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Prelude to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

 

 

 

A century ago the United States First Army, personally commanded by General John J. Pershing, was deep in preparation for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest battle in American history that the American public  today knows virtually nothing about.  In his report on the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, General Pershing wrote about the preparations for the campaign:

The definite decision for the Meuse-Argonne phase of the great Allied convergent attack was agreed to in my conference with Marshal Foch and General Petain on September 2nd. It was planned to use all available forces of the First Army, including such divisions and troops as we might be able to withdraw from the St. Mihiel front.

The Army was to break through the enemy’s successive fortified zones to include the Kriemhilde-Stellung, or Hindenburg Line, on the front Brieulles-Romagne sous Montfaucon-Grandpre, and thereafter, by developing pressure toward Mezieres, was to ensure the fall of the Hindenburg Line along the Aisne River in front of the Fourth French Army, which was to attack to the west of the Argonne Forest.

A penetration of some 12 to 15 kilometres was required to reach the Hindenburg Line on our front, and the enemy’s defences were virtually continuous throughout that depth.

The Meuse-Argonne front had been practically stabilized in September, 1914, and, except for minor fluctuations during the German attacks on Verdun in 1916 and the French counter-offensive in August, 1917, remained unchanged until the American advance in 1918. The net result of the four years’ struggle on this ground was a German defensive system of unusual depth and strength and a wide zone of utter devastation, itself a serious obstacle to offensive operations.

The strategical importance of this portion of the line was second to none on the western front. All supplies and evacuations of the German armies in northern France were dependent upon two great railway systems – one in the north, passing through Liege, while the other in the south, with lines coming from Luxemburg, Thionville, and Metz, had as its vital section the line Carignan-Sedan-Mezieres.

No other important lines were available to the enemy, as the mountainous masses of the Ardennes made the construction of east and west lines through that region impracticable.

The Carignan-Sedan-Mezieres line was essential to the Germans for the rapid strategical movement of troops. Should this southern system be cut by the Allies before the enemy could withdraw his forces through the narrow neck between Mezieres and the Dutch frontier, the ruin of his armies in France and Belgium would be complete.

From the Meuse-Argonne front the perpendicular distance to the Carignan-Mezieres railroad was 50 kilometres. This region formed the pivot of German operations in northern France, and the vital necessity of covering the great railroad line into Sedan resulted in the convergence on the Meuse-Argonne front of the successive German defensive positions.

The distance between “No man’s land” and the third German withdrawal position in the vicinity of the Meuse River was approximately 18 kilometres; the distance between the corresponding points near the tip of the great salient of the western front was about 65 kilometres, and in the vicinity of Cambrai was over 30 kilometres.

The effect of a penetration of 18 kilometres by the American Army would be equivalent to an advance of 65 kilometres farther west; furthermore, such an advance on our front was far more dangerous to the enemy than an advance elsewhere.

The vital importance of this portion of his position was fully appreciated by the enemy, who had suffered tremendous losses in 1916 in attempting to improve it by the reduction of Verdun. As a consequence it had been elaborately fortified, and consisted of practically a continuous series of positions 20 kilometres or more in depth.

In addition to the artificial defences, the enemy was greatly aided by the natural features of the terrain. East of the Meuse the dominating heights not only protected his left but gave him positions from which powerful artillery could deliver an oblique fire on the western bank.

Batteries located in the elaborately fortified Argonne forest covered his right flank, and could cross their fire with that of the guns on the east bank of the Meuse. Midway between the Meuse and the forest the heights of Montfaucon offered perfect observation and formed a strong natural position which had been heavily fortified.

The east and west ridges abutting on the Meuse and Aire River valleys afforded the enemy excellent machine-gun positions for the desperate defence which the importance of the position would require him to make. North of Montfaucon densely wooded and rugged heights constituted natural features favourable to defensive fighting.

When the First Army became engaged in the simultaneous preparation for two major operations, an interval of 14 days separated the initiation of the two attacks. During this short period the movement of the immense number of troops and the amount of supplies involved in the Meuse-Argonne battle, over the few roads available, and confined entirely to the hours of darkness, was one of the most delicate and difficult problems of the war.

The concentration included 15 divisions, of which 7 were involved in the pending St. Mihiel drive, 3 were in sector in the Vosges, 3 in the neighbourhood of Soissons, 1 in a training area, and 1 near Bar-le-Due. Practically all the Artillery, Aviation, and other auxiliaries to be employed in the new operations were committed to the St. Mihiel attack and therefore could not be moved until its success was assured.

The concentration of all units not to be used at St. Mihiel was commenced immediately, and on September 13th, the second day of St. Mihiel, reserve divisions and Army Artillery units were withdrawn and placed in motion toward the Argonne front.

That part of the American sector from Fresnes-en-Woevre, southeast of Verdun, to the western edge of the Argonne Forest, while nominally under my control, did not actively become a part of my command until September 22nd, on which date my headquarters were established at Souilly, southwest of Verdun.

Of French troops, in addition to the Second French Colonial Corps, composed of 3 divisions, there was also the Seventeenth French Corps of 3 divisions holding the front north and east of Verdun.

At the moment of the opening of the Meuse-Argonne battle, the enemy had 10 divisions in line and 10 in reserve on the front between Fresnes-en-Woevre and the Argonne Forest, inclusive. He had undoubtedly expected a continuation of our advance toward Metz. Successful ruses were carried out between the Meuse River and Luneville to deceive him as to our intentions, and French troops were maintained as a screen along our front until the night before the battle, so that the actual attack was a tactical surprise.

