During the green April of 1917, as America entered the “Great War,” a United States senator cornered a General Staff officer and asked the critical strategic question of the intervention: “Good Lord! You’re not going to send soldiers over there, are you?” Some eighteen months later, the answer was clear as the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) of over 2 million men, cooperating with the armies of France and the British Empire, bludgeoned Imperial Germany into an armistice. Supporting the AEF stood a Navy and Marine Corps of over 600,000. In the United States and in places as far separated as northern Italy, polar Russia, and Siberia, another 2 million American soldiers served the war effort and diplomacy of the Wilson administration. World War I was the debut of the United States as an international military power. Like most debuts, the war brought its share of high anticipation, major disappointment, dogged accomplishment, and exaggerated exhilaration.
The American role in World War I derived its character less from strategic thinking in the United States than from the geopolitical notion that the future well-being of the United States depended upon the balance of power in Europe and the outcome of the war. Discarding the hallowed assumption that Europe’s affairs did not involve the United States and the security of the Western Hemisphere, the Wilson administration decided that the nation had a critical stake in an Allied victory. American involvement stemmed from economic self-interest as well as an emotional commitment to support “democracy” (France and Great Britain) against “autocracy” (Germany). After a brief economic dislocation when the war began in 1914, American bankers, farmers, industrialists, and producers of raw materials exploited British naval control of the Atlantic and Allied financial strength to make the war the biggest profit-making enterprise in the history of American exporting. Before American entry, the balance of trade, already favorable to the U.S., jumped by a factor of five; the Allies liquidated $2 billion of American assets and privately borrowed another $2.5 billion to pay for their purchases. In contrast, Germany secured only $45 million in American loans.
The patterns of trade depended upon the relative strength of the Royal Navy and the submarine force of the Imperial German Navy, whose operations had to cope with American conceptions about neutrality and freedom of the seas. Despite some minor German successes at surface commerce raiding early in the war, the Royal Navy controlled the Atlantic—except its cold, green depths. The Germans could keep about thirty submarines on stations around the British Isles to intercept trans-Atlantic merchantmen. This force proved an important threat to the Allied war effort, which was dependent on American and Latin American imports. The German submarine campaign, however, had limitations. Despite mutually declared blockades by both the Allies and Germany, the Americans became more upset about submarine warfare than about British interference with neutral trade. While the British blockade cost money and irritated shippers, German submarines killed American citizens with their unannounced torpedo attacks. The Lusitania incident of May 1915 was only one of several well-publicized episodes in which American passengers died. Although the German U-boat (Unterseeboot) campaign, characterized by periods of “restricted” and “unrestricted” operations, could not halt American trade, it produced a groundswell of anti-German outrage in the United States.
Deprived of decision in its ground war, the German military planned one more massive, unrestricted effort against all shipping in 1917. Even though this campaign was likely to bring open belligerency from the United States, the Germans thought the prospect of victory outweighed the risks of American entry. The German General Staff had carefully analyzed the potential military threat from the United States and decided that the Americans could not influence the ground war in Europe for at least two years. General Erich Ludendorff, the major architect of the German war effort after 1916, summed up the German position on the United States: “What can she do? She cannot come over here! . . . I do not give a damn about America.”
Despite its global reach, the war remained in 1917 a war to be won or lost on the three major fronts of Europe. From the American political and military point of view, two of these three fronts did not appear attractive. From the Baltic to the Balkans, the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, reinforced with German troops, continued to bleed the Russians, but with such losses that both belligerents stood on the verge of collapse. Although the first phase of the Russian Revolution in March 1917 made the Russians more “democratic” allies, few American policymakers saw profit in a commitment to the Eastern Front. In northern Italy the Italian army remained locked in the mountains with other Austro-Hungarian and German ground forces after two years of futile offensives.
Although it was crucial to avoid defeat in both Russia and Italy in order to prevent the release of the German armies there, the British and French commanders regarded the Western Front—stretching from Belgium to Switzerland—as the theater of decision. Already the muddy graveyard of Allied and German armies, the Western Front had become the ultimate test of the belligerents’ political and military will and capability. Both had run thin by 1917. Nevertheless, as the United States entered the war, the Allies made one more effort against the German barriers of barbed wire, machine guns, artillery, fortifications, and skilled infantry. The results of the Allied effort, launched in conjunction with an equally desperate Russian offensive, could not be tallied until the late summer of 1917. It was an unequivocal failure that cost the British and French an additional million casualties. The French army mutinied and refused to participate in any further offensives. Under the command of a new general, Henri Philippe Petain, the French army manned its trenches and waited for better times. The Russian army simply dissolved as the Russian Revolution moved in more radical directions. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by General (later Field Marshal) Sir Douglas Haig, lapsed back into a defensive posture, riven by command and civil-military conflicts and deprived of reinforcements by Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Having exhausted their own armies, the British and French stood ready to fight to the last American.
Declaring war on April 6, 1917, the Wilson administration, prodded by British and French diplomats and military missions, reluctantly concluded that the American military effort had to focus on the Western Front. American war aims, articulated later by President Wilson as the “Fourteen Points,” required maximum effort in the theater of decision with minimal political and military integration with the Allies, whose own war aims remained suspect and decidedly nonidealistic. The Allies sought such practical goals as dissolving the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, annexing territory, eliminating German military power, and collecting monetary reparations. Wilson, on the other hand, thought in terms of a new world order based on principles of national self-determination, democratic government, freedom of the seas, an end to imperialism, open diplomacy, disarmament, and free economic development. Administration slogan makers told the public that the United States would make “the world safe for Democracy.” French Premier Georges Clemenceau wondered why Wilson needed Fourteen Points when God required only Ten. More practically, the volatile state of American public opinion seemed to justify only a commitment to free France from its German occupiers, since a direct alliance with Britain threatened to raise the ire of Irish-Americans and opponents of British imperialism. The War Department General Staff urged that an American army go to France, since only such a commitment would break the military stalemate and thus provide the diplomatic leverage Wilson sought. The Western Front, for all its horrors, was the only “over there” that counted.
The American Mobilization
“We want men, men, men,” insisted Marshal Joseph Joffre. Part of an Allied mission that came to Washington as soon as the United States declared war, the former French commander shocked American officials with his frank discussion of affairs on the Western Front. The rest of the Allied mission supported his emphatic demands for American troops. By World War I standards, however, the size of the United States land forces was pitiful. In April 1917, the regular Army numbered 133,111, reinforced by another 185,000 National Guardsmen. Another 17,000 officers and men had joined one or another of the federal reserve forces established by the National Defense Act of 1916. The War Department General Staff agreed that the Army would have to be enlarged and that the equitable, efficient way to raise a mass force was by conscription.
Aware that forced military service was distasteful to Americans, President Wilson and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker characterized their call for men as “selective service.” Conscription evoked memories of the Civil War experience: evasion, violent resistance, communal hostility. With those perils in mind, the General Staff officers who crafted the Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, created a manpower policy and administrative system that demonstrated political deftness, flexibility, and efficiency. Since Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, proved reluctant to accept conscription as the price of intervention, the Wilson administration did everything it could to soften the draft and place its execution with local civilians rather than federal military authorities. It also surrounded the draft with a flood of patriotic symbols and civic rhetoric that stressed voluntarism. Even as Congress voted for conscription, the Army and National Guard launched recruiting drives to bring themselves to war strength. By the end of 1917 they had enlisted nearly 700,000 volunteers. Weighed against the War Department’s estimated manpower needs and complex quota system, nearly 500,000 of the volunteers could be counted as substitutes for potential draftees. The result was that the 1917 draft did not bear heavily upon the American male population. In June nearly 10 million men in the draftable age range of twenty-one to thirty registered for conscription. Although 3 million were called to service in 1917, one-third were found physically unfit and another million were exempted from service on the grounds of dependency, alien status, critical occupations, and religious beliefs. Of the remaining draftable men, only half a million were called into the service by the end of 1917. As intended, the draft “selected” those men the Army wanted and society could best spare: 90 percent of the draftees were unmarried, and 70 percent were farm hands or manual laborers.
