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

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

General Fox Conner: Pershing's Chief of Operations and Eisenhower's Mentor
Reviewed by Ron Drees

General Fox Conner: Pershing's Chief of Operations and Eisenhower's Mentor

by Steven Rabalais
Published by Casemate, 2016

Major General Fox Conner
This biography of Fox Conner brings to life a forgotten soldier who, albeit behind the scenes, was the most influential American officer of the first half of the 20th century. While Conner held few commands and no combat positions, he designed armies and trained leaders who had enormous impact beyond his own service.

Conner was born in Mississippi, the son of a Confederate soldier blinded in the war. Yet his father presided over an academy that gave Fox not only the rudiments of an education but a lifelong love of learning. His parents did have the influence to wangle an appointment to West Point, but he needed two attempts to pass the entrance exams before he was admitted. Once there, he earned more than his share of demerits for smoking and for crossing with a disciplinarian, John Pershing. The smoking would contribute to serious health issues and eventually his death, but Pershing would be a mentor and impetus to his career. Conner also became fluent in French, which, along with his War College background, made him an ideal staff officer for Pershing when America entered the Great War.

U.S. preparedness for war was laughable. Joffre requested that the U.S. send a division immediately. The U.S. did not have a division, only a few regiments. Secretary of War Baker wanted Pershing to depart quickly with a staff. There was no staff and only a few officers had received staff officer training. Eventually a few officers were rounded up, shipped to Paris and went to work. One thing Conner did was to design a division—four regiments, two brigades.

While initial forces were assigned to the French, Pershing and Conner eventually pried them loose to become the American Army. Conner as chief of ops directed their use in the war, where they would be deployed and attack. He also received a political education as some recommendations were refused. Along the way, Major Conner became BG Conner.

Intertwined in Conner's story are the tales of other future luminaries: Marshall, MacArthur, Patton, and the tanker Eisenhower. Due to the AEF's rush to ship thousands of troops to France, tanks and tankers remained stateside, much to the future regret of the war planners. Eisenhower sat out WWI, training tankers.

The decisive battles of 1918—and Conner's decisions—are described with numerous maps. I would have appreciated a book with a larger format so that the maps could be more easily read. There were controversial decisions regarding the race to Sedan and the relentless combat of 11 November, that Conner would have to defend to a dubious Congress in 1920.

No mention is made of Pershing relinquishing command of the First Army when the Second Army was formed nor of the Black Day of the German Army.

Conner During the Interwar Period
There were additional postwar assignments for Conner; plans to restructure the Army and its divisions, Patton's dinner introducing him to Dwight Eisenhower, planning for a future major war, and then assignment to the Panama Canal Zone with his invitation to Major Eisenhower to join him. Prior to that transfer, General Conner used his connections with Marshall to bail Eisenhower out of a potential court martial for claiming an unjustified financial housing reimbursement. If that court martial had progressed, Ike's career would have been over and American history from 1942–1960 would have been much different. Instead, the two would serve together in the Panama Canal Zone from 1921–1924, not only as commanding officer/subordinate but also as mentor/student.

Conner, with his extensive personal library, would tutor Eisenhower in military history, discussing what was done, why, and the results. He would also instruct the major in army procedures, preparing him for the advanced school at Leavenworth, where he received very high marks.

Conner went on to fight more battles with budgets and bureaucracies, mostly on the losing side, to better prepare the army for the next war. When given a command, he trained troops vigorously, but with bouts of ill health and a freakish accident, he was forced to retire early and did not serve during WWII, dying in 1951 asking for cigarettes. Obviously, his student Eisenhower did serve with a phenomenal record, which he attributed several times to Fox Conner.

Conner was a tactician, an intense student, instructor, theoretician, mentor, and far-reaching planner. He deserves more prominence than he has received and deserves attention from every Great War student.

Ron Drees


  1. Thanks for this review, this book was not on my radar scope. I think Conner deserves a biography.
    Pete Belmonte

  2. I totally agree with your last sentence, Ron. Without this excellent review I probably would never have heard of Connor.

  3. Thanks for the review, Ron, and I just ordered the book. One of the comments on the Amazon page is from Mark Perry. It was in his book on Marshall and Eisenhower that I first learned of General Connor, Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace, 2007.

  4. I read a book his wife wrote. Doesn't really detail much about the war or anything, but it's pretty fascinating to see what a army's family life was like in the 1890's through 1920's.

  5. The Americans as the USAS flew French planes, Nieuports and SPADs.
    Some individual Americans serving with the British may have flown the odd SE 5a, but not as an American unit under U.S. command.