John J. Pershing was inflexible in his insistence on an independent American army on the Western Front. He got his way–but was the cost worth it?
ON FEBRUARY 5, 1917, THE REAR GUARD OF THE 11,000-MAN PUNITIVE EXPEDITION TO MEXICO recrossed the Rio Grande to American soil. With them was John J. Pershing, the lean, grim-lipped, jut-jawed major general who had managed to pursue Pancho Villa around northern Mexico for nearly eleven months without starting a war. Although he had not captured the guerrilla chieftain, Pershing had scattered Villa’s army and killed a number of his lieutenants-and silently swallowed his frustration when President Woodrow Wilson ordered a withdrawal. Within hours of his return to the United States, Pershing called a conference of the newspapermen who had followed him into Mexico. “We have broken diplomatic relations with Germany,” he said. “That means we will send an expedition abroad. I’d like to command it. . . . Tell me how I can help you so that you can help me.”
It was neither the first nor the last time Pershing would reveal the shrewd self-promotion that lay behind the image of the “Iron General.” When he had invaded Mexico, he had obligingly posed on horseback fording the Rio Grande with his staff. Actually, he had traveled across the inhospitable Chihuahuan desert in a Dodge touring car. In many surprising ways, large and small, Pershing was a very modern major general. In other ways, he was a man of his own time.
Pershing had graduated from West Point in 1886 as first captain of the cadet corps, a coveted title that testified to an aptitude for things military. Scholastically he was in the middle of his 77-man class. Post-Civil War West Point was intellectually moribund, turning out men who learned by rote what little was taught. If they acquired anything from their four-year indoctrination, it was a ferocious dedication to discipline and military minutiae.
Robert Lee Bullard, who graduated a year ahead of Pershing and would later serve under him, admired his ability to give orders, which seemed to come naturally to him. The Alabama-born Bullard also noted that Pershing inspired admiration and respect, but not affection. There was something impersonal, almost detached, in his style of command. With women, on the other hand, a different man emerged, full of wit and charm. He was a “spoony” cadet, with a pretty girl on his arm for every hop. Later, as a cavalryman on the western frontier and a guerrilla fighter in the Philippines, he gravitated inevitably toward the prettiest woman in sight.
Another large factor in his life soon emerged–what some people called “Pershing luck.” Others called it an uncanny ability to ingratiate himself with men in high places. Having watched Pershing in action during the last of the Indian Wars, Nelson Miles selected the young man as his aide after he became commanding general of the army. In 1896, Miles sent Pershing to New York to represent him at a National Guard tournament in Madison Square Garden. Avery Andrews, a classmate who had retired from the army to go into business, invited Pershing to share his box. Another guest was Theodore Roosevelt, on his way to becoming President William McKinley’s assistant secretary of the navy. An avid western buff and admirer of soldiers, TR was fascinated by Pershing’s skirmishes with Sioux who were part of the Ghost Dance cult, his knowledge of Indian dialects, his Missourian enthusiasm for the West’s potential. A friendship was born that became a pivot of Pershing’s career.
In the West, Pershing had served with the black troopers of the 10th Cavalry. Posted to West Point in 1897, he became the most unpopular tactical officer in recent memory-an accomplishment in itself. In retaliation for his uncompromising discipline, the cadets nicknamed him “Nigger Jack”–a reference to his service with the 10th and a sad commentary on the racism of the era. (It was later softened to “Black Jack”–a name that stuck, largely because most people thought it had something to do with the potentially deadly nature of the instrument of the same name.) When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Pershing rejoined the regiment and went up San Juan Hill with the dismounted black regulars, proving himself “as cool as a bowl of cracked ice” against Spanish sharpshooters who killed or wounded 50 percent of the regiments officers.
In 1902, while serving in the Philippines, Captain Pershing pacified much of Mindanao with 700 troops, cajoling Moro dattus out of their forts whenever possible, demolishing them in short, savage attacks when necessary. His exploits won headlines in many newspapers. His friend Theodore Roosevelt, now ensconced in the White House, tried to promote Pershing to brigadier general. But not even the president could alter the rigid, seniority-based promotion system.
A military celebrity, back in Washington for service on the General Staff, Pershing in 1905 married a vivacious Wellesley graduate, Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of the wealthy Wyoming senator who headed the Military Affairs Committee. Confronted with subtle threats to their annual budgets, the army’s higher ranks became more amenable to Pershing’s promotion. In 1906 Roosevelt vaulted him over 862 senior officers to brigadier, making most of these gentlemen instant enemies. They retaliated with a smear campaign about his sex life in the Philippines, claiming he had had a series of native women as mistresses and had sired several children. He denied everything, but the scandal stained his reputation so badly that, six years later, newspapers howled when he was proposed as superintendent of West Point.
Marrying influential daughters was an old army custom. Nelson Miles had married the daughter of Senator John Sherman, who was the brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman and the most powerful senator of his day. In Pershing’s case, surviving letters and diaries make it clear the marriage was loving. As his honeymoon ended, Pershing confided to his diary that he was “the happiest man in the world.” Four children, three girls and a boy, were born to Jack and “Frankie.”
