The United States was at war on 6 April 1917. What this meant, no one knew. Before the American government could answer the inevitable question of the extent of its contribution to the war effort, it had to determine its military capacity as well as the actual situation and the needs of its co-belligerents. In their conferences with American officials, the British and French dignitaries described the disheartening war situation and pled for ships and money. French Marshal Joseph Joffre also requested that the US send troops to France. President Woodrow Wilson approved a division to be sent to France immediately.
Although the American army was not impressive by European standards, it had undergone basic reforms during the first decade of the century. In a period bridging the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations, Secretary of War Elihu Root, a New York corporation lawyer, laid the foundation for a modern army. As late as 1917, however, young, progressive officers and some of their elders recognized that they had to struggle to maintain advances in the areas of professional education, the general staff concept, and the relationship between the National Guard and the regular army.
In some respects the army had failed to shake off the stagnation of the late nineteenth century. Although the Root reforms had provided the impetus, implementation was difficult when so many officers were lethargic. For the ambitious young officers, even though war raged in Europe, army life in 1915-16 was apt to be dull and uninspiring. Since the duty routine was usually over by noon, much of their time was free. Some collected in informal study groups, taught themselves tactics, and attempted to keep up with the professional literature. Others spent their spare time at the card tables of the officers' clubs.
Before the United States could wage war on the scale demanded by the belligerents on the Western Front, it would have to greatly expand its military force and reorganize its military structure. During the formative period, which continued into the early months of 1918, delays, mistakes and confusion hampered the developing war effort; yet, progress was made. Since Woodrow Wilson had little interest in military matters, his Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, assumed unusually great responsibilities in the spring of 1917. Baker, a Cleveland lawyer then in his mid-forties, had several assets which would enable him to handle those responsibilities.
Despite its limitations, the small General Staff had made one particularly significant preparation for the war. In mid-February 1917, the War College Division submitted to General Hugh Scott a detailed plan for raising and training a force of four million men, a ‘National Army’. Although the basis for this project was peacetime universal military training, the planners also worked on a modified version which was adapted, in their term, ‘to emergency conditions’. The major element of this plan, aside from the general idea of conscription, which the War Department would use, was the organization of sixteen divisional training areas.
Since the army only had facilities for housing the regulars, the prospect of a large wartime increase meant providing shelter for hundreds of thousands of new soldiers. Secretary Baker created a Cantonment Division, with the former head of the Construction and Repair Division, Colonel Isaac W. Littell, as its director. Since there were so few experienced officers, the civilian architects, town planners and businessmen of the Emergency Construction Committee under W. A. Starrett, a New York architect, played an important role throughout this early period.
In addition to raising and housing the army, there was the problem of supplying it. The army entered the war with five semi-independent supply bureaus. The two major supply organizations, however, were the Quartermaster Corps and the Ordnance Department. The army depended heavily on the Quartermaster Corps. Clothing, subsistence and pay as well as construction, transportation, and the supply of horses and mules were under its jurisdiction. The Ordnance Department furnished the army with its arms, large and small, and ammunition. Both departments expanded greatly during the war.
By the time the United States entered the war, the French and the British had reached a stage of gun production which permitted them to furnish some artillery to the Americans. In July 1917 the French agreed to equip the AEF with the famous 75 mm and 155 mm guns in return for raw materials. The British later promised similar aid with different caliber guns. These Allied commitments gave the Ordnance planners the time to develop their artillery program.
The greatest problem was the lack of equipment and qualified trainers. Nearly all the officers and noncommissioned officers of the regular army were forced to serve as instructors, and few of them would end up overseas. One who was frustrated by this was young Captain Dwight Eisenhower, who had volunteered for combat but whose orders sent him to Camp Colt, on the edge of the historic Gettysburg battlefield. The junior officer problem would have been worse had it not been for the pre-war Military Training Camps Association. These camps, organized by the far-sighted General Leonard Wood, gave a month-long military indoctrination to aspiring officers. They provided a basis for the officer training schools that produced second lieutenants.