The organization of the draft diffused resistance and hostility toward the national government and applied the full majesty of the local community—“your friends and neighbors”—to make the draft work. At the national level the War Department administered the draft through the Office of the Provost Marshal General, headed by Major General Enoch H. Crowder, a crusty lawyer and former opponent of conscription. Crowder’s staff, ever sensitive to civilian advice, established national policy, issued general orders, and held the lottery that established the order of call-up. It did not select or exempt individuals. Supervised by state officials and district boards, the actual task of inducting draftees rested with the members of some 4,600 local boards. Additional committees of citizens groups gave medical and legal advice and assisted the inductees until they departed for the training camps. Of the nearly 200,000 participants in the system in 1918, only 4,000 were Army officers and enlisted men, most of whom served in Washington. State officials, not the federal government, appointed the members of the district and local boards. The result was a system attuned to local occupational needs, personal problems, and community attitudes.
One reason conscription moved with all deliberate speed was that the War Department in 1917 did not think it would need an army of more than 2.2 million men. Given supply shortages, it was not sure it could equip such a force in less than eighteen months. For the first six months of its war, the War Department, assisted by varied military missions to France, wrestled with mobilization plans. By early autumn 1917, the planning initiative shifted to the General Headquarters (GHQ), American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), which had sailed for France in late May, followed by one token division to boost Allied morale. Major General (soon General) John J. Pershing, the ambitious, austere, politically adept commander of the AEF, had no intention of sharing the critical decisions of forming his army with either the General Staff or the Allies. Actually, GHQ AEF and the General Staff drafted similar plans, although Pershing’s program had a specific strategic rationale. After surveying the wreckage of the Western Front and assessing Allied troop and logistical deployments, Pershing decided to mass his army in Lorraine between Verdun and the Moselle River. Across no man’s land in this inactive sector lay the fortress city and railhead of Metz and the coal and iron fields of the Saar. An offensive against these objectives, Pershing’s staff reasoned, would break the German defenses throughout France and force a peace on Allied terms. Even though a general offensive might not be possible until 1919, GHQ AEF wanted to have twenty combat and ten training and replacement divisions in France by December 1918. With all its supporting units, the AEF would require 1.1 million men. This “thirty division program” governed the Army’s planning and shaped the execution of the draft.
Raising men for war had been a traditional government task, but World War I introduced Americans to a new, poorly understood aspect of twentieth-century war: Economic mobilization and regulation. In 1917 few policymakers realized the accuracy of the observation of automotive executive Howard E. Coffin: “Twentieth century warfare demands that the blood of the soldier must be mingled with from three to five parts of the sweat of the man in the factories, mills, mines, and fields of the nation in arms.” The Allies had already learned this lesson by 1917, but Americans, with the notable exception of a few businessmen and Army officers, had not paid much attention to the economic implications of a national mobilization. For almost a year the United States struggled to find the political-administrative system best suited for industrial and agricultural mobilization and the productive capacity to meet the war’s demands.
In the broadest economic terms, American entry into the war meant that demands for goods and services far exceeded supply. In peacetime the economy normally served American consumption and domestic investment with an important second function, serving foreign consumers. With World War I foreign demand increased dramatically, both to maintain the English and French civilian economies and to supply the Allied armies. The foreign demand by 1917 had pulled the economy out of a recession, but it had also committed much of the American economic effort to the war. For example, American munitions and firearms companies were already fully committed to Allied orders. In April 1917, therefore, the United States could not form a wartime Army and Navy of its own without expanding and regulating its economy.
The short-term effects of wartime mobilization put unforeseen strains on the economy. Military forces are prodigious consumers of both civilian supplies and specialized military equipment, largely because military training and wars tend to make weapons and supplies disappear. In World War I the United States eventually put 4.8 million men in uniform; this force represented about one-twenty-fifth of its total population. As wage earners, these men would have contributed to and consumed a larger fraction of the gross national product. As a wartime Army and Navy, however, these Americans eventually absorbed an estimated $32 billion. During two years of wartime spending, the American armed forces consumed about one-quarter of the entire gross national product.
Any form of strict economic calculus would not include another factor that inhibited American economic mobilization: the federal government did not trust concentrations of power, either in the government or in business. From the dominant coalition in Congress, made up of small-town and rural Progressives of both parties, to Secretary of War Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and President Wilson himself, the government was a bastion of hostility to big corporations and powerful government bureaucracies. The military reinforced the bias against centralized, collaborative relations with business. The Army and Navy bureaus responsible for material procurement did not want to deviate from peacetime practices and relationships, although they recognized that speed required a change in contracting procedures. For the Navy, wartime expansion proved to be manageable within the existing bureau system and did not place special strains upon the Navy’s peacetime system of shipbuilding and supply procurement. The Army was quite another matter. During the course of the war, the Army placed $14 billion in orders, and for more than a year these orders came from eight separate agencies that had not considered priorities and limited supplies. Moreover, the Army tended to think in terms of “outputs” (rifles, planes, tanks, blankets, shoes) rather than “inputs” (raw materials, skilled labor, and production technology). Therefore, the War Department was not organized to work efficiently with industry. Waste, artificially high prices, and inefficiency characterized Army procurement throughout the war.
The federal government need not have suffered the mobilization fiascos of 1917, since, in the technical sense, it had adequate information about the challenges of economic mobilization. Anticipating American entry into the war, the Navy Department and the Chamber of Commerce (and belatedly the War Department) formed advisory committees in 1915 and 1916 to examine the problems of industrial mobilization. In an institutional sense these actions had produced a Naval Consulting Board, an Industrial Preparedness Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, and, most important, the Advisory Committee to the Council of National Defense. The council, organized by statute in 1916, included the principal cabinet members who would guide a wartime mobilization. These committees—which eventually led to a General Munitions Board and the War Industries Board (WIB) in 1917—viewed the potential impact of a total economic mobilization with alarm. By and large the committee leadership included public-spirited businessmen and professional managers. They feared that a wartime economic crisis would bring the nationalization of some industries; they also feared a continuation of Progressive antitrust legislation. They preferred instead a system of industry self-regulation with some governmental participation, and they argued that, with military support, such a system was also most likely to produce the material needed for a major war. Led by Coffin, AT&T executive Walter S. Gifford, management educator Hollis Godfrey, advertising executive Grosvenor B. Clarkson, financial speculator Bernard Baruch, construction executive Benedict Crowell, and manufacturer Frank A. Scott, these men argued for more centralized governmental control of economic mobilization, but designed to preserve the existing character of American industry.
Despite the establishment of the War Industries Board in July 1917, the Wilson administration and the War Department for different reasons resisted giving it full powers to regulate the economy and to allocate scarce raw materials and goods between the Allied, domestic, and military claimants. Wilson and Baker would not relinquish their own (largely unused) authority and did not trust the WIB, dominated by businessmen in temporary government service. The General Staff and logistical bureaus did not want civilians interfering with the determination of military requirements or contracting procedures. The latter had already been modified to ensure the speedy letting of contracts. Instead of public bidding and fixed-price contracts, the War Department had shifted to contracts negotiated with sole-source suppliers on a cost-plus-fixed-fee basis. This practice allowed the Army to deluge the economy with orders and money in 1917. It also created opportunities for businesses to control pricing and profits through some sixty “commodity committees” of business representatives, provided the cooperating industries did not have to fear conflict-of-interest and antitrust laws. In 1917, however, the federal government would not suspend these laws and thus stifled productivity. The industrial mobilization progressed, therefore, without firm central direction.
