World War I: The American Expeditionary Force (AEF)


Figure 1.--This is a U.S. Army Signal Corps photograph (number 22801). The photograph was taken while the Allied Hundred Days Offensive was underway (August 19, 1918) in Lucy, France (Toul sector). A 10 year old French boy wearing a smock is playing war game with discarded war items and an American Soldier/Doughboy (89th Division) placing American Flag. The photograph is captioned "A 10-year old boy's imagination. He has empty cartridges for his antiaircraft guns, loosened bullets for his shells, barrel of an air pump for his heavy artillery, tobacco sacks filled with sand, camouflaged dugouts, narrow guage railroad, subterranean ordinance pits, sentries and barb wire entanglements." Click on the image for a close up.

When Pershing arrived in France, the French were shocked. They had expected a large American Army. Pershing did not bring an army with him because there was no such army. The French were stunned that a country the size of the United States would have such a pitifully small army. The Allies made it very clear that what was needed was men, A large America Army was critically needed. America as late as Spring 1917 only had a small volunteer force. The United States would have to recruit, train, and equip its army and this would take some time. The Germans knew this and gambled that the U-boat campaign and their massive Spring 1918 offensive would win the War before the Americans could intervene in force. Pershing reached France with only a smll staff. For months only a small trickle of troops followed. There were, however, American troops in France by the time the Germans launched their vaunted Sring 1918 Offensive and the AEF had reached 0.5 million (May 1918). The arrival of the Americans was critical. They played an important role in stopping the Germans. The Germans almost succeeded in breaking the Allies Western Front. Thus the AEF while still relatively small, was crucial. Pershing respponding to the urgent pleas from the Allies committed available U.S. units to help the French hold the Western Front. U.S. troops fought at Aisne Offensive (May 1918) and on the Marne (June 1918). Pershing insisted that the AEF, however, be deployed as an army and not piecemeal within British and French armies. Significant numbers of American soldiers did not begin to arrive in France until the summer of 1918. At that time about 10,000 Americans arrived daily, unimpeded by the U-boats. And by Summer 1918 American soldiers were arriving in large numbers. As the Allies after stopping the Germans began to think about their offensive, the AEF had begun to reach sizeable numbers, over a million men (July 1918). Pershing launched the first AEF offensive at St Mihiel (September) and Meuse-Argonne (October). The United States sent over 2 million men to Europe, mostly to France. And more were being trained in America had they been needed. Many of the men who reached France were never committed because the Germans requested an armistice before they were needed. The AEF sustained 264,000 casualties which including nearly 51,000 killed in action and an additional 25,000 who died as a result of disease. About 10 percent of the AEF were segregated black units. They were mostly used in non-combat roles. About 40,000 were trained as combat soldies. They were assigned to fight with French units.

Allied Need for Men

The Allies made it very clear that what was needed was men. Within days of the declaration of war, a British mission led by Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Arthur J. Balfour and Lieutenant General Tom Bridges departed from Liverpool (April 13). The French sent a mission headed by former Premier René Viviani and Marshal Joseph Joffre. The two delegations had separate meetings with American officals. The made a number of requests and suggestions. Chief among them was the immediate need foe American troops to bolster the Western Front.

General Pershing

Wilson chose Major General John J.'Black Jack' Pershing to lead the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). He had planned to give command to General Frederick Funston, but when Funston died unexpectedly, the President turned to Pershing (May 1917). Pershing had commnded the Expeditionary Force in Mexico (1915-16). When Pershing arrived in France, the French were shocked. They had expected a large American Army. Pershing did not bring an army with him because there was no such army in existence. The United States would have to recruit, train, and equip its army and this would take some time. General Pershing and his staff at that stage of America's involvement in the War. Pershing reached France with only a small staff. For some months only a small trickle of troops followed. This ws largely because OPershing wanted the mnen trained in America before reaching France. This meant that throghout 1917 relatively few American troops arrived in France and the First Division was not moved up the trenches intil the end of the year (October 1917). Even more importantly, Pershing was adament that American troops would not be fed piece meal into combt to replenish decimated British and French units. This was whast the Allies wanted abd it caused a great deal of difficulties with Allied commanders. Pershing would not compromose on this and President Wilson backed him up. American troops would fight in American units under American commanders. The British and French not only wanted replascements, but were also extemely worries about the combat performance of an intested army in any major action. A German break through could doom the entire war effort. The British argued foircibly against Perhing's policie and even used shipping to brter on the issue.

American Army

The European powers in the years leading up to World War I had engaged in a massive arms race, building powerful navies and huge conscript armies. America built a creditable navy, but the army barely existed. Even after 3 years of fighting in Europe, the United States had not significantly expanded its army. America as late as Spring 1917 only had a small volunteer force. The United States would have to recruit, train, and equip its army and this would take some time. President Wilson's message to Congress requesting a declaration of war contained no specifics about how the war would be waged--least of all any indication of sending a large land army to France. Many of the Congressmen who voted for war did not fully understand that America would need to send a large land army to Europe. Senate Finace Committee Chairman Thomas S. Martin of Virginia when told by an Army officer testifying before his committee on April 6, 1917,that funds might be needed for operations in France, exclaimed "Good Lord! You're not going to send soldiers over there, are you?" And this was not what Wilson had intended. Wilson had hoped that American war supplies would be sufficent. He appears to have thought that the mere threat of an American army would bring the Kaiser to his sences. [Burk, p. 234.] When this did not occur and the British and France clamoring for reinforcements, the President had to ask Congress for a miitary conscription law.