On August 27, 1915, while Pershing was patrolling the restive Mexican border against guerrilla incursions, an excited reporter called headquarters and got the general himself. Without realizing to whom he was talking, the newsman blurted out that Pershing’s wife and three daughters had been killed in a midnight fire at their quarters in the Presidio in San Francisco. Only his six-year-old son, Warren, had survived, saved by a courageous orderly. A devastated Pershing wrote a friend: “All the promotion in the world would make no difference now.”
Pershing seemed to deal with his sorrow through work, responsibility, the grinding details of duty. That is one explanation of his pursuit of the command of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Another is the very strong probability that he thought he was the best man for the job. One of Pershing’s characteristics was his matter-of-fact assumption of his ability.
He courted Woodrow Wilson with a fulsome letter praising the president’s speech of April 2 before Congress, calling for a war to make the world safe for democracy. He wrote a similar letter to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Senator Warren worked hard on Pershing’s behalf, telegraphing him at one point to ask about his knowledge of French. Pershing had barely passed the subject at West Point, but he replied that he could easily acquire “a satisfactory working knowledge” of the language.
There was only one other major general who could compete with Pershing for the job: Frederick Funston. He had won instant fame by capturing rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo and crippling the Philippine insurrection in 1901. On February 19, 1917, Funston dropped dead in the lobby of a San Antonio hotel–perhaps another instance of Pershing luck.
In early May Pershing got the job-leaping over five major generals senior to him. What he found in Washington, D.C., would have daunted a less confident man. The U.S. Army had little more than 11,000 combat ready regulars. The 122,000-man National Guard was a joke. Fully half its members had never fired a rifle. Hugh Scott, the aging chief of staff, frequently fell asleep at meetings with his officers. The only plan Scott had on his desk was the brainchild of Wilson and Secretary Baker–to send Pershing at the head of a 12,000-man division to France as part of a “flexible” response to the war.
French and British missions swarmed to American shores to deluge the War Department and the president with frantic pleas for men. Instead of Wilson and Baker’s symbolic 12,000, they wanted 500,000 men immediately–and they did not particularly want John J. Pershing, or any other American general. The British suggested that the half-million recruits be shipped directly to depots in England, to be trained there and sent to France in British uniforms, under British officers. The French were a bit more polite, but it came down to the same thing: They wanted American soldiers to become part of their army.
From the day he heard the idea, Pershing opposed amalgamation of forces. He had no intention of becoming superfluous in France. For the time being, Wilson, Baker, and General Tasker H. Bliss–the large, slow moving military politician who soon succeeded Scott as chief of staff agreed with him. Not without some conflict, Pershing also opposed a proposal by his friend Theodore Roosevelt to raise 50,000 volunteers and lead them himself to Europe to bolster the Allies’ sagging morale. As an observer in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, Pershing had seen a modern battlefield, and he did not think there was room on it for amateurs like TR. He may also have sensed, with his finely honed instinct for command, that there could be only one American leader in Europe.
Pershing saw himself not only as that American leader but as the general who could win the war. He thought he had the answer to breaking the bloody stalemate on the Western Front–”open warfare.” This idea was a variation on the doctrine taught at West Point by Dennis Hart Mahan, the man who dominated the academy for much of the nineteenth century. Speed, fire, and movement were the essence of Mahan’s ideas, along with seizing and holding the initiative. Pershing believed the American soldier’s natural gifts as a marksman and wielder of the bayonet would shock the German army–and the Allies’ armies–out of their trenches.
Three weeks after his appointment, Pershing sailed for Europe with a 191-man staff. In London, people liked what they saw. One American reporter, Heywood Broun, opined, “No man ever looked more like the ordained leader of fighting men.” Another, Floyd Gibbons, called him “lean, clean, keen.” But even as he was charming the newsmen, Pershing was requesting from Washington the power to impose rigid censorship on everything they wrote in France.
In Paris the population went berserk, chanting the “Marseillaise” and pelting Pershing and the staff with flowers as they rode to the Hotel Crillon. On the balcony overlooking the place de la Concorde, when the wind whipped a tricolor toward him, Pershing reverently kissed its folds. The crowd screamed its approval. Inside, he got a very different reception. The American ambassador, William Sharp, said: “I hope you have not arrived too late.” The writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, an old friend, told Pershing the French were beaten: They had had 2 million casualties, and “there is a limit to what flesh and blood. . . can stand.”
Pershing learned even worse news from General Henri Pétain, the French commander in chief. In April, after a disastrous offensive on the Aisne River that cost 120,000 casualties, the French army had mutinied. Most of it was still in a state of “collective indiscipline,” as Pétain put it. Russia, with its immense reservoir of manpower, was even closer to military collapse. The March revolution, which ousted the czar, had failed to add vigor or coherence to their army. More bad news soon arrived from the British front, where Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was in the process of squandering 300,000 men on futile attacks in the Ypres salient. An appalled Pershing told his military censor, Major Frederick Palmer, that he feared the worst: “Look at what is expected of us and what we have to start with No army ready and no ships to bring over an army if we had one.”
Pershing soon decided he could not rely on the General Staff in Washington for anything; it took weeks to get a reply from anyone. Tasker Bliss was still writing orders with the stub of a pencil and hiding urgent telegrams under his blotter while he made up his mind what to do about them. Pershing set up his own general staff in France–a far more efficient one than the fumbling team in Washington.
