatist and he replaced them with Yanks. He felt the British were right to stress bayonets and hand-to-hand fighting, but was alarmed at their neglect of marksmanship. The Europeans were too cautious. To win the war the Americans would have to be much more aggressive.
Over There: The AEF in France, 1917-1918
Pershing decided that a hurried use of his army piecemeal would be less effective than a massive presence; furthermore the training could not be shortened, and a complex supply and logistics system had to be built. The French were impatient: "We expected to see two million cowboys throw themselves upon the Boches and we see only a few thousand workers building warehouses." Pershing's refusal to amalgamate his troops with British or French divisions meant the Yanks had to have their own sector. Shipping was so limited that a major decision was made in 1918 to send over complete units with rifles but without their artillery, tanks, airplanes or trucks. The Allies already had plenty and supplied the AEF; the policy put more Americans in France sooner than Germany had expected.
The AEF sector was Lorraine, the southern part of the Western Front, because its supply line would not have to go through the clogged Paris region. Pershing's headquarters worked day and night on logistics and on his plan for a great attack in spring 1919. Getting troops over was problem number one. By the summer of 1918 the doughboys poured into Europe: a million and a half men arrived between April and October. The passenger ships they used were much faster than German U-Boats, and none were sunk. Given the shortage of generals and trained staff officers, the divisions had to be twice the size of British or German divisions. Each contained about 1,000 officers and 27,000 men; another 12,000 doughboys and nurses served the division in support roles. Each division set up a training camp in France and drilled some more. After two months it went to a quiet sector of the front lines. After another month it was declared ready for battle. The training stressed the doctrine of open warfare, and familiarized the troops with their weapons.
The bolt-action Springfield rifle that Pershing placed so much faith in was perhaps the best rifle of the war--fast, trouble-free, and highly accurate. American had helped invent the machine gun, but by 1917 lagged far behind the Europeans. Inventors in the States managed to leapfrog the state of the art, producing the highly effective Browning water-cooled heavy machine gun. It proved to be too good a weapon--Pershing refused to use it until late 1918, because he feared the Germans would capture one and copy it. Pershing did not want his riflemen to hide behind tanks, but he did allow experimental use of some lightly armored 7-ton French Renaults; they broke down repeatedly.
Europeans were incredulous at how fast an American division could use up supplies--600 tons a day. Lumber, horses, fodder and food were purchased locally. The Corps of Engineers built an entire railroad network and a road system to connect the French ports, the training camps, and the American sector of the front. One warehouse complex included 4.5 million square feet of covered storage and 225 miles of railroad track. The Medical Corps opened hospitals with 280,000 beds attended by 16,000 physicians, 8.500 Army nurses and tens of thousands of enlisted corpsmen. They had less work than was feared-- there were only 3,000 amputation cases, for example. To prevent the beds from filling up with venereal disease cases, Secretary Baker had his War Department launch strenuous--and successful-- efforts to eliminate prostitution around American camps both in the states and in France. Late in the war, the hospitals filled up with influenza cases, a part of the epidemic that killed millions of people across the globe. In all, 63,000 doughboys died from disease or accidents, a far lower rate per thousand than in previous wars.
Preparedness efforts in 1916 resulted in an Army that was too small, and, paradoxically, a Navy that was too large. The Navy was not strictly part of the AEF.
Caught up with the Mahanian doctrine of the decisive surface battle, the Navy sought and was given the budgeting for a "fleet second to none"--that is, a fleet larger than Britain's. The goal was to defend against the far-fetched notion of a simultaneous war against Britain and Japan. That was a "worst case" scenario that overlooked the real "worst case" of control of the Atlantic by German submarines. From 1916 to 1918, manpower expanded by a factor of 9, and Navy yards began building big ships. Even after 1917 the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William Benson, seemed more troubled by the hypothetical long-term threat posed by Britain and Japan rather than the submarines that were torpedoing Allied ships. He decided to keep most of his big ships out of European waters--and most of the Navy never saw action during the war. Benson's doctrine was faulty, but Admiral William Sims, US naval commander in London, grasped the situation. In cooperation with Franklin Roosevelt, and with strong support from the British, including Munitions Minister Winston Churchill, Sims refocused naval strategy on the U-boat threat.
