Into the Intro: The American Army and the First World War


Go Into the Intro of The American Army and the First World War

The American Army, though late to the battlefield, was a key to Allied victory in the Great War. In The American Army and the First World War, David Woodward explores how a modern US Army was formed and how the Doughboys shaped the outcome of the war.


Despite its expanding population and booming economy, the United States had the smallest armed force of any major power prior to World War I, essentially an Indian constabulary. It is true that prewar reforms had federalized the National Guard, providing for a more ready and better-trained reserve, created a General Staff, and established an enhanced system of officer education that included the War College. This provided the framework for a modern military force, but the American public continued to associate universal military service and large and well-armed forces with militarism. With an authorized strength of only 3,820 officers and 84,799 men, the volunteer US Army consequently did not possess either the manpower or the modern weaponry to conduct a campaign in Europe, much less against a great power such as Germany, when the United States entered the war in April 1917.

Many Americans initially hoped to wage war against Berlin with the country’s navy, finances, and industrial, agricultural, and natural resources such as oil. But it soon became obvious that soldiers must be dispatched to European battlefields.

Two men in particular are destined to dominate America’s role in the war: President Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, and General John J. Pershing, a Missourian country boy of Alsatian ancestry. Wilson made a critical and war-winning decision when he abandoned the American tradition of voluntary military service and embraced conscription, which made possible an American force of some 2 million men in Europe by the Armistice of November 11, 1918. Never before had the United States fought a war without an army recruited by the states. At the same time conscription also required new and enlightened approaches by the army’s leadership in dealing with the rank and file. The Progressive movement played an important role in this but pressure from citizen soldiers also created a new relationship between the leaders and the led.

After choosing Pershing as commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) Wilson gave him virtual control over America’s military role in Europe. Although the United States was involved in a coalition war no American field commander has before or since been given a freer hand to conduct military operations. Convinced of the superiority of the American people and their traditions, Pershing planned to show the British and the French how to defeat the Germans. He and his staff subsequently developed plans for what they expected to be a war-winning American offensive against Metz in 1919, an objective destined to play a critical role in America’s relationship with its war partners in 1918.

Pershing’s vast powers created a dysfunctional chain of command between the War Department and GHQ which hampered the war effort. On the other hand, it can be argued that Pershing was right in both his determination to create an independent US Army in Europe and his opposition to amalgamating US troops with under-strength French or British divisions. Without question the British and French faced a perilous military situation during the spring of 1918 and feared that they would be overwhelmed by the series of powerful German offensives without the United States feeding troops into their battle-depleted divisions. At the same time the British and French frequently had ulterior motives. For example, the British sought to substitute US manpower on the British front for troops to be employed in the outer theaters to protect or expand the British Empire. Moreover, when Americans were placed under foreign command as was the case in the undeclared war in north Russia, the experience was not a happy one for the Americans. An independent US Army playing a key role in Germany’s defeat also seemed essential if Wilson were to succeed in imposing a liberal peace settlement on both the enemy and America’s coalition partners. Although the US Army’s leadership did not have the benefit of a Joint Chiefs of Staff or a National Security Council to integrate political, economic, and strategic planning it embraced military policies generally in harmony with Wilson’s political objectives.

Some readers may be disappointed that this is not triumphal or celebratory history. This wide-ranging account of the creation of a modern US Army and its role in World War I also does not examine American participation exclusively from a US perspective. Rather it places the role of the American Expeditionary Force within the larger war and examines the tactical and operational successes and failures of the opposing forces. Particular attention is paid to AEF doctrine that emphasized self-reliant infantry armed with rifles and bayonets. Although this doctrine may well have made US soldiers more aggressive than their European counterparts it contributed to unnecessarily high casualties. The rapid and unprecedented expansion of the US Army and the haste in which Doughboys were deployed on European battlefields also negatively affected combat readiness and increased casualties. Some soldiers were actually sent into battle without having previously fired the rifle they carried. Many junior officers were also almost as inexperienced as the men they led. This, however, was not Pershing’s fault. He fought with the troops that the War Department sent him, and the American leadership believed that it had no choice but to send every available man to Europe to avoid a German victory during the first half of 1918.

Breakdowns in logistics (or Services of Supply (SOS)) and the inability of US industry to provide the AEF with modern weaponry also undermined the American war effort. During the last months of the war the AEF found itself desperately short of the supplies and the SOS personnel it required to sustain American forces in the field. US industry had been capable of building great warships with powerful guns but failed to provide Doughboys with the required equipment to fight a modern war. As the war abruptly and surprisingly ended in November, the AEF remained a “beggar” army, dependent upon its allies, especially the French, for tanks, aircraft, and artillery.

Although many obstacles had to be overcome, the AEF eventually proved itself on the battlefield and played a decisive role in Germany’s defeat. The French and the British were quick to criticize (belittle is not too strong a word) the AEF’s performance at Meuse-Argonne (the costliest battle in American history), but Doughboys learned to fight as they fought. Faced with certain defeat, especially after the American First Army’s breakthrough and rapid advance at the beginning of November, the German high command felt that it had no choice but to accept an armistice despite Allied terms that amounted to unconditional surrender.

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