Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The American Army and the First World War
Reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

The American Army and the First World War 
(Cambridge Armies of the Great War Series)
by David R. Woodward
Published by Cambridge University Press, 2014

1st Division Troops Preparing for Soissons Offensive, July 1918

As part of Cambridge University Press's Armies of the Great War series, David Woodward's The American Army and the First World War aims to be "a holistic history of the U.S. Army's role in World War I that [examines] diverse social, political, diplomatic, and military themes" (p. xv). In this, Woodward, Emeritus Professor of History at Marshall University in West Virginia, has succeeded quite well.

This is basically a high-level history of the U.S. military at war, but Woodward has included enough primary source material from the World War I veterans surveys to show the impact of high-level decisions on the common soldier. Despite the title, the book covers the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) as a whole, including U.S. Marines. In fact, the cover photograph of the paperback edition shows a fierce-looking company-sized group of U.S. Marines with bayonets fixed.

In the book's first three chapters, the author does a creditable job of covering the rise of the U.S. as a world power following the Spanish-American War. He neatly summarizes the reforms designed to convert the army from a constabulary charged with keeping peace among the Indians to a professional military force fitting for a world power. Woodward describes the conflict between President Woodrow Wilson's Progressive ideals and the pre-1917 attempts at increasing military preparedness. Wilson, along with others, failed to see or adequately appreciate the connection between U.S. foreign policy and U.S. military strength. Woodward covers Wilson's ineffectual attempts to convince the Allies that the U.S. had enough coercive power to achieve diplomatic ends, namely to persuade Germany to agree to a peace conference. Here Woodward gives us the bottom line: "Moral force did not serve as a substitute for military power in the hard coin of diplomacy" (p. 36).

Woodward's next three chapters deal with the creation, training, and doctrine of the nascent Great War U.S. Army. As Woodward shows, the U.S. experienced difficulty in all three of these areas; in addition, the government evinced confusion about the proper role of the army in the war. In these chapters, Woodward does a fine job of summarizing complex issues and showing how British and French forces experienced similar problems in 1914–1916.

In the following chapters Woodward covers all the sticky issues that confronted the U.S. and Allies as the army began deployment. Training and doctrine issues, the location of the American front, critical supply and shipping issues, and the political and military implications of French and British manpower shortages all receive clear attention. The issue of amalgamation of American troops into Allied armies is covered here, as well as the "feud" between General Payton C. March, Chief of Staff, and General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces.

The final seven chapters cover AEF fighting, with the backdrop of political and military struggles over amalgamation, formation of a separate American army, manpower and shipping issues, etc. Woodward also covers the American intervention in North Russia and Siberia, executed despite opposition from U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker and General March.

General Pershing's Fame Overshadowed Some Outstanding Generals of the AEF
From Top Left:  MG Fox Conner, AEF Chief of Operations; MG John Hines III Corps Commander; LTG Hunter Liggett, First Army Commander; MG Dennis Nolan, AEF Chief of Intelligence; MG John Lejeune, USMC, Commander 2nd Division; LTG Peyton March, AEF Chief of Artillery Before Becoming Chief of Staff

In all this Woodward outlines the struggles of U.S. political and military leaders. But it wasn't just the Americans who had problems. Woodward reminds us that the French and British were beset with their own difficulties over leadership, strategy, tactics, and cooperation. We are reminded that the French and British, in addition to the Americans, adapted their tactics, in both defense and offense, as the war went on. For example, as late as summer 1918, the French were changing how they manned their front and support lines, adopting a "defense-in-depth" mode.

The argument for French superiority of tactics is carried on by recent historians rather selectively. Woodward criticizes 1st Army logistics during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive even while stating that much of this was due to the poor road conditions, a fact that French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who assigned the 1st Army to the Argonne area, surely knew. While emphasizing French tactics, such as limited objectives, Woodward also relates that Foch insisted that the 1st Army continue its attacks in the Argonne area even while Pershing desired a brief halt to reorganize his depleted, exhausted divisions. Woodward favors the view that Pershing and GHQ AEF were obstinately against the use of auxiliary weapons such as artillery in all cases, while the truth is more complex than that.

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There are some minor editing flaws (for example, the 79th Division is twice called a National Guard division rather than the National Army division it was), but this book is an excellent overall history of the last two years of the Great War. When one reads about all of the political and military disagreements between and among the Allies, one is tempted to wonder how victory was achieved at all.

Despite initial, and sometimes prolonged, confusion and disorganization, the U.S. Army achieved an impressive record in many areas, as Woodward shows. This is the best single-volume work that examines the American army in the broader context of overall Allied strategy and as an instrument of American diplomacy that I have read. The book is well researched, and Woodward's style is easily readable. I highly recommend it.

Peter L. Belmonte

1 comment:

  1. The U.S. Army played a key, but short, part in the final destruction of the World War. Without the thousands of American soldiers and Marines pouring into France, The final German offensive if not completely successful, would have forced the Allies to ask for an armistice or surrender. The U.S. Army stopped this. Without denigrating the services of the 26th and Forty-second Divisions, The regular Army and Marines were the first to meet the Germans in open warfare and served notice that the battle and war turned in favor of the Allies.