In strategic terms, the purpose of merchant shipping was to deliver so many tons of cargo per month. Convoys cut the flow of cargo in several ways. The ports could load only so many ships a day; loaded ships had to wait for the last ship to be loaded before sailing. The convoy moved at the speed of the slowest ship, and some ships lacked the navigational skills to stay in formation. The need to synchronize movement well in advance precluded merchants ships from adjusting quickly to particularized opportunities to move cargo from here to there.
The only advantage to convoys was that they got through. A single convoy of 30 ships was almost as hard for a U-boat to locate than a single ship. Therefore a convoy system meant there were far fewer targets that got spotted, and then they had armed escorts that could fight back. The Royal Navy, however, wanted to hoard its destroyers to protect its battleships. It made a strong argument using a paper-stone-scissors analogy. Submarines could sneak up on a big battleship and sink it with a torpedo, but the torpedo would probably miss a small destroyer. They could circle and sink subs with a new defensive weapon, the depth charges (drums of TNT set off by water pressure at a certain depth.) Finally the battleships with their heavy guns could sink destroyers from far away, but were too clumsy to circle and sink subs. A complete battle fleet therefore had to have a mix of all three ships, and to detach destroyers for convoy duty would gravely weaken the fleet. The admirals who wanted to hoard their destroyers for the battle fleet were wrong, and were overruled in 1917. Single merchant ships could not survive a year. The life expectancy of a cargo ship traveling alone on the north Atlantic run, including time in port, was nine months. In 1917, 1,300 British ships were lost to subs, and another 840 were attacked and escaped. By contrast the convoy losses were strikingly small: of 16,600 ships convoyed in 1917- 18, only 102 were torpedoed.. The supplies they brought into Britain and France were desperately needed by the armies at the front, and by the civilians at home. It was therefore necessary to assign destroyers to escort convoys. While this involved vast amounts of busywork that distracted the fighting sailors who wanted to blast away at German battleships or hunt down U-boats, it was the proper way to win a war.
For anti-submarine warfare, the Navy began an aviation program, sending rickety biplanes out on over 20,000 anti-submarine missions. They sank no subs but did begin a tradition that would come to dominate the Navy.. Sims did get the American destroyers, which were used to escort US troop ships. British destroyers protected the merchant convoys and aggressively sought out U-boats. Berlin's response to the Allied measures was simply to build more U-boats. They would have been a much greater threat if they had used "wolf-pack" tactics (sending groups of submarines against the convoys) or had threatened the escorts with their powerful surface fleet. As it happened, Germany's U-boats were neutralized and its battle fleet stayed in harbor. The troopships did get through; accidents and torpedo attacks killed only 1300 sailors and 700 troops.
The Air Services
In April 1917 the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps comprised 65 very junior officers and 1,120 enlisted men. with 200 obsolete airplanes at two airfields. The Navy had 39 pilots and 54 planes--and no aircraft carriers. The impetus for expansion came from the French, who proposed an American air arm of 4,500 aircraft for the 1918 campaign, with 2,000 replacements a month. With a tangible goal that was well-suited to the American taste for technology and adventure, the Congress appropriated the vast sum of $640 million.
The French had wanted American bombers, but neglected to make that point clear. Washington, still groping for an air doctrine, adopted the Signal Corps emphasis on information gathering by setting the ratio of three reconnaissance planes to every five fighters and one bomber. (The fighters were to protect the unarmed reconnaissance planes from German fighters.) Having observed the French closely, Major William "Billy" Mitchell recommended a separate force of bombers and escorts to hit "strategic" targets far behind the tactical lines, rather like a cavalry raid. Mitchell further stressed what became the cardinal doctrine of air power: "A decision in the air must be sought and obtained before a decision on the ground can be reached."
