It’s a cardinal sin of warfare to underestimate the enemy, but Germany did exactly that as it sized up U.S. military power in World War I.
IN THE FINAL MONTH OF WORLD WAR I, THE GERMAN ARMY WAS NEAR THE BREAKING POINT. Throughout 1918, officer casualties had been especially heavy. Numbers had been so reduced that in the Argonne Forest a mere lieutenant commanded the 1st Battalion, 120th Landwehr Regiment. Fortunately for the Germans, that lieutenant, Paul Vollmer, had nearly four years of combat experience, and he was a well-educated man who spoke fluent English and had lived in Chicago before the war. On October 8, 1918, near the village of Châtel-Chéhéry, elements of his unit engaged in a fierce firefight with an Allied patrol. In the midst of the fighting Vollmer was captured by Corporal Alvin C. York of the U.S. 82nd Division’s 328th Infantry Regiment. “English?” Vollmer asked as he surrendered to York.
“No, not English,” York replied.
“Good Lord!” Vollmer blurted in disbelief.
Vollmer’s mistake was understandable. The American khaki uniforms and “soup plate” steel helmets resembled those worn by the British and were nothing like the Adrian helmets and light-blue uniforms of the French. American troops had been fighting in the Argonne for two weeks, and although the German intelligence system was still functioning quite well, that information may not have trickled down to the rank-and-file soldier. German military records make it very clear, however, that senior commanders in Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL—the German High Command), Army Group Gallwitz, and Fifth Army were well aware of who they were fighting immediately east of the Meuse River. As early as June 8, OHL directed German forces to “cause as much damage as possible, within the limits of the general situation, to the American units inserted in the front line, as they are to form the nucleus for the new [Allied] organizations.”
As we now know, Germany’s senior military leaders purposely misled the German people and even their frontline soldiers and commanders as to the number of American troops in France and in combat during the latter half of 1918. After all, German submarines were supposed to have prevented U.S. troopships from reaching Europe. Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the chief of the admiralty staff, had gone so far as to tell Kaiser Wilhelm II, “I give your majesty my word as an officer that not one American will land on the Continent.” The U-boats, however, failed to sink a single U.S. troopship.
By the final year of the war the German economy was in ruins, and morale at home and on the front lines was shaky at best. Germany’s senior military leaders believed that neither the combat troops nor the civilians could handle the harsh reality of a huge infusion of fresh Allied troops.
Postwar interrogations of German soldiers and civilians confirmed the disinformation effort. On December 14, 1918, for example, the mayor of Rubenach, a small town near Koblenz in the American Zone of Occupation, told U.S. Army interrogators that people routinely received false reports of troopship sinkings. But by mid-October it was no longer possible to conceal the fact that Americans were in France in large numbers—and fighting.
UNDERESTIMATING THE ENEMY IS A CARDINAL SIN OF WARFARE, and on the strategic level the Germans made that mistake twice during World War I. The first was when German leaders doubted that their invasion of Belgium and France in 1914 would bring Great Britain into the war, but they managed to convince themselves that any intervention by the small British Army of only six divisions would be militarily insignificant. Indeed, the kaiser purportedly dismissed what would by the end of the war become the 60-division British Expeditionary Force as a “contemptible little army.”
The Germans committed the same fundamental error in 1917. Politically explosive revelations surrounding the so-called Zimmermann telegram (a coded message Germany sent to Mexico proposing a military alliance against the United States), combined with the resumption of unrestricted submarine attacks, brought the United States into the war on the side of the Entente.
In mid-1917 Germany’s military leaders estimated that any American army could not possibly be a significant force on European battlefields until at least the spring of 1919, by which time they felt the Entente would surely have collapsed. When General Erich Ludendorff, the first quartermaster general of the German army, launched his five great offensives in the spring of 1918, he thought it would take the Americans more than a year to train and deploy even five or six divisions, and he dismissed completely the possibility that any such units would be combat capable for many months after that. As late as December 1917 an OHL intelligence assessment stated bluntly: “The officer corps is not trained for the demands of major warfare. For this reason alone, it will be impossible for a time to employ American units of any size under their own command in difficult situations.” Even General Hans von Seeckt, the chief of staff to German field marshal August von Mackensen, thought that while the influx of fresh American units might prolong the war, it would not prove decisive for the Allies.