Pershing had insisted that the American forces had to fight as a unit and not be used merely to reinforce the operations of the British and the French.  Now the AEF had its chance, but against German defenses in extremely rugged terrain, and a vital area that the Germans would attempt to hold at all costs.  The AEF was about to have a classic baptism by fire.

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September 12, 1918: First Army Attacks at Saint Mihiel

 

The First United States Army launches its first offensive on September 12, 1918 against the salient of St. Mihiel.  The attack force consisted of three US corps and a French corps.  By the time the battle ended on September 15, the Allies had captured the salient and inflicted 22,500 casualties on the Germans while sustaining 7,000 casualties.  Here is General Pershing’s report on the battle:

At the first operation of the American army the reduction of the salient of St. Mihiel was to he undertaken as soon as the necessary troops and material could be made available. On account of the swampy nature of the country it was especially important that the movement be undertaken and finished before the fall rains should begin, which was usually about the middle of September.

Arrangements were concluded for successive relief of American divisions, and the organization of the First American Army under my personal command was announced on August 10th, with La Fertesous-Jouarre as headquarters. This army nominally assumed control of a portion of the Vesle front, although at the same time directions were given for its secret concentration in the St. Mihiel sector.

The force of American soldiers in France at that moment was sufficient to carry out this offensive, but they were dispersed along the front from Switzerland to the Channel.

The three Army Corps headquarters to participate in the St. Mihiel attack were the First, Fourth, and Fifth. The First was on the Vesle, the Fourth at Toul, and the Fifth not yet completely organized. To assemble combat divisions and service troops and undertake a major operation, within the short period available and with staffs so recently organized, was an extremely difficult task.

Our deficiencies in artillery, aviation, and special troops, caused by the shipment of an undue proportion of infantry and machine guns during the summer, were largely met by the French.

The reduction of the St. Mihiel salient was important, as it would prevent the enemy from interrupting traffic on the Paris-Nancy Railroad by artillery fire and would free the railroad leading north through St. Mihiel to Verdun. It would also provide us with an advantageous base of departure for an attack against the Metz-Sedan Railroad system which was vital to the German armies west of Verdun, and against the Briey Iron Basin which was necessary for the production of German armament and munitions.

The general plan was to make simultaneous attacks against the flanks of the salient. The ultimate objective was tentatively fixed as the general line Marieulles (east of the Moselle) – heights south of Gorze-Mars la Tour-Etain.

The operation contemplated the use on the western face of 3 or 4 American divisions, supported by the attack of 6 divisions of the Second French Army on their left, while 7 American divisions would attack on the southern face, and 3 French divisions would press the enemy at the tip of the salient. As the part to be taken by the Second French Army would be closely related to the attack of the First American Army, Gen. Petain placed all the French troops involved under my personal command.

By August 30th, the concentration of the scattered divisions, corps, and army troops, of the quantities of supplies and munitions required, and the necessary construction of light railways and roads, were well under way.

In accordance with the previous general consideration of operations at Bombon on July 24th, an Allied offensive extending practically along the entire active front was eventually to be carried out. After the reduction of the St. Mihiel sector the Americans were to cooperate in the concerted effort of the Allied armies.

It was the sense of the conference of July 24th, that the extent to which the different operations already planned might carry us could not be then foreseen, especially if the results expected were achieved before the season was far advanced. It seemed reasonable at that time to look forward to a combined offensive for the autumn, which would give no respite to the enemy and would increase our advantage for the inauguration of succeeding operations extending into 1919.

On August 30th, a further discussion with Marshal Foch was held at my headquarters at Ligny-en-Barrois. In view of the new successes of the French and British near Amiens and the continued favourable results toward the Chen in des Dawes on the French front, it was now believed that the limited Allied offensive, which was to prepare for the campaign of 1919, might be carried further before the end of the year.

At this meeting it was proposed by Marshal Foch that the general operations as far as the American Army was concerned should be carried out in detail by:

(a) An attack between the Meuse and the Argonne by the Second French Army, reinforced by from four to six American divisions.

(b) A French-American attack, extending from the Argonne west to the Souain Road, to be executed on the right by an American Army astride the Aisne and on the left by the Fourth French Army.

To carry out these attacks the 10 to 11 American divisions suggested for the St. Mihiel operation and the 4 to 6 for the Second French Army, would leave 8 to 10 divisions for an American Army on the Aisne. It was proposed that the St. Mihiel operation should he initiated on September 10th and the other two on September 15th and 20th, respectively.

The plan suggested for the American participation in these operations was not acceptable to me because it would require the immediate separation of the recently formed First American Army into several groups, mainly to assist French armies. This was directly contrary to the principle of forming a distinct American Army, for which my contention had been insistent.

An enormous amount of preparation had already been made in construction of roads, rail-roads, regulating stations, and other installations looking to the use and supply of our armies on a particular front. The inherent disinclination of our troops to serve under Allied commanders would have grown and American morale would have suffered.

My position was stated quite clearly that the strategical employment of the First Army as a unit would be undertaken where desired, but its disruption to carry out these proposals would not be entertained.