By October, 1917, Washington had adopted Mitchell's proposals: strategic bombing had become part of America's war- fighting doctrine. The British were moving even faster in the same direction, as they set up an independent Air Ministry. It began building four-engine Handley- Page "superbombers" capable of flying at 14,000 feet (at 97 miles per hour) carrying 7,500 pounds of high explosives to Berlin. Aircraft production in the States fell far behind schedule. The Liberty engine, a powerful 12 cylinder, liquid-cooled, 400 horsepower, 860 pound motor was designed in only six days in May 1917, but it took Detroit over a year to figure out how to build it assembly-line style like the Model T. (It cost $7,000; the Model T was $400.)
A typical two-seater bi-plane, with wood-and-fabric wings, contained 50,000 precision parts, and required 4,000 worker-hours. Thousands of planes would have been ready for Pershing's 1919 offensive. By November 1918, Army aviation had 150,000 men and 15,000 planes, while the Navy had 24,000 men and 2,100 planes. (In each service, about half the strength had moved to Europe, and half was in training at home.) Pershing's pilots flew 4,800 excellent French SPADs, 260 British planes, and 1,200 American-built versions of the mediocre British DH-4. The AEF Air Service comprised 20 pursuit (fighter) squadrons and 24 observation squadrons, which did a good job supporting infantry and artillery attacks. With only one squadron of strategic bombers, Billy Mitchell never had a chance to test his theories, but was sure "that if the war lasted, air power would decide it" and vowed to show the world his doctrine of strategic bombing was the only way to win a future war without the fantastic casualties of trench warfare.
The first AEF division to enter the front lines, in a quiet sector of the Lorraine front, was 1st Division (U.S.) in October, 1917. By August, 1918, 16 divisions were in the line, and 10 had been used to help repel the German spring offensive. At first they were assigned to old French trenches, but they never much used them. Pershing detested trench warfare as much as his men did. Soldiers in trenches were automatons, with no chance to use their initiative, their skills, their training. Their only function was to fight a war of attrition--to die or be wounded, with victory to the army that could better replace its losses. Machine guns, barbed wire, grenades--all that was fine for the defensive warfare the French had come to know so well, Pershing felt. But his AEF was going to win this war by attacking--by forcing the Germans into the open and then chasing them down. The French were astonished that Pershing was reverting to what they considered the discredited frontal assault tactics of 1914. "If the Americans do not permit the French to teach them," sighed Premier Georges Clemenceau, "the Germans will do it." The first major American offensive--really a giant rehearsal--came at St. Mihiel in mid-September, where 550,000 doughboys pushed back some tired German units. The Germans had planned to evacuate the area anyway, so Pershing won a very easy victory. It confirmed Pershing's faith in open warfare. The Germans were amazed with it; as one of their intelligence officers reported:
The American infantry is very unskilled in the attack. It attacks in thick columns, in numerous waves echeloned in depth, preceded by tanks. This sort of attack offers excellent objectives for the fire of our artillery, infantry and machine guns. On condition that [our] infantry does not allow itself to be intimidated by the advancing masses and that it remain calm, it can make excellent use of its arms, and the American attacks fail with the heaviest losses.
By the standards of 1914, 1915, 1916 or 1917, the charging doughboys should have been massacred. But they were not. By summer 1918 Germany's front-line battalions were half-strength; rest-and-recuperation rotations had been cut to a few days instead of the several months the soldiers needed, and all the reserves were in the front lines. The best German soldiers were long gone, and the men now in the lines would have been rejected as too young, too old or too feeble in 1914. The German soldiers were exhausted, half-starved, poorly armed, politically restless, and had lost confidence in their defensive tactics, the Hutier tactics, and the competence of their generals. For the first time they began to think they might lose the war. One war-weary German soldier recalled:
The old hands sought for the deepest, safest dug-outs and did not scruple to leave to the young recruits the hundred and one things which were risky--digging, repairing the wire, fetching the rations. Their desire to live cried out against the discipline which, though it forced them to be the efficient and unquestioning tools of the war- makers, was at last giving way. The thought of an attack was more terrifying to them than to the young soldiers who were still so inexperienced, so touchingly helpless and yet, in spite of everything, so willing."
