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World War I: The Belfort Ruse

Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Colonel Arthur L. Conger of the American Expeditionary Force shut himself inside his hotel room. Carefully placing a fresh carbon between two sheets of paper, the colonel began typing a description of a planned major U.S. offensive through the Belfort Gap and toward the Black Forest in Germany. Finishing the document, Conger examined the carbon. Held to the light, it would be legible. He then lightly crumpled the telltale sheet and put it in the wastebasket. Folding the original and the copy, he placed both inside his tunic and then went outside for a stroll around the hotel grounds. After returning sometime later, Conger was satisfied to note that the carbon had been removed from the wastebasket. It was August 30, 1918, in Belfort, France, a small town near the German border.

The Belfort region had been a quiet zone since the initial bloody battles of 1914-15 and was one of the few places where the French had driven the Germans back on their own soil. That happened in the first few weeks of the war, and the Germans had not responded in any significant way. The attention of the German high command was fixed on more decisive terrain farther to the north and west: Verdun, the Somme, and Flanders. In the spring of 1918, General Erich Ludendorff launched a massive effort to break the Allies. His attacking units were hurled at French and British lines in five separate offensives. The Allies were knocked back, but with the increasing support of fresh American units, they successfully stemmed the tide. Now, late in the summer, it was the Allies' turn. The British, French, Belgians, and Americans were to begin their own offensives. They would make two major thrusts: one led by British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig in the north; the other led by American Expeditionary Force (AEF) commander General John J. Pershing in the south. Neither would be anywhere near Belfort. Conger, however, was hoping Ludendorff could be led to believe that Belfort was the launch point for Pershing's offensive. He was attempting to divert the German commander's attention from Pershing's actual plan, an attack against the St. Mihiel salient.

Colonel Conger was arguably well suited to work in the esoteric realm of deception. He had been educated in classical languages, Eastern religions, and music and graduated from Harvard in '94. Commissioned after service in the Spanish-American War, Conger stayed on in the Philippines as a scout platoon leader. The young officer was then assigned as an instructor at Fort Leavenworth and later sent abroad to study under the noted historian Hans Delbruck in Berlin. Conger had translated a number of German military works and was selected as an intelligence officer for Pershing's headquarters when the U.S. Army established itself in France. At the time of his visit to Belfort, he was an order-of-battle officer whose prime duty was to keep track of German units. Whatever his possible qualifications for the deception assignment, Conger may not have relished the job or even favored this particular scheme, and it was not his idea.

The event, later referred to as the 'Belfort Ruse, stemmed from a suggestion of General Henri Philippe Pétain, commander of the French armies. Pétain's staff officers had become alarmed at the lack of security associated with the forthcoming American offensive against St. Mihiel, the first large operation under U.S. command. The Frenchmen had informed an American liaison officer at Pétain's headquarters on August 17 that Pershing's plans were common knowledge in Paris. The U.S. offensive was scheduled for September 9, and French troops were involved. Something had to be done.

When Pétain became aware of the breach of security, he penned a personal letter to Pershing suggesting that action be taken to mislead the Germans as to the actual American target and offering French assistance. The AEF commander took Pétain's suggestion seriously and replied on August 23 that he regretted any indiscretions and agreed that measures should be taken to throw the Germans off the scent. He went on to accept Pétain's offer of assistance, indicate a deception plan would be in the offing, and state that the scheme would be coordinated with the French.

The fact that John J. Pershing was intimating a request for French assistance should have come as no surprise to the hero of Verdun, General Pétain. True, the United States had extended the hand of support to the Allies in 1917, but to the hard-pressed French and British, the palm of the American hand always seemed to be up. The AEF had little artillery, practically no aircraft, few machine guns, and a severe shortage of means of transport. Pershing did have manpower, and for that the Allies were thankful. As long as Pershing allowed his units to be dispersed among the French and British, the Americans could be supported with minimal stress on the Allied logistical system. After all, both the French and British were short of infantry. The problem came when the Americans insisted on their own sector of the front and their own offensive operations. That meant Allied units had to be moved out and American troops moved in. It also meant that Allied artillery, aircraft, trucks, and tanks had to allocated to support the AEF. All of this required detailed coordination, and that, in turn, meant that many people had to know the plan. Thus it was not surprising that there had been a lot of talk. The American demands created an inherent security risk, and it could be assumed that the Germans would find out about it.