The initial German assessment wasn’t completely groundless. In 1917 the United States was still unprepared for war. Its army was the 17th largest in the world, right behind Portugal. On April 6, the day the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany, the regular U.S. Army had only 128,000 troops, backed by some 182,000 partially trained National Guardsmen. By November 1918 the total number of American soldiers had grown to 3.7 million, more than half of them already in Europe. Their training and combat effectiveness left much to be desired, but the sheer power of their numbers was overwhelming.
In 1917 and throughout most of 1918, the U.S. Army grappled with the problem of having to train NCOs, officers, staff officers, and senior commanders virtually overnight. The Americans started the war with only 379 officers who had attended the recently established staff school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, or the Army War College in Washington, D.C. General John J. Pershing, who had led the U.S. Army’s punitive expedition to Mexico in 1916, was the only American officer who’d ever commanded a force larger than a brigade in combat.
Between 1914 and mid-1917, the U.S. Army had paid little attention to developments in warfare on European battlefields. American military journals continued to heavily emphasize the use of the rifle and the bayonet, to the exclusion of rapidly emerging military firepower technologies, including trench mortars, machine guns, rapid-firing artillery, and tanks.
The political atmosphere in Washington only fed the studied indifference of the nation’s military establishment. When President Woodrow Wilson read in a newspaper in 1915 that some officers at the U.S. Army War College were developing contingency war plans for an American entry into the European conflict, he ordered acting secretary of the army Henry S. Breckenridge to investigate and, if the story proved true, to exile the offending officers. Thus, when the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare finally brought America into the war in 1917, the U.S. Army was woefully unprepared.
The Germans, at first dismissive of the Americans, developed a grudging respect for the inherent toughness and fighting spirit of the doughboys, but not necessarily for their tactical skills or their leadership—especially the American general officers. Ludendorff thought that Pershing, the other American generals, and the American Expeditionary Forces General Staff simply did not know how to wage a large-scale, modern war. In a chapter for George Viereck’s 1929 book, As They Saw Us: Foch, Ludendorff, and Other Leaders Write Our War History, Ludendorff wrote: “They lacked keen discernment of tactical situations and the ability to exploit changing conditions by quick decisions.”
Ironically, most British and French generals and Allied political leaders, including Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George, agreed with Ludendorff’s assessment. Pershing in particular, they all thought, had no understanding of modern warfare. Pershing, in turn, constantly criticized the Allies and the Germans for the trench warfare that had come to characterize the Great War. But for Pershing, what passed for “open warfare”—or in modern terms maneuver warfare—amounted to little more than inadequately supported large-scale frontal attacks by the infantry. Pershing continually emphasized the primacy of the rifle and the bayonet, giving little credence to machine guns, mortars, artillery, tanks, and airpower.
ALTHOUGH THERE WERE SEVEN AMERICAN DIVISIONS IN FRANCE BY MARCH 1918, only one was close to being ready for combat. But then the numbers started to increase almost exponentially, catching OHL by surprise. From March to July the United States put 956,000 troops into Europe. In the same period, the Germans lost 973,000 men during the five great Ludendorff Offensives of 1918.
German intelligence officers carefully watched the arriving Americans, and as they realized the growing threat, they began to change their assessments. “Replacement, armament, and equipment of American troops are good. Their training is still insufficient,” the General Staff reported during the winter of 1917–1918. “It is to be expected that the American soldier, after additional training and war experience, will amount to a formidable opponent.”
Throughout the war the Germans continued to rate the Americans low on training and leadership while recognizing their physical robustness and individual fighting spirit. Here’s how Ludendorff characterized the Americans after the war: “Young, well developed, enterprising by nature, and utterly lacking in fear, trained for exertions and privations by sport, very well fed and equipped. His nervous energy untapped, the American soldier possessed precisely those qualifications which make a fighter.”
Ludendorff also credited the Americans as being honorable, writing that “the innate good nature of the American soldier prevented him from indulging in unchivalrous treatment of his enemy. Our soldiers especially praised the Americans for never firing upon stretcher bearers when they had been recognized as such.”
But Ludendorff ridiculed the ethnic composition of the AEF, foreshadowing Adolf Hitler’s dismissal of America as a “mongrel nation.” “There appeared to be a decided percentage of foreign nationalities in the ranks of the AEF,” he wrote. “These comprised Poles and Italians chiefly, mostly unnaturalized, who as citizens of ‘free sovereign’ countries had been unceremoniously pressed into American uniforms.” Germany, of course, never had any compunction about conscripting ethnic non-Germans, including French speakers from Alsace and Lorraine, and Polish nationals from East Prussia. The historical record shows very clearly that the majority of the foreign-born American soldiers who served were intensely proud of having done so. In fact, the many German-speaking American soldiers in the AEF caused serious problems for German troops during the war, confusing them by calling out to them in fluent German during battle. After the war, however, those German-speaking Americans were often well received by the German civilian population in the American Occupation Zone.