A further conference at Marshal Foch’s headquarters was held on September 2nd, at which Gen. Petain was present. After discussion the question of employing the American Army as a unit was conceded. The essentials of the strategical decision previously arrived at provided that the advantageous situation of the Allies should be exploited to the utmost by vigorously continuing the general battle and extending it eastward to the Meuse.

All the Allied armies were to be employed in a converging action. The British armies, supported by the left of the French armies, were to pursue the attack in the direction of Cambrai; the centre of the French armies, west of Rheims, would continue the actions, already begun, to drive the enemy beyond the Aisne; and the American Army, supported by the right of the French armies, would direct its attack on Sedan and Mezieres.

It should be recorded that although this general offensive was fully outlined at the conference no one present expressed the opinion that the final victory could be won in 1918. In fact, it was believed by the French high command that the Meuse-Argonne attack could not be pushed much beyond Montfaucon before the arrival of winter would force a cessation of operations.

The choice between the two sectors, that east of the Aisne including the Argonne Forest, or the Champagne sector, was left to me. In my opinion, no other Allied troops had the morale or the offensive spirit to overcome successfully the difficulties to be met in the Meuse-Argonne sector and our plans and installations had been prepared for an expansion of operations in that direction.

So the Meuse-Argonne front was chosen. The entire sector of 150 kilometres of front, extending from Port-sur-Seille, east of the Moselle, west to include the Argonne Forest, was accordingly placed under my command, including all French divisions then in that zone.

The First American Army was to proceed with the St. Mihiel operation, after which the operation between the Meuse and the western edge of the Argonne Forest was to be prepared and launched not later than September 25th.

As a result of these decisions, the depth of the St. Mihiel operation was limited to the line Vigneulles-Thiaucourt-Regnieville. The number of divisions to be used was reduced and the time shortened. Eighteen to 19 divisions were to be in the front line. There were 4 French and 15 American divisions available, 6 of which would be in reserve, while the two flank divisions of the front line were not to advance.

Furthermore, 2 Army Corps headquarters, with their corps troops, practically all the Army Artillery and Aviation, and the First, Second, and Fourth Divisions, the first two destined to take a leading part in the St. Mihiel attack, were all due to be withdrawn and started for the Meuse-Argonne by the fourth day of the battle.

The salient had been held by the Germans since September, 1914. It covered the most sensitive section of the enemy’s position on the Western Front; namely, the Mezieres-Sedan-Metz Railroad and the Briey Iron Basin; it threatened the entire region between Verdun and Nancy, and interrupted the main rail line from Paris to the east.

Its primary strength lay in the natural defensive features of the terrain itself. The western face of the salient extended along the rugged, heavily wooded eastern heights of the Meuse; the southern face followed the heights of the Meuse for 8 kilometres to the east and then crossed the plain of the Woevre, including within the German lines the detached heights of Loupmont and Montsec which dominated the plain and afforded the enemy unusual facilities for observation.

The enemy had reinforced the positions by every artificial means during a period of four years.

On the night of September 11th, the troops of the First Army were deployed in position. On the southern face of the salient was the First Corps, Maj. Gen. Liggett, commanding, with the Eighty-second, Ninetieth, Fifth, and Second Divisions in line, extending from the Moselle westward.

On its left was the Fourth Corps, Maj. Gen. Joseph T. Dick-man, commanding, with the Eighty-ninth, Forty-second, and First Divisions, the left of this corps being opposite Montsec. These two Army Corps were to deliver the principal attack, the line pivoting on the centre division of the First Corps.

The First Division on the left of the Fourth Corps was charged with the double mission of covering its own flank while advancing some 20 kilometres due north toward the heart of the salient, where it was to make contact with the troops of the Fifth Corps.

On the western face of the salient lay the Fifth Corps, Maj. Gen. George H. Cameron, commanding, with the Twenty-sixth Division, Fifteenth French Colonial Division, and the Fourth Division in line, from Mouilly west to Les Eparges and north to Watronville.

Of these three divisions, the Twenty-sixth alone was to make a deep advance directed southeast toward Vigneulles. The French Division was to make a short progression to the edge of the heights in order to cover the left of the Twenty-sixth. The Fourth Division was not to advance.

In the centre, between our Fourth and Fifth Army Corps, was the Second French Colonial Corps, Maj. Gen. E. J. Blondlat, commanding, covering a front of 40 kilometres with 3 small French divisions. These troops were to follow up the retirement of the enemy from the tip of the salient.

The French independent air force was at my disposal which, together with the British bombing squadrons and our own air forces, gave us the largest assembly of aviation that had ever been engaged in one operation. Our heavy guns were able to reach Metz and to interfere seriously with German rail movements.

At dawn on September 12th, after four hours of violent artillery fire of preparation, and accompanied by small tanks, the Infantry of the First and Fourth Corps advanced. The infantry of the Fifth Corps commenced its advance at 5 a.m.

The operation was carried out with entire precision. Just after daylight on September 13th, elements of the First and Twenty-sixth Divisions made a junction near Hattonchatel and Vigneulles, 18 kilometres northeast of St. Mihiel.

The rapidity with which our divisions advanced overwhelmed the enemy, and all objectives were reached by the afternoon of September 13th. The enemy had apparently started to withdraw some of his troops from the tip of the salient on the eve of our attack, but had been unable to carry it through.

We captured nearly 16,000 prisoners, 443 guns, and large stores of material and supplies. The energy and swiftness with which the operation was carried out enabled us to smother opposition to such an extent that we suffered less than 7,000 casualties during the actual period of the advance.