In some critical areas the government had to accept more centralized control. Two separate administrations assumed the responsibility for production, pricing, and distribution of food and fuels. A Shipping Board and Emergency Fleet Corporation in 1916 expanded the American carrying trade and allocated vessels to meet Allied and military needs. To increase production and encourage domestic conservation, Congress passed a Food Production (Lever) Act and Food and Fuel Act in August 1917. In December 1917, with railroad traffic tangled throughout the eastern United States, the government temporarily took over the management of the nation’s railroads. To handle Allied orders, Congress created a War Trade Board, but it too had difficulties dealing with parochial industries and the weak WIB. Despite the movement to greater centralization, the American economy did not respond rapidly to the military’s demands, and by the winter of 1917–1918 shortages of civilian goods and military supplies plagued the nation.
The War Department’s wartime procurement efforts had a mixed effect. Military construction produced thirty-six major cantonments for training full divisions of almost 30,000 each. These military boomtowns of tents and barracks were largely completed by the winter of 1917–1918. Ordnance problems proved more intractable, and the Army decided to arm the AEF with British-model rifles already being produced in the United States and accept Allied machine guns, mortars, artillery pieces, and tanks. American soldiers in France used more Enfield rifles than Springfields, more French automatic weapons than new Browning automatic rifles and machine guns, more French 75-mm field guns than American 3-inch cannons. The aviation program was especially disappointing. Announcing its intention to build 10,000 warplanes, the government turned to the automobile industry, which had a deserved reputation for mass production miracles. The automobile manufacturers, in fact, produced a sturdy, dependable engine—the Liberty—but airframes proved more difficult to produce. Although the manufacturers eventually adopted Allied designs, aircraft production never met requirements, and Army aviators flew to glory in French and British aircraft.
The fitful performance of the Wilson administration and the national economy in 1917 might have been excusable if the strategic situation had improved while the Allies awaited the AEF. Instead, the three-front European war changed to a one-front conflict. In the autumn of 1917 the Russian war effort collapsed, and the Bolsheviks sued for peace. German divisions immediately entrained for the Western Front. In Italy a German-Austrian offensive shattered the Italian army at Caporetto and drove the remaining Italian troops back toward Venice. Although the front stabilized with an infusion of Allied reinforcements, additional German troops were freed for transfer to France. From the council chambers in London and Paris to the headquarters of the Allied armies, General Pershing found unrelieved pessimism. Allied commanders knew the Germans could now shift to the strategic offensive for the first time since 1914, and they doubted that they could stop a general attack without American troops. But in December 1917 the AEF numbered fewer than 200,000 men and could provide only four divisions, none of which had completed their training. The Americans would have to provide more than promises, but it was uncertain that they could do so in time to prevent German victory.
The Navy’s War
For the American army three thousand miles of cold Atlantic Ocean led to the war, and in 1917 passage along this highway of waves was perilous. Unless the U.S. Navy, in league with the Royal Navy, could win the war against the German submarines, the conflict in Europe might end before the great American “reinforcement” arrived. Some German admirals predicted that the U-boats would ensure that the American soldiers would feed the Atlantic fish, not fill the Allied ranks in France.
In February 1917 the German navy started its second flurry of unrestricted commerce raiding with a force of only 133 U-boats. This force, never to expand appreciably, was deployed from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. In operational terms the Germans could keep about 32 to 36 U-boats positioned to intercept merchantmen approaching British ports. With this meager force the German navy almost brought the British Empire to its knees. German planners believed that if their U-boats could sink 600,000 tons of shipping a month for six months, they would force Britain to sue for peace or accept economic collapse. In March, the estimated tonnage sunk passed the magic 600,000-ton mark. From April to August, the U-boats kept up the torrid pace of sinkings. Although it juggled tonnage figures to hide the fatal attrition of the transoceanic merchant fleet, the Admiralty staff confessed to its civilian superiors that Britain faced its greatest peril of the war.
The first contribution of the U.S. Navy in the war against the U-boats was the weight of professional opinion. It was an important contribution, for it encouraged the Admiralty to adopt the convoy system and eventually break the U-boat menace. The force behind the American position for convoys was Admiral William S. Sims, stormy petrel of naval affairs and the commander of American naval forces in European waters. Arriving in London on a fact-finding mission before the declaration of war, Sims assessed the U-boat war and immediately supported those Royal Navy officers who argued for the formation of convoys. The opposition was unmoved: The proper way to fight U-boats was to seek them out with patrols, not wait for them to attack merchantmen. Moreover, merchant vessels would not hold formation, maintain adequate speed, or submit to naval commanders. As the sinkings mounted, the conservatives’ arguments weakened. The forceful Sims insisted: “The mission of the Allies must be to force the submarines to give battle.” The convoy system offered the best chance for decision, since the U-boats had to come to the Allies to accomplish their mission. The convoy escorts—primarily destroyers—could sink or drive off the U-boats. When two experimental convoys crossed the Atlantic in May with slight losses, the Admiralty made convoying the new policy. By the autumn of 1917 the rate of sinkings had slowed, and U-boat losses began to mount.
The convoy issue quickly created tension in the Navy Department over the extent of the American naval effort. President Wilson, Secretary Daniels, and Chief of Naval Operations William S. Benson favored convoying, but they were not so sure as Sims that the U.S. Navy had no other mission than to fight U-boats. Examining the location of most of the sinkings (the eastern Atlantic) and the meager force of fifty-one modern American destroyers, Sims cabled, “We cannot send too soon or too many.” The Navy Department, examining its deployments to the Pacific and planning to hold a balanced fleet in American waters, decided to retain most of its vessels in the western Atlantic. Sims, however, kept up the barrage of cables until his escort force grew. From the first six destroyers that arrived in Ireland in May, Sims’s antisubmarine force climbed to thirty-six toward year’s end and to sixty-eight in 1918.
With Sims aligning himself with Admiralty positions, the Navy Department often found itself at odds with its impatient field commander. For example, Sims emphasized the protection of the merchantmen bringing critical supplies to England. The Navy Department, on the other hand, stressed using American vessels outside British control to protect the troop transports sailing directly to France. Largely under Navy escort and using high-speed passenger liners, the stream of transports reached France without an inbound loss and only three outbound losses while merchantmen continued to sink. Committing the major American effort to troopship protection increased the burden on the British economy, but the Wilson administration regarded American troops as more important than Kansas wheat, Texas oil, Argentine beef, and British sailors. It was the sort of choice imposed by a hard war. In the face of the submarine menace and the Allied need for troops, the United States had to find more ships. One of the nation’s major contributions was its creation of an emergency merchant fleet that doubled the prewar American tonnage. By 1918 the federal government had become the largest American shipper, accumulating a fleet of 1,700 vessels. The government merchant fleet of 3 million tons was but a fraction of the Allies’ some 15 million tons; the American fleet, however, was absolutely critical for carrying the AEF and its supplies to France. Under the direction of the War Shipping Board and Emergency Fleet Corporation, the government confiscated, bought, and chartered 700 vessels. It built 1,000 bulk cargo carriers in record time. This new fleet either plied the Atlantic or shuttled men and supplies across the English Channel—and lost 200,000 tons in the effort. The American emergency fleet, however, did not appear overnight, and shipping shortages and cargo priorities bedeviled all military planners well into 1918.