THE GERMANS LOST NO TIME IN PROBING THE AMERICANS AND TESTING THEIR CAPABILITIES. On April 20, 1918, they conducted a large-scale trench raid against units of the U.S. 26th Division, which was then training in a quiet sector of the line near the village of Seicheprey, south of Verdun. The Americans eventually beat off the attack, but in the process 100 were captured and another 650 killed or wounded. While the American press trumpeted the humiliating defeat as a glorious victory, the Germans analyzed the battle very carefully. “The American leadership in the combats up to now has been found wanting,” the operations section of the Army Detachment C General Staff concluded. “In the fighting around Seicheprey no influence of the command on artillery or infantry action was noticed. There was no planned employment of reserves for counterattacks or coordinated artillery fire on the points of penetration.”
Nearly a month after Seicheprey, the Americans made their debut in a major battle during the third of the five great Ludendorff Offensives, Operation Blücher, which ran from May 27 to June 5, 1918. On May 28, the U.S. 1st Division attacked and captured the German-occupied village of Cantigny, on the western face of the German penetration salient and between Soissons and Château-Thierry. The day after Blücher came to a halt, the U.S. 2nd Division, which included the U.S. 4th Marine Brigade, attacked into the German lines to take the key terrain of Belleau Wood. The fierce battle raged until June 26, when the marines finally secured the woods. Because that happened to be the point at which the German forces were closest to Paris in 1918, the myth arose that the marines had “saved Paris.” But as all the surviving German operations orders and war diaries make quite clear, Paris was never an objective of any of the Ludendorff Offensives of 1918, although the Germans had devised elaborate deception plans to make the Allies think so. And besides, the Germans themselves had halted Blücher the day before the marines attacked.
By the time the Battle of Belleau Wood had ended, the German General Staff had to admit that with the U.S. 2nd Division, they were now facing at least one first-class American fighting unit. “This division must be considered as a very good one, perhaps even as a shock unit,” OHL’s assessment concluded. “The material of the rank and file is very good indeed….All the attacks in Belleau Wood in July were executed briskly and without hesitation. Their nerves are still strong and they are well fed.”
THE FIRST LARGE-SCALE OFFENSIVE COMMITMENT OF U.S. FORCES CAME IN THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE MARNE. Eight U.S. divisions participated in the great Allied counteroffensive that started on July 18, 1918. American units fought under French higher-level command. Just before the battle, OHL issued an intelligence assessment that was still generally dismissive of the U.S. contribution to the Allied effort: “The assistance of the Americans is in some respects a bluff. In their conceit, they imagine that with the masses of men brought over, they can bring about at once a decision in favor of the Entente.” The assessment went on to state that the United States was trying to field a million-man army more quickly than Britain had, and that the Americans, “in their delusions of grandeur,” failed to understand that the brute massing of men and machines didn’t necessarily make for an effective fighting force.
After the battle, however, German attitudes started to change. General Walther Reinhardt, the chief of staff of the German Seventh Army, which was primarily involved in the battle, wrote:
Did the Americans, in the course of the battles of the spring of 1918, fulfill all the hopes that were centered on them? The question can be answered with an unconditional yes! There is no doubt that the American Expeditionary Forces lacked training; that their leaders lacked generalship and actual war experience. These facts led to casualties heavier than were necessary and probably accounted for their limited tactical success of July 18th. However, the American troops brought with them across the ocean something much more important than training and experience, something that cannot be taught, but must be inborn: The will to attack, the firm resolve “to kill or get killed”—warlike qualities which brave men never hesitate to praise, even in the enemy!
Not all of Germany’s senior commanders, however, saw the situation as clearly as Reinhardt.
The Saint-Mihiel Offensive, which aimed to pinch out a large German salient south of Verdun, was the first such operation executed under overall American (as opposed to French) command. The U.S. First Army attacked on September 12 with 14 American and four French divisions. But the Germans had already started to withdraw from the salient when the attack started. By the time the operation ended on September 15, it appeared to be a brilliant feat of arms for the Americans.