During the next two days the right of our line west of the Moselle River was advanced beyond the objectives laid down in the original orders. This completed the operation for the time being and the line was stabilized to be held by the smallest practicable force.

The material results of the victory achieved were very important. An American army was an accomplished fact, and the enemy had felt its power. No form of propaganda could overcome the depressing effect on the morale of the enemy of this demonstration of our ability to organize a large American force and drive it successfully through his defences.

It gave our troops implicit confidence in their superiority and raised their morale to the highest pitch. For the first time wire entanglements ceased to be regarded as impassable barriers and open-warfare training, which had been so urgently insisted upon, proved to be the correct doctrine.

Our divisions concluded the attack with such small losses and in such high spirits that without the usual rest they were immediately available for employment in heavy fighting in a new theatre of operations.

The strength of the First Army in this battle totalled approximately 500,000 men, of whom about 70,000 were French.

July 15, 1918: Second Battle of the Marne Begins

 

On July 15, 1918, the Germans began what would be their final offensive on the Western front in World War I.  The attack on the French Fourth Army east of Reims was stopped on the first day by fierce French in depth resistance.  The attack on the Sixth Army west of Reims fared better, making a breakthrough across the south bank of the River Marne.  Reinforced by British forces and 85,000 American troops, the French Sixth Army brought the German  offensive to a grinding halt on July 17.

The Germans had shot their bolt and now it was time for the Allies to launch a counteroffensive with twenty-four French divisions, four British divisions, two Italian divisions and eight American divisions.  (The American divisions were twice the size of British and French divisions and thus were the equivalent of sixteen French divisions.)  The counter-offensive was a complete success capturing 800 artillery pieces, 30,000 German troops and inflicting an additional 139,000 German casualties.  French observers highly praised the American troops for their elan and their willingness to accept high casualties in order to take ground.  German reports noted defects in American attacks due to inexperience, but also routinely mentioned that the Americans fought with great tenacity and courage.  Here is an extract from General Pershing’s report on the battle:

 

 

The enemy had encouraged his soldiers to believe that the July 15th attack would conclude the war with a German peace.

Although he made elaborate plans for the operation, he failed to conceal fully his intentions, and the front of attack was suspected at least one week ahead.

On the Champagne front the actual hour for the assault was known and the enemy was checked with heavy losses. The 42nd Division entered the line near Somme Py immediately, and five of its infantry battalions and all its artillery became engaged.

Southwest of Rheims and along the Marne to the east of Chateau-Thierry the Germans were at first somewhat successful, a penetration of eight kilometres beyond the river being effected against the French immediately to the right of our 3rd Division.

The following quotation from the report of the Commanding General 3rd Division gives the result of the fighting on his front:

Although the rush of the German troops overwhelmed some of the front-line positions, causing the infantry and machine-gun companies to suffer, in some cases a 50 per cent loss, no German soldier crossed the road from Fossoy to Crezancy, except as a prisoner of war, and by noon of the following day (July 16th) there were no Germans in the foreground of the 3rd Division sector except the dead.

On this occasion a single regiment of the 3rd Division wrote one of the most brilliant pages in our military annals. It prevented the crossing at certain points on its front, while on either flank the Germans who had gained a footing pressed forward. Our men, firing in three sections, met the German attacks with counter-attacks at critical points and succeeded in throwing two German divisions into complete confusion, capturing 600 prisoners.

The Marne salient was inherently weak and offered an opportunity for a counter-offensive that was obvious. If successful, such an operation would afford immediate relief to the Allied defence, would remove the threat against Paris and free the Paris-Nancy railroad.

But, more important than all else, it would restore the morale of the Allies and remove the profound depression and fear then existing.

Up to this time our units had been put in here and there at critical points, as emergency troops to stop the terrific German advance. In every trial, whether on the defensive or offensive, they had proved themselves equal to any troops in Europe.

As early as June 23rd and again on July 10th at Bombon, I had very strongly urged that our best divisions be concentrated under American command, if possible, for use as a striking force against the Marne salient.

Although the prevailing view among the Allies was that American units were suitable only for the defensive, and that at all events they could be used to better advantage under Allied command, the suggestion was accepted in principle, and my estimate of their offensive fighting qualities was soon put to the test.

The selection by the Germans of the Champagne sector and the eastern and southern faces of the Marne pocket on which to make their offensive was fortunate for the Allies, as it favoured the launching of the counter-attack already planned. There were now over 1,200,000 American troops in France, which provided a considerable force of reserves.

Every American division with any sort of training was made available for use in a counter-offensive.

General Petain’s initial plan for the counter-attack involved the entire western face of the Marne salient. The First and Second American Divisions, with the First French Moroccan Division between them, were employed as the spearhead of the main attack, driving directly eastward, through the most sensitive portion of the German lines, to the heights south of Soissons.

The advance began on July 18th, without the usual brief warning of a preliminary bombardment, and these three divisions at a single bound broke through the enemy’s infantry defences and overran his artillery, cutting or interrupting the German communications leading into the salient.

A general withdrawal from the Marne was immediately begun by the enemy, who still fought stubbornly to prevent disaster.

The First Division, throughout four days of constant fighting, advanced 11 kilometres, capturing Berzy-le-Sec and the heights above Soissons and taking some 3,500 prisoners and 68 field guns from the 7 German divisions employed against it. It was relieved by a British division.