Swelling the convoys required a larger Navy escort fleet. It also required a dramatic change in Navy shipbuilding policies, and in July 1917 the Navy Department suspended its 1916 capital-ship program and turned its resources to building antisubmarine warfare (ASW) vessels. Characterized by aggressive contracting and technical virtuosity, the Navy’s management of its shipbuilding and procurement programs showed such spectacular successes that they proceeded with minimal WIB participation. They also captured raw materials and skilled manpower the War Department needed in 1917. In any event, the ASW vessels flowed down the ways and into the war. The destroyer force grew by fifty-one new, swift four-stackers of 1,200 tons. Construction time for destroyers fell from a year to an average of seventy days. Light cruisers and converted yachts also performed escort duties. The wonder of the wartime Navy, however, was the “splinter fleet” of 400 wooden subchasers. Modeled after New England fishing vessels and manned by wartime sailors without maritime experience, the subchasers probed the waters from the North Sea to the Adriatic with acoustic sounding gear, searching for U-boats lurking along the shipping lanes. By the Armistice the ASW fleet numbered nearly 800 vessels. Although Admiral Sims continued to believe that too few American warships arrived in European waters, the Navy Department’s material mobilization was one of the bright spots in the American war effort.
The ASW fleet demanded men as tough and durable as their vessels, since convoy duty meant long days at sea in weather and living conditions that tested the most phlegmatic sailors. The Navy found such men throughout American society. The junior officers came from abbreviated Academy classes, the merchant marine, and Navy officer candidate schools created on the Plattsburg model. From an officer corps of 4,400 the Navy expanded to 23,000, of whom only a few thousand held regular commissions. The enlisted force grew from 56,000 to almost 500,000. Since the Navy Department until August 1918 kept the administration convinced that it should be excluded from the draft, volunteers (true and draft-inspired) composed the bulk of the enlisted Navy. Given the popularity of the Navy, its reputation as a school for vocational training, and its demand for a wide variety of technical skills and the ratings such skills justified, the Navy probably recruited more than its share of highly motivated, trained young men.
Service aboard convoy escorts or in gun crews on merchantmen did not exhaust all the possibilities for service against the Germans. Some sailors found their way to Europe aboard the eight battleships added to the British Grand Fleet; other sailors served heavy railway guns in France. The antisubmarine war, however, dominated American naval deployments. Despite Sims’s protests over diverting resources from the convoy escort squadrons, President Wilson and his naval advisers sympathized with the Admiralty’s desire to strike at the U-boat bases. Wilson set the tone of the ASW offensive: “We are hunting hornets all over the farm and letting the nest alone.” Offensive operations centered on two alternatives: using mines to sink or discourage U-boats sailing to and from their bases and launching direct attacks upon the bases themselves, principally those in Belgium.
Navy Department planners chose to create a North Sea mine barrage between Scotland and Norway as the principal American ASW offensive. The whole scheme rested upon the inventors’ ability to produce a mine that did not depend upon direct contact with a U-boat to explode. To cover a field 250 miles long and 15 to 35 miles wide would require an estimated 400,000 contact mines, whose cost to manufacture and to plant exceeded the field’s likely value. It was also unlikely to be planted in time to affect the submarine war. In 1917, however, inventors created a mine that could be detonated by electrical impulses from a 70-foot antenna. Any U-boat that brushed these copper wands would find its voyage rudely interrupted. Although the unit cost of each electrical mine was much higher than that of a contact mine, the planners decided 100,000 of the new mines could cover the projected field, thus making the campaign (in theory) cost-effective. A joint American-British task force began operations in the summer of 1918 and had planted 70,000 mines by the time the war ended. The results were controversial. The mines sank four subs and may have sunk four others; they may have damaged others; and they may have complicated sub operations and demoralized German crews. But the submarine menace had largely passed as a decisive influence by the time the North Sea mine barrage became effective.
Lukewarm about the prospects of the North Sea mines, the Admiralty in 1917 mounted a series of blocking operations against the Belgium submarine bases, but these direct naval and amphibious attacks proved ineffective. Disappointed, American naval planners turned to the alternative of bombing the German bases. Naval aviation was already contributing to the antisubmarine campaign, largely by providing aircraft and dirigibles for scouting duties. When the United States entered the war, the Navy Department began an ambitious program to build 700 aircraft; six months later the planned force had expanded to 1,700 aircraft. The naval aviation force eventually reached more than 2,000 planes and 37,000 officers and men, 19,000 of whom reached Europe. The initial purpose of this force was convoy protection and related reconnaissance duties, but in November 1917 the Navy Department placed the bombing offensive first on its list of priorities. This decision eventually required the Navy to switch its planned force from seaplanes to land-based bombers, principally British-built DeHavilland biplanes. Slowed by earlier Navy programs and disputes with the Army over the allocating of aircraft, the Northern Bombing Group did not begin operations until the autumn of 1918. Composed of a night wing of Navy pilots and a day wing of Marine aviators, the group eventually flew 5,691 sorties against Continental targets. The ASW flights, on the other hand, numbered 22,000. The Northern Bombing Group’s contribution came too late to influence either the naval or the land campaign. But the entire Navy aviation effort proved the usefulness of aircraft to all sorts of wartime operations. It also created a group of aviators ready to expand their programs within the peacetime Navy.
Relying primarily on escort convoys, the Navy accomplished its wartime mission, which was to ensure that the American army and supplies and raw materials from the Western Hemisphere reached the Allies. From beginning to end, however, the naval war was Great Britain’s to win or lose. Its surface control uncontested after 1916, the Royal Navy carried the burden of the antisubmarine war, and its escorts and subhunting patrols dispatched the vast majority of the 132 U-boats sunk in 1917–1918. American escorts and aircraft participated in only five kills, while Allied submarines alone sank eighteen of their German counterparts. On the other hand, the Navy’s principal mission was to escort Army troopships. Confounded by the aggressive escorts and the transports’ high speeds, U-boat commanders instead sought slower merchantmen, whose cargoes and numbers could be more easily replaced. Like the Army, the Navy required more than a year to hit full mobilization for a war for which it had not prepared. Despite conflicts between Sims and the Navy Department over the course and speed of the Navy’s war effort, the Navy joined the antisubmarine war as rapidly as it could. Looking past the war to the postwar naval balance in both the Pacific and Atlantic, the Navy Department had no intention of abandoning its goal of “a Navy second to none.” Meanwhile, the Navy fought well a naval campaign it had not foreseen and had not shaped.
Forming an Army in France
Assessing the erratic state of America’s mobilization in January 1918, an official of the Chamber of Commerce admitted to his colleagues that “we are at sea without a chart.” Matching the chill of winter, storms of public dissatisfaction swept over Washington, threatening to bury the Wilson administration in political disaster and Allied condemnation. The president fought back. During the same month that the evidence of failed mobilization mounted, Wilson announced his Fourteen Points. But the idealistic words did not sweep away the fact that the Allied cause was in crisis. From Europe came discouraging news: Allied intelligence sources confirmed that the German army had begun to shift more than forty divisions to its western army and to retrain and reequip it for major offensive operations. With an estimated 200 divisions available on the Western Front, the Germans for the first time since 1914 enjoyed a clear superiority in numbers. Moreover, they had perfected new tactics. By using short, intense bombardments, they could penetrate enemy lines with fast-moving infantry battlegroups, whose assignments were to avoid strong-points and disrupt enemy command and supply arrangements. These tactics produced unit disintegration. Tested in Russia and Italy, the new tactics promised battlefield victory. Dominated by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, the German high command decided a land campaign was the only hope for victory in 1918, the last year before the Americans would influence the war. Aware of the German plans, the Allies clamored for a greater American effort.
