To Conquer Hell
The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 The Epic Battle That Ended The First World War
By Edward G. Lengel
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2008 Edward G. Lengel
All rights reserved.
"All the Promotion in the World Would Make No Difference Now"
— JOHN J. PERSHING
The sun rose on August 27, 1915, to a typical morning at Fort Bliss, Texas, from where Brigadier General John Joseph Pershing's 8th Infantry Brigade kept the peace along the troubled U.S.-Mexican border. Clouds of dust swelled and drifted as infantry drilled and cavalry patrols came and went, and shouted orders echoed among the adobe walls. Through one dust cloud rode Lieutenant James L. Collins, the general's aide, who had set out from headquarters for a routine two-hour horseback tour around the base. Pershing would normally have accompanied him, but this morning he had decided to stay behind and get some paperwork done, so Collins took the tour alone. The lieutenant had got only halfway through his tour when Pershing's orderly galloped up and called him back to headquarters on urgent business.
Pershing had accompanied the 8th Brigade to Fort Bliss back in April, leaving behind his wife, Frankie, and their four children at the Presidio military base in San Francisco. The separation had been difficult, for John and Frankie loved each other dearly and also doted on their children — three girls and a boy. Now, after four long months, his wife and children were finally about to follow him to Texas. Their departure from California was scheduled for August 28, and for the past several days the general had prepared eagerly for their arrival. "I'm tired of living alone," he confided to a friend. "I'm having my quarters fixed so that my wife and children can join me."
When Collins arrived at headquarters, he found the usually confident, relaxed, and firmly in control general looking wide-eyed and desperate. "My God, Collins," he gasped. "Something terrible has happened at the Presidio! There's been a fire at the house!"
It took time for Collins to get the general to explain: less than an hour before, Pershing had been working at his desk when the telephone rang. He picked it up without identifying himself. The caller, an Associated Press correspondent named Norman Walker, said, "Lieutenant Collins, I have some more news on the Presidio fire."
"What fire?" the general snapped. "What has happened?" Only then did the reporter realize that he had Pershing rather than his aide on the line. Horrified, Walker falteringly repeated a dispatch reporting that early that morning a fire had gutted Pershing's home at the Presidio. His wife and three of his children — Helen, aged eight; Anne, aged seven; and Mary Margaret, aged three — had perished of smoke inhalation. "My God! My God! Can it be true?" the general screamed. After a few moments in which the correspondent tried to offer his sympathy, Pershing's voice came back on the line, once more under control. "Thank you, Walker," he said. "It was very considerate of you to phone." Then he hung up.
Two days later, the general's train pulled into the station at San Francisco. He had spent the last three hundred miles of the journey sobbing on a friend's shoulder, while Collins took charge of all his personal and official affairs. Pershing went immediately to the funeral parlor where the four caskets lay. Collins retired behind some drapes, but he could see the general kneeling in turn before each member of his family. About an hour later, Pershing asked to be taken to the ruins of his house. From there he went to the hospital where his five-year-old son, Warren, had stayed since his rescue. Pershing held the boy on his knee as they drove away from the hospital. Soon they passed the Fair Grounds, where in happier times the family had spent many a sunny afternoon. "Have you been to the fair?" the father managed to ask. "Oh yes," the son innocently replied. "Mama takes us a lot."
For the next weeks and months Pershing struggled to recover his self-control. At the funeral he stood with dignified poise, but his grief remained visible. He read each of the hundreds of letters of condolence, including one from his future enemy, the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. He talked about the fire with friends, and tried to find some understanding and resignation. He sought solace in religion, and delved into staff paperwork with an intensity sometimes bordering on insanity. Occasionally, something made him break down, like an ill-timed comment, or the arrival of a trunk bearing his family's personal effects. In response to these moments he progressively walled himself in, retreating from the world, including acquaintances, friends, and what remained of his family. With Warren he shared a distant, embarrassed kind of affection. For the Pershing family, a long and happy fairy tale had come to a tragic end.
* * *
BORN in 1860 in Laclede, Missouri, one of nine children of a foreman on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, John J. Pershing had passed a happy but uneventful childhood. As a teenager he worked on his family's modest farm while teaching children at local country schools, including one for African Americans. Meanwhile he took classes at the Kirksville Normal School in preparation for a career as a teacher. After graduating in 1880, more on a whim than from any desire for a military career, Pershing took the entrance examination for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He passed by a single point, and enrolled. He achieved middling grades at the academy, but his natural aptitude as a soldier — hitherto unguessed, for he did not come from a military family — earned him the rank of senior cadet captain before his graduation in 1886.
