THE phrase ‘a 100-per-cent American’ has become both a description and a motto since the war. If General Pershing was not the prototype, he deserves to be — for it fits aptly both as a description of him and as a motto for him.
Born on September 13, 1860, near Laclede, Missouri, John Joseph Pershing was destined to as astonishing a rise from the nadir of lowliness to the zenith of power as Joffre, first commander in chief of the other great republic. And like Joffre his product of democracy was essentially undemocratic. His early years were a perfect fulfillment of the popular picture of the self-made man — as a boy, improving his education in hours snatched from work, then taking a course at the Normal School at Kirksville while supporting himself by teaching in a children’s school. Law was his aim, but arms his fate, for, hearing of a competitive examination for the United States Military Academy at West Point, he turned aside to try for, and seize, the chance of a career free of apprenticeship costs. If the prize seemed likely to be small, the stake was nought.
More mature than most of the cadets, with the habit of command already ingrained through his teaching experience, he was elected president of his class as a freshman, then selected by his officers as corporal after a year, first sergeant the next, and in his last year first captain in the Corps of Cadets. These appointments were proofs more of character than of book knowledge. Physically tough, morally hard, he had come out on top in a roughand-tumble school of youth, and he inspired more respect than affection. Even when, on graduating, he attained the dignity of commissioned rank, he did not hesitate to cure one case of insubordination with his fists. This, like the incident when, as a general in the pursuit of Villa, he pushed his way into the mess line among the soldiers for a plate of beans and cup of coffee, was later glorified as an instance of democratic habits. In reality it was merely an example of his unceremonious way of going straight for what he wanted by the shortest route and regardless of other people.
This unceremonious, or self-centred, instinct remained with him when he became a world figure and created many shocks in the politer atmosphere of Europe, where opinions might be as frank but were less so in expression. There were times when the language barrier was of value as a buffer. Even in smaller matters Pershing’s ways were disconcerting. His disregard of time and appointments was proverbial. If he arranged to dine with one of the Allied commanders in chief, he thought nothing of keeping him waiting for hours. Pétain, fortunately, came to regard him as an interesting and highly original object for study, while Haig merely went on with his meal. Again, at a ceremonial arrival at a station, — Bucharest, it is said, — where royalty was waiting on the platform to greet him, Pershing was seen by the horrified station master to be in shirt sleeves, shaving. With a promptness which stamped him as a born diplomatist the station master ordered the train to be backed out. until Pershing had completed his toilet.
Yet, if a ‘rough diamond,’ in his cadet days at West Point as in France later he had one aspect in curious and softened contrast — his love of dancing and of dances.
Graduating from West Point in 1886, he was commissioned in the Cavalry and passed almost directly to active service in the campaign against Geronimo, the notorious Apache chief, wherein he earned a mention in dispatches. Henceforward he was to take part in many of those little guerrilla campaigns which were the American officer’s sole practical training for the command of the vast forces of 1918, and to win more commendations than any of his contemporaries. Pershing, however, had one interlude of a different nature. After heading a rescue party to save some cowboys from the Indians in 1889 and being in charge of Indian scouts in the Sioux rising of 1890, he retired for four years to the more peaceful occupation of being military instructor at the University of Nebraska, and utilized his spare time to graduate from the law school. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War he was back again at West Point as an assistant instructor, but resigned in order to serve with a cavalry regiment in Cuba, where he not only won more ‘mentions’ but attracted the attention of Theodore Roosevelt and drew this tribute from his Commander: ‘I have been in many fights, through the Civil War, but Captain Pershing is the coolest man under fire I ever saw in my life.’ Twenty years later a member of Congress cast the slur that he had never seen Pershing within sixty miles of the front in France — an imputation that was hotly resented by many who had seen Pershing at the front and knew the difficulty which his staff had met in trying to hold him back from unnecessary exposure.