see Aisne operations The main combat operations began in May, 1918, with the capture of Cantigny by an American division in the first independent American offensive operation of the war. In early June two divisions more divisions moved into the line; they that stopped the German advance on Paris near Château-Thierry. In July two American divisions, with one Moroccan division, formed the spearhead of the counterattack against the Château-Thierry salient, which marked the turning point of the war. Approximately 300,000 American troops were engaged in this second Battle of the Marne. In the middle of September the American First Army of 550,000 men reduced the Saint-Mihiel salient. The Meuse-Argonne offensive began in the latter part of September. After forty-seven days of intense fighting involving 1.2 million doughboys, the First and Second armies saw victory when on Nov. 11 the armistice took effect, in reality a German surrender.
Attacking along the Meuse-Argonne Line
By September, 1918, Pershing finally had enough strength for a major offensive. He attacked across the Meuse River and into the Argonne Forest with over a million men (including 135,000 French soldiers.) Pershing, realizing that he had too many subordinates to command, divided his forces into the First Army (under his own command) and the Second Army (under Lt. Gen. Robert L. Bullard.)
Open warfare proved very costly, with 26,000 doughboys killed and 96,000 wounded. The Americans advanced ten miles in three weeks of grueling fighting--far behind schedule as the Germans discovered it was easier to stop the Americans than the more experienced British or the French attackers. There was trouble from bottom to top. Horse transportation was inadequate, and three division commanders and a corps commander had to be sacked. In one episode Pershing relieved the senior National Guard general, reopening the sores between regulars and the Guard. Pershing kept rotating his divisions (in combat for only a week or two, then exchange places with reserve divisions), leading to further confusion and delay. If Pershing had been relieved in October his reputation would be problematic indeed. But he recognized his weaknesses as a tactician and turned command of the First Army over to Lt. General Hunter Liggett. Liggett paused for two weeks to rest his men, round up 100,000 stragglers, and bring in new staff to straighten out a disorganized but powerful force. Liggett resumed the Meuse-Argonne attack on November 1 with seven divisions, and this time the Yankees were unstoppable. So too were the British and French who attacked simultaneously across the entire Western Front.
The end was near. "The gaining of ground counts for little," explained one American general." It is the ruining of his army that will end the struggle." Throughout October the deaths on the entire Western Front for both sides averaged.
Evaluating the AEF
American soldiers did about 5% of the Allied fighting in 1918 (less than 1% in 1917), and had suffered about 1% of the Allied casualties. 50,000 Americans were killed in battle, compared with 4,800,000 for the Allies, and 3,100,000 for the Central Powers. The military wounded were 206,000 USA, 12,800,000 Allies, and 8,400,000 Central.
The enormous psychological and political impact of the Americans came because they arrived in such large numbers at the last, most desperate moment. For the rest of the century, the image of the Yankees as saviors of the European continent would become fixed in the European mind. Pershing's open warfare tactics were distinctly inferior to the Hutier tactics. Ludendorff was delighted to discover the doughboys advanced in thick columns and in numerous waves; they were perfect targets. The German infantry, however, could not handle the challenge. The Germans admired the youth, good health and rashness of the Yanks but they also discovered the doughboys were afraid of artillery fire and poison gas. A few gas shells could cause confusion and panic. Americans were poorly trained and protected against gas, and suffered accordingly. When the Yanks prevailed on the battlefield, their inexperienced officers often did not know how to consolidate the gains and push forward again. With an aggressive doctrine, little experience in high command, and with a hundred thousand civilians with only 90 days' training holding 99% of the company grade commands, the Americans were unlikely to overcome their weaknesses quickly. As in every war, unit cohesion kept the men at their task. Private Malcolm D. Aitken in his first battle was gripped by fear, but he took courage:
- since the other fellows were not showing yellow and I stuck with the bunch. It was that very thing that kept us together. All of us were afraid in a sort of way, in that we didn't know what to expect. But in order to keep our personal reputation up...we were more afraid to go to the rear than to the Front.