Commissioned a second lieutenant in the 6th Cavalry and sent to the frontier, Pershing participated in the army's final campaign against Geronimo's Apaches in Arizona, and witnessed the Sioux Ghost Dance rebellion in South Dakota in 1891. Taking time out to earn a law degree from the University of Nebraska in 1893, he returned to field service in 1895 as an officer with the 10th Cavalry, a unit of black "buffalo soldiers" stationed in Montana. He returned to West Point as a tactical instructor in 1897, earning the sobriquet "Black Jack" because of his command of black troops. When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, he rejoined the 10th Cavalry as a captain and fought at San Juan Hill in Cuba alongside Theodore Roosevelt. Pershing next went to the Philippines, where he helped to put down an insurrection by the Moro Indians in 1903 before returning to the United States. An experienced and highly respected field and staff officer, he had also earned a reputation as a rake. Rivals accused him — probably unjustly — of fathering several illegitimate children with Filipino women.
Pershing's star continued to rise. Appointed to the army general staff in Washington, D.C., he befriended powerful men, including Senator Francis Emroy Warren of Wyoming, a snowy-haired Civil War veteran who had won the Medal of Honor in 1863. As chairman of the Senate's Military Affairs Committee, Warren wielded much influence in Congress. He was also the father of Helen Warren, an athletic and intelligent if not pretty twenty-four-year-old girl known to family and friends as Frankie. John and Frankie met, and promptly fell in love despite the twenty-year difference in their ages. Senator Warren approved the match, and after a joyous one-year courtship the couple married on January 26, 1905, in a ceremony attended by President Theodore Roosevelt. Over the next six years Frankie bore four children, three daughters and a son.
Shortly after their wedding the Pershings went to Japan, where he served as a military attaché and observed the Russo-Japanese War. They were celebrating the birth of their daughter Helen in Tokyo in September 1906 when word arrived that President Roosevelt had promoted John from captain to brigadier general over the heads of 862 more senior officers. Critics spoke of nepotism and derided him as the president's pet. The newly minted general silenced them quickly, justifying his promotion through first-rate administration and staff work.
In January 1914 Pershing took command of the 8th Infantry Brigade at the Presidio in San Francisco. There he and his family enjoyed an idyllic life, with Frankie active in the women's suffrage movement while her husband managed the brigade. The couple spent all of their free time together, and with their active and happy young children. Far away to the southeast, however, Mexico had descended into a state of anarchy, with political and social unrest spreading across the countryside and even over the border into Texas. To quell that unrest, Pershing and the 8th Brigade were ordered to Fort Bliss, near El Paso. Then the Presidio fire of August 1915 wrecked his family and tore the joy from his life.
Pershing continued to advance his career after the fire, but without enthusiasm. "All the promotion in the world would make no difference now," he remarked after his promotion to major general in September 1916. Yet duty continued to call. Six months before his promotion, Pershing took command of a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa. The campaign, which lasted until January 1917, failed to achieve its objective. Villa escaped, and Pershing's force of twelve thousand troops returned to Texas empty-handed. But the expedition had seized the imagination of Americans, and for the first time in his life, "Black Jack" became a household name. Press correspondents trotted after him almost everywhere he went, shouting questions about politics and world affairs.
The reporters especially liked to quiz Pershing about the war in Europe. For the first two years after the war began in August 1914, it had been second- or third-page news. Firebrands like former president Theodore Roosevelt had exhorted the United States to intervene, and a few adventuresome volunteers — like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos — had gone to Europe as volunteer ambulance drivers, fliers, or soldiers. The vast majority of Americans, however, had no desire to become involved in another man's war. This remained true even after a German submarine sunk the British liner Lusitania in May 1915, killing 1,119 people, including 114 Americans. The sinking created deep popular resentment against Germany, but it did not spur any move for intervention, and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson won reelection on a platform promising mothers that their children — in the parlance of a popular song — would not have to grow up to be soldiers.
In 1914–15, Pershing had closely followed the fighting in Europe. He even hinted to his superiors that he would like to observe some of the battles. In the wake of the Presidio fire, however, he lost interest in European affairs, and the Mexican assignment took him mentally even further away from the trenches of France. He sympathized generally with the British and French in their struggle against Germany, and thought that American intervention might afford him a prospect of relief from the dusty wastes of southern Texas, but that was all. He felt no passion for heroism or the fight for justice against Teutonic baby killers. Nothing — even the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in battles like Verdun or the Somme — moved him much anymore.