With the end of the Spanish-American War, Pershing had a chance to show that he possessed more qualities than mere bravery and energy. Sent to the Philippines, he found time from the trivial job of commanding a troop of cavalry to study the ways of the Moros, a savage and fanatical tribe of Mohammedans who were the terror of Mindanao and regarded as too intractable ever to civilize. His association with them and interest in a matter outside the beaten paths of routine caused jealousy and disapproval among his fellows — until an emergency came. Then this mere captain was called to take a general’s rôle and to be not only military commander but administrator of the district where lay the Moro country. By the blend of military force with diplomacy and unexpected sympathy, helped greatly by the fact that he could negotiate with the Moros without the intervention of an interpreter, he brought order into that turbulent country. President Roosevelt paid him the rare tribute of citing his name in a message to Congress, and sought to find a loophole in the hard and fast regulations by which he could be given special promotion. To change regulations is hard enough, but this required the passing of new legislation in Congress, and in the meanwhile Pershing went out as military attaché to Tokyo. He was just in time for the Russo-Japanese War and was promptly detailed to accompany the Japanese forces in Manchuria, enduring the mortification of being a captain forty-four years of age among foreign generals hardly his senior.
But at last Roosevelt, tired of waiting for the slow machinery of Congress to enable him to give Pershing a step up the ladder of promotion, used his power of creating brigadier generals, but no less, to raise Pershing at a bound to this exalted rank—over the heads of eight hundred and sixty-two of his seniors. It was another example of the common experience, in England as in America, that the only hope of radical reform in the military forces lies in the chance of a dominating personality, seriously interested in military progress, as the political chief—the soldier chiefs have rarely the instinct or the power to break the entwining coils of red tape.
Pershing’s jump in promotion naturally caused widespread jealousy, which found an explanation satisfying to its meanness in the fact that before sailing for Japan Pershing had married the daughter of Senator Warren of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. It was conveniently overlooked that he had not even met his future bride at the time President Roosevelt cited his services in the message to Congress. Nevertheless the innuendoes were so general that Roosevelt found it necessary to intervene with a statement that ‘to promote a man because he married a senator’s daughter would be infamy; to refuse him promotion for the same reason would be equal infamy.’
On his promotion Pershing returned to the Philippines as commander of the department of Mindanao and governor of the Moro province — there to complete his work of subjugation and reconciliation. From the Philippines he passed to the command of a brigade at San Francisco, but when trouble developed on the Mexican border his record made it natural that he should be sent thither. While absent on this duty a disastrous fire broke out in the Presidio, the military headquarters at San Francisco, in which his wife and three daughters lost their lives. It was well for him that duty soon called him to an arduous task in which he could work off his emotion. This was the punitive expedition into Mexico in pursuit of the bandit leader Villa, who had crossed and ravaged the American border. Hampered by the difficulties of the country and obstructed by Carranza’s nominal government, Pershing’s strenuous and relentless pursuit was finally frustrated by his own government, and on President Wilson’s orders he had first to halt and then to withdraw. In such a country such a wavering attitude not only encouraged defiance but imposed an unfair strain on the military commander. But a marked feature of Pershing throughout his career was a loyal and unquestioning acceptance of the dictates, however incomprehensible and irritating, of his superiors. Few would have accepted a task almost foredoomed to failure by its restricting conditions, but Pershing’s instinct of obedience was so absolute that he gave the impression that he would sacrifice anything, even his men, rather than disobey an order.
As he was a man of undeniable ambition, this rigid subordination of himself, uncommon among men of such strong personality, probably sprang less from belief in the infallibility of authority than from a farsighted wisdom — smoothing the way for his own ascent. His combined tractability and efficiency won him favor in 1 he eyes of President Wilson. Promoted major general, Pershing was appointed early in 1917 to succeed, on the death of Funston, to the supreme command on the Mexican border. And in May, after the entry of the United States into the World War, the President announced that Pershing was to go to Europe in command of the American forces. It was to be a dramatic change, particularly in scale, from his previous experience. To pass from guerrilla expeditions in jungle, mountain, and desert to the vast siege in progress — or stagnation — on the French front was a contrast so utter as to leave him destitute of any foundation of knowledge on which to build.
Fortunately he had partaken of other kinds of experience — building roads and schools in the jungle, maintaining a line of communications in hostile territory, bringing order into the disorder of a land occupied by an obstinate and insurgent people.
However different in degree from his new task, this experience had made him a trained administrator; he had acquired the habit of organization with the will and knack to get his plans carried into effect. There is even some ground for the verdict that his unmilitary experience had fitted him for the command in France as much as his military experience had unfitted him.
