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

Friday, April 7, 2017

America's Road to War: The First Big Decisions

By Professor Michael McCarthy,  Marshall University

The day after President Wilson signed the war resolution the United States found itself unmindful of and ill-prepared for the degree of involvement which its participation would require. Fundamental strategic questions—such as whether to send an army to Europe, and if so when and where to deploy it to support national goals—remained unanswered until after the Congress granted Wilson's request for a declaration of war on Imperial Germany.

The decision for war itself answered only the first half of a two-part question. The nation now had to decide how to fight. The thought of committing an army to the Continent was revolting to some American politicians. Three strategic decisions had to be made very quickly: The Nature of American Participation in the War,  How to Raise an Army, and Where to Fight.

What to Do?

Both Great  Britain and France had ideas on this and quickly dispatched military missions to the States. On 27 April France's visiting Field Marshal Joffre met with Secretary of War Newton Baker, Army Chief of Staff Hugh Scott and Assistant Chief of Staff, General Tasker Bliss.  The Frenchman repeated his appeal for "men, men, men" and requested that an American division be sent to Europe at once. His suggestion would not receive an endorsement. General Bliss stated their position that to immediately dispatch an untrained force would result in the butchering of untrained American recruits. The military's position was clear: the immediate dispatch of an expeditionary force to Europe would not, in their opinion, be in the best interest of the American war effort. 

Just such an expeditionary force, however, departed in June 1917 under the command of General John J. Pershing. The British and French missions seem to have persuaded Wilson, and during the resident's four o'clock private meeting with the French field marshal on 2 May he had "allowed General Joffre to take it for granted that such a force would be sent just as soon as we could send it." In his 65-minute audience with Wilson, the French commander successfully elicited what the American military planners had opposed so passionately ever since war had appeared likely.

How to Raise the Expeditionary Force?

Immediately after America entered the war, the problem of raising manpower was addressed at the urging of Army chief of staff Hugh Scott. Conscription would be needed. The president gave his assent, and Army provost marshal Enoch Crowder drew up a bill that met with intense but narrowly based opposition. On 18 May, Mr. Wilson signed the Selective Service Act which, after some expansion in 1918, would draft 2.7 million recruits to supplement the enlistments in the regular services and National Guard.

What to Do With the Expeditionary Force?

The decision to send an immediate expeditionary force to France did not complete American strategic planning. While the United States had committed itself to a military role, the exact nature of the nation's involvement remained to be shrouded in fog as dense as that which surrounded General Pershing* and his staff as they departed New York Harbor for Europe in late May 1917. 

Of immediate concern was the speed with which American troops would follow the First Division across the Atlantic: would the bulk of the American army remain in North America to complete its training or would the United States begin shipping more soldiers immediately? In addition, during the few months after the initial expeditionary force was dispatched to France, some prominent Americans—even Wilson himself—questioned the wisdom of fighting on the Western Front. Almost three years of relentless fighting there had left the terrain scarred with trenches and graves, yet had yielded little gain for either side. An alternative was sought. Western Front early in their war planning. Baker himself recalled years after the war that "General Pershing, General Scott, General Bliss and I had agreed that the war would have to be won on the Western Front at the time General Pershing started overseas. At one of our conferences before he left we discussed some of the sideshows and decided that they were all useless..."In spite of the sound, strategic rationale for this decision, the General Staff would be forced to explain its reasoning repeatedly throughout the remainder of the year.  

A total of 4,734,991 Americans would serve in the armed forces in the First World War. This would have supported an expeditionary force of 80 of these extra-large divisions in Europe. However, with the help of the AEF, with only half of the planned divisions in theater, the war was brought to a decisive conclusion on the Western Front faster than anyone had dreamt possible in 1917.  Those  planners, however, would have been shocked to hear that American troops would also be deployed to Italy,  Northern Russia,and Siberia as well before all the guns became silent.

*The decision to select General Pershing will be discussed in later postings on Roads to the Great War.

Professor McCarthy's article first appeared in slightly different form in the May 2007 issue of Over the Top magazine.


  1. I wonder which sideshows they had on mind. Italy? Salonica?

  2. A personel history of orthopaedic surgery in WW I by Joel E. Goldthwait states: "These first four divisions which had come over were made up to a very considerable extent of volunteers, being sent to France before careful scrutiny of the men such as was made with the universal draft....While their spirits were good, many of them nonetheless had very poorly setup or trained bodies. It was to meet this need that the Special Training Organization was started." It took six weeks to get these men fit for duty.