Embarrassed by the gap between its public promises and its actual performance in 1917 and threatened by a series of congressional investigations, the Wilson administration intensified its direction of the wartime mobilization. It also increased its efforts to crush dissent and encourage patriotic commitment by manipulating opinion. In 1917 the government thought largely in terms of preventing the Germans from collecting information on the war effort; the Espionage Act of 1917 and government control of overseas communications, as well as censorship actions at home, did not bear heavily on the public. The administration, however, also created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), directed by publicist George A. Creel. When it hit its stride in 1918, the Creel Committee bombarded the public with anti-German and pro-American propaganda notable for its multimedia virtuosity and its loose connection with truth. CPI writers, cartoonists, and moviemakers applied their considerable skills to such topics as Teutonic “barbarism,” American altruism, and governmental competence. In 1918 the positive appeal of CPI propaganda did not seem a sufficient counter to the antiwar efforts of native-born radicals, alien dissenters, some labor leaders, and draft evaders. No longer confident that the anti-German vigilantism of 1917 would sustain the war effort, Congress in May 1918 passed a Sedition Act characterized by a generous definition of seditious activity. Enforced enthusiastically by Justice Department agents, the Sedition Act gave the 1918 mobilization a vicious edge.
At the core of the flagging mobilization remained the administration’s reluctance to centralize economic regulation and force the War Department to reorganize itself and cooperate with the War Industries Board. Under congressional and public pressure, Wilson and Baker partially overcame their fears of industrial self-regulation, corporation-military collusion, and profiteering. The German offensive of March 1918 destroyed the procrastination. Faced with forming a larger AEF than anticipated in 1917, the government delegated enhanced executive authority to a new chairman of the WIB, Bernard Baruch; and a new chief of the War Department General Staff, General Peyton C. March.
Using new broad authority to reorganize the executive branch, granted by Congress in the Overman Act (May 1918), Baruch and March made the WIB and War Department more effective organizations. The key reorganization occurred in the War Department, where March merged the logistical planners of the General Staff with the managers of the Army bureaus. Headed by Major General George W. Goethals, the hard-driving engineer who had completed the Panama Canal, the Purchase, Storage, and Traffic Division of the General Staff brought much-needed efficiency and energy to the Army’s war effort. On its own part the WIB moved aggressively to determine supply priorities, fix prices, plan procurement and shipping schedules, mollify labor and farmers with improved wages and profits, and reassure industry that it would retain the major voice in economic regulation. Relieved of most fears of nationalization and antitrust prosecution, American corporations began to produce much-needed military supplies.
The revived mobilization brought more men into uniform and changed the Selective Service system. In early 1918 the organization of the Army remained marked by equipment shortages and personnel turnover. No sooner had the situation improved than the draft calls escalated. From a January low of 23,000 the draft calls climbed to 373,000 in May and averaged around 275,000 a month for the rest of the war. The War Department feared that it would run short of men, while the WIB became concerned that the draft would strip the economy of skilled labor, whose absence could only be partially offset by hiring women war workers. One solution was to assign registrants to five general categories of priority for call-up; introduced in May 1918, the classification of registrants by national category eased the burdens of the local boards by making equity issues more manageable. It did so by adjusting local draft quotas to the number of men in each classification, not the total number of men registered. Classification alone, however, did not produce more men. In 1918 the government held two more general registration periods to catch men not registered in 1917. When the first 1918 registration produced less than a million new registrants, Congress extended the age limits of draftables down to eighteen and up to forty-five. Drafting teenagers was not popular with mothers, the schools, and the churches, but its threat probably made drafting twenty-year-olds easier. If, however, the war had continued into 1919, the Army would have had to fill its ranks from the 13 million younger and older men who registered in September 1918.
Facing the prospect of a German offensive in 1918, Allied leaders coveted the masses of new American soldiers. In December 1917 and January 1918, they eyed the thirty-seven divisions still assembling and training in the United States and examined the AEF’s plans for bringing this force to Europe. They did not like what they saw The Allies wondered whether the United States could equip and ship an independent army; they doubted that American commanders and staffs could organize and direct such a force against the skilled Germans. Moreover, they feared that they could not stop the Germans without American troops. Essentially, the Allies wanted to amalgamate American units—from battalions of 1,000 to divisions of 26,000—into the existing structure of the French and British armies. This policy would prevent the diversion of American troops into all the supporting units an independent field army required. The Allies had powerful weapons with which to negotiate amalgamation, for the British had shipping and the French military equipment. These resources were interrelated. To ship a full American division with all its organic equipment (including guns, trucks, and wagons) required four times as much shipping as was needed to bring the men and their personal weapons and equipment. With time of the essence and shipping scarce—and the American military procurement program in disarray—the Allies urged a change in the War Department’s shipping plans.
The shipping-amalgamation controversy continued through two phases, the period before the German offensive (December 1917–March 1918) and the period during which the Germans attacked and then lost the strategic initiative (March–July 1918). At the center of the controversy stood the stubborn commander of the AEF, John J. Pershing, who took his orders to create an independent army even more seriously than the civilians who gave him the orders. When Wilson and Baker wavered on the issue, influenced by the Allies and their own advisers, Pershing stood fast. He shared Wilson’s assumption that an independent army would be essential to the president’s war aims. He also doubted that Allied command procedures, operational concepts, training, and leadership would be acceptable to American troops. He knew that Allied charges of incompetence were unacceptable to the Army’s career officer corps.
The first phase of the controversy began with a British proposal to ship all the infantry battalions of ten divisions to France in British vessels. Although he had no objection to having his troops train with the British, as they were already doing with the French, Pershing insisted that this plan was unacceptable since the battalions would have to be amalgamated into the BEF to be combat-effective. After some heated conferences and cable traffic, the AEF and the British agreed to bring six full divisions to Europe on British vessels not already committed to carrying American troops. While the Americans trained with the BEF, American cargo vessels would bring their equipment, and the divisions would return to the AEF in the summer. Under this plan, although it was modified, ten American divisions served with the BEF at some time in 1918 under the control of the U.S. II Corps headquarters. From Pershing’s standpoint, the agreement had real advantages: It brought more troops more rapidly to Europe than he expected, and it seemed to end the amalgamation controversy.
Even before the six-division plan was well underway, the German March offensive drove the Allies back to the bargaining table with amalgamation on their minds. In a series of tense negotiations, Pershing agreed to postpone the formation of his own field army, but he would not accept anything but the emergency use of American troops by Allied commanders. He extracted agreement in principle that an American army would be formed and that it would have a sector of its own in Lorraine, the site of the AEF’s planned 1918 and 1919 offensives. Again, the key was British shipping. Diverting more vessels from other missions, the British proposed that the Americans bring nothing but infantrymen and machine gunners to Europe at a rate of 120,000 a month for three months for service in the BEF. Unbeknownst to Pershing, the War Department accepted this proposal in April 1918. Pershing and the unreinforced French viewed the pact with displeasure, and the negotiations continued. At a conference at Abbeville, France, in early May, Pershing insisted upon another modification of the shipping plans that would allow the shipment of full divisions. In exchange for French support, he argued that British vessels might bring these troops but that they should be shared with the French. Despite British pleas that they had thus far suffered the greatest losses in the 1918 battles, the new Allied high commander, French General Ferdinand Foch, argued that the French army also needed reinforcement. The temporary resolution of the dispute was that the infantry and machine gunners would receive priority shipment to Europe but would shortly be followed by the rest of the troops of six divisions. If the British released even more ships, they could carry more infantry. This agreement covered only the months of May, June, and July.
The final phase of the shipping-amalgamation controversy occurred against a background of French defeat and American assertiveness. Having restudied the shipping schedules, Pershing’s staff found that even though almost a million men were on their way to the front, the AEF would still be short the almost 400,000 support troops necessary for an independent army. In the meantime, the Germans had struck the French army and sent it retreating toward Paris. In another conference at Versailles (June 1–2, 1918) Pershing and the desperate French again collaborated to change the British-sponsored shipping schedules. In exchange for more British shipping, Pershing agreed to bring the combat troops of ten more divisions to Europe, but he also gained both British and American vessels to bring additional support troops. Essentially what occurred was that in May through July 1918 an average of 270,000 American troops arrived in Europe each month. The emergency deployment brought the AEF to more than 1 million men and included enough support troops to bring an independent army closer to reality. The AEF was not yet ready to fight as an independent field army, but it had avoided amalgamation and had gathered its units as full divisions, not as fillers in Allied divisions. This triumph for American policy was Pershing’s.