The Second Division advanced 8 kilometres in the first 26 hours, and by the end of the second day was facing Tigny, having captured 3,000 prisoners and 66 field guns. It was relieved the night of the 19th by a French division.

The result of this counter-offensive was of decisive importance. Due to the magnificent dash and power displayed on the field of Soissons by our First and Second Divisions the tide of war was definitely turned in favour of the Allies.

Other American divisions participated in the Marne counter-offensive. A little to the south of the Second Division, the Fourth was in line with the French and was engaged until July 22nd. The First American Corps, Maj. Gen. Hunter Liggett commanding, with the Twenty-sixth Division and a French division, acted as a pivot of the movement toward Soissons, capturing Torcy on the 18th and reaching the Chateau-Thierry-Soissons road on the 21st.

At the same time the Third Division crossed the Marne and took the heights of Mont St. Pere and the villages of Charteves and Jaulgonne.

In the First Corps, the Forty-second Division relieved the Twenty-sixth on July 25th and extended its front, on the 26th relieving the French division. From this time until August 2nd it fought its way through the Forest de Fere and across the Ourcq, advancing toward the Vesle until relieved by the Fourth Division on August 3rd.

Early in this period elements of the Twenty-eighth Division participated in the advance.

Farther to the east the Third Division forced the enemy back to Roncheres Wood, where it was relieved on July 30th by the Thirty-second Division from the Vosges front. The Thirty-second, after relieving the Third and some elements of the Twenty-eighth on the line of the Ourcq River, advanced abreast of the Forty-second toward the Vesle.

On August 3rd it passed under control of our Third Corps, Maj. Gen. Robert L. Bullard commanding, which made its first appearance in battle at this time, while the Fourth Division took up the task of the Forty-second Division and advanced with the Thirty-second to the Vesle River, where, on August 6th, the operation for the reduction of the Marne salient terminated.

In the hard fighting from July 18th to August 6th the Germans were not only halted in their advance but were driven back from the Marne to the Vesle and committed wholly to the defensive.

The force of American arms had been brought to bear in time to enable the last offensive of the enemy to be crushed.

 

Joseph Girard

When I was a boy and I first saw the film Sergeant York, I wondered if John J. Pershing, who was still alive in 1940, had played himself in the scene in which Sergeant York is presented with the Medal of Honor.  It was an honest mistake.  Joseph Girard portrayed Pershing, as he had many times, due to his uncanny resemblance to Pershing.  The role was not credited in the film.  Girard was ten years younger than Pershing and would die in 1949, one year after the General.  Girard appeared in more than 280 films.

 

 

Pershing called Sergeant York “The greatest civilian soldier of the war.”  Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander in chief of the Allied Forces said of York:  “What York did was the greatest thing accomplished by any soldier of all the armies of Europe”.

Quotes Suitable for Framing: John J. Pershing

 

 

 

The deadliest weapon in the world is a MARINE and his rifle!

General John J. Pershing

Like most soldiers General Pershing had little fondness for the Marine Corps, viewing them as competitors and headline hunters.  He attempted and failed to keep all Marine units out of the American Expeditionary Forces. However, he was impressed by the combat prowess of the Marines who fought in France.  After a less than satisfactory inspection of an Army unit on February 12, 1918 he wrote in frustration “Why in hell can’t the Army do it if the Marines can; they are all the same kind of men, why can’t they be like Marines?”

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Pershing Compromises

The guiding star of General Pershing in France was that the Americans were to form a separate Army and operate as a cohesive unit.  An Allied Supreme War Council was held on May 1-2, 1918.  The discussions were often contentious with Pershing resisting the idea that American units should be amalgamated with French and British units.  Finally Pershing conceded with the following agreement which allowed temporary service by American units then in France with the British and French armies:

 

It is the opinion of the Supreme War Council that, in order to carry the war to a successful conclusion, an American Army should be formed as early as possible under its own commander and under its own flag.

In order to meet the present emergency it is agreed that American troops should be brought to France as rapidly as Allied transportation facilities will permit, and that, as far as consistent with the necessity of building up an American Army, preference will be given to infantry and machine-gun units for training and service with French and British Armies; with the understanding that such infantry and machine-gun units are to be withdrawn and united with its own artillery and auxiliary troops into divisions and corps at the direction of the American Commander-in-Chief after consultation with the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies in France.

Subparagraph A.  It is also agreed that during the month of May preference should be given to the transportation of infantry and machine-gun units of six divisions, and that any excess tonnage shall be devoted to bringing over such other troops as may be determined by the American Commander-in-Chief.

Subparagraph B.  It is further agreed that this program shall be continued during the month of June upon condition that the British Government shall furnish transportation for a minimum of 130,000 men in May and 150,000 men in June, with the understanding that the first six divisions of infantry shall go to the British for training and service, and that troops sent over in June shall be allocated for training and service as the American Commander-in-Chief may determine.

Subparagraph C.  It is also further agreed that if the British Government shall transport an excess of 150,000 men in June that such excess shall be infantry and machine-gun units, and that early in June there shall be a new review of the situation to determine further action.

In hindsight the agreement seems sensible.  American units would gain some combat experience with the British and the French on a temporary basis, with an American army formed as soon as sufficient troops had been shipped to France.

