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

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Leonard Wood and the First World War

General Wood

There are few soldiers in American history who rose as high, or achieved as much, as Major General Leonard Wood. No officer did more for preparing the U.S. Army to fight successfully in the First World War than he. In spite of his accomplished service on the frontier, Cuba, the Philippines, and in the corridors of the War Department, the positions he wanted most: a major field command in World War I, appointment as secretary of war and the presidency of the United States, all eluded him. If success is measured by what someone wants most and was working toward throughout a lifetime, then Wood must be counted—at least partly—as a failure. How did so much achievement and even greater promise end in frustration and rejection?

On 22 April 1910, Leonard Wood was named the fifth chief of staff of the U.S. Army, a position established by the reforms of 1903. So incensed were the line Regulars by the naming of a Medical Corps officer to the top command that afterward the possibility of another such appointment was prohibited by Army regulations. The anxiety throughout the ranks about Wood’s ascent was pervasive. Capt. Johnson Hagood, who would later rise to prominence as chief of supply of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, was then a staff officer and awaited the arrival of the newcomer with great trepidation: “Was this the Wood I had heard so much about? Was this the soldier of fortune, the pill roller become swashbuckler, the pretender, the usurper, the Rough Rider who trampled over friends and foes; the medicine man with a cure-all for the Army?”

Wood, Far Left, on the Trail of Geronimo 

Wood soon won over Hagood and many other skeptics. His four-year tenure was one of the most momentous and important in the history of the U.S. Army. During this period, a crucial struggle was waged between the entrenched and tradition-bound bureaus of the War Department— especially the Adjutant General’s office—and an emerging independent and powerful general staff system. Perhaps his most important contribution, however, was his vocal and early support for military preparedness. Having concluded as early as 1902, during attendance at German military maneuvers, that war was inevitable, Wood pressed for increases in the strength of the officer corps and other training changes. His efforts eventually led to the Officers Training Camps of World War I and later programs, like the Reserve Officers Training Corps and Officers Candidate Schools during World War II

After his tenure as chief of staff, Wood resumed his position in command of the Army's Department of the East. There he spoke against the neutralist policies of President Wilson, barely skirting insubordination and incurring the president’s lasting wrath. Wilson later wrote in response to the question of why Wood was never sent to France: "Wherever Gen. Wood goes, there is controversy and conflict of judgment. I have a great deal of experience with Gen. Wood. He is a man of unusual ability, but apparently unable to submit his judgment to those who are superior in command. embarking on a path fraught with professional dangers and one almost never trod by active duty soldiers."

Wood on Right with His Assistant Rough Rider Commander,
Theodore Roosevelt

After the declaration of war on 6 April, the government’s first major decision was selection of a supreme commander to lead U.S. forces. The choice quickly came down to Wood and John J. Pershing, fresh from his assignment on the Mexican border. Wood’s political transgressions, abrasive style, and many enemies now caught up with him. Pershing was selected. Three factors were cited:

■ Wood’s health. The effects from his head injury had grown noticeably worse.

■ Pershing’s more current and applicable field experience. Wood’s last combat command had been his controversial assignment in the Philippines (1906–1908).

■ Wood’s reputation as a political general, whose loyalty to any superior authority was questionable.

Thus, the most senior major general in the Army was ordered to train the 89th Division at Camp Funston, KS, clearly a minor assignment and one designed to humiliate him. In December 1917, Wood visited Europe as part of a tour arranged for senior American officers to observe Allied operations and be observed by Pershing, who was evaluating generals for top overseas commands. Even in this situation, Wood found it impossible to remain silent and made several controversial remarks about American leadership and troop readiness that quickly attracted press attention. It was the final straw; Pershing let it be known—and not discreetly—that Wood was not welcome back in France

He remained undeterred and pressed his supporters to help secure him a combat command. A direct appeal to Secretary of War Newton Baker was rebuffed and Wood even arranged an audience with President Wilson to press his case, an astounding request given Wilson’s well-known antipathy. Wood’s humiliation was compounded when, on the eve of the departure of the 89th Division for France, he was relieved and ordered to train another unit, the 10th Division, at Camp Funston. The closest Wood got to combat was the inspection tour, during which a trench mortar exploded at the breech, slightly wounding him and killing several officers who stood nearby. He returned to America and performed his duty, and for his “especially meritorious and conspicuous service” during the Great War was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.  In 1920 he waged a campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency, but he was out-maneuvered and lost out at the convention to Warren Harding.

With Emilio Aguinaldo and His Wife, 4 July 1924 

Wood’s final assignment was as governor-general of the Philippines (1921–1927). His rule was widely unpopular and he died in August 1927 in Boston of a tumor which developed out of a freak head injury he had suffered in Cuba a quarter-century earlier.

Excerpted from "The Frustrations of Leonard Wood," by Steven L. Ossad, Army, September 2003

1 comment:

  1. He was not a quitter. But his political skills were poor to none.