For his chief of staff, Pershing chose Major James Harbord. Neither a West Pointer nor a close friend, but extremely intelligent, Harbord had caught Pershing’s eye in the Philippines. He was his commander’s opposite in many ways-genial, warm, a man with first-class diplomatic instincts. Harbord kept a voluminous diary, from which we get a good picture of Pershing on the job.
He thinks very clearly. . . and goes to his conclusions directly when matters call for decision. He can talk straighter to people when calling them down than anyone I have ever seen. . . . He loses his temper occasionally, and stupidity and vagueness irritate him more than anything else. . . . He develops great fondness for people whom he likes. . .but. . . is relentless when convinced of inefficiency. . . .
He does not fear responsibility. . . . He decides big things much more quickly than he does trivial ones. Two weeks ago, without any authority from Washington, he placed an order. . . . for $50,000,000 worth of airplanes . . . and did not cable the fact until too late for Washington to countermand it. . . . He did it without winking an eye, as easily as though ordering a postage stamp.
ALFRED THAYER MAHAN, DENNIS MAHAN’S SON, WAS FOND OF SAYING THAT WAR IS BUSINESS. As commander of the AEF, Pershing proved it. Until he took charge, each army bureau and department had its own supply officer with its own budget, a system that caused immense confusion and duplication of effort and expense. (For example, the various bureaus had ordered a total of 30 million pairs of shoes when 9 million were needed!) Pershing organized the AEF’s purchases around a single man, an old friend and future vice president, Charles Dawes. A canny businessman, Dawes had absolute authority to buy anything and everything the army needed from the French and British at the best possible price.
The decisions Pershing and his staff made to prepare the AEF for battle were awesome. Along with French planes for their newly created independent air force, they bought French .75s for their artillery; the English Enfield rifle and steel helmet and the French light machine gun, the Chauchat, for their infantry; and the French light tank, the Renault, for George S. Patton’s embryonic tank corps. Pershing also decided to make an AEF division, an entity that did not exist in the prewar American army, of 28,000 men, twice the size of an Allied or German division. He wanted an organization large enough to mount a sustained attack under the command of a single general. Unfortunately, he did not double the size of the new division’s artillery, the first symptom of his inability to appreciate the lethal increase in firepower that had transformed warfare on the Western Front.
Pershing also strove to put his own stamp on the spirit of the AEF. In October 1917 he announced: “The standards for the American Army will be those of West Point. The. . . upright bearing, attention to detail, uncomplaining obedience to instruction required of the cadet will be required of every officer and soldier of our armies in France.” To have every private behaving like a Pershing was an impossible dream, but the Iron General never wavered in his insistence. To improve the appearance of the officer corps, he ordered them to wear the British Sam Browne belt and authorized the use of canes. The first item was hated by many officers, the second mocked by enlisted men, but they became part of the dress code nonetheless.
Heywood Broun, who followed Pershing around France for a while, was bewildered by the general’s appetite for details. He climbed into haylofts where soldiers were quartered and discussed onions with cooks, to make sure men were being billeted in reasonable health and comfort. Broun derided this attention to detail, sneering that Pershing thought he could read a man’s soul “through his boots or his buttons.” The reporter quoted a junior officer who thought Pershing’s favorite biblical figure was Joshua, “because he made the sun and moon stand at attention.” Broun’s candor got him kicked out of France; Pershing’s AEF censors had a low tolerance for such negative remarks. The rest of the press corps remained firmly in Pershing’s corner.
One man who never succumbed to the system was Charles Dawes. Pershing made him a brigadier general to give him some weight with his French counterparts, but Dawes remained a civilian. His shoes went unshined, and his uniform was usually a rumpled mess. Pershing would frequently button Dawes’s shirt or coat before they would appear together in public. Once, when he walked into a Dawes conference, everyone rose and saluted. But Dawes neglected to take a large cigar out of his mouth. “Charlie,” Pershing said, “the next time you salute, put the cigar on the other side of your mouth.”
Although he could relax that way with close friends, and make visual gestures for photographers or admiring crowds, the one thing Pershing could not do was inspire soldiers or civilians with a ringing phrase. He was astute enough psychologically to trace this limitation to a boyhood episode, in which he forgot a speech during an elocution performance. A speech his staff wrote for him to make at Lafayette’s tomb on July 4, 1917, ended with the oratorical high note, “Lafayette, we are here.” Pershing crossed it out and wrote “not in character” beside it. He let one of his staff officers who spoke good French say it instead.
Another flaw, which drove Harbord and the rest of his staff to near distraction, was a complete lack of a sense of time. Pershing constantly arrived late to dinners or receptions, leaving kings, queens, prime ministers, and Allied generals impatiently tapping their VIP feet. The explanation was his appetite for detail. Devouring a report on weapons procurement or shipping schedules, Pershing would lose touch with the external world.
The euphoria of Pershing’s arrival soon vanished: The promise of American aid remained unfulfilled. In the fall the Germans and Austrians wrecked the Italian army at Caporetto. The Bolsheviks, having seized power in Moscow, took Russia out of the war, freeing an estimated 77 German divisions for service on the Western Front. As a handful of American divisions trickled into Saint-Nazaire on their way to training areas in Lorraine, the Allies put more and more pressure on Pershing to give them control of his army.