The Americans fired artillery only a third as often as did the British, French or Germans. The problems included a doctrine that emphasized fast infantry movement rather than heavy firepower, a poor system to communicate between artillery and infantry commands, and a lack of experience to know when to use what. Too often the shells fell short and landed inside American positions, creating what later would be called "friendly fire" casualties. Routinely, when the infantry did advance the artillery was slow moving forward. The volunteers in the Tank Corps were convinced they would clinch victory with their new weapon. Eisenhower recalled how his "men dreamed of overwhelming assault on enemy lines, rolling effortlessly over wire entanglements and trenches, demolishing gun nests with their fire, and terrorizing the foe into quick and abject surrender."
In combat, the Americans used too few tanks, for Pershing saw them as mere auxiliaries to the riflemen. The AEF ignored Patton's vision of armor as powerful strike weapons in its own right, with follow-on infantry in the supporting role. The AEF doctrine was: "Tanks in common with all other auxiliary arms are but a means of aiding infantry, on whom the fate of battle ever rests, to drive their bayonets into the bellies of the enemy." Infantry units had never trained with tanks, and failed to follow closely in order to mop up enemy machine guns. Even a handful of the little Renaults, provided their treads did not pop off or the whole vehicle vanish in the mud, could be highly effective. As a German staff report drily noted, "The [American] tanks which have broken through then employ machine guns with which they attack our infantry from the rear, which has a negative effect on morale."
How good were the American officers? Pershing's primary goal of building a distinctly American force meant that inexperienced US regulars were in charge. Some had spent four or five days observing British and French battlefield operations. The US perhaps should have sent many officers to the front months earlier and attached them to Allied units. Pershing, however, vetoed any notion of letting foreigners control Americans. He was livid when he discovered that 1,000 Americans assigned for training purposes to the British army had been used in combat in July. Not just the-90-day wonders but also the regulars had zero large scale battle experience--no one had organized anything more complex than the frustrating pursuit of Pancho Villa's raiders in the Mexican mountains, or tracking down rebellious Filipinos..
In particular, the American officers never quite the hang of complex infantry attacks. The shortage of tanks and guns meant that infantry units had not engaged in training maneuvers with tank or artillery units, and the lack of coordination showed in battle. The techniques of aerial, gas and trench warfare were virtual mysteries. Pershing refused to accept Allied solutions because he considered them all defeatists--worn out soldiers who only sought survival and did not understand that only the offense wins battles. Indeed, virtually all the prewar British, French and German junior officers were dead by 1918. The officers in the trenches were new men, with an outlook narrowly focused on survival. The Americans brought energy,high spirits and open warfare doctrine. It is difficult for the historian to criticize Pershing's doctrine because not only did he win his war, his army never lost a battle, and took far fewer casualties than anyone else. Pershing had no use for trenches or technology or blockades or shock troops or other new-fangled ideas--his doctrine of open warfare was supposedly discredited because frontal assaults had led to terrible bloodshed and maddening stalemate in 1914-1917. Yet his doctrine worked in the fall of 1918. The years of attrition and blockade had fatally wounded the German army. Its best soldiers were gone; it was using teenagers, older men, and those once rejected for physical or mental weaknesses. It had lost its will to fight, and as the German theorist Clausewitz had emphasized, the goal of battle is not to kill people but to make the enemy want to give up. Psychological surrender is just as devastating as a massacre on the battlefield--even more so, because the survivors know they can never fight again.
