George Patton’s famed genius for war first appeared in 1918 on the battlefields of France.
GEORGE S. PATTON JR.’S fame rests primarily on his deeds on the battlefields of World War II: the Operation Torch landings in North Africa in November 1942; resurrecting American prestige and fighting ability at El Guettar in Tunisia in March 1943; his heroics in Sicily that landed Patton on the covers of both Newsweek in August 1943; his exploitation with Time and 3d Army during the breakout from the Normandy bridgehead at the end of July and beginning of August 1944; and, perhaps most of all, his dramatic and prophetic actions in December 1944, when Patton was the only Allied senior commander to anticipate the great German counteroffensive in the Ardennes known as the Battle of the Bulge, in which he overnight turned 3d Army 90 degrees from Lorraine into the Ardennes and orchestrated the relief of Bastogne during the worst winter weather in Europe in 50 years.
These actions, along with Patton’s unfortunate propensity to garner bad publicity through his flamboyance and self-destructive acts – such as the two slapping incidents in Sicily in August 1943 – are all part of the Patton legend.
Since Patton’s death in December 1945, his fame and legacy have endured, from the 1970 film starring George C. Scott that won seven Academy Awards to the tribute that appeared on a large sign placed outside a corps headquarters in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War upon which was emblazoned one of Patton’s principles: “Hold ’em by the nose and kick ’em in the ass.”
All of this would certainly suggest that Patton’s true legacy stems from his World War II achievements. However, one of the finest examples of his military genius occurred not in World War II but in World War I, when Patton was a very junior officer assigned to General John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France.
Patton and Pershing first met in 1916 at Fort Bliss, Texas, in the wake of Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, N.M., that led to the Punitive Expedition in Mexico during what proved to be a futile attempt to find and capture or kill Villa. Patton was a young, recently promoted cavalry captain, newly assigned to Fort Bliss after duty at Fort Riley, Kan. When Patton learned that the Punitive Expedition was being formed, he persuasively talked Pershing into taking him on to his staff as an aide-de-camp.
During the Punitive Expedition, Patton led a patrol in search of Villa and got into a deadly shootout at a hacienda with one of Villa’s henchman, whom Patton killed with his revolver. The incident was reported in newspapers throughout America, and for the first time Patton’s name became nationally known.
When America entered World War I in 1917 and President Woodrow Wilson appointed Pershing to command the AEF, Patton accompanied Pershing to France. Initially, Patton served in Paris, and later when Pershing moved his headquarters to Chaumont, Patton served in the capacity of a combination of headquarters commandant, adjutant, provost marshal and jack of all administrative trades – an assignment that bored him and, with combat looming, one from which he sought to escape. “I am a sort of ‘Pooh-Bah’ and do everything no one else does,” he lamented in a letter to his wife, Beatrice. “I can’t see for the life of me where I am going to do much in this war.” Unknown to Patton, events were occurring that would soon alter his life and career.
In 1916, the first tanks were employed in combat by the British during the Battle of the Somme. Nicknamed “Big Willies” and “Little Willies,” they were the first operational armored vehicles produced by the British, who in 1915 were spurred to create tanks by their aggressive and innovative First Lord of the Admiralty – a young man named Winston Spencer Churchill. When Churchill learned that such a vehicle might be built that would help to end the awful carnage of the stalemate and trench warfare on the Western Front, he applied his boot to a large number of backsides and demanded – and got – action.
The Big Willie tanks, derisively named for German Crown Prince William, were painted in rainbow colors. Because there was not yet a doctrine for their employment, the British used them singly at night rather than en masse per later tank doctrine. Most broke down or became stuck in the mud before ever advancing very far; nevertheless, the first employment of these mechanical monsters was spectacularly successful. A single tank helped lead the attack on the town of Flers, which was taken without any loss to the accompanying New Zealand infantry. Another tank captured 300 Germans.
The employment of tanks by the British created such panic in the ranks of the Germans that the German press wrote: “The devil is coming.” Little did they know it but the British had just changed the course of modern warfare.