The French and British generals summoned political reinforcements. Premier Paul Painlevé and Prime Minister David Lloyd George assailed Washington, D.C., with warnings of disaster and grave doubts about Pershing’s capacity–simultaneously arranging for Pershing to be made aware of these fires being ignited in his rear. The only reinforcement Pershing got from Wilson was Bliss, an Anglophile who immediately sided with the British on amalgamation. Bliss said they should cable their opposing views to Washington and let the president decide. Pershing responded with some very straight talk. “Bliss,” he said, “do you know what would happen if we did that? We would both be relieved from further duty in France and that is exactly what we should deserve.” Bliss capitulated for the time being, a tribute not to the inferiority of his ideas but to the force of Pershing’s personality.
The amalgamation pressure hardened Pershing’s determination to make the AEF the best army in Europe. He was particularly tough on the 1st Division, which arrived in time to march through Paris on July 4–without the precision he expected. He took an instant dislike to the division’s commander, Major General William Siebert, an engineering officer with little field experience. In October, inspecting the division, Pershing blasted Siebert in front of his officers. A young staff captain, George C. Marshall, stepped forward and launched a passionate defense of the general and the division, which was hampered by shortages of everything from motor transport to ammunition. The rest of the staff watched, wide-eyed, certain that Marshall and his military career were about to be obliterated. Instead, Pershing studied him for a long thoughtful moment and more or less apologized for his bad temper. It was the beginning of Marshall’s rise to a colonel’s rank and a dominant role on the AEF staff.
But Marshall did not change Pershing’s opinion of Siebert. “Slow of speech and of thought . . . slovenly in dress. . .utterly hopeless as an instructor or tactician” were among his comments. Within a month Bullard had replaced Siebert as commander of the 1st Division. Pershing was equally unrelenting about most of the other generals who were shipped to Europe to survey the Western Front while their divisions were training in the United States. “Too old,” “very fat and inactive,” “could not begin to stand the strain” were some of the judgments he made of them. Washing ton ignored his criticisms and sent almost all of these losers back to France, giving Pershing the unwelcome job of relieving them–a task he performed with grim efficiency.
Ironically, one of the few who escaped Pershing’s lash was the fattest general in the army, Hunter Liggett. Pershing kept him because Liggett, former head of the Army War College, had a brain. The Pershing within the Iron General had enough humor to like Liggett’s defense of his bulk: There was nothing wrong with fat as long as it was not above the collar.
In the fall of 1917 Pershing moved AEF headquarters to Chaumont, a hilly town of 20,000, some 140 miles east of Paris. There, he and the staff were less exposed to the temptations of the guerre deluxe, as more cynical types called service in the City of Light. But Pershing had already succumbed. In September he had begun a liaison with a 23-year-old Romanian artist, Micheline Resco, who had been commissioned by the French government to paint his portrait. He visited her by night in her apartment on the rue Descombes, sitting up front with his chauffeur on his way there and back, the windshield signs with the U.S. flag and his four stars flat on the dashboard, out of sight. Contrary to appearances, it was another love match, and it lasted, without benefit of clergy, for the rest of his life.
The Germans gave him other things to think about. In November they raided the 1st Division just after it entered the lines, killing three Americans, wounding five, and taking 12 prisoners. When Pershing heard the news he wept–not with grief for the dead, but with the humiliation of even a small defeat, which he knew would lead to more French and British condescension and demands for amalgamation. When the 1st Division planned a retaliatory raid of its own, the AEF commander supervised it personally. It was a humiliating flop. The infantry and the engineers failed to meet in no-man’s-land and, without the latter’s bangalore torpedoes, no one could get through the German barbed wire.
Eventually the division pulled off a successful raid, led by Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest son, Ted, but these trivial skirmishes only intensified Allied disillusion with Pershing. The new French premier, Georges Clemenceau, locally known as the Tiger, bared his claws and remarked that Pershing’s chief preoccupation seemed to be having dinner in Paris.
As 1918 began, Pershing had only four divisions in France, and three of them were short a total of 20,000 men. None but the 1st had fired a shot at the Germans. Wilson complicated Pershing’s life by issuing his own peace terms, the Fourteen Points, infuriating the French and English with the president’s blissful ignorance of political realities. The Germans ignored Wilson and continued to shift divisions to the Western Front–with new tactics designed to create their own version of open warfare.
The tactics had been developed by the German General Staff and first used in Italy and on the Eastern Front. They depended heavily on surprise. German artillerists had solved the problem of aiming guns accurately at night without registering fire, which had previously announced offensives on both sides. The key troops were elite Sturmtruppen with mission-oriented orders–rather than the detailed timetables that had hobbled earlier offensives. Instead of being assigned a particular objective, the storm troopers were told to penetrate as deeply as possible and disrupt the enemy rear areas. Commanders would commit additional infantry only at breakthroughs, leaving enemy strongpoints isolated and eventually vulnerable to assault from the rear.
On March 21, 1918, the Germans unleashed these innovations on the British Fifth Army, guarding the hinge between the two Allied forces in Picardy. In three days, 90,000 Tommies surrendered, and another 90,000 became casualties. The Fifth Army ceased to exist, and the Germans menaced Amiens, the key rail hub connecting the British and French armies. The frantic Allies convened a conference at Doullens, to which they did not even bother to invite Pershing or any other American. The only general who seemed interested in fighting was Ferdinand Foch, until recently in disgrace for squandering his men in suicidal attacks. The politicians persuaded Haig and Pétain to accept Foch as the supreme commander, to coordinate the collapsing battle line.
