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America Enters The Great War
Historian Mitch Yockelson looks back at how the United States entered the First World War, and its contribution to the events of 1918 which led to the signing of the armistice
When the United States joined its British and French comrades in their fight against Germany by entering the Great War on April 6, 1917, tremendous optimism erupted among the Allied commanders, who assumed that raw, inexperienced doughboys soon to be mustered for service in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) would be incorporated into their armies for training and combat. They were sorely mistaken. One month later, President Woodrow Wilson and his Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, selected General John J. Pershing to lead the AEF. Wilson and Baker gave Pershing much latitude in his role as commander-in-chief, and one simple order: that he cooperate with the Allies in conducting military operations, but his soldiers must fight as an independent, American command.
When Pershing’s small staff headed to Europe in June 1917 to meet with the Allied commanders and organize the AEF, he was hindered by the fact that his force would literally have to be built from the ground up and would not be ready for combat until the next year. Miraculously, Pershing did build the AEF in relatively short order, but to the dismay of Allied leaders such as Marshal Ferdinand Foch and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the doughboys didn’t make their presence known on the battlefields until spring 1918.
No officer in the US Army was more qualified to lead a fighting force in Europe than Pershing. Much of his military career had been spent abroad, where he represented his country as a soldier and a politician. A West Point graduate, Pershing served with a cavalry regiment on the frontier in New Mexico, taught military science at the University of Nebraska, was cited for bravery during the Spanish-American War, and in the Philippines his impressive work as both a department commander and military governor helped him catapult over a long list of other junior officers for promotion to brigadier general. Pershing's stellar military career was marked by tragedy when a fire on August 27, 1915 at the Presidio in San Francisco took the lives of his wife and three of his four young children. Now more than ever Pershing was dedicated to Army service, and in March 1916 he was tapped to lead the Punitive Expedition in pursuit of the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa.
A year later, over the summer and early fall of 1917, Pershing and his staff laid the foundation for the AEF and how it would be deployed for combat on the Western Front. Every aspect of the AEF’s operation and organization – from training and tactics to troop strength and shipping – had to be deliberated. Pershing initially had few troops to draw from. The Regular US Army had about 127,588 officers and men; the National Guard could count another 80,446. Together they totaled just over 208,000 men: a paltry sum when compared to the Allied and German forces. Furthermore, the US arsenals were mostly bare of artillery and machine guns, which were now the primary tools of war on the Western Front.
To grow the AEF with new recruits, US Congress passed the Selective Service Act. Conscription was used for the first time since the Civil War and it proved highly successful, providing the Army with about two-thirds of the soldiers who served in 1917–18. All males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty (later extended to include ages eighteen to forty-five) were required to register. Ten million men complied, and the Army eventually drafted 2.7 million.1
The War Department General Staff organized the soldiers into divisions, which consisted of just under 28,000 officers and men: twice the size of an Allied of German division. Regular Army divisions (Professional Soldiers) were numbered from 1 to 25. Numbers 26 through 75 were reserved for the National Guard (State units federalized by President Wilson) and higher numbers for divisions of the National Army (drafted troops).
Exactly how large an army the United States needed depended primarily on General Pershing's plans and recommendations to meet the operational situation in France. In July 1917, Pershing and his staff called for a field army of about 1 million men to be sent to France before the end of 1918. By the end of the war the US Army had actually formed sixty-two divisions, of which all but nineteen had been sent overseas. To train these divisions the Army established thirty-two camps or cantonments throughout the United States. US soldiers would spend six months learning the rudiments of war from officers, who in many cases knew only slightly more than they did. Both the British and French helped out by sending officers across the Atlantic to assist with the instruction. It was an eye-opening experience for these men, some of them veterans of Verdun and the Somme. They traveled from one training camp to another, preaching trench warfare to young recruits who carried wooden guns and were without proper uniforms and equipment. It was hard to point out the benefits of grenades, flamethrowers, and artillery when many American troops wouldn't encounter these modern weapons until they reached the Western Front.