At Cambrai, in November 1917, the British launched an offensive with five infantry divisions and 324 tanks that penetrated 10,000 yards into the fourth level of the Hindenburg Line and caught the Germans flat-footed, capturing 8,000 prisoners. In six hours they took more ground than 100,000 infantrymen had in the massive and deadly Third Battle of Ypres in July 1917. Unfortunately, British success came mostly to naught when 180 of the tanks broke down and there was no plan in place for the infantry to seize the initiative.
At about the same time, the French were developing their own version of the tank, designed as an infantry personnel carrier by the Renault works. The French version was lighter and much more mobile than the ungainly Big Willie and was first employed in the spring of 1917.
A joint Anglo-French tank board was also created, but the two sides failed to agree on a common doctrine. The British favored using their heavy tanks independently, while the French preferred close cooperation between the light Renault tanks and the infantry.
The actions of the British and French did not go unnoticed by observers from the American Military Mission, whose reports began to interest Washington in the tank as a future weapon of war. Eventually, a copy of one of these reports landed on Pershing’s desk. Pershing quickly endorsed the potential of the tank and appointed both an AEF tank board and a lieutenant colonel to head it. The officer, LeRoy Eltinge, who would soon become a mentor to Patton, summoned Patton and asked if he would consider becoming a tank officer. Patton thought about it and found the idea appealing, in no small part because he could read and speak passable French.
At the end of 1917, Patton was 113th on the list of eligible cavalry captains for promotion. Yet despite his lack of seniority, he was tasked by Pershing to create the first-ever American tank force. What Patton managed to accomplish was astonishing: In 1918, he was promoted from captain to full colonel; he organized and trained the first U.S. tank brigade; he led his troops in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel; he received the Distinguished Service Cross; and he was badly wounded and nearly died on the first day of the Meuse-Argonne campaign.
Because the AEF arrived in France almost completely ill-trained, Pershing created a series of training schools to prepare his troops for their first combat. With Pershing’s blessing, Captain Patton became the first U.S. Army Soldier to be assigned to the newly created Tank Corps. On New Year’s Day 1918, Patton and a young lieutenant who was appointed as his assistant became the corps’ only two members.
Patton was directed to report to the city of Langres in eastern France to establish the 1st Army Tank School. At its inception, the Tank Corps had no tanks, no equipment, no uniforms, no standing operating procedures, no real precedents except for the limited and divergent experience of the British and French, no doctrine, no training school and – except in Patton’s mind – no clue about how it would be created and how it would function.
For Patton to succeed, he had to take a crash course in tanks, tank warfare and tank maintenance. He spent two weeks with the French, during which time he familiarized himself with the Renault tank that he drove, fired its gun, and pronounced himself thrilled by the experience. He also visited British Colonel J.F.C. Fuller to learn firsthand about the Battle of Cambrai. The knowledge he acquired was promptly put to the test.
The lessons Patton learned from the British and French soon led him to write his first paper on the subject. It outlined specific recommendations, both historical and technical, and presented a clear rationale for the new tank force. Patton later correctly called it “the best technical paper I ever wrote.” It noted that tanks and infantry were mutually supporting, but it also foreordained the future role of the tank in modern warfare. Patton wrote: “If resistance is broken and the line pierced, the tank must and will assume the role of pursuit cavalry and ride the enemy to death.” He also observed that tanks failed whenever they got ahead of the infantry, thus losing the benefit of their natural and mutual support.
For someone whose knowledge of the tank was barely a month old, it was an astonishing reflection of the visionary aspect of Patton’s mind. In an upbeat mood, Patton wrote to his wife: “I am fitted for it as I have imagination and daring and exceptional mechanical knowledge.”
Patton established his tank school in the town of Bourges, France, where the first order of business was the removal of heaps of manure that littered his new training area. As officers and men began arriving in Bourges, Patton spent his days in a whirlwind of organization, drawing up plans and lectures, designing training, conducting close order drill, and visiting the French and British to discuss the employment of tanks.
Since the first American tanks were still on the drawing board and months away from becoming a reality, Patton’s first real challenge was acquiring tanks in which to train his men. When a number of French Renault tanks arrived by train, Patton was the only one who knew how to drive them off the flatcars.
