General Fox Conner: Pershing's Chief of Operations and Eisenhower's Mentor
by Steven Rabalais
Published by Casemate, 2016
|Major General Fox Conner|
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.
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|
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.