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

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

America's Decision to Send an Expeditionary Force to Europe

"America to the Front"
A Contemporary Cartoon from Punch

By Michael McCarthy

Even  after Congress had approved the War Resolution, President Wilson himself did not yet seem committed to fielding an expeditionary force. His declaration of war speech had made no mention of  the possibility, largely because he assumed that the mere threat of American intervention would convince Germany to sue for peace. The request for an immediate and direct American role in the war and, therefore, would have to come from the Allies.

Practical considerations hampered any plans to field an American Expeditionary Force. The most optimistic of estimates suggested that a year would pass before any substantial American army could reach the Continent. On top of the delay associated with raising, training and fielding a force, many Allied commanders had voiced disparaging opinions of the quality of American soldiers. To solve both issues of the quality and the speed of American military involvement, the Allies sought amalgamation. American soldiers could enlist into the U.S. Army and then, either individually or in small units, be integrated into existing Entente lines and chains of command. These soldiers could receive the experienced training of the British or French in Europe and could therefore play a role in the fighting more quickly than if they were trained at home.

From the Allied perspective, amalgamation seemed an almost perfect solution; from the American perspective, both militarily and politically, it was out of the question. Military commanders were unlikely to give up the very armies they commanded, and the public would hardly swallow a plan which seemed to use their sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands as mere fodder for the English and French war machines. An alternative would be to encourage the United States to send a small expeditionary force immediately to Europe. By doing so, the Allies could more quickly get the Americans involved in the war and perhaps even wear down some of the opposition to amalgamation.

Arthur Balfour in America

Two missions arrived in the U.S. in late April—a British delegation, led by Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Arthur J. Balfour and Lt. General Tom Bridges, and a French contingent, led by former premier RenĂ© Viviani and Marshal Joseph Joffre. General Bridges lost no time in stepping on toes at the U.S. War Department. Within a week of his arrival in Washington he requested that a regular division be sent immediately across the Atlantic. He attempted to soften this proposal by suggesting that these soldiers could eventually be "drafted back into the U.S. Army and would be a good leavening of seasoned men," but his suggestion met with a cool reception from the Chief of Staff.

The French seemed at first no more successful than the British in their discussions with the American military planners. On 27 April Joffre met with Baker, Scott, and Assistant Chief of Staff General Tasker H. 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.

The General Staff opposed such a course of action with a strong and unified voice. Bliss saw the immediate dispatch of an untrained force as merely the beginning of a mass butchering of green American recruits. The War College Division equally opposed such a plan. In its memorandum to Scott on 29 March, the War College Division argued that a small force could exert no influence on the front and could only bring harm to an American effort to create an independent army. Even when Baker ordered them to draft plans for a possible expeditionary force on 10 May, the military planners restated their misgivings about this idea.

The military planners, then, had made their position 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 president'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.

Wilson most likely acted on his own with a diplomatic goal in mind when he promised Joffre an immediate expeditionary force: the desire to play a part in the peace settlement. Only if America influenced the outcome of the war, and only if the U.S. had an army on the battlefield under its own flag to demonstrate this influence, could Wilson mold the shape of the peace. While such harmony between policy and objectives is admirable, the president was to make this resolution with no direct consultation with his military planners. In reality, of course, had the United States delayed it would have found itself with almost no military presence on the Continent at the close of the war, and judging from Wilson's inability to convert the Allied leaders to his way of thinking even in light of the degree of American participation, it is likely that the president would have had little or no diplomatic influence whatsoever at the postwar negotiations. Therefore, Wilson's decision was sound in the final analysis. It is still impossible to ignore, however, that the President's choice was made with no direct consultation with his military.

Source:  OVER THE TOP, May 2007


  1. Is it true that Wilson did not understand that by declaring war it obligated him to send an Army to Europe?

  2. Very good diplomatic background.

    I admit to feeling more sympathy for London and Paris here. America seems very dilatory.

    1. I understand both sides, but I think the US made the right call.

  3. Remember too that the American high command had little regard for Allied generalship