 

 

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President John J. Pershing

 

 

It has long been thought by most historians that General John J. Pershing made a great mistake by agreeing to the Republican draft for President in 1920.  A national hero after World War I, he was no politician, a point he repeatedly made during his term in office.   A few revisionist historians have contended that Pershing was a highly effective President who saved the country much trouble and care down the road, but these historians are distinctly in the minority.  The current writer is firmly in the camp of the majority of historians who view Pershing’s Presidency as an unfortunate end to a glorious career.

Once Pershing had the Republican nomination in 1920, his election was a foregone conclusion even though he did almost no campaigning.  By 1920 the country was tired of the policies of the Democrats under Wilson and ready for a change.  The economic downturn after The Great War only increased the unlikelihood of a Democrat victory in November, and Pershing and the GOP won in a landslide.

Pershing ran his administration much as he ran the AEF.  Find the right men for the job, tell them in broad terms what to do, and then get out of their way.  The economy quickly rebounded and prosperity made the new administration popular, popular enough to get away with a move that most Republicans viewed with displeasure.  When the French and Belgians occupied the Ruhr to extract reparations called for under the Versailles Treaty from the recalcitrant Germans in January of 1923, Pershing gave his full-throated approval.  Pershing had always believed that the armistice which ended the fighting had been a mistake, and that Germany should have been occupied by the Allies to make plain to them that they had been beaten in the field, and that planning for a future war of vengeance was madness.  Pershing knew that he could never get Congress to appropriate funds for American troops to join in the occupation of the Ruhr;   he instead announced 25 new consulates in the Ruhr and sent a force of 2,000 Marines to protect them.  Isolationists in Congress howled, but Pershing responded that he had seen too many American boys die in the Great War and he would do whatever it took to to prevent that from happening in a second Great War.  With American involvement, the British also dispatched troops and spearheaded negotiations with the Germans to make the reparation payments more feasible for the Germans.

Perhaps things would have calmed down if not for the declaration of emergency in Bavaria by Bavarian Prime Minister Eugen von Knilling on September 26, 1923.  Pershing, over the strong objections of the German government, sent 1,000 Marines from the Ruhr to Munich to protect the American consulate.  This move led to ever increasing mass protests outside of the American consulate.  On November 9, 1923 a huge crowd attempted to storm the consulate.  The Marines opened fire and some 243 Germans were killed and 1523 wounded.  Among the dead were General Erich Ludendorff and an obscure Austrian politician and former corporal in the German army, Adolf Hitler, who led a small party calling themselves the National Socialist Workers’ Party.  The Munich massacre, as it came to be called, led to political convulsions in Germany with the German army seizing control and imposing martial law throughout the country. Continue Reading

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Pershing Speaks!

 

The things you find on the internet.  An address by General “Black Jack” Pershing from France during World War I.  His voice was more sonorous than I expected, perhaps I anticipated a more clipped and prosaic pronunciation from his many years in the Army.  Pershing declined to run for President in 1920 but said he would serve if the people wanted him.  Pershing was a Republican, but party leaders thought he was too closely associated with Wilson’s policies.  An interesting what if as to how history would have been impacted if Pershing, who lived until 1948, had been elected President in 1920.

 

 

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Bastille Day and Les Sammes

Uncle Sam shaking hands with the Marquis de Lafayette, French poster-1917

On Bastille Day 1917, General John J. Pershing reviewed French troops and pinned the Croix de Guerre on men who had earned the award by their valor.  The Star Spangled Banner and the Marseillaise were played and many of the civilian observers wept with joy and emotion that American help was on the way.  Today the French are honoring Les Sammes, as they are all year, who came to France in World War I to fight to keep France free.  US Marines will march down the Champs-Elysees with French troops in Paris, a symbol of the good relations that have usually existed between the old Allies. Continue Reading

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June 14, 1917: Pershing Arrives in France

On June 14, 1917 General John J. Pershing and 190 of his staff, military and civilians, arrived in France.  The first American combat troops would land on June 26, 1917.  America would not have a full division in France until the arrival of the last elements of the First Division in October 1917.  Eventually two million doughboys would serve in France but the buildup was initially a slow process.  No doubt many Allied leaders were wondering if the Americans would arrive in time to turn the balance against a Germany that was in the process of winning the War in the East.  Perilous times for America and its allies a century ago.  We forget today what a monumental task it was to raise an army of millions, train and equip it and to ship it across the Atlantic, and to do this from a starting stop in about a year’s time.  No wonder that some Allied leaders were skeptical, as Winston Churchill noted after Pearl Harbor: Continue Reading

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May 10, 1917: Pershing Appointed to Lead the AEF

After the death of Frederick Funston on February 19, 1917, it was inevitable that the newly promoted Major General John J. (Blackjack) Pershing would command the American Expeditionary Force that would be sent to France.  It must have seemed somewhat dizzying to him.  Nineteen years before he had been an overage thirty-eight year old First Lieutenant who would be lucky to make Major before retirement.  In 1893 he obtained a law degree in case he decided to leave the Army, fed up by the slow promotions offered by the minuscule peace time Army.

The Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt made him.  At the battle of San Juan Hill he made a lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt.  Under fire he was as “cool as a bowl of cracked ice”, as one observer noted.  Rising to the temporary rank of Major of Volunteers he gained a reputation as a good combat officer in both Cuba and the Philippines and would serve as Adjutant General of the Philippines Department.