At the end of May, Pershing sailed for France on the Baltic with the nucleus of his newly gathered staff, leaving a semiparalyzed War Department, clogged by its own antiquated machinery and overwhelmed by its unforeseen responsibility, to send on material enough to build a shanty while he was erecting the framework of a military skyscraper. To chide the home authorities for their inadequate and dilatory measures might only lead to the wreck of his dream and the downfall of himself. It was better that the pressure on them should come gradually from public opinion, growing uneasy over the delay, than from him; meanwhile the Allies must do their best to hold the pass. The latter had imagined that the United States would produce troops in the manner of a conjurer producing rabbits from his hat; instead they found Pershing ploughing the soil and sowing seeds with all the deliberation of a Middle-West farmer who reckons in months, not in hours, waiting tranquilly for the ultimate ripening of his crops. If they were disconcerted by the contrast between their conception of their new ally as a high-speed ‘hustler’ and the extreme deliberation which they found to be the reality, it was partly because they did not realize the difference between raising an army and using a navy already in existence, and partly because of the difference of outlook and temperament between a General Pershing and an Admiral Sims. If Sims’s object was to win the war anyhow, Pershing’s was, so it seemed, to win it with an American army stamped with the Pershing seal. If personal ambition was a factor, there are side lights which suggest loftier and more far-reaching motives — to hand down to his country a tradition of military pride, to awaken her to a realization of her own power, to establish the permanent foundations of a national army.
When he settled down to his task after the arrival celebrations were over,
— an infliction personally distasteful which he had accepted in deference to the French desire to gain the full benefit of this moral tonic, — he early revealed the keynotes of his policy. It is interesting to recall the impression he made upon his new Chief of Staff, Harbord. ‘He is very patient and philosophic under delays from the War Department’
— although it took days and even weeks to get a reply to his cables and even to pass them from one branch to another of that archaic establishment. ‘He is playing for high stakes and does not intend to jeopardize them by wasting his standing with the War Department over small things.’ Further, the Chief of Staff found him ‘ very cautious’ and concerned with detail to such an extent as to edit and alter every cable and letter that was put to him for signature. ‘It is a good precaution, but one which can easily be carried to a point where it will waste time better employed on bigger things.’ But, as evidence from every quarter confirms, ‘his great fault is the utter lack of any idea of time’ — time-blind as others are color-blind. If his concern with detail, most marked in the early stages, was partly inspired by his aim of getting all his staff to think and act as replicas of himself, in order that when the hour of trial came he might be freed from detail, his lack of a sense of time was prejudicial to his own policy. For allies could not but feel that a man who arrived casually at midnight for a dinner fixed at six o’clock would be likely to arrive on the battlefield when the battle was lost. This feeling inevitably led them to question arguments of his for going ‘slow but sure’ which were outwardly sound; and by creating justifiable uneasiness this defect increased friction, whereas the very incompatibility of his policy with the Allies’ immediate needs urged the need of diminishing the other and unnecessary causes of friction. That, despite this, Pershing carried his policy through is a testimony to the strength and force of his character — all the more because he had to deal with men also strong and stubborn in the Allied armies.
When Clemenceau sent a hint, for dissemination, to the French Ambassador at Washington that Pershing and Pétain did not get on well, Pershing, hearing of it, wrote direct to Clemenceau, telling him bluntly that he had spread a wrong impression. This rebuke from a mere soldier to the chief of an allied state, especially when that chief was Clemenceau, deserves to go on record as one of the boldest acts of the war. Bearding the ‘Tiger’ might well replace the familiar phrase about ‘bearding the lion in his den.’
And, with all his caution toward Washington, Pershing did not fear responsibility. Harbord tells how, not long after his arrival, he placed an order for $50,000,000 worth of aircraft without obtaining authority, because he thought Washington was too slow. It is a further side light on his methods that he did not cable word of having given this order until it was too late for Washington to countermand it. Similarly, his cable of July 6, 1917, ‘Plans should contemplate sending over at least a million men by next May,’ and his full project of July 11 which visualized an ultimate expansion to three million, were severe jolts to the War Department, still thinking of a limitedliability war.
The work of building the organization for the army of his vision was a stern test both of Pershing and of his judgment in choosing men — an essential quality in a great leader. As Harbord aptly remarked: ‘Officers whose lives have been spent in trying to avoid spending fifteen cents of government money now confront the necessity of expending . . . millions of dollars — and on their intellectual and professional expansion depends their avoidance of the scrap heap.’ Pershing’s achievement was a tribute not merely to himself but to America — that its atmosphere, or its geography, breeds men with the habit of thinking ’big’ and with a mental elasticity that can survive even the restrictions which its army life imposes.
