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

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Off to France with John J. Pershing by Major General Merritt Ireland

Major General Merritt Ireland

Major General Merritt  Ireland (1867–1952) was the highly respected Surgeon General of the American Expeditionary Corps. In 1931, just before his retirement as Surgeon General of the Army,  he wrote a 24-page autobiographical sketch on his service. One of the interesting episodes he covers is how, as a colonel, he was abruptly called from his job as the hospital commander at Fort Sam Houston outside San Antonio and soon chosen by General Pershing to be among the small group of officers who would travel with him to France aboard the RMS Baltic to lay the groundwork for the American Expeditionary Force. The "Baltic Group" of about 50 officers and 100 enlisted men would create the multi-million-man deployment from almost nothing. Although Ireland's responsibilities were solely in the medical area, his account captures the urgency and overwhelming challenge facing the United States. Here is General Ireland's account.

My service at Fort Sam Houston was very very interesting. Thousands of National Guard troops were camped on the reservation, and it gave me a great insight into the handling of troops in the field. This splendid service continued until May 1917. I was made a medical member of the board of which General Charles Morton was President, to select camp sites in Texas for the National Army.  This board was on a trip visiting Austin, Waco, Dallas, and McAlester, Oklahoma. We returned to  Fort Sam Houston the night of May 17th. When I went to the house things were in disorder as though the people were moving out, and the colored servant remarked to me that she was sorry I was going to Washington. Mrs. Ireland had gone to the wrong [railroad] depot in San Antonio to meet me. I found out very shortly that a telegram was been at the post for two days directing me to proceed at once to Washington and report to the Adjutant General. 

With the usual hunch that has gotten me through life I understood at once what the telegram meant, in spite of the fact that it had not been published in any way that we were going to send troops to France. I spent the next day in turning my hospital over to Major Raymond F. Metcalfe and left San Antonio the morning of May 19th for Washington. It seemed to me that the train ran slower and slower and that I would never get there. I had the fear all the time that the two days delay in transmitting to me the telegram to report to the Adjutant General would result in my arriving in Washington after General Pershing and his staff had left.  

I arrived in Washington the morning of May 21st, and when I reported to the Adjutant General I was told to report to General Pershing, who had an office in the War Department. General Pershing told me at once that he had asked for me as his Chief Surgeon, and that Birmingham, who was the Acting Surgeon General during the absence of General Gorgas, was enthusiastic that I should be assigned to that duty. But, as soon as General Gorgas returned, he made several trips to see General Pershing, insisting that I was too junior an officer to receive such a responsible assignment, and moreover Colonel Alfred E. Bradley, M.C., was an observer with the British forces in Europe and was my senior. 

Rather than start with a misunderstanding with one of the principal bureau chiefs of the War Department, General Pershing acceded to General Gorgas’ plan but said he wanted me to go along as he had use for me. Needless to say, I was only too glad to go in any capacity. I spent a hectic week in Washington, about as hectic a week as I ever spent in my life, trying to get an understanding with the Surgeon General’s Office with reference to personnel and supplies, the necessary force to start an office, etc. 

Secret orders were passed to us to meet the Commander in Chief at Governors Island the morning of May 28th, where we were to embark for France. I left Washington the night of the 27th with Major Henry Beeuwkes, one of the medical officers assigned to General Pershing’s staff, and we met in New York Major James R. Mount and Major George P. Peed, the two other officers assigned to me. We were also met there by Master Sergeant Robert A. Dickson and Corporal Aylor, Medical Department, who were on duty with me at Fort Sam Houston and for whom I had asked to be assigned to me. 

I never saw it rain harder than it rained in New York on May 28th. We were taken on a tug about noon, and after long maneuvering were placed on the Baltic about four o’clock, and put to sea that evening. The Baltic was a 22,000 ton boat and it was loaded to the waterline with supplies. Comparatively speaking there were few passengers. There was nothing exciting about the trip. There were no submarine alarms. The last three days before landing at Liverpool the sea was as smooth as it could possibly be. 

We went into the harbor at Liverpool about ten o’clock the night of the 8th and disembarked the next day. General Pershing was met by a guard of honor. After the necessary ceremonies we were put on a special train and proceeded to   London, where we arrived about five o’clock in the afternoon. We were put up at the Savoy Hotel. That night Lord Brooke gave a dinner to the officers of General Pershing’s party. We met very many interesting officers and learned a good deal about what was going on in France, but not a single soul intimated to us that things were in a bad way over there and that the French and British had been whipped to a standstill. The fact of it is two or three days before the British had blown up some very important positions occupied by the Germans, and had accomplished one of the greatest surprises since the beginning of the war. Their talk was all about that. 

Colonel A.E. Bradley met us at the depot and became General Pershing’s principal [medical] adviser. Saturday, June 9th, was spent in getting some uniforms and a few things necessary to take with us to France, and on Sunday, June 10th, I proceeded to Paris with the so-called “Port Board.” This board consisted of Taylor of the Engineers, McCarthy and Moore, Q.M.C., Drum of the Infantry, Porges of the [Quartermaster Corps] National Army, and Ireland. We were supposed to visit the different ports in France to ascertain where we could land our troops and the necessary dock construction that would have to take place to facilitate the work. 

General Pershing and the "Baltic Group" Arrive in Boulogne

We were royally received at Boulogne by the French. We arrived in Paris early the morning of June 11th and were met by the Military Commission headed by Colonel James Logan. Colonel S.H. Wadhams, M.C., was a member of this commission. He had been in France for several months as a military observer, and spoke French well, had gained the entire confidence of the French Sanitary Service, and was to become in my opinion one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable, medical officers in the American Expeditionary Force.  We spent June 11th in making official calls and making our arrangements to proceed with our duties the next morning.

When we called upon our Minister, Mr. Sharp, we were told in very plain language that we had not come too soon and that maybe America had entered the war too late, as the French had been bled white. I remember what a shock that was to me, as the newspapers had told us all the time the fine spirit of the French Army. Colonel Wadhams told us in detail of the terrible misfortune of General Nivelle’s April drive and how they had mutinied in many sections of the French Army.

We started on our mission the next morning, visiting Nantes, Savenay, St. Nazaire, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, and La Pallice. I was particularly struck with the primitive conditions that existed at all of these ports as compared with the facilities at our own ports. We returned to Paris on Monday, June 18th, and found that General Pershing had arrived the afternoon of June 13th and had established his headquarters on Rue Constantine, where the Chief Surgeon found small and inadequate offices even for our small force. Later on, the Chief Surgeon’s Office was moved to Rue St. Anne, where we continued our work until the 1st of September when we moved our permanent headquarters to Chaumont.

It is needless for me to repeat here that as far as our organization and equipment were concerned we started at zero. With this statement it can be well understood the hectic time we had in completing an organization that would fit in with the Army organization, which made it possible for us to have 192,000 patients in our hospitals when the armistice was signed seventeen months later, and which were being taken care of in a most acceptable way by the cream of the profession of America that had been sent over to France. 

MG Merritt Ireland, Medical Corps

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