The Germans didn’t see it that way. “The advance of the American infantry in the attack was altogether schematic,” OHL concluded on September 22, in its final assessment of the battle. “Great clumsiness was shown in the movement over the terrain of the waves of riflemen which followed each other closely. The assault troops hesitated when met by the least resistance, and gave the impression of awkwardness and helplessness. Neither officers nor men knew how to make use of the terrain.” The report concluded: “The American is too much of a dilettante, and therefore in a major attack needs not to be feared….Our troops had expected much more of them in a major battle. In spite of some local reverses, their confidence of being able to deal with the Americans has been raised.”
The Meuse-Argonne campaign, launched on September 26, was the biggest battle in American history. Nine U.S. divisions under three U.S. corps made the initial attack. By the time the campaign (and the war) ended on November 11, 1.2 million U.S. troops had been committed against some 450,000 German troops. The American attack was the southernmost and first of four great prongs of the Allied general offensive that ended the war. The Americans’ ultimate objective was Mézières, the rail center that was the hub of the German transportation and logistics network in Flanders. Although the Americans’ tactical performance was poor at first, they continued to push forward, and their tactical skills improved over time, but at a high price in casualties. (In only six months of combat operations, more than 116,000 American soldiers died.) As the battle progressed throughout October, the Germans were forced to shift more and more of their strategic reserves to the sector of Army Group Gallwitz. That in turn reduced their ability to defend against the three other converging attacks launched by the French, British, and Belgians, on September 27, 28, and 29.
Ludendorff devoted 21 pages of his memoirs to the Allied general offensive but played down the significance of the Allies’ Meuse-Argonne campaign. Writing 10 years later for Viereck’s book, however, he had more to say about Meuse-Argonne. Once again criticizing American leadership, he wrote that American tactical success in Meuse-Argonne only looked good in comparison to the bad showing by the French Fourth Army on the AEF’s left flank: “I do not hesitate to state that the American infantry, their strong nerves still intact, were more difficult to combat during the fighting in the autumn [of] 1918 than, for example, the nerve-depleted infantry of the French.”
General Max von Gallwitz, the army group commander who fought more Americans than any other senior German commander, offered a somewhat more objective assessment of his enemies: “Lack of experience was very often paid for with great sacrifices. These were sustained with admirable equanimity. As a matter of fact, attacks were frequently launched with too little concern, and in an unsuitable manner.” But Gallwitz then concluded by putting the U.S. contribution to the war in perspective: “After all, it was the astonishing display of American strength which definitely decided the war against us.”
TYPICAL OF ALL WARS, SENIOR COMMANDERS WRITE MEMOIRS TO MAKE SURE THEIR STORIES GET TOLD as they want them to be told. Objectivity often suffers in the process, and in some cases even basic honesty becomes a casualty. Ludendorff is a case in point. His memoirs, published in 1919, play down U.S. involvement in the war. But as he came under growing criticism at home and abroad for fatally underestimating the Americans, his tone turned increasingly defensive. In Viereck’s 1929 book he states: “After the World War, in Germany as well as in foreign countries, I was reproached, time and again, for having misjudged, from a military point of view, the importance of America’s entrance into the war. I was taken to task for having underestimated America’s inherent capacity…, that is, that I had underrated the opponent from every angle. All this is incorrect!”
Ludendorff did admit that the General Staff had underestimated the speed of the American buildup, but for that he blamed the German navy and the failure of the U-boat campaign. Despite the overwhelming manpower that the United States brought to the Allied side, Ludendorff nonetheless continued to insist that the reason Germany lost the war was collapse at home—the infamous Dolchstosslegende (stab-in-the-back myth). And, of course, he could not resist denouncing as scapegoats “the usual suspects”—Jews, freemasons, and Jesuits—that progressively haunted his writings during the final years of his life.
Of all the German senior generals and military historians of the immediate postwar period, German Hermann von Kuhl probably offered the most accurate and objective assessment of the Americans. Writing in his 1929 two-volume history of the war, Kuhl said: “The American soldier excelled in bravery, although he was lacking practice. Rested, well-nourished, and with his nervous energy still intact, he met the German forces who were exhausted from unprecedented exertions of four years of fighting.”
Kuhl’s assessment was very similar to one made by U.S. Army General Hunter Liggett some years after the war. When Liggett asked rhetorically whether the AEF of 1918 could have stood up on the battlefield against the German Army of 1915 or even 1916, he answered his own question: Probably not. MHQ
DAVID T. ZABECKI is HistoryNet’s chief military historian.
This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Another Contemptible Little Army?
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