Pershing, unlike other famous commanders, was neither a puppet in the hands of a clever staff nor an artist of war relieved of organizing cares by technical experts so that his mind might dwell in contemplation of what Saxe termed ‘the sublime branches of the art of war.’ Pershing had proved himself an organizer and administrator in the Philippines and in Mexico, yet even so the quickness with which his mind expanded to the scale of the World War is a greater miracle than the war expansion of America, which was full of men accustomed by their civil training to ‘big business.’ And if, when the foundations were laid, he handed over the execution to others, while retaining control, he was but fulfilling the principle on which alone a great organization, once started, can be run. If he gave his subordinates shorter shrift than in the armies of the Allies, he also gave them a freer hand while they held their posts. If this method led to mistakes, it also sifted the grain from the chaff in quick time.
Moreover, he had a real knack in picking his men and a catholicity of selection unusual in the professional soldier. If the choice of Dawes, one of history’s most versatile handy men, as purchasing agent of all supplies for the American forces, and later as member and moving spirit of the Military Board of Allied Supply, was the most apt example, Pershing’s utilization of the brains of some of the younger professional soldiers in important staff appointments was almost as notable. So also was the use he made of Robert Bacon — former banker, Secretary of State, and ambassador — as his personal liaison officer, for Bacon did more than almost any man to oil the grating machinery of the Allied armies. This friction, often intense, was inevitable because of the difficulty of reconciling Pershing’s policy and America’s interests with the immediate interests of her allies. It is absurd to pretend that the motives of any nation are inspired purely by quixotic chivalry. Even in the best, honor and selfinterest are mingled, and their rulers would be unworthy of their responsibility if it were otherwise. If in August 1914 many in England called for war out of loyalty to the Entente, and would have gone to the aid of France even if their country had held back, as did numerous Americans; if the mass of England’s citizens in taking up arms thought of nothing beyond the pledge to safeguard outraged Belgium and preferred war to the forfeit of this honor, even this is a lofty and enlightened form of self-interest. There is, nevertheless, no question that the wiser heads realized with equal force the menace of a triumphant Germany.
Honor, prestige, prosperity — who can disentangle them? Thus in 19171918, if it was natural that France and England, strained almost beyond endurance, should urge that the American drafts be infused into their depleted ranks, and logical that such a combination of new blood and a tried organization would give quicker results, it was also natural that America should decline to lose her identity and sacrifice her national pride by such a merging — tacit avowal of inferiority. And Pershing could also counter logic with a proverb rooted in experience, that ‘no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled.’ Troops will endure much mishandling from commanders of their own nationality, but patience is soon strained when things go wrong under a foreign command. If America’s allies had reason on their side in this controversy, Pershing had human nature on his, in claiming that American troops should be under American command.
In the study of Pershing’s uncompromising advance toward his own goal lies the main historical interest of his first year in France. Grant is held up as history’s great example of a man who, having fixed his goal in his own mind, pursued it unswervingly and with almost unique pertinacity despite all obstacles— and without hesitating over the cost. Pershing, who had other points of resemblance to Grant, maintained his purpose with a determination at least equal to that of Grant, and under difficulties greater in all respects save only that Grant had to drive a tired, Pershing a fresh, steed. Where Grant had a Lincoln behind him, Pershing had far less resolute and clearsighted support. And Grant had no allies to complicate his problem. A cynic might even say that the war for Pershing consisted of fifteen months’ fighting at the rear and two months’ fighting at the front.
The first storm signals were hoisted when Joffre, in the flush of his triumphant tour of the United States which coincided with America’s entry, was named to ‘collaborate’ with Pershing. The French had conceived the idea of rejuvenating their exhausted military body by grafting on the gland of America’s youth, an operation that would have the advantage of putting an old head on young shoulders, if incidentally it would also contribute to French prestige. Soon after Pershing’s arrival in France, Joffre and his entourage made their appearance at Pershing’s headquarters, to be welcomed as honored guests. If this treatment appeared to satisfy Joffre, his staff soon showed that they had expected less honor and more consultation, to become part of the family, not merely guests, and began to ask when the collaboration was to be discussed. But Pershing had ‘no thought of engaging any nurse for himself, not even so eminent a one as Joffre.’ When this attempt at ’infiltration’ was seen to be a failure, the French began a series of more direct advances, reënforced by the fact that they had to supply so much of the material to equip the American troops and even their training camps and schools, which seemed to establish some claim to a voice in the control.