The St. Mihiel offensive had been agreed upon during a conference of the Allied military leaders in late July. To the Allies, particularly the French, the German-held St. Mihiel salient was a thorn in their side. The protrusion in the line threatened French communications from west to east along the rail line between Paris and Nancy. Additionally, there was some risk for any Allied offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region, just to the west of the St. Mihiel salient. The farther an Allied advance progressed, the more they would expose their rear to German troops poised in the bulge. To the Germans, the salient had been an important piece of real estate in 1915-17. It was far enough south so that it protected the strategic rail junction of Metz. It also provided a forward defensive zone that shielded the German-held Briey iron and coal region, and the French had been unsuccessful in repeated attempts to win it back. Finally, the German high command had considered the St. Mihiel region as a possible postern gate for a sortie should Ludendorff decide on another offensive in the West.

All told, the St. Mihiel salient appeared to be important enough to justify a major Allied attack, but some speculated there was another aspect to the offensive. Considerable doubt as to the proficiency of the Americans existed among the higher circles of the British and French commands. Some Anglo-French officers believed that the Americans were unsophisticated neophytes in the arena of modern European-style warfare. Pershing and the AEF staff were closely watched by their allies. American soldiers had performed well under French and British command, but U.S. officers, particularly the older ones, did not always evidence professional qualifications. The Americans sensed this attitude on the part of their allies, and AEF officers were imbued with a desire to do well in the first significant American-led offensive on the Western Front. If the Germans were forewarned of the American attack, things could go badly and the French and British might well have their suspicions confirmed. Because the attack on the St. Mihiel salient was so important, it was vital to confuse, mislead, and deceive the Germans up to the actual attack hour. Doing so would be difficult since the replacement of French troops in the sector with Americans involved the movement of six hundred thousand soldiers.

Pétain made good on his offer, and Pershing received French assistance for the deception operation. Conger's bogus order, for instance, was probably compromised in a hotel where the French knew that a German agent was on the staff. But the main effort to deceive Ludendorff's intelligence officers had to be made by the Americans. Soon after Pershing had communicated with Pétain, the American commander called in two of his staff officers, Maj. Gen. James W. McAndrew, his chief of staff, and Colonel Conger of the intelligence staff, and outlined his plan. The idea was to fasten the Germans' attention on a possible American offensive through the Belfort Gap, which separated the Vosges and Jura Mountains and would be about 125 miles southeast of the actual attack near St. Mihiel. Easily identifiable American reconnaissance activity and perhaps troop movements in the Belfort region would be necessary. The French proceeded to spread rumors that the Americans were planning an attack from Belfort toward the German town of Mulhausen, just west of the Black Forest. Only four American officers were to know of the ruse: Pershing, McAndrew, Conger, and the AEF chief of operations, Brig. Gen. Fox Conner.

The main burden for carrying out the deception fell on Colonel Conger's shoulders. His success with the ruse could be measured in several ways. One indication would be if American troops obtained the element of surprise during their initial assault against the St. Mihiel salient. That condition, however, could be the result of German laxity. A better criterion of success would be if Conger could lure the Germans into reinforcing their defensive lines in front of Belfort. A third criterion would be even more indicative of a well-executed ruse. What if Conger's scheme enticed the Germans to diminish their forces in the St. Mihiel salient in order to reinforce their units in the Belfort Gap? That would be all the Americans hoped for. Much depended on how Conger would carry out his duties–but even more depended on the German reaction.