A hallmark of the tank school was its rigid discipline. Patton demanded and received unquestioned obedience. He conducted foot drills and practiced arm and hand signals for what the men would later do aboard their tanks, showed them how tanks would be employed on a battlefield, and taught them how to troubleshoot gasoline engines. He also gave lectures on a variety of subjects such as camouflage, reconnaissance, map reading and reading of aerial photographs. All were things he would teach and focus on in World War II.
Patton’s emphasis on discipline and on spit and polish was designed to instill esprit de corps. Just as he would proclaim in World War II that his Soldiers should not die for their country but rather make the other poor, dumb bastards die for their country, Patton in World War I cautioned his officers that the Germans were disciplined but that he and his men would be even more disciplined. He proclaimed: “It is by discipline alone that all your efforts, all your patriotism, shall not have been in vain. Without it heroism is futile. You will die for nothing. With discipline you are irresistible.”
Patton’s tankers soon began to evince a sense of pride in their newfound, razor-sharp military bearing. Saluting became so smartly executed that the byword for it became “give ’em a George Patton.”
It is worth noting that Patton was never seduced by the lure of weapons of war as cure-alls that would defeat a resilient enemy such as the Germans. Later he would coin his famous dictum: “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and the man who leads that gains the victory.” These words are as true today as they were when he uttered them nearly a century ago.
By April 1918, Patton was a lieutenant colonel, but it was not until mid-September of that year that there were enough tanks for the two battalions he had organized and trained to go to war.
The tank of 1918 was exceptionally crude and consisted of a two-man crew, a commander and a driver. The commander could only signal the driver by a series of kicks: A kick in the back meant go forward; a kick on either shoulder told the driver which way to turn; a kick in the head meant stop; and repeated kicks to the head meant drive in reverse. Thus, striking an enlisted man – normally a court-martial offense in the U.S. Army – became an accepted means of operating a tank in World War I.
Keeping the tanks running, however, was an absolute nightmare, and most of the time Patton counted himself lucky to have a handful of them actually operating. Nevertheless, what he accomplished in the spring and summer of 1918 was nothing less than dazzling. In addition to attending a 12-week course at Pershing’s staff officer school, Patton had to train his own school, all the while pouring out lectures, directives and notes. The pressures were endless and the results impressive.
By the time Patton and his men were ready for battle in September 1918, he commanded 50 officers and 900 enlisted men in what was now called the 1st Brigade, Tank Corps, which consisted of the 344th and 345th tank battalions.
It was decided that the AEF would fight in France’s Saint-Mihiel sector of the front. Pershing’s objective was to seize both the sector and a strategic railroad. Patton, to prepare himself for the forthcoming offensive, went into no-man’s-land to reconnoiter, crawling for well over a mile until he came to the German outer wires.
On September 12, Patton personally led his brigade into combat at Saint-Mihiel in the rain, fog and mud. (See You Command, July 2012 ACG.) It was messy, and his tanks routinely outran the infantry when they were not breaking down.
Patton had been directed to remain in telephone contact with his boss at the AEF, Colonel Samuel Rockenbach, who had replaced Colonel Eltinge. Telephone contact was by means of wire, but by 7 a.m. Patton could no longer resist the lure of the battlefield. Leaving his adjutant to man the phone, he strolled into the battle zone on foot.
Before long, on a hillside outside the village of Essey, Patton encountered the most highly decorated officer serving in the AEF, Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded a brigade of the famous 42d Rainbow Division. Much has been made of this chance encounter, but it was actually brief and inconsequential. What was noteworthy about it was that one well-placed German shell that morning would have wiped out at a single stroke two of the most significant and controversial figures of World War II.
From there, Patton led his tanks forward, riding atop one of them in total disregard for the bullets flying everywhere around him. He later caught hell from Rockenbach for leaving his command post, but Patton was determined to lead from the front and he vowed (privately, of course) that he would do it again.
Given that this was the new Tank Corps’ first-ever day of combat, it was ultimately far more important for Patton to set the example and be seen leading from the front than to remain in the rear. The significance of his presence that day was incalculable and it sent the strong message that he practiced what he preached.
The Saint-Mihiel battle was brief but decisive for the future of armored operations. Patton began to envision a role for tanks that went far beyond the officially prescribed mission of the Tank Corps as a support arm of the infantry. He grasped the enormous potential of tanks as a decisive factor on the modern battlefield. It was the concept of mobile warfare.