German Gamble

The Germans knew that the United States did not have an army in being. Unlike European armies, the American Army was very small. There was no conscription in America. They Germans decided to gamble that the U-boat campaign and their massive Spring 1918 offensive would win the War before the Americans could build an army, let alone transport it to France. Both were neceessary before America could intervene in force. The Germany Navy believe that they coukld inbtercept the troop transports and assured the Reichstag that the U-boats would prevent the Americans from ever arriving in force. comeing. It would prove to be the most disasterous gamble in German military history.

Building an Army

The war exhausted Allies were elated with the American declaration of war. Few Europeans who maintained large standing armies understood that America did not have an army in being to commit to battle. Declaring war was one thing, creating an army was a very different matter that would take time, time that the hard pressed Allies could scarsely afford. The outcome of the War would hinge on whether the Germans could shift forces west from Russia for a final massive offensive faster than the Americans could form and transport an army to France. The Kreigsmarine had assured the Reichstag that American troopshops could never get through the U-boat screen. General Pershing and a small staff were dispatched to France, but it would be many months before an American Army of any size could be trained and transported to France. The European countries that went to War (except Britain) had large well-armed, conscript forces that could be committed to battle in a short period of time. The United States did not. Camps were opened all over the country. The South was a preferred location because of the warmer weather. Trainuing was complocated in a snow drift. Given the size of the army American was to build. Many new camps were set up and opened. Baracks began going up, but this took time. In many camps tents had to be used because there were no barrcks. Some men were shipped to France without training, to be trained by Pershing in France. Men volunteered for service. This included men of all social classes, including young men from the elite. Some 11,000 men from virtually every Harvard class (1887-1921), for example, served in the War, many as volunteers. The motivation was patriotism. [Nelson] It soon became evident, however, that a draft would be needed to build the massive army that would be needed to to have an impact on the Western Front. Fighting the Germans was not like the war with Spain. A massive well-equipped and trained army would be needed. Congress enacted only the second draft in American history. The lack of a conscription law had been one of the attractions that brought immigrants to America. The Germans had, however, managed to significantly shift American public opinion. Against all odds, the Germans had managed to turn a country desiring to stay out of the War and with immigrant groups even more strongly opposed to war into an enraged enemy that would turn the tide on the Westen Front. Amazingly even conscription did not prove an impediment because of incredibly obtuse German actions. German mishandling of its relationship with America was even more starteling because America had a huge German mimority opposed to war, as well as a large Irish minority hostile to the British. Unlike the British, hoever, the Germans just could noy envision America as a potentially important player im the War.

Troop Transports

After conscripting and training an army, the cnext step was getting them safely to France. The German Kreiegs Marine was convinced that threir U-boats could prevent the AEF from reaching France. This proved to be a disterous miscalculation. Not just any ship could be used for transporting troops. Getting through the U-boats proved to be a fairly simple matter. All thst was needed was to use fast ships like oceanliners that were faste than the U-boats. Such transports were at first reltively scarce. The U.S. Army pressed into service a variety od ships for the purpose. They used oceanliners, seized German ships, and borrowed Allied ships. The ships sailed from New York, New Jersey ports, and Newport News, Virginia. It was a major effort to transport sich a large army and their equipment to France. They landed primarily at Bordeaux, La Pallice, Saint Nazaire and Brest. From their the efficent French railway system which brought the US forces to training and assembly areas and eventually the Front. American engineers significantly expanded the French infrastructure for this effort. This inckuded 82 new ship berths, almost 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of additional rail lines, and 100,000 miles (160,000 km) of telephone and telegraph lines. [Coffman]

German Spring Offensive (Spring 1918)

American troop transports did begin reaching France in numbers. There were American troops in France by the time the Germans launched their vaunted Sring 1918 Offensive and the AEF had reached 0.5 million (May 1918). The arrival of the Americans was critical. They played an important role in stopping the Germans. The Germans almost succeeded in breaking the Allies Western Front. Thus the AEF while still relatively small, was crucial. Pershing respponding to the urgent pleas from the Allies committed available U.S. units to help the French hold the Western Front. U.S. troops fought at Aisne Offensive (May 1918) and on the Marne (June 1918). Pershing insisted that the AEF, however, be deployed as an army and not piecemeal within British and French armies.