Conger began planning the deception on August 26-27, unaware that his adversaries had already reached several important decisions about the St. Mihiel salient. On the other side of the wire, the Germans had changed commanders. Lieutenant General von Fuchs had taken over Army Detachment C, which opposed a considerable portion of the French Fourth Army and Pershing's newly formed U.S. First Army. The chief of staff of Army Detachment C, Maj. Gen. Baron Otto von Ledebur, had long been concerned about the St. Mihiel salient and urged his new commander to make a drastic change. Earlier in the year, during the planning for Ludendorff's spring campaign, St. Mihiel had been considered as a possible launch area for one of the German offensives. When the possibility was discussed with Ludendorff, however, it was determined that the salient was too narrow to conceal a large buildup of forces prior to an attack. Ledebur then decided that the bulge could be abandoned, thereby shortening the front assigned to Army Detachment C. The chief of staff was persuasive, and by late August, as Conger was working on his deception plan, Fuchs was planning to withdraw his command from the St. Mihiel salient.

The German preparations, however, came to naught on the first day of September. Army Detachment C received a bulletin from the German supreme command citing indications of a major American attack along both banks of the Moselle River. In reality, the Americans planned their offensive to strike about five miles west of the Moselle. The German intelligence staff had correctly determined that a U.S. assault was imminent and surmised the general area for Pershing's attack. But they did not have the date or the precise point of attack. Furthermore, the warning from supreme command implied that Metz was the probable American objective, which was dead wrong. The U.S. plan was for a limited offensive, the goal of which was to reduce the salient and then rapidly shift forces farther to the west for another, larger offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region. So, in the murky world of deception, Conger labored on, not knowing what the enemy knew.

Ludendorff's reaction was somewhat unexpected by the German front-line commanders. Despite their considered judgment, he refused to evacuate the St. Mihiel salient and in fact reinforced Army Detachment C and the command on its eastern flank, the Nineteenth Army. The German 123rd Division was rushed forward later on September 1. Fuchs was then told that both the Eighty-eighth and the 107th Divisions were on the way. In addition, another division was entrained, new artillery units were assigned to Fuchs, and an additional pursuit squadron was deployed. Even more aircraft and their crews were subsequently added. These reinforcements brought the number of divisions available to Fuchs up to eleven, seven on line in or near the salient and four in reserve. The reserve divisions were largely deployed astride the Moselle River, where the September 1 intelligence warning indicated they should be assigned.

Up to this point, Fuchs was making the recommendations concerning the St. Mihiel sector and Ludendorff was making the decisions, but another German general was involved in the process. General Max von Gallwitz, Fuchs' immediate superior, commanded Army Group Gallwitz, the intermediate headquarters between Army Detachment C and the German high command. Gallwitz was very concerned about the defenses of Metz. Much of the artillery defending this historic fortress had recently been removed from the environs of the city, and the general feared that his enemies were aware of this disturbing fact. On September 3, he advised the German supreme command that there was no front-line activity pointing to a major Allied offensive on Army Detachment C. He then asked for clarification: Was the St. Mihiel salient to be evacuated in the event of a light attack? Was it to be evacuated under heavy attack? In light of Ludendorff's reinforcements, one could not be certain of the supreme command's actual intent. Gallwitz got his answer the next day: Hold the salient against a light push; evacuate under heavy pressure. Ludendorff, the man Conger would have to deceive, did not intend to make a gift of the St. Mihiel salient. The Americans would have to fight for it.

No one doubted Maj. Gen. Omar Bundy's courage. He had fought with distinction against the Crow and Sioux Indians in the 1880s and '90s. Cited for bravery in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, the West Pointer went on to lead a column against the fierce Moro warriors in the Philippines in 1906. Serving on the Western Front with the First Division during 1917, Bundy had been promoted and took command of the U.S. Second Infantry Division in November of that year. The fifty-six-year-old general, however, struck one observer as being typical of the meticulous post commander–another way of saying that Bundy did not possess the qualities required to command a modern twenty-eight-thousand-man U.S. fighting division–and Black Jack Pershing had an unerring instinct for divining deficiencies in his division commanders. On June 9, 1918, a week after the Second Division was rushed forward to blunt a massive German attack, Pershing confided in his diary: Bundy disappoints me. He lacks the grasp. I shall relieve him at the first opportunity. In a manner of speaking, Bundy was history. The old Indian fighter was eased out within a few days and given command of the Sixth Corps, a reception and training headquarters. Omar Bundy would play no direct role in the forthcoming St. Mihiel offensive, but unwittingly he would have a supporting part in the drama.