After the war, agitators like Adolf Hitler charged that the army had never been defeated--it had been "stabbed in the back" by radicals, pacifists, traitors and Jews in Berlin. Hitler was wrong; German soldiers on the front lines in late 1918 saw the Yanks as more like hunters than soldiers. The Germans could not stop them not because their machine guns failed to work but because the new enemy was in robust health, full of enthusiasm, well supplied and well equipped--and the Yanks were arriving in France at the rate of 10,000 a day, every day, week after week. The doughboys possessed the sort of esprit that had been indecisive in 1914 because both sides had it. They were determined to keep charging until every German soldier surrendered or died. In long term perspective, the judgment on Pershing is that he figured out how to break the stalemate on the Western Front.
By the end of August 1919 the last American division had embarked for home, leaving only a small force in occupied Germany, and on Sept. 1, 1919, Pershing and his staff sailed for the U.S.A. for ticket tape parades and a rousing appreciation for the nation's heroes, but few veterans benefits.
- Pershing, My Experiences 1:37-9
- Pershing, My Experiences 2:29, 32, 35
- Coffman, The War to End All Wars, pp. 23, 51-2
- Pershing, My Experiences 1:78-9, 134-5, 53, 103-4, 42
- "The African Queen" (1951), based on a true story of the war in East Africa, is a metaphor of how the British moralists (Katharine Hepburn) converted the indifferent, antiwar Americans (Humphrey Bogart) into do-or-die soldiers.
- By 1940 many Southerners, and a few ethnics, had achieved senior rank, and Democratic party leaders rarely showed any animus against the military.
- Ronald Schaffer, America in the Great War (1991) p. 182
- Schaffer, America in the Great War p. 183
- Thousands of women volunteered for military service in World War II. The Red Cross sent thousands of civilians to every theater, but all the ambulance drivers were enlisted men in the Medical Corps.
- Pershing, My Experiences, 1:151-4
- Pershing, My Experiences 1:131
- see Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (1994) ch 11
- Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (1994) p. 365
- Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (1994) pp. 425-6
- Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (1994) pp. 420-1, 427, 436-7.
- British statistics suggest that planes lasted six months. Pilots lasted 10 to 16 weeks before they were shot down or lost their touch and were grounded. Lee Kennett, First Air War (1999), pp 94, 167
- David E. Johnson, Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 (2003) online p 46
- A few days before the Armistice, Secretary of War Baker warned against "promiscuous bombing upon industry, commerce or population." It is not clear whether he would have allowed strategic bombing if the war had gone on another year. In 1941 Roosevelt endorsed--even demanded--strategic bombing. Hurley, Billy Mitchell, Crusader for Air Power (1975) p 37
- Kennett, First Air War 95 101
- I.B. Holley, Ideas and Weapons: Exploitation of the Air Weapon by the United States (1983) 120, 124, 131 139 144; Frank Futrell, , Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, vol. 1, 1907-1960 (1971) 1:27
- Hallas, Doughboy War p. 257
- Friedel Over There p. 201 quoting Georg Bucher.
- Smythe, 'Pershing General of the Armies, 2:213-7 Coffman, The War to End All Wars, pp. 330-1
- Hugh Drum quoted in Coffman, The War to End All Wars, p. 338
- Quoted in Schaffer, America in the Great War, pp. 159, 192
- Evan Andrew Huelfer, The "Casualty Issue" in American Military Practice: The Impact of World War I (2003) p. 126 online
- Carlo D'Este, Patton: A Genius for War (1996) p. 215 online
- Robert Cutler Walton, ed. Over There: European Reaction to Americans in World War I (1972) p. 198
- . Furthermore the officers did not realize their ignorance. "Anyone who lived through the fighting in the Philippines could live through anything," boasted Benjamin Foulois, who later commanded the AEF Air Service in France, Coffman The War to End All Wars, p. 19
- The veterans were angry for years and finally forced Congress to pass generous Bonus Bills in 1924 and 1936. see Thomas B. Littlewood, Soldiers Back Home: The American Legion in Illinois, 1919-1939 (2004)online edition. In 1944, Congress set up the G.I. Bill, with generous benefits for World War II veterans.