We will wait for the Americans and the tanks.
General Philippe Petain, 1917
Today is Bastille Day. Our relationship with our oldest ally has been frequently rocky over the years, in spite of the aid France gave us in winning our independence and the fact that the US was instrumental in saving France in two World Wars. As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, it is good to recall a time when French and Americans fought so closely together that at times they seemed to be one army.
By 1917 the French Army was in a mutinous state. Millions of Frenchmen were wounded and dead with little to show for it. Petain, the victor of Verdun, was made commander in chief of the French army. He constantly visited units and told them that wasteful, ill-prepared offensives were a thing of the past. Petain had enjoyed a great deal of success with intensively prepared small scale offensives where he could mass overwhelming force against a small enemy section of the immense line of trenches that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. He had these type of offensives on a grand scale in mind for a rejuvenated French army in 1918. He also knew two other things: Allied factories were beginning to produce massive amounts of tanks that could spearhead future offensives and America had entered the War: the Yanks were coming! At the conclusion of most of his speeches in 1917 he told his men that they would wait for the Americans and the tanks, a line that never failed to receive thunderous applause from the troops. The average poilu was a brave man and he was willing to die, if need be, to win the War. He was no longer willing to die in useless offensives that accomplished nothing, and Petain understood that.
American troops trickled in during 1917 and received a tumultuous reception from the French. When Colonel Charles E. Stanton, nephew of Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, said at the tomb of Lafayette on July 4, 1917: “Lafayette we are here!” both nations were electrified.
America sent over endless amounts of food in 1917 and 1918 that kept the French from starving. The American Navy helped to master the U-boat threat.
By October 1917 four American divisions were deployed to France. French combat veterans acted as instructors for the troops and much of the artillery was provided by the French. This of course was only the first wave of millions of Americans training in the US to be shipped across the Atlantic in 1918. Continue Reading