During The First American Combat of World War I, Haig Tried to Maneuver Pershing Into Sending Divisions to Augment His Own Depleted Forces.
Following the U.S. declaration of war against Germany in 1917, John J. Pershing was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). At the time of his appointment such an expeditionary force did not exist, as the army comprised 25,000 men at most. Pershing needed to recruit an organized army and get...
Following the U.S. declaration of war against Germany in 1917, John J. Pershing was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). At the time of his appointment such an expeditionary force did not exist, as the army comprised 25,000 men at most. Pershing needed to recruit an organized army and get it into the field. He did so, creating an army of nearly 3 million men, but it would take time. The war would be more than a year old before American troops in any significant numbers began arriving in Europe in the spring of 1918.
Pershing’s first major fight was not with the Germans, but with his Allies, the British and French. Their armies were exhausted from four years of devastating war, and they were desperately anxious to get Americans into combat. This need became vital when on March 21, 1918, the Germans launched a major offensive to try and win the war before the Americans could make their weight felt in any numbers. Neither the British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig nor his French counterpart Marshal Foch wanted a separate, American army. They argued such a force would take longer to train and reach the field, needlessly duplicate logistics chains, and implicitly, that raw American troops and commanders lacked experience and would require guidance from those with real battle savvy. Both Allies demanded that the AEF be broken up and its units assigned to provide replacements for their own depleted formations. In effect, Haig and Foch wanted to reduce Pershing to the command of a replacement depot – feeding American soldiers to Allied commanders who (in the view of Wilson, Baker and Pershing) had already wasted the lives of millions of their own countrymen in fruitless attacks since 1914. Pershing refused the Allied plan, saying that the AEF would fight in France and would do so under American command.
But the Allied need was urgent, so the pressure was unrelenting. On May 2, 1918, a compromise was reached and an agreement signed. It provided that “…as far as consistent with the necessity of building up an American Army,” some American troops would receive “training and service with French and British Armies; with the understanding that such infantry and machine-gun units are to be withdrawn…at the direction of the American Commander in Chief.” Thus, the Allies agreed in principle that there would be one unitary American force in Europe, but Pershing agreed that until one was fully formed and “over there,” some American units would indeed be assigned to British and French forces for “training and service.” The 27th and 30th Divisions were assigned to the British, along with a few other units, and in time the Frech received some also, but all were quickly withdrawn by Pershing except for the 27th and 30th, which continued on to serve under Haig’s leadership. In June 1918 these divisions underwent extensive combat training under British supervision, and exchanged their American equipment and firearms for British equivalents. They were teamed with Australian units, making this the first major interaction of Americans and Australians.
Meanwhile, Americans had their first experience of combat. Chateau-Thierry formed the tip of the German advance towards Paris and it was defended by the U.S. 2nd and 3rd Divisions. Led by Pershing, the Americans launched a counter-attack on June 3-4, 1918, and they succeeded in pushing the Germans back across the Marne. Then the Americans were given the difficult task of capturing Belleau Wood. Stubbornly defended by the Germans, the wood was taken by U.S. forces after a total of six attacks and counterattacks, with the battle ending June 26.
Until July 1918, Haig continued to hope to use the May agreement as a wedge to have more and more American divisions detached and placed under his command. He tried every angle he could think of. Here, in the very midst of the Battle of Belleau Wood, when Pershing asked him for some horses (almost surely to haul supplies), Haig responded by saying that he could help Pershing out with his onerous responsibilities by maybe taking on some more American divisions for training.
Autograph Letter Signed, General Headquarters British Armies in France, Saturday, 22 June 1918, to Pershing. ”Your letter of 19th instant reached me this morning. I will examine the horse question, and will let you know later whether it is possible for me to help to any important extent. I find that my resources will admit of my receiving two more Americans divisions, and equipping them with regimental transport etc. & help in their training on the same conditions as we are now doing for those divisions which are in the British area – 27th, 30th, 33rd etc. This will help you to a small extent, I hope. Kindly let me know if you decide to send me two more divisions, so that billets etc. may be prepared to receive them.”?He ends with, apparently referring to the ongoing battle, “All of luck to you…” At top left of page one, Pershing has requested in pencil that an aide prepare an answer, and signed with his initials. That answer was no. This is our first letter between the commanders of the great armies during World War I. Public sale records reveal no comparable piece.
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