The rush of Americans to France once again reduced War Department plans to shambles. At Versailles General Foch estimated that the United States must provide 100 divisions (big divisions by European standards) to ensure victory in 1919, and he persuaded the Allied political leaders to cable this demand to Washington. Pershing endorsed the new American program, in part to galvanize what he regarded as a halfhearted war effort. The Allied request confounded the War Department, and General March asserted he would “need an Aladdin’s lamp” to meet the demands for more troops. During June and July 1918, as the battle continued in Europe, the War Department and WIB studied the problem and concluded that in terms of shipping and supplies the United States could not provide more than 65 divisions. With additional promises of more British shipping and more Allied equipment, the War Department revised the ceiling to 80 divisions. From July until the end of the war, the 80-division program shaped the draft calls and equipment orders.
Although the amalgamation controversy and the rapid expansion of the AEF established the general shape of the American effort in France, General Pershing’s headquarters faced a wider variety of organizational problems. Most of them stemmed from the flaws in the American military system and interservice and Allied politics. For example, relations between GHQ AEF and the War Department General Staff deteriorated badly during 1918, and Generals Pershing and March ended the war as chiefs of rival factions. To some degree the problems rested in personality: Both men were hard-driving West Pointers with enviable combat records in the Philippines and vast staff and foreign experience. More important, their disagreements stemmed from the fact that each believed he was the principal commander of the wartime Army. They quarreled over shipping schedules, the training program in the United States, the assignment and promotion of officers, the management of the AEF’s supply system, and the procurement of weapons. Secretary Baker adjudicated their disputes but, characteristically, did not decide whether the chief of staff or the expeditionary force commander would be the Army’s dominant voice. That decision awaited another war.
Pershing’s problems in France did not end with the cables to the War Department, for his force lacked skilled officers at every level of activity. Unless Pershing improved the AEF’s leadership and staff efficiency, he faced more demands from the Allies to amalgamate American troops. Only one in every six of the 200,000 American officers who served in World War I had prewar commissioned service in the Army or National Guard. The level of professional competence among the AEF officer corps, particularly among the new officers, concerned Pershing throughout the war. Before the combat of 1918 swamped the AEF, Pershing established an elaborate system of officer schools in France, with courses ranging from weapons employment to staff functioning. These courses, however, stripped units of leaders during their training and could not meet all the AEF’s demands in 1918. The wide variety of professional competence in the AEF often meant that operation plans from higher headquarters allowed little flexibility and were executed with little skill, particularly in the use of supporting arms. The Army emerged from the war convinced that it needed a better system of training citizen-officers.
As demanding as he was with his officers, Pershing did not ignore his enlisted men. He insisted that the standards of the AEF would be the standards of West Point, and to the best of his ability he enforced rigid standards of discipline, drill, military courtesy, and dress. It was largely a losing battle. In some ways Pershing kept his promise to run a “clean” army. He would not authorize supervised brothels (as the Allies did), and his medical officers waged a desperate (and largely successful) battle against venereal disease. The war against vin ordinaire and demon cognac was less successful; the friendly French, chill weather, and American drinking habits were on the other side. A more basic problem was relations between officers and enlisted men, relations characterized by mutual tolerance and familiarity and casual attitudes toward performance of duty, particularly behind the lines. French and British officers found the Americans warrior-like but unmilitary. They also noted the traditional American profligacy with equipment and supplies; logistical discipline was not an AEF triumph. American units exhausted cars, trucks, and horse-drawn transport at rates that amazed the Allies. From the AEF’s standpoint, it never had enough transportation, and its troops’ strongest memories were of long hikes under crushing packs.
Two categories of troops bothered AEF headquarters. The first were the Marines. Bowing to Navy Department pressure, Pershing had allowed two Marine infantry regiments and a machine-gun battalion to join the AEF by early 1918. Organized as the 4th Brigade in the 2d Division, the Marines proved excellent in discipline and, eventually, crack assault troops. The trouble was that they wanted to organize an entire Marine division, and they had powerful friends in Washington. Pershing would not allow a Marine division. Although his staff cited administrative problems as the principal barrier, Pershing’s primary concern was Navy Department meddling and the Marine Corps’ ability to publicize its own accomplishments and thus presumably demoralize the rest of the AEF.
A more vexing question was the role of black American troops in France. By the end of the war the Army had sent 200,000 black soldiers to Europe, most of them draftees. Three-quarters of these men served in labor units, where their work was essential to the AEF. For GHQ AEF these labor units presented one major problem: Fraternization with the French, particularly women. Following their own racial biases and fearing black-white clashes among American troops, AEF commanders established “Jim Crow” practices in France, much to the amazement of the Europeans and the distaste of black Americans. The question of black troops in combat—mostly led by black officers—proved even more tense. Largely as a convenience, Pershing assigned four black infantry regiments, built on prewar National Guard units, to the French army. These regiments fought with distinction throughout the war. Pressed at home by racial equalitarians, the War Department also forced the AEF to form the black 92d Division. Plagued by divisions between its white and black officers and the poor training of its uneducated men, the 92d Division did not perform well and poisoned Army attitudes toward all-black combat units.
Training the AEF brought further strain to the American war effort in France. After his exposure to Allied tactical techniques, Pershing stressed that the AEF should not adopt European “trench warfare” tactics, but should stress “open warfare” maneuvers. He urged the War Department to curtail the activities of the 800 Allied officers and enlisted men in American training camps, and he ordered his division commanders to minimize their dependence on Allied instructors. Pershing wanted his men to practice large-unit assaults with principal emphasis on rifle fire and artillery support, while the Allies stressed small-unit raiding with emphasis on grenades, mortars, and automatic weapons. Since Pershing planned to use the AEF to break through the German defenses, he wanted his troops prepared for battles in the open countryside. A student of warfare who appreciated the firepower of modern armies, Pershing knew the value of troop dispersion, fluid tactics, and punishing artillery support, but his own impatience and the amateurishness of many of his officers often led to a too literal interpretation of his tactical doctrine. Allied observers despaired in the AEF’s early battles when they found lines of dead Americans mowed down in windrows like their French and British predecessors of 1914 and 1915. Only late in 1918 did the veteran American divisions show the same degree of tactical skill as their Allied and German counterparts, and the lessons came by bloody experience.
Winning the War, 1918
Against a background of growing famine and political unrest and the serious attrition of the German armed forces, General Erich Ludendorff and his planners designed the great offensive of 1918 to force a negotiated peace before the Americans could affect the war on the Western Front. From March 21 until mid-July, the German army launched five separate major attacks and inflicted serious tactical defeats upon the Allies. Nevertheless, fighting with minimal American participation, the Allied armies proved sufficiently resilient to blunt the German attacks and set the stage for the final victory.
The initial German offensive struck two British armies in the valley of the Somme and drove a 40-by-60–mile salient in the BEF’s lines in one week’s heavy fighting. Although the Germans began the attack with a local superiority of three to one in artillery and 47 to 29 in divisions, the Allies eventually contained the assault. To draw off Allied reserves, the Germans launched a more modest attack in Flanders on April 9. After a week’s heavy fighting, which involved several hundred Americans training with the BEF, the second offensive also stalled. Both sides by now had over 250,000 casualties.
During the opening phases of the German offensive, General Pershing in a moment of high drama offered all he had to the Allied cause. “All” meant the AEF’s four divisions that had reached some semblance of combat readiness. One of these divisions joined the French army in Picardy holding the point of the German salient. In late May the 1st Division launched the first major American attack of the war and recaptured the village of Cantigny, impressing both the Germans and Allies with its skill and élan.