It may be thought, in view of subsequent troubles in repeating the mistakes made by their allies in 1914-1916, that the American leaders were too chary in accepting advice based on experience, but it may also be said that the French would have been wiser not to push their opinions so forcibly down American throats. Most of the Americans came to France willing to learn, but they were sensitive to the suspicion of being patronized. The British, in France at least, seem to have been wiser, or more reserved, and usually waited until their advice was sought.
But the suspicion of patronage was accentuated by the still stronger suspicion of the object behind it — that of merging the American troops in the French army, and so bringing to nought Pershing’s dream of a great American army striking the decisive blow. He was willing to examine the French and British systems, to take from each points that he liked, but the finished model was to be definitely American, for good or ill.
With a conflict of aims between two such strong men and blunt speakers as Pértain and Pershing, an explosion had to come before a settlement was possible. Despite polite rebuffs and obvious hints that they were unwanted, the French strove to keep a finger in the pie by creating numberless ‘missions,’ until Pershing, losing patience, gave an unmistakable warning of the futility of their efforts by a peremptory refusal of the offer to give him a tactical adviser. It was then that a new method of indirect attack was tried, instanced in Pétain’s criticisms to Colonel House of the American system of training and in Clemenceau’s letter to Washington. All failed against Pershing’s solid front; but if Pershing and Pétain came gradually to respect each other’s determination, bickering between the staffs was not extinct.
The British hardly came into the tussle until later; they were not in need of man-power until after the campaign of 1917, when they had exhausted themselves in maintaining the war almost single-handed. The British Government, with the submarine danger past its worst, then offered to supply the ships to bring over one hundred and fifty battalions to be trained and merged in the British forces. General Tasker Bliss, the American member of the military committee of the Supreme War Council, was in favor of this scheme, but Pershing was only willing to use it as a means to his end, and stipulated that complete divisions should be brought over. Despite the gloomy prediction of his allies, his own view was that ‘nothing yet justifies our relinquishment of our firm purpose to form our own army under our own flag.
. . . There is no reason for scattering them among the Allies as divisions, much less as replacements, except in a crisis of sheer necessity.’ That crisis came sooner than he anticipated. The haze of discussion was swept away by the sudden blast of the German offensive on March 21. Faced with the imminence of disaster, Pershing not merely accepted the supreme command of Foch, with the President’s approval, but in the generous emotion of the moment offered him the use of the American troops in France to dispose as he willed, unlimited by any conditions — perhaps realizing that in pursuit of his ideal he had underrated the immediate reality and risked the issue of the war. At the end of March there were five American divisions in France, but in response to the urgent and united appeal of the Allies the dispatch of troops was raised to 300,000 a month — nearly as many as had arrived during the previous twelve months.
This mood of Pershing’s passed sooner than the crisis. Lord Reading had obtained from the Washington authorities a promise to send over only infantry and machine-gunners — liquid cement to fill the ominous cracks in the Western Front. Pershing demurred, and as a result of a conference with Lord Milner, the Secretary of State for War, arranged that this stream should only continue until May, and thereafter be regulated to a flow of organized divisions. Happily, by then the worst danger was averted, however narrowly, and Pershing’s ideal could develop unchecked into a reality.
His principle of a separate and independent American army was related to another, the two forming the twin pillars of his policy. This second principle, a tactical one, was that of training his men for a war of movement with the rifle as the dominant weapon. The historian may feel less certain that on this point Pershing was serving the interests of his country. Pershing, and most of his officers, bred on open fighting, were aghast at the way in which the other armies, especially the French, had become immersed in trench warfare. Bred also on the rifle, they ascribed this immersion not to its true cause, the battlefield mastery of the machine gun, but to the excessive use of grenades and other trench weapons, and were confirmed in this opinion by the efforts that they found were being made by the British command to develop the use of the rifle afresh. This appeared to them much more significant than the development of the tank, which might be regarded as merely another trench-warfare device.