Conger's deception operations began to unfold as planned on August 28. Fox Conner dispatched an order to Bundy directing the Sixth Corps commander to proceed to Belfort. Once there, he was to prepare detailed plans for a large-scale offensive to overrun Mulhausen and fight on to the Rhine River, thirteen miles farther east. He was to plan for an initial assault force of seven divisions: the Twenty-ninth, Eightieth, Thirty-fifth, Seventieth, Ninety-first, Seventy-eighth, and Thirty-sixth. Bundy was told that the assault would come as a surprise to the hapless Huns, so the planners should consider using minimal artillery.

The Sixth Corps commander was then informed that Pershing himself intended to take command of the enterprise and that negotiations were in progress to accommodate First Army headquarters at Belfort. D-day was to be no later than September 8. In order to assist Bundy in the detailed planning for this great American onslaught to the Rhine, an AEF staff officer, Colonel Arthur L. Conger, was being made available to instruct some twenty-one staff officers from the assault divisions that were ordered to report to the Sixth Corps commander at Belfort. General Bundy was further told to take as many of his own staff officers to Belfort as he saw fit and to send frequent telegraphic reports. Finally, Bundy was instructed that Conger would be in Belfort and that the colonel was fully informed as to General Pershing's innermost thoughts on the offensive and that in any case of doubt, he must be consulted.

A veritable blizzard of American staff officers descended on the placid town of Belfort–and that was not all. The energetic Colonel Conger arranged for a flurry of reconnaissance flights over the German lines west of Mulhausen. Then, too, U.S. signal units began to roll into Belfort, erecting radio antennas and swamping the local telegraph and telephone centers with a multitude of messages. Several French tanks were put to work as well. The vehicles were driven through the freshly harvested fields, making tracks into forested areas (no one happened to record what the mystified tank crews thought of all this). The staff officers raced about the countryside, checking bridge capacities and front-line positions. They peered resolutely at the opposing Germans through field glasses, asked endless questions about rail capabilities, toured hospital facilities, and conducted dozens of motor trips to study the region's road network.

On September 1, General Bundy sent a preliminary report to AEF headquarters giving an optimistic appraisal for the chances of an American rush through Mulhausen to the Rhine. Throwing caution to the wind, the veteran of battles with the Moros discounted previous reports of streams, marshy ground, and ponds. He claimed the streams were low and had hard bottoms. He characterized the enemy as being weak. He then hinted that the conditions were so ripe that a full-throated exploitation should be considered. Omar Bundy evidently considered that a limited attack to the Rhine would be too modest in view of the great opportunities at hand. Possibly envisioning a staggering blow to the kaiser, the general boldly stated, now is a most propitious time for launching an attack in this region. Whether or not the Germans were being taken in by all this activity, it was clear to Conger that Bundy had swallowed the ploy–hook, line, and sinker.

Conger himself, however, was losing faith in the whole idea. On the same day that Bundy sped his initial and encouraging appraisal to Pershing's headquarters, the colonel sent his own rather dismal assessment to the AEF chief of staff, his fellow deception plan confidant, General McAndrew. Conger claimed that he had executed all his assigned duties and that the enemy should now be well aware of increased American activity in the Belfort sector. He referred to his planned carelessness with the carbon paper by writing that Various indiscretions have been committed. Conger said that the Allies were somewhat amused by the diligent but obviously amateurish American efforts at deception. He described the French attitude as being, You Americans are very simple-minded indeed if you think you can fool either us or the Germans by any such game as this. Conger stated he could not believe that the enemy would take his efforts seriously since German intelligence in the region was good enough to determine the lack of actual American logistical preparations.