Significant Numbers (Summer 1918)

Significant numbers of American soldiers did not begin to arrive in France for some tome after the United states declared war. This was because the United States, unlike European countries, did not have a large army in being that they could immediately send over. The American standing prifessional army was only 127,500 officers and men. Pershing immediately went to France after his appontment (May 1917). He did not have an arnmy to take with him. The task of creating an army was assigned to others. The first troops, a mere 14,000 men arrived (June 1917). They were called 'Doughboys', the origins of the term sre still debated. For several months only a trickle of American followed. The numbers gradually increased. The 1st Division was the first American Division to be moved up to the front (October 1917). This was the only American dividsion composed of experienced regular Army soldiers. It aws thus the first division to be transported to France. They were deployed near Nancy. Throughout the rest of 1917 and early-1918, American divisions were primarily deployed to support French and British units who soon hard pressed to hold the line against the German Spring Offensive. The 1 million man figure was reached (May 1918) and more troops were on the way. Large numbers of troops arrived monthly. In the peak month over 300,000 Americans arrived in France (July 1918). Pershing finally had the numbers he needed to opperate independently from the British and French. About half of the AEF had been moved up to the front line at this time. They plyed an important role in stoping the German Spring Offensive. And they soon had the combt experience needed to play a central role in the Allied war-winning 100 Day Offensive. By the time of the Armistics more than 2 million Americans had arrived in Europe (November 1918). And more than 40,000 civilians were serving in various capacities such as ambulance deivers. Nearly 200,000 were Afro-Americans. Most of the AEF was deployed to France, but a few were also sent to northwestern Russia and northern Italy. Another 2 million Americans were still training in the States. Few Germans who had to face the AEF in combat were aware that such a massive force had not even arrived yet. The NAZIs who manufactured thec 'stab in the back' charge never mentioned those 2 million additional Americans yet to arrive in France.

French War Orphan Mascots

France after 3 years of war had mamy orphaned children. The war on the Western Front was fought primarily in Belgium and northern France. This left thousands of orphaned Belgian and French children. The Belgian front as in the Btitish zone of the front, so American soldiers saw mostly French orphans. Some of the children lost both parents or wee separated from them. Many children lost their fathers at the front and their mothers had difficulty supporting the family. Many of the boys were drawn to the strangers from America. And the GI's in turn were enchanted by the charming little French boys who idealized them. There were orphanages, but some of the boys preferred the less strict regime outside the orphanages and attempted to attach themselves to the Americans. Not only did they prefer the GIs to the nuns, but the food was better. Americans GIs adopted many boys as mascots. And when the units were committd to stop te German offensive, the boys stayed with the GIs as they entered combat. The Americans were so fond of adopting French war orphans as mascots and taking them into the lines that the AEF GHQ had to issue a General Order forbidding the practice, an order variously followed. We have not been able to find much written information on this phenomenon. The photographic record, however, shows that is was not rare.

Allied 100 Days Offensive

The AEF played an important role in the Allied 100 Days Offensive that win the War. Pershing launched the first AEF offensive at St Mihiel (September) and Meuse-Argonne (October). The United States sent over 2 million men to Europe, mostly to France. And more were being trained in America had they been needed. Many of the men who reached France were never committed because the Germans requested an armistice before they were needed. The AEF sustained 264,000 casualties which including nearly 51,000 killed in action and an additional 25,000 who died as a result of disease. About 10 percent of the AEF were segregated black units. They were mostly used in non-combat roles. About 40,000 were trained as combat soldies. They were assigned to fight with French units.

Contacts with French Civilians

Unlike World War II when many American soldiers and airmen spent considerable time in Britain, the AEF was primarily deployed to France. Many AEF mem trained in Frenh camps during 1917 and early 1918. They were first deployed during the German Spring 1918 Offensuve and the War ended about 6 months later (November 1918). Some men stayed in France until the final War settlement. Most of the AEF was slated for transport home, but it took some time find the shipping to get them home. As a result, there was considerable time for AEF soldiers to meet the French. For most it was the first time away from him. Most of the soldiers had not traveled widely in the United States, let alone Europe. We do not yet have much information about French experiences with the Americans or the Americans with the French. There seem to have been relaively few French war brides. I'm not precisely sure why that was. Interestingly, France was one of the few countries from which peope did not emigrate to America in large numbers.

Literature

France Our Ally is a World War I booklet written by V. Van Vorst. The 44-page book was published by the National War Work Council of the Young Men's Christian Associations (YMCA) in 1918. It was given to men of the AEF to provide some information about the country they were on their way to defend. This book is a brief account of France, its people, and their part in the War. There were special pointers to help to the AEF soldiers. This booklet contains customs, money exchange information, and other useful tips for the American soldiers. The booklet was apparently passed from soldier to soldier or shared. This particular booklet apparetly was used by men in an Illinois unit. Several AEF divisions were Narional Guard units. Harry H. Orr? from Hillsdale and Wilbur Snyder from Cooksville ere two the men who used the booklet. . Tucked into the book was a postcard-back photograph of two unidentified boys. We thought they might be cwar orpjans, but apprently the boys were family members because there was an American postcard back. The boys are well dressed in overcoats and caps. The photo was tucked into a page with writting about the fallen youth of the land. It is very touching.

Sources

Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I (1998).

Nelson, James Carl. Five Lieutenants: The Hertbreakung Story of Five Harvard Men Who led America to Victoryin WWI (2012), 384p. Nelson delves into the motivations of five young officers as wll as their experiences and fates.






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