Further, they connected the loss of offensive spirit, which they found so marked among the French, with the prevalence of trench warfare and of trench weapons. Both assumptions were true in part, but only the lesser part. For trench warfare and trench weapons had arisen because riflemen could no longer make headway against machine guns.
Inspired by the right idea, but based on false premises, Pershing established the cult of the rifle in the new American army. And believing that it was possible to break through the trench front, given troops full of the offensive spirit, he trained his men for open warfare and attack with all the fervor which the French had shown before 1914. He realized that it would mean heavy sacrifices, but he felt that he had an ample draft of man-power to stake with — so had the French in 1914. In his advocacy of what was sometimes termed the ‘Brusiloff system,’ — getting men killed in order to get the war over quickly, — he did not appreciate that Russia, France, and Britain had all held the same faith; the first was now bankrupt, the second almost, and the third severely shaken. It was fortunate for Pershing that he had to face the Germans of 1918, not of 1914. If his policy was based on a balanced appreciation of this difference he could claim to be justified by the result, yet fate had an ironical last word, for he thereby thwarted the aim of his own policy of striking the decisive blow, in 1919, with an American army of his own creation taking the major share in the overthrow of the enemy.
His emphasis on the rifle and his belief that victory in modern war could be won by weight of infantry were to have a marked influence on his strategy in the day when at last he was able to turn from organization to command in battle. In the sphere of strategy he thought clearly and directly, if not deeply, and his choice of the ultimate American battleground was fixed in his mind soon after his arrival in France. The British were committed to operations in Flanders and northeastern France, an area which for all its handicaps — mud especially — was nearest to their home base and gave them the shortest line of communications through the Channel ports. The French offensive operations had all been conducted in the sector in front of Paris, and it was natural that they should concentrate to cover this vital centre. But the easterly sector facing and flanking Metz was obviously the Germans’ most sensitive point, because a thrust there had only a short distance to penetrate before it imperiled the whole German front in France—by cutting the eastern end of the great lateral railway from Metz to Maubeuge and closing the Germans’ exit of retreat east of the wooded Ardennes region. Moreover, it promised the vital economic effect of releasing the Briey iron region and threatening the Saar basin, upon which the enemy largely depended for his munitions. The choice of this sector, too, was the natural one for the Americans, because it clashed least with their allies’ lines of communication and was easiest of access from their base ports in southwestern France.
Pershing had long to wait before his project could mature. On May 28 the 1st Division came into action at Cantigny, to cut the first notch of its splendid tally; early in June the 2nd Division at Château-Thierry helped to cement the breach made by the enemy’s great drive to the Marne; in July and August nine American divisions took part in the counterstroke which marked the tilting of the scales on the Western Front. At last Pershing was able to summon back most of his scattered divisions to engage in the first All-American operation — the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient. Characteristically he made more than ample provision of force for the task. He was right to do so, for a failure would have been a moral disaster, and would have been hailed by the critics as pricking the bubble of his presumption in insisting upon independent command. Prepared with great care and with a secrecy remarkable in a raw army, delivered with a great superiority of force, both in American infantry and in French guns, the converging blow achieved its geographical object of pinching out the salient. If it failed to cut off the retreat of the enemy in the salient, it was not the first Allied stroke which had failed, through delay in orders and blocks behind the front, to reap the material fruits of success.
The strategic exploitation was a bigger issue. Pershing, with forces far larger than he needed for the task and composed of tried divisions, had wished to make the capture of the St. Mihiel salient a stepping stone to an advance toward Metz and the German rear flank. He gained Foch’s agreement and the Allied Commander in Chief framed a plan whereby the British were to attack the Hindenburg Line and advance northeast toward Maubeuge, the French to push northward from Champagne, while the Americans were striking northeastward through Metz. Haig strongly disagreed with this divergent direction of advance and urged that it was essential that all attacks should converge on the main German armies so that each might react more closely on the others. He persuaded Foch to this view, and accordingly the American sector of advance was changed to the MeuseArgonne, where it would be nearest to the great lateral railway through Mézières and Sedan. Thus the St. Mihiel attack was strictly limited to the reduction of the salient, and Pershing even felt bound by his instructions, from Foch, to refuse Liggett’s 1st Corps permission to exploit their opening success by advancing against the Michel Stellung, the base line of the salient.