After a few days, the colonel bid Bundy goodbye, saw off the horde of staff planners, and made his own way back to the AEF headquarters to be on hand for the September 9 launch of the St. Mihiel offensive. Arriving at Pershing's headquarters at Chaumont, Conger discovered that the attack date had been slipped to September 12. He was instructed to return once more to Belfort so that the tiresome charade could be extended. The doubting intelligence officer retraced his steps and found that Bundy had never left the town. Conger lied to the general, saying that the scope of the scheme had to be expanded. The U.S. assault would involve a broader front, and the previous reconnaissance simply would not do. Now areas as far away as Luneville, some seventy miles to the north, had to be scouted. The diligent divisional staff officers were promptly recalled. The planning and reconnaissance activity resumed with renewed vigor. By now, however, some of the unwitting Americans were becoming suspicious. If the big push was coming this far south, why were the initial assault divisions, their own units, being moved farther to the north, toward the Argonne Forest? Perhaps feeling a bit foolish at this stage, Conger played his part, kept a straight face, and pressed the planning forward. Through all this, there was no indication that the chief planner, General Bundy, was ever discouraged in the slightest.

Finally, it was all over. Bundy, the signal units, and the overworked staff officers realized a ruse was afoot. At this stage, it was not even certain that the most gullible of the Americans was deceived. An undoubtedly dejected Colonel Conger returned again to Chaumont for the St. Mihiel offensive.

If the definition of battlefield surprise is that one's enemy is unprepared for one's action, Pershing certainly obtained surprise at St. Mihiel. The American preparatory barrages began at 1 a.m. on September 12, and U.S. infantry units launched their assault at 5 a.m. In some places, the Germans fought well; in others, they hardly fought at all. Despite Army Detachment C's orders issued nearly two weeks before, demanding repair and reinforcement of all defensive obstacles, the U.S. foot soldiers easily breached long-rusted German wire entanglements and quickly overpowered many of the defenders. Within forty-eight hours, Pershing's men had taken 443 artillery pieces and 752 enemy machine guns at the cost of seven thousand U.S. casualties. On the German side, the problem seemed to be determining what would signal a light push and what comprised a heavy attack. The order to withdraw from the salient did not come until noon, seven hours after the American assault began. As a result, sixteen thousand of Fuchs' troops became Pershing's prisoners.

If, upon hearing the news of the initial American success at St. Mihiel, Conger was pleased with his handiwork, he was probably delirious when he read the messages he was handed the next day. The French intelligence service passed on to its American counterpart a report from the French military mission in Berne, Switzerland. The officers had informed their superiors in Paris of a report from one of their agents that evacuation plans were being implemented for German inhabitants of the left bank portions of the upper Rhine River. German railroad authorities had been instructed as to their duties in the event of an attack, and in some places, rail lines had been taken up in anticipation of capture. The Mulhausen municipal court and bank archives had been evacuated and hurried to the east, deeper in Germany, for safekeeping. The Germans had moved artillery to the threatened region. French intelligence authorities were told that additional enemy trenches and defensive positions were being dug on the right bank of the Rhine. The agent reported on construction efforts that were underway north of Mulhausen for a new defense line between the Ill and Rhine Rivers, and he went on to reveal that normal civilian traffic in the region had been restricted so as to limit public knowledge of the new lines and positions. The report further stated that German ammunition depots were being stocked, Austrian artillery units were being moved in, and general opinion had it that Morhange, a town well to the southeast of Metz, might be in jeopardy. However crude in conception and amateurish in execution, Conger's Belfort Ruse might appear to have been a rousing success.

Yet the only purpose for the deception had been to mask the American attack at St. Mihiel, and to some European military critics, that entire operation was inconsequential. Shortly after the battle had ended, prisoner interrogations revealed that German units were under a withdrawal contingency at St. Mihiel. Supposedly, the Germans were going to leave in any event. This bit of news prompted one British wag to describe Pershing's first Western Front offensive as The show where the Americans relieved the Germans. That immediate and cynical description, however, ignored the fact that permission for withdrawal only applied to a heavy-attack situation and that many of the German troops not only did not withdraw, they fought hard to retain the salient.

