Editor's Note: For this rather complicated topic, I've drawn on two sources. "The Amalgamation Controversy, 1917-1918: America's: Fight for Independence", by Lt. Col. Maxwell C. Baily, USAF, an Air War College Research Report Abstract, 1988; and "Pershing's Decision: How the United States Fought its First Modern Coalition War" by Michael S. Neiberg, US Army War College, 2010. The sections draw from each contributor are clearly identified. Minor revisions were made in the texts to coordinate the narratives. MH
From America's declaration of war in April 1917 until just prior to its first offensive as an independent army at St. Mihiel in September 1918, the French and British pressed for American manpower to be amalgamated by small groups—individuals, companies, battalions—into existing French and British formations. . .
The amalgamation controversy was the product of a degree of American military unpreparedness which seems incredible viewed backward from seventy years. The fact that the American army was small and scattered is understandable. But, the almost total lack of mobilization, and war planning, and initial preparation actions, that would seem prudent with Europe at war for nearly three years is hard to comprehend. The [other] problem was the war had used up all the fighting men [available to the British and French armies.]
. . . But the prevailing American opinion favored an independent American army as reflected in tie thoughts of Secretary of War Newton Baker, [Acting Army Chief of Staff] Tasker Bliss, and especially President Wilson. Baker had practical concerns noting American habits, food, and temperament were different than the British and French.
The [initial] guidance on independence was clear:
In military operations against the Imperial German Government you are directed to cooperate with the force., of the other countries employed against the enemy; but in so doing the underlying idea must be kept in view that the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved. [from the President, delivered by Secretary of War Baker to Pershing]
In early December, 1917, American Expeditionary Forces Commander General John Pershing warned the Secretary of War that with the collapse of the Russian front, the Germans would be able to concentrate as many as 260 divisions on the western front in the spring. Against that force, the allies had just 169 divisions. Pershing judged that it was "very doubtful" that the Allies could stop the Germans given the disparity in manpower.
Part of the problem stemmed from the mismanagement of American mobilization. Preparing America for a major war was a monumental challenge, characterized by so much inefficiency and corruption that Secretary of War Newton Baker had offered to resign. Despite having been technically at war since April, the United States had just four infantry divisions in France, and they were all short on training, equipment, and modern staff techniques. Pershing estimated that the United States would need to have at least 24 divisions [which were at least twice the size of the divisions of the other combatants] on the western front by June for the Allies to have a chance to stop the expected German attack. At the time, few Americans (and even fewer Europeans) held out much hope that the Americans could meet this need.
One solution offered by the Europeans. . . amalgamation, would have the United States insert its men directly into existing British and French units at the company level. Europeans argued that amalgamation would compensate for the inexperience of American officers and NCOs as well as American lack of familiarity with modern staff arrangements and technologies like aviation, armor, and heavy artillery. American troops would thereby be commanded at the tactical level by American junior officers, but the operational and strategic direction of American forces would be handled by more experienced Europeans.
President Wilson, like most other Americans, [had been] initially aghast at the idea of amalgamation. Some Americans looked at the enormous casualty levels on the western front and recoiled against the thought of their young men being used as cannon fodder by European generals. Pershing contended that the Europeans had become too tied to trench warfare; his "open warfare" doctrine, he argued, would restore mobility to warfare by emphasizing American aggressiveness and marksmanship. Wilson and his political advisors also recognized that an amalgamated American force would not allow for a distinctive American presence on the western front. Wilson knew that he would need to be able to point to an American contribution to victory if he were to represent American interests in any post-war peace conference.
Wilson [had given] Pershing a written order before his departure for Europe forbidding him from amalgamating American forces. Pershing stubbornly held to his position that American forces would only fight under a completely American chain of command on a distinctly American section of the Western Front. At one point, he even told French premier Georges Clemenceau that he was prepared to see Allied forces pushed back to the Loire River (meaning the loss of Paris) rather than amalgamate American forces into larger European units.
Yet it was obvious that the Americans were not yet ready to fight on their own. Having held to a strict definition of neutrality, the Americans had had virtually no opportunity to learn about modern war. They needed time to learn about trench warfare and modern tactics. They also needed time to build relationships with their French and British allies and to overcome the inefficiencies of their own mobilization. Few doubted that they could do it. The question was whether they would complete these enormous tasks in time to stop the German spring offensive.
The solution came in the form of an agreement signed in mid-December 1917. It read "in compliance with the request of Great Britain and France, prompted by the expectation of a strong German offensive, the President agrees to the American forces being, if necessary, amalgamated with the French and British units as small as the company." The final decision on the level of amalgamation was to be Pershing's.
The decision was undoubtedly the right one and probably saved thousands of American lives. Pershing ultimately decided to amalgamate at the division level, meaning that American soldiers took their orders from American officers up to the level of major general, but overall strategic direction came from more experienced French officers at the corps, army, and army group levels. This system functioned well at the watershed Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918 and gave the Americans the crucial experiences they needed to fight a coalition war and make their mark on the final victory. It also provided General Dwight Eisenhower with the model he used in building his own coalition in the Second World War.
The AEF would never achieve complete independence. During the Meuse-Argonne campaign four divisions had no organic artillery due to the shipping priorities of the spring and early summer. The French willingly provided the support. In addition, French aircraft, tanks, and even an entire army corps fought along side the Americans and under American command. French corps and army troops were used throughout American operations and no doubt added considerable expertise in battlefield distribution of ammunition and other supplies in the difficult terrain of the Argonne Forest.
Some American units never fought as a distinct national army. The 27th and 30th Divisions under II Corps, fought under British command on the Somme. Six American divisions fought with the French in the Vosges Mountains, while the 2nd and 36th were assigned to the French Fourth Army for the assault on Blanc Mont Ridge in the Champagne. The 332nd Infantry Regiment of the 83rd Division was even sent to Italy in July 1918, and the 339th Infantry Regiment of the 85th Division was part of the Murmansk Expedition.