This strategic tug of war between Haig and Pershing, with Foch as the rope, is not easy to judge. It is an obvious principle that a converging attack has greater chances and is more likely to produce immediate results than a diverging attack. Thus Haig had justification in military principles as well as in the need to ease the formidable task of the British in assaulting the ill-famed Hindenburg Line. But Pershing could argue that he was fulfilling the Napoleonic method of thrusting at the enemy’s rear, and that success here might have a still more far-reaching effect than a converging advance. It depended, however, on a penetration far deeper and swifter than any yet imagined on the Western Front, and with an untried army this was surely a remote hope. Pershing would seem in this matter, as over the rifle, to have placed more reliance on faith and tradition than on experience.
The outcome was contrary to both opinions. For the British attack broke through the Hindenburg Line, against odds of nearly three to two in force, before the Meuse-Argonne attack had drawn off any enemy divisions from its front. And the Meuse-Argonne attack failed to break through, with odds of five to one in force. Thus the event proved that there was no need to ease Haig’s attack and that it was not possible to fulfill his idea of cutting off the German retreat by a converging advance toward the Ardennes and the lateral railway. And it also proved that Pershing was unduly optimistic of his troops’ capacity to sweep rapidly through the German defenses. Yet, in justice to him, it must be emphasized that he had scant time to prepare the Meuse-Argonne attack and to shift his centre of gravity to the new sector; he was thus forced to use only the higher staffs and not the troops tried out at St. Mihiel, and to employ mainly fresh divisions for his Meuse-Argonne blow. Despite their gallantry, these paid heavily for their inexperience, if also for the system and the staple weapon on which their training was based. Their severe check was also due to the Germans’ repetition of the method of elastic defense — with the real resistance some miles in rear — for which the attackers were unprepared. Thus they ran into this cunningly woven belt of fire when their initial spurt was exhausted and their formation disordered.
Under such difficulties it was largely due to Pershing’s driving force that the attack was sustained and continued to make headway, if slow, until October 14. He then handed over the command of the First Army to Liggett, giving Bullard command of the newly formed Second Army, under his higher control. If the loss was exorbitant, it was strategically balanced by the fact of drawing in many of the Germans’ last reserves. It was also largely due to his drastic, even ruthless, action in changing commanders who had lacked driving force that the way was paved for the triumphant resumption of the advance on November 1.
Reviewing the course of the war’s last phase it would seem beyond doubt that Pershing was unfairly tried, that an exploitation of the St. Mihiel stroke by an advance toward Metz, with the ‘blooded’ divisions and long-standing preparations which he used at St. Mihiel, would have made better progress than the Meuse-Argonne advance. Even so, however, it could hardly have made the rapid penetration which was essential to fulfill his strategic aim. Thus the ultimate verdict on his strategy, as on his training doctrine, must be that it was more idealistic than realistic. Like the French, in the early phase of the war, it foundered on the rock of machine guns. He thought that he was spreading a new gospel of faith when actually it was an old faith exploded. This was the one flaw in the great structure he had built.
It may even be said that he omitted but one factor from his calculations — German machine guns — and was right in all his calculations but one — their effect. It was the abrupt discovery by his troops of this omission which shook their initial trust in him, and led to some of the sweeping unjust post-war criticisms. This change of attitude was typified in a story which was widely told. In a column of American troops on the march a voice was heard saying, ‘Pershing says he’ll take Metz if it costs a hundred thousand lives.’ Silence for a moment. Then another voice: ‘Ain’t he a damned generous guy.’
Yet even this remark has an undercurrent of chastened yet grudging admiration which is a tribute both to the driving force of Pershing and to the fortitude of his men. He lacked the personal magnetism which can make men lay down their lives gladly — he was far from a Robert E. Lee. But he had the character which compelled men not only to die but to work, cursing him, perhaps, but respecting him. He was hard, but life had tried him hardly, and if he gave affection to few it was generous when given — to those who had shown themselves men by his high standard. When he visited the battlefields after the war he stood silent awhile before the monument on the mound at Montdidier dedicated to the First American Division. At length, in a voice husky with emotion, he said, ‘That was the best damned division in any army.’ It was a tribute from the heart.
As for his achievement, it is sufficient to say that there was probably no other man who would or could have built the structure of the American army on the scale he planned. And without that army the war could hardly have been saved and could not have been won.
- ‘Joffre,’ the first paper in this series, was published in July. — THE EDITORS↩