Instead of sulking over being ignored, Pershing made his only grand gesture of the war. He drove to Foch’s headquarters outside Paris and, in reasonably good French, declared: “I have come to tell you that the American people would consider it a great honor for our troops to be engaged in the present battle. I ask you for this in their name and my own.” Everyone applauded the performance. It made headlines. But Pershing soon learned he had embraced a rattlesnake.
Instead of taking the four available American divisions and putting them into line as an army corps, which was what Pershing wanted, Foch assigned them to quiet sectors, piecemeal, after the battle for Amiens subsided. Next, behind Pershing’s back, Foch dispatched a cable to Wilson telling him that unless 600,000 infantrymen were shipped to Europe in the next three months, unattached, for use as replacements in the French and British armies, the war was lost.
Pershing fought the Frenchman with his only weapon: an immense stubbornness and rocklike faith in his vision of an independent American army. Even when the secretary of war was cajoled into backing Foch by the devious Bliss, who seized the first opportunity to revoke his capitulation to Pershing, the Iron General clung to his determination. In May, soon after a second German offensive had come perilously close to smashing through the northern end of the British line and seizing the Channel ports, the Allies convened another conference at Abbeville. Pershing faced Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Italian prime minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, plus Haig, Foch, and a half-dozen other generals and cabinet officers. Bliss said not a word in his support. The others raged, screamed, cursed, and pleaded-but Pershing would not change his mind. He absolutely refused to let the Americans fight in units smaller than a division–and he insisted that even this concession would be temporary, pending the formation of an American army.
“Are you willing to risk our being driven back to the Loire?” Foch shouted,
“Gentlemen,” Pershing said after another 40 minutes of wrangling, “I have thought this program over very deliberately and I will not be coerced.” Pershing was taking one of the greatest gambles in history. On May 27, the Germans struck again, this time at the French along the Chenin des Dames ridge northeast of Soissons. Once more, the German artillery’s fiendish combination of high explosives and poison gas tore apart the front lines, and the storm troopers poured through the gaps. The French Sixth Army evaporated. In a week. Soissons and Château-Thierry fell, and the Germans were on the Marne, only 50 miles from Paris.
This time, American divisions were not diverted to quiet sectors. The 2nd and 3rd divisions went into line around Château-Thierry as poilus streamed past them shouting, “La guerre finie.” Except for some lively skirmishing, the Germans did not attack. Their infantry went on the defensive, while the generals brought up their artillery and tried to decide what to do with the huge salient they had carved in the French lines between Soissons and Reims.
The French commander of the sector, General Jean-Marie-Joseph Degoutte, was, like Foch, an apostle of the school of frontal attack-which had done little thus far but pile up Allied bodies in front of German machine-gun emplacements. Finding himself in possession of fresh American troops, he went on the offensive, ordering an attack on Belleau Wood. He found a willing collaborator in Colonel Preston Brown, the 2nd Division’s chief of staff. Brown–who dominated the overage and incompetent division commander, Omar Bundy–was burning to demonstrate American prowess. He accepted at face value French reports that the Germans held only the northern corner of the wood. In fact, they occupied it to the last inch with infantry supported by machine guns set up for interlocking fields of fire.
On June 6, without sending out a single patrol to find more information, Brown and Harbord, recently reassigned to the division as commander of the 4th Marine Brigade, ordered their men forward in a frontal assault. The marines advanced in massed formations unseen on the Western Front since 1914. Incredulous German machine gunners mowed them down in windrows. The slaughter revealed the limitations of Pershing’s doctrine of open warfare. As Liggett later mournfully remarked, no one, including Pershing, had thought it out.
The marines eventually captured Belleau Wood, after the French pulled them back and treated the Germans to a fourteen-hour artillery barrage that smashed the place flat. Pershing rewarded Harbord for his incompetence (there were 50 percent casualties) by making him commander of the 2nd Division in place of Bundy, who had stood around during the battle without saying a word while Harbord and Brown made their bloody blunders.
The desperate French trumpeted Belleau Wood as a major victory in their newspapers, and reporters around the world followed suit. Pershing went along because he was even more desperate for proof that his men could stand up to the Germans. The battering he had taken from Foch, Haig, and others had broadened his definition of what constituted a battlefield success. Henceforth, Pershing would countenance the pernicious idea that high casualties were proof of a commander’s fighting ability.
Beginning on the night of July 14, seven American divisions (troops were starting to arrive in ever-greater numbers) played crucial roles in Smashing the next German offensive, code-named Friedensturm–the “peace assault.” Casualties were relatively light because the Allies, perhaps borrowing a bit of Pershing luck, discovered the exact day and hour of the attack from a captured German officer. Ignoring Foch’s senseless order to hold every inch of sacred soil, General Pétain created an elastic defense that inflicted enormous losses on the Sturmtruppen. Pershing was only a spectator at this three-day clash, his divisions being temporarily under the orders of French generals.