Two weeks after the US passed the one-year mark of entering the war, an AEF division saw combat for the first time. On April 20, 1918, a German bombardment, then infantry assault, surprised the 26th American Division in the so-called quiet sector near the village of Seicheprey. Although the Germans intended the attack to be a limited operation to test American fighting capability, it was a costly affair for both sides. One hundred and sixty German troops were killed, while the Americans suffered 634 casualties and the loss of 136 men as prisoners.2
Despite thus far seeing limited combat, early on the Americans looked like battle-hardened veterans with their striking uniforms, arms, and equipment. Uniform shirts were a khaki drab pullover. Pants and jackets were olive drab wool. Brown boots and canvas leggings, later exchanged for wool puttees, completed the ensemble. (This was the same uniform doughboys had worn since the summer. Winter clothes were requisitioned and would not arrive until after the war ended.) Doughboys wore British-pattern steel helmets with a woven lining and adjustable chin straps. The helmets – sometimes called a dishpan hat, tin pan hat, washbasin, or battle bowler – were coated with olive drab paint and a fine layer of sawdust to cut down on glare. Slung across every soldier’s chest was a respirator bag, which opened at the front, where a gas mask would be within reach. On his back was a pack that included extra clothes and rubber ponchos.
Around a soldier's waist was an ammunition belt made of khaki-colored webbing that had room for 100 rounds of ammunition, an entrenching tool, a trench knife, a bayonet and scabbard, and a canteen. British- and French-style grenades, which the doughboys called "pineapples", were also found on this accoutrement. Small arms were somewhat complicated. The primary US rifle in World War I was the .30 1903 Model Springfield, while other doughboys were issued a Model 1917 Enfield, manufactured in America for the British. Typically, officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) did not tote rifles; instead, on their belts were single-action, semi-automatic .45 Colt M1911 pistols.
Pershing's well-equipped doughboys saw their first significant action in June and July 1918 when the Germans came within fifty miles of Paris after striking Allied positions along the Aisne and Marne rivers. One American Division, the 3rd, earned the moniker of "Rock of the Marne" when it prevented Germans forces from crossing the river at Château-Thierry.
Then, on June 6, 2nd American Division, including two regiments of Marines, attacked enemy positions against Belleau Wood and nearby villages. The brutal fighting continuing for three weeks. The Americans suffered 9,777 casualties, including more than 1,800 dead. Despite taking heavy losses, the Americans drove the Germans out of the dense forest, and any threat to Paris was now eliminated.
Three months later, more than 2 million American troops were on the Western Front and Pershing was now ready to launch an independent offensive. This occurred early on September 12, when his First Army attacked the St. Mihiel salient with 500,000 doughboys and 110,000 French Colonial troops, 1,500 planes and 3,000 guns provided by the Allies. Opposing them were 23,000 Germans, who, unbeknownst to Pershing, were preparing to withdraw from the sector, but they were caught off-guard by the attack and the battle was essentially over on the first day. It was an impressive showing for the Americans in their baptism of fire, inflicting about 2,000 German casualties (killed and wounded) and capturing more than 1,500 prisoners, 443 artillery pieces, and 752 Maxims and other machine guns. Two hundred square miles of formerly occupied territory went back to the French. American losses were around 7,000 killed and wounded.
Immediately after St. Mihiel, attention shifted south to the Meuse-Argonne. This much larger operation was part of a great Allied offensive across the entire Western Front. Following a three-hour artillery barrage early on September 26, American infantry jumped off at 5:30am, and continuously attacked for forty-seven days, resulting in over 27,000 American killed in combat and five times as many wounded.
As Pershing's First Army slugged it out in the Meuse-Argonne, two American divisions attached to Australian and British forces, the 27th and 30th, tangled with the Germans along the Hindenburg Line in the Somme region north of Paris. Other Americans fought with the Belgians in Flanders. By the end of October, the Germans were all but defeated and worked behind the scenes for peace. When the clock struck at 11:00am on November 11, the war ended with an armistice.
It had been the American soldiers who carried the Allies to victory. The US victories in fall 1918 were not the sole reason the Allies won the war, but were certainly a deciding factor. Pershing's forces broke the back of the mighty German army in the most heavily defended sections of the Western Front, but paid a hefty cost. More than fifty thousand doughboys died in combat, while twice that died of disease, most from the influenza pandemic between September and November.
Mitch Yockelson is one of ten expert historians who have contributed to 1918: Winning the War, Losing the War, Osprey Publishing’s exploration of the conclusive year of World War I. The book examines each of the major armies on land, the war at sea and in the air, as well as the campaigns on some of the forgotten fronts of this final, tumultuous year. 1918 is published this year to mark the 2018 centenary of the armistice.
1. Leonard Ayres, The War With Germany: A Statistical Summary (Washington: GPO, 1919), 17-25↩
2. See Edward G. Lengel, Thunder and Flames: Americans in the Crucible of Combat (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015).↩