The focal point of the developing American military effort was the expeditionary force in France. Major General John J. Pershing was the obvious choice for this assignment. Before he made his selection, Secretary Baker had reviewed the dossiers of all general officers and had weighed carefully each man's capabilities for such a difficult mission. In this consideration Pershing's recent experience with the Punitive Expedition in Mexico stood out. Loyalty to administration policy and discretion were as necessary as the ability to command a large field force.
Once he had been chosen, Pershing, in turn, began selecting his staff. For the most important post of Chief of Staff, he picked his friend and fellow cavalryman, Major James G. Harbord, then a student at the Army War College. In less than three weeks, Pershing decided upon fifty-eight other officers to accompany him. A few had served with him in Mexico; others he had observed in various assignments. Some came on the recommendation of the bureau chiefs. Those who would head staff sections such as Quartermaster and Ordnance chose their own assistants. Yet this group would be merely the beginning of the staff Pershing ultimately required.
Pershing, Harbord, and their headquarters staff sailed for Europe on the USS Baltic. Pershing landed in Liverpool, England, and, along with his staff, boarded a train to London. Then it was off to France, where the greetings were also enthusiastic. In Paris, Pershing and a contingent from the 1st Division were greeted by cheering crowds that threw flowers and shouted ‘Vive l’Amerique!’
American troops began to arrive in numbers in February 1918. The 26th Division, made up of troops of the New England National Guard, fought a bloody battle in late April in lines around the village of Seicheprey. Black troops made up the four regiments of the 93rd Division, and the French army completely integrated these regiments into their forces. One of the four regiments, the 369th, moved into the Argonne Forest and took over a three-mile sector of the line by mid-April.
The Germans planned an attack against the French army moving from the Chemin des Dames Ridge toward Paris, some 70 miles distant. German troops advanced on the Marne, about 55 miles from the outskirts of Paris. As French troops moved into defensive positions, Marshal Ferdinand Foch put the US Third Division at Château-Thierry and the US Second Division, which included the US Marine Brigade, into the line at Belleau Wood. The appearance of fresh American troops in the line by early summer of 1918 made it clear to the German command that their timetable for victory had suddenly shortened.
After a total of five major assaults by the Germans through early and mid-1918, the German army lost nearly a million men. At the same time that American troops began to make their presence known on the front, the French began throwing more tanks and aircraft into the battles. Furthermore, German morale collapsed in many units. In August, British troops pushed ahead on the old Somme battlefield, and an American force attacked the long-standing St. Mihiel salient near Verdun. The German command had already planned to evacuate the St. Mihiel salient, so when the American attack came, the Germans had already started pulling away from their fortified positions.
In some of the last and most bloody battles fought by the Americans in the war, American troops pushed back German defenses in the Argonne Forest, north of Verdun. Unseasoned American troops went through some terrifying experiences.
The explanation for what stopped the German advances in mid-1918 has been the subject of intense historical debate. The British stressed their tenacity and their successful use of tanks in several battles. French accounts emphasized their use of new tactics and massive industrial output of artillery, supplies, and aircraft. The arrival of American troops, their rapid training, and their willingness to plunge into battle has also been credited with tipping the battle, a factor recognized as important by the German Commander-in-Chief Erich Ludendorff himself, and of course the focus of many American-authored studies of the topic. A deeper cause lay in the exhaustion of manpower and the destruction of the morale of the German troops.
Woodrow Wilson had clarified American war goals in a carefully crafted speech delivered on 8 January 1918, in which he spelled out what came to be known as the Fourteen Points. Later speeches amplified these points until he had come up with more than 20. Most of Wilson’s points dealt with proposed territorial settlements based on the ethnicity and preference of the populations in question. The United States wanted guarantees of freedom of the seas, abandonment of secret treaties in favor of ‘open covenants, openly arrived at’, no reparations based on war guilt and commitment to a League of Nations to enforce future peace.
After the defeats of August 1918, the German command concluded that the war could not be won. Ludendorff recommended that peace be negotiated on the basis of the Fourteen Points. The Fourteen Points, it may have seemed, would save Germany from being forced to suffer complete defeat and surrender. Only after Wilson had secured a commitment to most of the points did he open discussions with the other Entente powers to ensure that they would accept an armistice based on the same points. Unraveling what kind of peace should emerge, from the tangle of treaties, agreements, understandings and lists of points, became the difficult task for the Great Power statesmen over the following months.