Patton would refine his ideas during the interwar years, and by 1928 he would state that with the advent of the tank and the airplane there was now a solution to the problem of delivering a coup de grace to an enemy force: Hold them until the decisive moment, and then employ them ruthlessly and en masse.
The AEF had a mere 10 days to shift its forces from the Saint-Mihiel sector to the Meuse-Argonne, which was a major logistical feat under the crude conditions of the rainy season. The mission given Patton and his tanks was to support two divisions of I Corps. As was his custom, he conducted a personal reconnaissance of the battlefields and learned that his tanks would encounter major problems in the form of inhospitable terrain and a river between the two divisions that would eliminate mutual support.
On September 26, 1918, Patton’s career and life nearly ended on the first day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. In dense fog and under murderous machine-gun and artillery fire, American infantry and tanks became stalled near the village of Cheppy, where Patton encountered a bottleneck and a very dangerous situation that called for leadership to rally a besieged force. Tanks were milling around and piling up, infantrymen were confused, and only Patton knew what to do. Exposing himself to danger, he rallied the troops, gave orders on how to attack a German strongpoint, and restored a semblance of order before being hit in the upper thigh by a machine-gun bullet that nearly killed him.
Patton had been utterly terrified that morning – five of the six men around him were killed – yet he reacted with perhaps the finest leadership of his career at a decisive moment. It took some hours before he could be rescued and moved to an aid station, and he spent weeks in the hospital recuperating. During that time, he was temporarily promoted to full colonel (at the age of only 32) and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery on the battlefield.
On November 11, 1918, World War I ended. Patton, however, was long haunted by his experience in the Meuse-Argonne. Although he emerged from the war with honors and acclaim, the year 1918 took its toll and the price was indeed high. Contrary to his image as a tough guy, Patton was deeply affected by the horror of war and suffered from post-traumatic stress. What had been the high of combat turned into the giant letdown that is so common to soldiers who have experienced the fighting firsthand.
In the years following the war, Patton suffered bouts of depression and wrote dark and gruesome poetry about death. Again and again, a bleak consequence of his combat experience was reflected in his letters to his wife and in his poetry, which became an important means of expression. A vivid example was a poem he called “The Moon and the Dead,” which reads, in part:
The roar of the guns languished
The hate from the guns grew still,
While the moon rose up from a smoke cloud,
And looked at the dead on the hill.
Pale was her face with anguish
Wet were her eyes with tears,
As she gazed at the twisted corpses
Cut off in their earliest years.
Some were bit by the bullet,
Some were kissed by the steel,
Some were crushed by the cannon
But all were still, how still!
What Patton accomplished in France, and indeed throughout his life, was all the more challenging because he was dyslexic. To understand Patton, it is essential to appreciate the dominant role dyslexia played in his life. Early in his childhood, his parents realized he suffered from a learning disability that prevented him not only from reading but also from attending school until he was 11. Although they were unable to identify his problem – dyslexia was virtually unknown in the United States until the 1920s – young Patton unquestionably suffered from this disorder that affects one person in every seven. (Some famous dyslexics include Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Thomas A. Edison, Richard Branson, Henry Ford, Tom Cruise, and Woodrow Wilson.)
Patton never learned that dyslexia was what afflicted him; he simply knew he was different. In addition to causing difficulty with reading and writing, the disorder can also cause those affected to have a tendency to boast and use profanity; be obsessive, impulsive and hyperactive; and experience sharp mood swings and feelings of inferiority and stupidity. All were Patton traits.
Like Patton, many dyslexics are able to overcome the disorder and lead very productive lives. It has been said that it is easy for them to think outside the box because they have never been inside the box. In Patton’s case, dyslexia was the most compelling reason for his success.
During World War I, this was reflected in his leadership and initiative in forming and training America’s first tanks and leading them into combat. It was an extraordinary feat. Although Patton would earn undreamt-of fame in World War II, what he achieved almost singlehandedly in 1918 will endure as one of his greatest accomplishments.
Carlo D’Este is a renowned historian, best-selling biographer, and “Armchair General” consulting historian and advisory board member. His acclaimed books include “Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life,” “Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945,” and “Patton: A Genius for War,” from which this article was adapted.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Armchair General.