Before the AEF could make any additional dispositions, the Germans mounted another major offensive against the weakly held Allied lines between Noyen and Reims. In one week (May 27–June 5, 1918) two German armies of seventeen divisions drove fifteen weak French and British divisions away from the Aisne River and then back across the Marne River. The point of the German attack reached Chateau-Thierry and access to the roads to Paris, only forty miles away. In Paris elements of the French government and civilian population began to evacuate the city as the Allied high commanders hurriedly shifted scarce reserves to contain the German offensive. Among the available troops were the American 2d and 3d Divisions. For three weeks these two American divisions helped hold the Marne River line. The 2d Division actually launched a local counterattack that recaptured Belleau Wood and Vaux, and the 3d Division met the fifth German offensive (July 15) and prevented any serious penetrations south of the Marne in its sector. In both division sectors the Americans fought with such suicidal stubbornness that the Germans began to revise their low esteem of the AEF.
If training the AEF concerned Pershing, the American army’s logistical requirements dazzled AEF planners with their scope and complexity. The manpower requirements of the Services of Supply (SOS) taxed American resources; at the end of the war there were as many soldiers, civilians, and prisoners supporting the AEF as there were soldiers fighting the Germans. Even this million-man force had difficulty moving the tons of supplies the AEF needed. Most of the AEF’s supplies came from ports between Brest and Bordeaux, and these ports suffered from crowded facilities and problems of accounting for all the shipments. Supplies moved forward by rail to a series of depots that maintained levels of supplies for forty-five, thirty, and fifteen days of operations. Matching the flow of supplies to the needs of the fighting divisions demanded ingenuity and administrative skill. As the AEF burgeoned in 1918, the Allies complained that Pershing’s staff and the SOS headquarters could not manage their supply system. After the War Department suggested that it send General Goethals to France to run the SOS as an independent command, Pershing gave SOS more independent authority and appointed Major General James G. Harbord, a trusted associate, to command it. Harbord’s drive and intellectual grasp helped improve logistical management, but the key reforms came from sheer experience, a reduction of reserve supplies, more careful management, and more realistic estimates on troop usage of different types of supplies. As with so many other aspects of the AEF’s experience, the American army learned by doing and did not reach its full potential until near the end of the war.
The problems of combining skilled men and effective equipment in France found no more dramatic expression than the formation of the Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces. Early in the war the Allies told the Wilson administration that it would have to provide 5,000 pilots and as many planes if the Allies were to hold air superiority over the Western Front. Such a program was staggering and beyond America’s capacity before 1919. Yet, for all the agonies of the aircraft production program, the United States almost met all its goals. By the end of the war the Army Air Service, a branch nominally under Signal Corps direction, numbered 12,000 pilots and 183,000 officers and men in aircrews and ground support roles. Of this aerial host 58,000 were serving in France. This massive air effort, however, produced only forty-five operational squadrons in contact with the Germans, and the burden of combat flying fell upon only 1,500 aviators. The Air Service, not really committed to combat until the spring of 1918, included 740 planes, one-third of them made in the United States, the others in Europe.
The organization of the Air Service posed special problems for Pershing. Still in its infancy, Army aviation had no senior officers and no institutional base. Until early in 1918 three strong-willed men dominated AEF aviation development: Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, Brigadier General Benjamin D. Foulois, and Colonel Raynal C. Bolling. All young for their rank, Mitchell, Foulois, and Bolling had immense talents, but personal diplomacy was not among them. Plagued by contentiousness, the Air Service buildup led the AEF in waste and confusion until Pershing appointed Major General Mason D. Patrick, an elderly engineer, to the senior Air Service post. Bolling died in 1918, but Mitchell remained as the air combat commander and Foulois as Air Service, AEF, logistical administrator. Unlike Foulois, who learned to fly from the Wright brothers, Mitchell was a latecomer to Army aviation, but his energy and personal magnetism made him a popular commander and primary spokesman for the AEF’s aviators.
Led by the Army’s few veteran aviators and American pilots who had flown with the Royal Flying Corps or the Lafayette Escadrille, the Air Service joined the war for the use of the air space above the Western Front. The aviators’ mission was largely to observe and photograph enemy troop dispositions and movements. This observation mission, which included the use of balloons, required a pursuit force to drive off enemy attackers. Air operations could also be offensive: Strikes at enemy air bases, attacks on enemy troops and depots, bombing runs on enemy trains and trucks. But the Air Service organization reflected its role: Twenty pursuit squadrons, eighteen observation squadrons, and seven bombing squadrons. At a loss of 235 men and 289 planes, this force destroyed 781 German aircraft and 73 balloons. The air effort still left its participants dissatisfied with the focus on observation and air superiority operations and convinced that Army conservatism had constrained their effectiveness.
Although Pershing committed his divisions to the Allies’ desperate defensive operations, he and his staff estimated that the Allies could stop the Germans with their own reserves. Establishing corps headquarters to control his scattered divisions, Pershing ordered the consolidation of his best divisions around the Marne salient for the counteroffensive planned for mid-July by the French high command. Pershing had become convinced that French generals had no special expertise, and he feared that the “temporary” use of American divisions in French corps might become a permanent arrangement. When the Allied Aisne-Marne counteroffensive (July 18–August 6) began, the AEF made its first appearance in major strength. Eight American divisions operating primarily in American corps launched many of the attacks that drove the Germans back to their defensive positions along the Aisne and Vesle Rivers. In the meantime, the reinforced BEF launched a series of punishing attacks that continued into early September. The first attack on August 8 produced an unusual event, the complete rout of the defending German divisions. It was, as Ludendorff noted, “a black day” for the German army. The subsequent days were little better, as the attacking BEF inflicted twice as many casualties on the Germans as it received, another new experience that signaled a precipitous decline in German effectiveness and morale.
Even as the Aisne-Marne counteroffensive flickered out along the poison-gas-choked banks of the Vesle, Pershing declared the U.S. 1st Army operational and assembled its five French and fifteen American divisions around the St. Mihiel salient, southeast of the Aisne-Marne battlefields. Pershing intended not only to reduce the salient, but, if German resistance faltered, to drive against the major defenses in front of Metz. The Allies had other ideas. Encouraged by the BEF’s successes, Field Marshal Haig proposed a giant “compressing” envelopment against the German army. One wing would be the BEF driving directly eastward through Belgium and northern France; the other wing would be the U.S. 1st Army and French forces driving north through the Meuse River–Argonne Forest region. If this right wing of the Allied attack could penetrate five German defensive zones and fight its way across some forty miles of inhospitable terrain, it could cut the major German railroad supply lines at Sedan and Mezieres and force the Germans to fall back along either side of the mountainous Ardennes region. Without any better plan of his own, Marshal Foch adopted Haig’s scheme and persuaded Pershing to reduce the objectives of the St. Mihiel offensive. Pershing agreed to redeploy his army and be ready to begin the Meuse-Argonne offensive in late September.
The St. Mihiel offensive (September 12–16, 1918) produced mixed results. In terms of ground recaptured, the American attack achieved its objectives, and the Air Service, AEF, coordinated its support of the ground assault with ardor and skill. The bag of Germans killed and captured did not meet Pershing’s expectations, for the enemy had already begun a tactical withdrawal to strong defensive positions across the base of the salient. The Germans also brought up reinforcements, and Pershing’s staff doubted that the 1st Army could have continued the attack. Pershing thought otherwise, but he conformed to his promise to Foch to limit the offensive.