After the Spanish-American War he reverted to the regular army rank of Captain.  In 1905 Captain Pershing was promoted to Brigadier General Pershing by President Roosevelt over the heads of 835 officers more senior than him.  Surprisingly there was not much animosity over this, Pershing enjoying a reputation of extreme professional competence in the Army, a soldier’s soldier. Continue Reading

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Fearless Freddie Dies

Frederick_Funston_001

All but forgotten today, Major General Frederick Funston would almost certainly would have led the American Expeditionary Force in World War I if he had not died at age 51 of a heart attack on February 19, 1917.  Nicknamed “Fearless Freddie” he was perhaps the most famous American soldier between the Civil War and World War I.  He had a very unique career.  Always in ill health, he was a physically small man, 5 foot, 5 inches, and throughout his life never weighed more than 120 pounds.  After failing an admissions test to West Point in 1884 he pursued a career in botany.  Tiring of the quiet life he enlisted in the Cuban Revolutionary Army fighting against Spain.  Contracting malaria his weight fell to an alarming 95 pounds and he was granted medical leave in the United States.

After the declaration of war against Spain he was commissioned colonel of the 20th Kansas Infantry.  Fighting against the Filipino Insurrection, he became a national hero by capturing the Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo.  A separate action earned him a Medal of Honor.  Playing a leading role in putting down the Insurrection, Funston came under attack by critics for the severe measures he took.  The pen of Mark Twain was enlisted against him:

If this Funstonian boom continues, Funstonism will presently affect the army. In fact, this has already happened. There are weak-headed and weak-principled officers in all armies, and these

are always ready to imitate successful notoriety-breeding methods, let them be good or bad. The fact that Funston has achieved notoriety by paralyzing the universe with a fresh and hideous

idea, is sufficient for this kind—they will call that hand if they can, and go it one better when the chance offers. Funston’s example has bred many imitators, and many ghastly additions to

our history: the torturing of Filipinos by the awful “watercure,” for instance, to make them confess—^what? Truth? Or lies ? How can one know which it is they are telling ? For under

unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless. Yet upon such evidence American officers have actually—but you know about

those atrocities which the War Office has been hiding a year or two; and about General Smith’s now world-celebrated order of massacre—thus summarized by the press from Major Waller’s

testimony:

“Kill and burn—this is no time to take prisoners—the more you kill and burn, the better—Kill all above the age of ten—make Samar a howling

wilderness!

Funston was completely unrepentant:

I personally strung up thirty-five Filipinos without trial, so what was all the fuss over Waller’s ‘dispatching’ a few ‘treacherous savages’? If there had been more Smiths and Wallers, the war would have been over long ago. Impromptu domestic hanging might also hasten the end of the war. For starters, all Americans who had recently petitioned Congress to sue for peace in the Philippines should be dragged out of their homes and lynched. Continue Reading

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May 14, 1916: Patton Shootout

29mneba

The Punitive Expedition had been an exercise in frustration for General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing.  Pancho Villa, predictably, had eluded the Americans, refusing to stand and fight.  Thirty year old Second Lieutenant George S. Patton had been an aide to Pershing.  Requesting a chance to command troops, he was assigned by Pershing to Troop C of the 13th Cavalry.  In that capacity Patton took part in efforts to locate Captain Julio Cardenas, commander of the elite bodyguard of Villa, the Dorados, “Golden Ones”.

On May 14, 1916 Patton was on a mission to buy corn, his force consisting of a corporal, six privates and a civilian interpreter, all in three Dodge touring cars.  Learning from locals that Cardenas might be present at a ranch, which Patton had searched the previous week, near the town of Rubio, Patton decided to investigate.  Leaving two cars to block the southwest exit from the ranch, Patton, a driver, the civilian interpreter and a private took the remaining car to the northwest exit.  Patton advanced on the ranch with the civilian interpreter.  He spotted  an old man and a boy butchering a steer near a fence.  Suddenly three horsemen charged out from the ranch.

Initially they rode to the southwest.  Encountering Patton’s soldiers they then charged to the northwest, estimating presumably that the odds were in their favor against the lone American officer.

The Mexicans opened up at 20 yards.  Ignoring their fire, Patton coolly aimed his Colt single action pistol at the lead rider, knocking him off his horse.  Patton fired at the two remaining riders as they rode past him.  He then ducked around a corner of the ranch house and reloaded. Patton brought down the second horseman.  Patton waited while the bandit freed himself from his dead horse, Patton only shooting him when the Mexican attempted to fire rather than surrender.  The third bandit was brought down in a hail of fire from Patton and two of his soldiers who were now joining the fight.

The first bandit Patton had shot, got to his feet, made the mistake of going for his pistol, and was quickly brought down by the Americans.

The first bandit was identified as Captain Julio Cardenas, the second as Juan Garza and the third was never identified. Continue Reading

2

Punitive Expedition Gets Under Way

VillaUncleSamBerrymanCartoon

In the wake of Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, go here to read about it, the US wasted no time in putting together a punitive force to enter Mexico and destroy or disperse Villa’s forces:

Fort Sam Houston, Texas,
March 11, 1916.