Foch, an apostle of attack, at last became the right general in the right place at the right time. He threw the American 1st and 2nd divisions and a French colonial division into the soft left flank of the German Marne salient around Soissons. The first day, July 18, was a sensational success, but on the second day the Germans recovered from their surprise. Their machine guns sprouted everywhere, and casualties mounted. Again and again, Americans advanced across open ground without concealment or cover-with predictable results. The 1st and 2nd had 12,000 casualties. The 2nd, already bled by Belleau Wood, collapsed and was withdrawn after two days. The 1st, equally battered (the 26th Infantry Regiment lost 3,000 out of 3,200 men), was withdrawn the following day. This was hardly the staying power Pershing had envisioned for his double-sized divisions. But he ignored the danger signs and told Harbord that even if the two divisions never fired another shot, they had made their commanders “immortal.”
Having seized the initiative, Foch was determined not to relinquish it. For the next six weeks, he ordered attacks all around the Marine salient. In the vanguard were American divisions, fighting under French generals. This little-studied Aisne-Marne offensive proved the courage of the American infantrymen-and the limitations of their open-warfare tactics. Before it ended in early September, over 90,000 Americans were dead or wounded.
Inept tactics were not the only problem. Too often, Americans found their flanks exposed by the failure of a French division to keep pace with their attack. Bullard, who by then was supposed to be supervising American operations as commander of the III Corps, fretted about the murderous casualties but did little else. There is no record of Pershing saying anything. The climax of this messy operation was on August 27, when an isolated company of the 28th Division was annihilated in Fismette, on the north bank of the Wesle River. Bullard had tried to withdraw the soldiers-they were the only Americans on that side of the river, surrounded by some 200,000 Germans-but Degoutte, now commander of the Sixth Army, had revoked the order. When Bullard reported the episode a few days later, Pershing asked, “Why didn’t you disobey the order?”
“I did not answer. It was not necessary to answer,” Bullard wrote in his memoirs.
By this time, five other American divisions were training with the British army. On August 8 the British had made a successful attack on the western flank of the salient that the Germans had created when they routed the Fifth Army in Picardy. Pershing had permitted these divisions to go directly into British training areas when they arrived in Europe–an example of the partial surrenders of control extracted from him by Foch and Haig, with the help of the German army. But Pershing stubbornly discounted the possibility that perhaps this was the best way to use the Americans finally flooding into France–brigading them with British or French armies, who already had sophisticated staffs and supply systems in place.
Instead, the Iron General never stopped insisting on a totally independent army. On August 10 he opened First Army headquarters; five days later, he handed Foch a plan for an attack on the Saint-Mihiel salient, another huge bulge into the French lines, south of Verdun. He withdrew three of his five divisions from a choleric Haig, and all that were under French control.
On August 28, as the Americans moved into the lines, Foch descended on Pershing with one last attempt to utilize the AEF in–from the viewpoint of the supreme commander–a more rational way. He announced a master plan he had conceived while visiting Haig. The whole German battlefront, he said, was one huge salient that should be attacked from the north, the south, and the center. He therefore wanted Pershing more or less to abort the Saint-Mihiel operation, limiting it to a few divisions, and transfer the rest of his army back to French control for attacks in the Aisne and Argonne theaters. A vehement argument ensued. At one point, both men were on their feet screaming curses at each other. “Do you wish to take part in the battle?” Foch shrilled, the ultimate insult one general could throw at another. For a moment, Pershing seriously thought of flattening the little Frenchman with around house right. “As an American army and in no other way!” he replied,
“I must insist on the arrangement.” Foch shouted. Pershing squared his jaw. “Marshal Foch, you may insist all you please, but I decline absolutely to agree to your plan. While our army will fight wherever you decide, it will fight only as an independent American army.” After another week of wrangling, Pershing accepted a dangerous compromise. He would attack the Saint-Mihiel salient on September 12, as planned, then transfer the bulk of his 500,000-man army west of the Meuse to attack north through the Argonne as part of the overall Allied offensive on September 26. It was an ambitious assignment for a general who had never commanded more than 11,000 men in action and a staff that had yet to fight a single battle. Only a man with Pershing’s self-confidence would have tried it. To compound his potential woes, he accepted a battle plan from Foch that gave French generals command east of the Meuse and west of the Argonne Forest, violating a primary military maxim: An attacking army should be responsible for both sides of a natural obstacle such as a forest or a river.
On September 5, Pershing, disturbed by AEF casualties in the Aisne-Marne offensive, made a stab at defining open warfare. In a general order issued to the First Army, he contrasted it to trench warfare, which he claimed was “marked by uniform formations, the regulation of space and time by higher commands down to the smallest details and little initiative.” Open warfare had “irregular… formations, comparatively little regulation of space and time . . . and the greatest possible use of the infantry’s own firepower to enable it to get forward . . . plus brief orders and the greatest possible use of individual initiative.” It was much too late for such complex ideas to filter down even to division staffs, much less to the captains and lieutenants leading companies. Nor did this inchoate rhetoric offer a clue to how to deal with the primary defensive weapon on the Western Front–the machine gun.
At first, Pershing luck seemed to hold. The Saint-Mihiel offensive was the walkover of the war. The Germans were in the process of withdrawing from the salient when the Americans attacked. Resistance was perfunctory. The bag of prisoners and captured guns was big enough to make headlines, although the take was not nearly as large as originally hoped. Pershing and his staff now tried to imitate the Germans and achieve surprise in the Argonne. He left most of his veteran divisions in Saint-Mihiel and shifted largely green units west. No significant snafus developed on the roads, thanks to the planning genius of George C. Marshall, who was nicknamed the Wizard for managing the 60-mile transfer in wretched rainy weather.