The St. Mihiel offensive confirmed some characteristics of war on the Western Front and American tactical practices that did not bode well for the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Basically, an attacking infantry force could sustain its momentum for about four days and/or a distance of about ten miles. Then the strength of the defenders (presumably reinforced) grew as the power of the attackers diminished. The factors that limited sustained offensives were numerous. As the infantry began to outdistance the range of the prepositioned artillery, casualties—inflicted largely by artillery, gas, and machine guns—climbed. The fire support for infantry attacks became limited to mortars, machine guns, and the few light tanks that survived mechanical breakdowns, tank traps, and enemy fire. Unit effectiveness dwindled with the losses among officers and NCOs, fatigue, anxiety, thirst, and hunger. While the exhausted, overburdened infantrymen collapsed into defensive positions, the rest of the army struggled forward. Units found it difficult to move along clogged country roads turned into quagmires by the autumn rains and intense shellfire. It was particularly difficult for artillery batteries to move forward with adequate ammunition for more heavy barrages. Allied observers found an enormous traffic jam of field kitchens, ammunition carts, supply trucks, horse- and tractor-drawn field guns, and logistical units behind AEF lines. Normally it took the hard-pressed engineers, reinforced by infantry reserves, about four days to repair the roads from the original line of departure to the front. It took another four or five days to organize another attack. The Germans exploited this grace period by preparing another defensive position.
Aware of the 1st Army’s limitations but determined to use it to the best of its ability, Pershing massed his forces for the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the most ambitious American military effort in history. From as far distant as sixty miles, 600,000 American troops and 4,000 guns moved toward the new front. Depots behind the front swelled with 40,000 tons of ammunition and similar quantities of other supplies. The movement alone showed a degree of skill in staff planning and logistical management that brought the AEF up to European standards. Huddled over maps and accompanied by the roar of typewriters and mimeographs, division, corps, and 1st Army staffs drafted the complex operational plans that had become a feature of modern warfare.
Emerging from the pages and pages of map overlays, artillery fire-plans, and troop lists came a vision of the offensive marked by unwarranted optimism. Pershing approved a three-corps attack (nine divisions) between the Meuse and the Argonne Forest. French troops would support the Americans west of the forest and east of the river. The central American corps would mount the main effort, a head-on drive through Montfaucon into the third German defensive line at Romagne and Cunel. The left-flank corps would clear the forest and the Aire River Valley to Grandpre, also a major bastion in the third German line, or Krimhilde Stellung. The right-flank corps would fill the area between Cunel and the river. The offensive was supposed to cover eight miles and penetrate the main defenses, manned by five divisions, in only two days’ time.
Following an intense three-hour barrage the U.S. 1st Army moved in infantry waves against its first objectives on September 26, beginning the AEF’s most sustained offensive effort. Only the Armistice on November 11 halted the American attack. The offensive did not, however, move with mechanical smoothness. Only four of the assault divisions had seen serious combat, and four had not worked closely with their artillery. Although the right-flank corps accomplished most of its missions, the center and left-flank corps immediately found themselves tangled in woods and deep ravines or punished in the open hills by machine guns and converging artillery fire. Two days of heavy assaults did not reach the main German defensive position, and two more days of local attacks did not change the situation. In the meantime, the Germans hurried six reinforcing divisions into the Grandpre-Romagne-Cunel line. On October 1, Pershing admitted the original plan had failed and called for his own reserves. The halt allowed the artillery and supplies to creep forward along the ruined roads. The French, meanwhile, argued that the U.S. 1st Army should commit its reserves to the French flank armies. Some French officials, including Premier Clemenceau, suggested also that the AEF needed a new commander.
Determined neither to lose his independent army nor surrender the AEF’s hard-won influence on the course of the war, Pershing mounted a series of attacks throughout October. The new attacks, which began on October 4, initially profited by the commitment of Pershing’s most veteran divisions. The German reinforcements were equally veteran, and the fighting raged at close quarters. As one artillery corporal recorded, “We are pouring over all sorts of hell on Fritz’s head. No wonder he is suing for peace. Nevertheless, he is putting up a terrible resistance. Half the infantry of the First Division in our front have become casualties . . . and we are being shelled day and night.” The relative stability of the lines, however, allowed the Americans to mass overwhelming artillery and feed more divisions into the line. Position by position, the key German bastions fell. To the east and west additional American divisions assisted the parallel French advances against such strongholds as Blanc Mont and the heights east of the Meuse. The major American tactical innovation during this phase of the fighting was to launch several night attacks, which, mounted without preliminary bombardments, surprised the Germans and allowed the Americans to penetrate their lines and force several sudden withdrawals. The Americans had discovered through hard experience the same tactics the Germans had introduced in March 1918. In addition, the best American divisions showed considerable skill in combining artillery fire, close air support, poison gas, and tanks with their infantry attacks. The terrain, weather, and German defenses, however, seldom provided opportunities for tactical imagination at the division level, and uneven leadership at lower levels ensured that American casualties remained high.
Having bludgeoned its way through the Krimhilde Stellung, the U.S. 1st Army, now commanded by Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett, exploited its success in another series of attacks that began on November 1 and ended with the Armistice. During this exploitation phase of the Meuse-Argonne operation, Pershing opened another front on the approaches to Metz with the U.S. 2d Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Robert L. Bullard. On November 6 the U.S. 1st Army reached the heights above the Meuse at Sedan and bombarded the German railroad. Some of its divisions pushed units across the river east of Sedan, while on November 10–11 the U.S. 2d Army launched a limited advance. Joined with French divisions that bridged the gap between the two American armies, Pershing’s army group ruptured the entire German position between Sedan and Metz. In the meantime the BEF had hammered the northern German army groups backward toward the Rhine. At the same time the Central Powers’ fragile lines in Italy, the Balkans, and Palestine broke. Faced with global disaster and the defection of the Austrians and the Turks, the German government accepted the Allied armistice terms. On November 11 the fighting dwindled and ended on the Western Front. The exhausted, numbed soldiers of the AEF climbed from their holes. Lighting warming fires, they savored the silence.
Measured by their own national experience, Pershing and his staff viewed the AEF’s accomplishments with awe and pride. When the war ended, 1.3 million Americans had served at the front in twenty-nine combat divisions. These troops had provided the margin in numbers that allowed the Allies to grind the German army into surrender. In 200 days of combat, the Americans had lost 53,402 men killed in action or died of wounds. Over 200,000 more were wounded in action. Disease deaths, largely associated with the flu epidemic of 1918, claimed the lives of another 57,000 soldiers at home and abroad. As amateur Civil War historians, some of Pershing’s officers could not help drawing comparisons with their Army’s heroic past. In area and type of terrain, the Meuse-Argonne operation resembled the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. There the similarities ended, as the AEF’s struggle made the Wilderness pale by comparison. The Wilderness lasted four days, the Meuse-Argonne forty-seven. The Union Army fought with 100,000 men, the AEF with 1.2 million. In the course of the campaign Pershing’s artillerymen fired a tonnage of munitions that exceeded the totals fired by the entire Union Army during the course of the Civil War. About half the total AEF casualties occurred in the Meuse-Argonne.
As Woodrow Wilson learned at Versailles, however, the Allies did not view the American achievements and sacrifices with similar reverence. In a four-and-a-half-year war that claimed the lives of 8 million soldiers, the United States fought late and at relatively small cost. Despite its profligate mobilization, the United States bore only one-fifth of the Allies’ war costs. Quickly forgetting their relief at the arrival of the AEF’s big divisions in 1918, Allied generals minimized the American contribution to the final victory. The Germans convinced themselves after the war that they had been defeated by the war-weary revolutionaries at home and the British at the front. As the AEF’s generals expected, few of their countrymen appreciated the scope and complexity of the American war effort. Yet for all the AEF’s problems, its role in the Allied victory was crucial, and the Americans who fought in France, professionals and citizen-soldiers alike, knew they had participated in a critical turning point in their nation’s military history. They had gone to Europe, and they had fought a mass, industrialized war with allies against a modern national army noted for its expertise. “Over there,” they had seen the face of future war.