It was only well after the war that the most important results of the Belfort Ruse and the military expertise of the American high command were realized. The AEF inner circle for the operations of September 1918–Pershing, McAndrew, Conger, and Conner–could then be said to have done rather well, both as professional soldiers and as practitioners of military deception. Even the operation's dupe, Maj. Gen. Omar Bundy, who undoubtedly became aware of his own rather dubious role, succeeded. The steadfast old Indian fighter held a number of suitable post commands after World War I: Camp Lee, Virginia; Fort Crook, Nebraska; and Fort Hayes, Ohio. He witnessed many an evening's bugle call, secure in the knowledge that his post was well ordered at the sound of Taps. Certainly, John Pershing triumphed. While most other World War I Allied military leaders were heavily criticized in postwar assessments, Black Jack basked in near universal acclaim. The American leader took a special delight in briefly mentioning the Belfort Ruse in his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirs. His wartime chief of staff, General McAndrew, drew prestigious postwar positions, eventually becoming president of the U.S. Army War College.

As for the prime implementer of the scheme, Colonel Arthur Conger found himself in the intelligence field after the Great War, successively serving as a military attaché in Berne, Oslo, and Berlin. During the last assignment, in 1926, he came into contact with one of his former adversaries, a German officer who was particularly knowledgeable about the events around Belfort and Mulhausen in September 1918. The secretive Conger preserved the anonymity of this source, referring to the informant as Colonel X. He told Conger that he had written Ludendorff after analyzing the telltale signs of U.S. activity during the early days of September. He recalled advocating the immediate dispatch of three divisions to the south. The former adversary then repeated to Conger his 1918 comment to Ludendorff: I recognize quite fully that all these preparations being made for attack may perfectly well turn out to be a ruse de guerre, however, there is nothing to indicate that it is not the real point of attack and our danger there is so great that I deem it imperative to have three divisions.

Thus in 1926 for the first time, Conger knew what the Belfort Ruse had accomplished. Surprise was in fact obtained at St. Mihiel to such an extent that many German units did not have the time to execute their withdrawal plans and thus abandoned their weapons and fled, became prisoners, or both. Moreover, the ruse resulted in the deployment of three vital German divisions. These had been sent to the wrong place at a critical time in the war. True, the deception had not been perfect from a purely American standpoint. The German troops in those three divisions had not come from the St. Mihiel salient. But, from an Allied perspective, these enemy divisions were at the wrong place at just the right time, and unavailable to defend against the great Allied fall offensives of 1918. The Belfort Ruse had worked.

That leaves the last of the four American ruse plotters, Fox Conner. Reputedly the smartest officer in the U.S. Army, Conner was promoted to major general and held an array of important postwar positions–many of them futile assignments in the nation's capital, where his boundless energy and intellect were pitted against the enormous forces of disarmament. He lost that battle as Congress ruthlessly reduced the U.S. Army to little better than a corporal's guard. Conner was finally released from his frustrating Washington duties and sent to a sunny, lush, and well-manicured army post in Panama.

Conner, however, was too much the energetic planner to relax and take his leisure. Unable to do much about peacetime military neglect, and convinced another war was coming, he set about training one promising young officer for the next conflict. Conner had never commanded in combat, having the misfortune to miss the action during the war with Spain and the ill luck to be the indispensable staff officer during World War I. It is therefore understandable why he took a young man of similar experience under his wing in the Canal Zone during the 1920s. This officer, who became Conner's protégé and student, had suffered through the onerous duty of training troops in the United States while his contemporaries were earning fame and promotion on the battlefields of France. It would most certainly not be too far-fetched to assume that General Conner told his pupil of the deception operation for St. Mihiel. And it is quite possible the story of the Belfort Ruse may have been of some use twenty-six years later in a much grander scheme of deception, a plot to once again confuse, deceive, and mystify a German opponent. Conner's description may have inspired some facets of Operation Bodyguard, a plan to deceive the enemy as to when the D-Day invasion would take place, that would be under the command of Conner's eager and attentive student, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

 


This article was written by Rod Paschall and originally published in Autumn 2002 edition of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

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