On September 26, after a German-style, 4,000-gun artillery barrage, Pershing threw 250,000 men in three corps at an estimated 50,000 unprepared German defenders in the 20-mile-wide Argonne valley. A massive hogback ran down the center, forcing the attackers into defiles on both sides. It was, Liggett said, a natural fortress that made the Virginia Wilderness seem like a park. Yet Pershing’s plan called for no less than a 10-mile-abreast advance the first day to crack the Kriemhilde Stellung, the main German defensive line.
Five of Pershing’s nine divisions had never been in action before. Even experienced divisions such as the 77th, which had been bloodied under the French, were full of green replacements. The 77th received 2,100 men who had never fired a rifle the day before they attacked. Everything imaginable proceeded to go wrong with Pershing’s army. The Germans fell back to well-prepared defenses and began machine-gunning charging Americans. Massive amounts of enemy artillery on the heights east of the Meuse and along the edge of the Argonne Forest, which loomed a thousand feet above the valley floor, exacted an even heavier toll.
Rigid orders, issued by Pershing’s own staff, held up whole divisions at crucial moments. The 4th Division could have captured the key height of Montfaucon the first day, but it stood still for four hours, waiting for the green 79th Division, assigned the objective, to come abreast of it. By the time Montfaucon fell the following day, the Germans had poured in five first-class divisions, and the American advance had stumbled to a bloody halt.
In the north, where the British and French were attacking, the Germans could give ground for 60 or a 100 miles before yielding anything vital. But only 24 miles from the American jumping-off point in the Argonne was the Sedan-Mézières four-track railroad, which supplied almost all the food and ammunition to the Germans’ northern armies. They were fighting to protect their jugular in the Argonne. By October 4, they had elements of 23 divisions in line or local reserve.
Withdrawing his green divisions, Pershing replaced them with the veteran units he had left in Saint-Mihiel and tried to resume the attack. He was on the road constantly, visiting corps and division headquarters, urging generals and colonels to inject their men with more “drive” and “push.” But Pershing was discovering that rhetoric could not silence a machine gun.
His men bled, and also began to starve. Food did not get forward, as monumental traffic jams developed on the few roads into the Argonne. Wounded lay unevacuated. Clemenceau, caught in a jam while visiting the front, lost half a day and departed vowing to get rid of Pershing. Stragglers were another problem. Liggett estimated that at the height of the battle, 100,000 fugitives were wandering around the First Army’s rear areas. One division reported an effective frontline strength of only 1,600 men. Early in October, Pershing authorized officers to shoot down any man who ran away-proof of his growing desperation.
Worsening Pershing’s woes, while the Americans were withdrawing the wreckage of the green divisions, was a visit from Foch’s chief of staff, who informed Pershing that the generalissimo thought he had too many men in the Argonne. Foch proposed shifting six divisions to nearby French armies. Recent historians have been inclined to think Foch was probably right. The French on Pershing’s right and left were making little progress and could have used some help. But by now, Pershing hated Foch too much to take his advice about anything. He told the supreme commander to go to hell. Foch retaliated with a formal on-the-record letter ordering him to attack continuously “without any further interruptions.”
Killing fire from the guns east of the Meuse stopped the veteran divisions when they jumped off on October 4. German counterattacks drove them back again and again. Only the 1st Division, under the Cromwellian Charles Summerall, gained some ground, plunging up the left defile for a half-dozen miles–at a cost of 9,387 casualties. On October 8, Pershing sent two divisions east of the Meuse to join the French in an attempt to silence the artillery. The attack faltered and collapsed into a pocket on the banks of the Meuse, deluged by gas and shellfire.
Pershing drove himself as hard as he did his men. He sat up until three or four in the morning reading reports and pondering maps. Rumors drifted into headquarters that Foch and Clemenceau were urging Wilson to replace him with Bliss. One day, in his car with his favorite aide, Major James Collins, a played-out Pershing put his head in his hands and, speaking to his dead wife, moaned: “Frankie. . . Frankie. . . my God, sometimes I don’t know how I can go on.”
Outwardly, no one else saw anything but the Iron General, still in charge. “Things are going badly,” he told Major General Henry Allen, commander of the 90th Division. “But by God, Allen, I was never so much in earnest in my life, and we are going to get through.” Marshall thought this was Pershing’s finest hour. More critical recent historians, pointing to the substantial gains being made, and the huge numbers of prisoners and guns being captured, by French and British armies on other fronts, suggest Pershing was hopelessly out of his depth but was refusing to admit it.
There may be some truth to this assertion-except for the last part. On October 12, tacitly admitting he did not have the answer to the Argonne, Pershing gave Liggett command of the First Army and created a Second Army, under Bullard, to operate east of the Meuse. Pershing became the commander of the army group-chairman of the board instead of chief executive officer. The First Army continued to attack for another seven days, finally breaching the Kriemhilde Stellung on October 19. It had taken three weeks and 100,000 casualties to achieve what Pershing and his staff had thought they could do in a single day.