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany shocked Americans out of their indifference on February 1, 1917, announcing that unrestricted submarine warfare, which had ceased after the Lusitania affair, would resume. All merchant vessels entering European waters, he declared, might be torpedoed without warning, whether or not they belonged to one of the belligerent nations. Wilson's government broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, but the submarines attacked anyway. Public outrage grew as ships sank and Americans died. The interception and publication of a telegram from Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, suggesting that Mexico might declare war on the United States in return for New Mexico, Arizona, and even Kansas, marked the last straw. With his entire cabinet and the American people outraged, the peace-loving Wilson reluctantly asked Congress for a declaration of war. The United States entered World War I on April 6.
* * *
PERSHING'S call to duty came on May 3, in a telegram from Senator Warren in Washington, D.C. It read:
WIRE ME TODAY WHETHER AND HOW MUCH YOU SPEAK, READ AND WRITE FRENCH.
Pershing spoke French poorly, but he understood "the possibilities to be implied from Senator Warren's telegram" — namely, military command. He replied:
SPENT SEVERAL MONTHS IN FRANCE 1908 STUDYING LANGUAGE. SPOKE QUITE FLUENTLY; COULD READ AND WRITE VERY WELL AT THAT TIME. CAN EASILY REACQUIRE SATISFACTORY WORKING KNOWLEDGE.
Soon another message arrived at Pershing's Texas headquarters, this time from Major General Hugh Lenox Scott, the army chief of staff. In code and marked "for your eye alone," it announced that the War Department intended to send a small force to France in advance of the still-forming national army. "If plans are carried out," Scott informed Pershing, "you will be in command of the entire force." Interpreting this to mean that he would command a division, Pershing prepared for a summons to Washington. It came in short order.
Pershing's train arrived in Washington on the bright and chilly morning of May 10. Newspaper reporters mobbed the general as he stepped onto the platform, asking whether his summons to the capital had anything to do "with the election of a commander for a military expedition to France." Offering no comment, he stepped into a car that sped him to the War Department. Pershing first entered the army chief of staff's office. General Scott, a sixty-three-year-old former Indian fighter, had entered the famous 7th Cavalry just after the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn. "He was deaf," critics sneered, spoke in "grunts and the sign language," and went to sleep in his chair while conducting official business. Pershing had little use for fossils and chafed at the chief of staff's unwillingness to get to specifics. Scott said that the government was considering sending a division of about twelve thousand men to France under Pershing's command. Later, a larger army would form. Just how large, nobody knew; nor did Scott explain where the soldiers would come from. Congress had just begun considering a military draft.
Leaving Scott's office little wiser than before, Pershing walked to the office of the secretary of war, Newton D. Baker. He found a thin, bespectacled man sitting behind a massive desk in an overstuffed office chair, reclining with one leg bent under his body and the other just barely reaching the floor. Baker neither looked nor acted the part of a secretary of war. As a boy, he had preferred books to tin soldiers and toy guns. As an adult, after becoming a solicitor and then mayor of Cleveland, he had rejected the honorary post as leader of Ohio's Boy Scouts because he considered the organization too militaristic. Woodrow Wilson named Baker secretary of war in 1916 because of his past political support for the Democratic Party, not because he had any qualifications for or particular interest in the office.
Although they had little in common, Pershing liked the man. The secretary of war's mild exterior, he decided, masked a cultured, well-educated, and exceptionally gifted mind. Perhaps most important from Pershing's point of view, Baker believed in efficiency. "He was courteous and pleasant," the general observed, "and impressed me as being frank, fair, and businesslike. His conception of the problems seemed broad and comprehensive. From the start he did not hesitate to make definite decisions on the momentous questions involved." As the war progressed the two would become unlikely, but firm, friends.
Baker confirmed that Pershing would command a division. A day later, however, he called the general back to his office and dropped the proverbial bombshell. Not one, but several divisions would go to France, and Pershing would command all of them as commander in chief. "My feelings may well be imagined," Pershing later wrote. "Here in the face of a great war I had been placed in command of a theoretical army which had yet to be constituted, equipped, trained, and sent abroad. Still, there was no doubt in my mind then, or at any other time, of my ability to do my part, provided the Government would furnish men, equipment and supplies." He buried his fears, just as he had done with the memories of that night in August 1915. Now, as then, he lived on willpower.
* * *
Pershing and Baker both believed in efficiency and organization. Unfortunately, others in the U.S. government did not. For years German satirists had mocked Americans as soft, corrupt, and lazy — good at making money but alien to war — and the accusation had some merit. As they attempted to prepare the army, the government, and the general population for war, Pershing and Baker found everywhere the same insularity and blithe carelessness. It would all work out right, people told them. Millions of American soldiers would go to Europe, swat the Germans aside, smite the kaiser, and return home in time for Christmas. Guns, uniforms, equipment — not to worry, they would come from somewhere. (Continues...)
Excerpted from To Conquer Hell by Edward G. Lengel. Copyright © 2008 Edward G. Lengel. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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