GeneralPershing,
Fort Bliss, Texas.
Secretary of War has designated you to command expedition into Mexico to capture Villa and his bandits. There will be two columns, one to enter from Columbus and one from Hachita, via Culber- son Is. Rachita column will consist of Seventh Cavalry, Tenth Cavalry (less two troops) and one battery horse artillery. Columbus column will consist of Thirteenth Cavelry (less one troop) a  regiment of cavalry  from the east, one battery of horse artillery, one company of engineers and First Aero Squadron with eight aeroplenes. Reinforced brigade of Sixth Infantry, Sixteenth Infantry, First Battalion Fourth Field Artillery and auxiliary troops will follow Columbus column. Two companies of engineers will be ordered to Fort Bliss awaiting further orders.  Necessary signel corps will be orderedf rom here. Will furnish you War Departmen instructions later. Have you any recommendations to make?

The troops designated  to comprise the expedition were the 7th, lOth, 11th and 13th Regiments of Cavalry, 6th and 16th Regiments of Infantry, Batteries B and C, 6th Field Artillery, 1st Battalion 4th Field Artillery, Companies E and H, 2nd Battalion of Engineers, Ambulance Company Number 7, Field Hospital Number 7, Signal Corps detach-ments, 1st Aero Squadron and Wagon Companies, Number 1 and 2.   Throughout the course of the expedition, much press attention would be given to the 1rst Aero Squadron deploying the cutting edge technology of airplanes.  Pershing organized his force into a division of two cavalry brigades and one infantry brigade. Continue Reading

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March 9, 1916: Villa Raids Columbus, New Mexico

The Mexican revolts against dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1910 led to a complex and ever shifting mixture of groups and personalities fighting for control of Mexico in an intermittent vicious civil war that would last for over two decades.  Inevitably the US became involved in this vast complex with the US occupying the Mexican port of Veracruz in 1914 for six months.  In early 1916 part time revolutionary general, and full time bandit, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his “Army of the North” were on the run after being defeated by the forces of José Venustiano Carranza Garza, who would go on to become President of Mexico until assassinated in 1920.  Villa was angered that the United States no longer gave him clandestine support and had switched its support to Carranza in hopes that he could form a stable government.

Desperate for supplies, Villa launched a raid on Columbus, New Mexico by five hundred of his men.  Villa, relying on faulty intelligence thought that Columbus was garrisoned by 30 US troops.  Actually, 341 troopers of the 13th Cavalry were stationed in the town. Continue Reading

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Unspeakable Loss

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Many posts on this blog will be dealing in the years to come with the involvement of America in World War I and the events leading up to it.  One of the key figures will be John J. Pershing.  In a military career that exhibited a dedication to hard work rather than brilliance, Pershing at 38 was still a First Lieutenant.  His opportunity came during the Spanish-American War when he had the good fortune to command black troops of the 10th Cavalry at the Battle of San Juan Hill and came to the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who he knew slightly prior to the War.  In 1905 Roosevelt promoted Pershing from Captain to Brigadier General, over the heads of 900 officers senior to him, an almost unheard of move in the peacetime Army where promotion was almost entirely a result of seniority.

As Pershing’s professional career was taking off so did his personal life.  In 1905 the 45 year old bachelor married the 25 year old Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of  powerful Senator Francis Warren of Wyoming, who would serve in the Senate from 1895 until his death in 1929.  A veteran of the Union Army, and a Medal of Honor recipient, he would be the last Civil War veteran to serve in the Senate.  Pershing now had a firm advocate in the Senate, but it was love rather than calculation that lay behind his marriage as indicated by their rapidly growing family of three girls and a boy.

In 1913 Pershing was assigned to command a brigade at the Presidio in San Francisco.  With tensions running high with Mexico, the brigade was deployed to Fort Bliss in 1914, Pershing deciding to keep his family safe and comfortable at their house at the Presidio rather than having them at Fort Bliss, a decision he would come to bitterly regret.  In 1915, no fighting with Mexico having ensued, Pershing was making arrangements to have his family join him at Fort Bliss.  Just before his family was to move, Pershing received a telegram on the morning of August 27, 1915 informing him that his wife and three daughters, Mary, age 3, Anne, age 7, and Helen, age 8, had died in a house fire.  Only his 6 year old son Francis Warren survived, rescued by Pershing’s long time black orderly. Continue Reading

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Father Galveston

It is ironic that a priest who became so associated with Galveston and Texas was a Yankee!  James Martin Kirwin was born in Circleville, Ohio on July 1, 1872.  Kirwin was ordained to the priesthood on June 19, 1895.   Incardinated in the Diocese of Galveston, Texas, while in the seminary he attended, Father Kirwin was sent to the University of America in Washington, DC by the Bishop of Galveston, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology.  His ability being recognized early, Father Irwin was made rector of Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston in 1896.

Throughout his priesthood Father Kirwin was always a whirlwind of activity, and he quickly became noticed for the heroism with which he attended the sick during the yellow fever epidemic of 1897.  During the Spanish-American War he helped raise the First United States Volunteer Infantry and served as its chaplain with the rank of captain.  Although the regiment never served over seas, the fate of most of the American units raised for the Spanish-American War, Father Kirwin’s service began a life long association for him with the Texas National Guard and the United States Army.

Father Kirwin rose to national prominence after the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the worst national disaster in US history which killed approximately 8,000 people.   He helped found a committee of public safety which restored law and order to the city, he drafted the martial law plan, helped with the burial of the dead, and organized and served on the central relief committee which aided victims of the hurricane.  Together with his good friend Rabbi Henry Cohen, he spearheaded the efforts over the next few years to rebuild Galveston, including the building of a seawall for the city, the cornerstone of which he blessed in 1902 and saw through to completion in 1905. Continue Reading