At this point, the First Army was, in the opinion of one staff officer, “a disorganized and wrecked army.” Liggett promptly went on the defensive. When Pershing persisted in hanging around headquarters, talking about launching another attack, Liggett told him to “go away and forget it.” Pershing meekly obeyed.
It was just as well, because he soon had a more serious topic on his mind. Early in October, the Germans had announced they were willing to accept peace on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. As Wilson began negotiating with them, Pershing came perilously close to making the president look foolish by issuing a public statement that he favored unconditional surrender.
The Wilson administration was infuriated. Many people assumed Pershing’s statement was the opening salvo of a run for the presidency. On the contrary, Pershing was motivated by two things. His political mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, was savaging Wilson back in the United States with a similar call for unconditional surrender. The Iron General was also seething because Haig, the British commander, had recommended an armistice, arguing that the British and French were close to exhaustion and the American army was too inept to bear any substantial share of another offensive. Pershing wanted more war to make Haig eat those words.
Under fierce pressure from Wilson, Pershing accepted the idea of armistice. But he remained convinced it was a mistake. When the First Army resumed the offensive on November 1, he urged it forward with ferocious intensity, hoping it could smash the Germans before negotiators agreed on terms. Rested and reorganized, imbued with new tactics that urged infiltration and flank attacks rather than piling men against enemy strongpoints, the Americans were sensationally successful. They stormed across the Meuse, cutting the Sedan-Mézières railroad and threatening the German armies in the north with imminent starvation and collapse.
At Pershing’s insistence, they kept attacking until the armistice went into effect at 11:00 a.m. on November 11. “If they had given us another ten days,” Pershing said, “we would have rounded up the entire German army, captured it, humiliated it.” There are strong reasons to doubt this postwar Pershing boast, however. In the final days, replacements had become a major AEF problem. The German army was still a formidable fighting force–and a policy of unconditional surrender might have inspired it to resist with desperate ferocity, as it demonstrated in World War II.
In these same final days, Pershing, still fuming over Foch’s condescension and Clemenceau’s sneers, attempted to retaliate with a ploy that seriously endangered the fragile alliance. He decided the Americans would capture Sedan, the city where the French had ingloriously surrendered to Bismarck’s Germans in 1870. Ignoring a boundary drawn by Foch that placed Sedan in the zone of the French Fourth Army, he ordered the First Army to capture the city and deprive the French of this symbolic honor. The order-which directed the I Corps, spearheaded by the 42nd Division, to make the main thrust, “assisted on their right by the V Corps”–was so vague that it encouraged General Summerall, by then the commander of the V Corps, to march the 1st Division across the front of the 42nd Division to get there first.
In the darkness and confusion, the 1st Division captured Douglas MacArthur, one of the 42nd’s brigadiers, who looked like a German officer because of his unorthodox headgear. It was a miracle that the two divisions did not shoot each other to pieces. If the German army had been in any kind of fighting shape, a counterattack would have wreaked havoc. The episode suggests Pershing’s limitations as a practitioner of coalition warfare. In the end, the French Fourth Army was permitted to capture Sedan. Liggett wanted to court-martial Summerall, but Pershing dismissed the whole affair.
When the bells rang out across France and the people erupted into mad joy, not even Pershing could resist the emotions of victory. In perhaps his most significant summary of the war, he said several times, “The men were willing to pay the price.” Perhaps this was as close as the Iron General came to admitting he had made some mistakes.
For the rest of his long life–he did not die until 1948–Pershing spent a good deal of his time fostering the career of the man who would lead America’s armies in World War II. Marshall served as his aide when he was chief of staff after the war, they became close friends, and Pershing was best man at Marshall’s wedding in 1927. When MacArthur, then the army chief of staff, tried to short-circuit Marshall’s advancement by appointing him senior instructor to the Illinois National Guard in 1933, Pershing visited him in Chicago, creating headlines for the obscure young colonel. The next chief of staff, a Pershing man, brought Marshall back to Washington as his assistant. In 1939, Pershing persuaded FDR to make Marshall the chief of staff.
In his private life, Pershing was a dutiful father to his only son, Warren. He made no objection when Warren chose a civilian rather than a military career. Pershing remained devoted to Micheline Resco, but he was frequently linked romantically to other women. He once remarked that if he married all the women he was reported to be romancing, he would have to start a harem.
In trying to sum up Pershing, almost everyone found him full of contradictions. Secretary of War Baker wondered how a man could combine such large views with an obsessive concern for buttons. “If he was not a great man,” wrote the newsman Frank Simonds, “there were few stronger.” The British military thinker B.H. Liddell Hart said no other man could have built the AEF, and “without that army the war could hardly have been saved and could not have been won.” Perhaps his unmilitary friend Charles Dawes came closest to the Iron General’s inner secret: “John Pershing, like Lincoln, recognized no superior on the face of the earth.” Unquestionably, Pershing left something to be desired as a field commander. But without him, American doughboys might have become cannon fodder for French and British generals–a development that would have caused a huge political backlash on the home front. Meanwhile, he and his men learned the bitter lessons of how to fight on the Western Front. Fortunately for Pershing, the doughboys were willing to pay the price. MHQ
THOMAS FLEMING is the author of Over There, a novel reissued in paperback by HaperCollins, in which John J. Pershing is one of the main characters.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1995 issue (Vol. 7, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Iron General
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