The combined British Expeditionary Force and American II Corps successfully pierced the Hindenburg Line during the Hundred Days Campaign of World War I, an offensive that hastened the war’s end. Yet despite the importance of this effort, the training and operation of II Corps has received scant attention from historians.
Mitchell A. Yockelson delivers a comprehensive study of the first time American and British soldiers fought together as a coalition force—more than twenty years before D-Day. He follows the two divisions that constituted II Corps, the 27th and 30th, from the training camps of South Carolina to the bloody battlefields of Europe. Despite cultural differences, General Pershing’s misgivings, and the contrast between American eagerness and British exhaustion, the untested Yanks benefited from the experience of battle-toughened Tommies. Their combined forces contributed much to the Allied victory.
Yockelson plumbs new archival sources, including letters and diaries of American, Australian, and British soldiers to examine how two forces of differing organization and attitude merged command relationships and operations. Emphasizing tactical cooperation and training, he details II Corps’ performance in Flanders during the Ypres-Lys offensive, the assault on the Hindenburg Line, and the decisive battle of the Selle.
Featuring thirty-nine evocative photographs and nine maps, this account shows how the British and American military relationship evolved both strategically and politically. A case study of coalition warfare, Borrowed Soldiers adds significantly to our understanding of the Great War.
About the Author
Mitchell A. Yockelson is an investigative archivist with the National Archives.
John S. D. Eisenhower (1922-2013) was the son of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium and the author of Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I.
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Americans Under British Command, 1918
By Mitchell A. Yockelson
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2008 Mitchell A. Yockelson
All rights reserved.
ORGANIZING AN ARMY
When the 27th and 30th Divisions entered the British line in the summer of 1918, they were a far cry from the officers and men who had marched off to training camps after the United States entered the war. Like other divisions of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), they had developed into the effective fighting units that helped turned the tide for the Allies. Yet when President Woodrow Wilson committed his country to the conflict overseas on 6 April 1917, it was hard to imagine just how big a role the American army would play. At the time there were no organized divisions and the Regular Army numbered a paltry 5,791 officers and 121,707 enlisted men. Wilson relied upon the National Guard to strengthen the forces. Three months after the declaration of war, he called them up, and this added 110,000 officers and men. Even with the National Guard and the tens of thousands of young men who enlisted at the outset, the army was still under strength and needed to turn to conscription. Since August 1914, the Western Front in France had already consumed hundreds of thousands of young men; the armies of the Allies and Central Powers were comprised of millions from each contributing nation. After three years, the war in Europe was complex. It was breathtaking in its detailed ways of fighting and in the equipment required to fight effectively.
To do its part, the U.S. government registered all male citizens and resident aliens from ages 21 to 30 (later extended to 35) under the Selective Service Act of 3 May 1917. More than 24 million men registered; over 2 million were inducted. This legislation also gave Wilson the authority to mobilize the National Guard, the second time in a year he had called it into federal service. The first was in June 1916, when he sent National Guard units to the Mexican border during the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa. The 110,000 National Guard troops sent to the southwestern United States (Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico) were by many accounts ineffective. They arrived under strength, poorly trained, and lacking equipment and arms. Some units had only wool uniforms and sweltered in the heat of the region, which sometimes reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit. One unhappy National Guardsman called the environment "the most forsaken country the Lord ever made." Furthermore, he said, "we ought to clean up Mexico, and, for punishment, make them take back this part of Texas."
Expecting to participate in the chase of Villa, the National Guardsmen instead fought the brutal heat and annoying scorpions while drilling and marching on long-distance maneuvers. The War Department had no intention of sending the National Guard into Mexico to join Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing and the Regulars. For five months, it served as a police force under the watchful eye of the General Staff, whose officers barely respected for the state troops and considered them more of a liability than an asset. "It is a pity the militia could not have been called out two months ago," the disgusted Pershing wrote, "so that its hopeless deficiencies might have been shown up to Congress in their true light. To attempt to put dependence upon the militia is absolutely absurd and ridiculous."
Such animosity toward the militia goes back at least to the Spanish-American War, when some state units irritated the Regular Army by reporting to camps grossly unprepared. As a result, only a few went overseas. Despite its conflict with the Regulars, the militia had a long military tradition that dated to the colonial period, when they were called to put down uprisings by Native American groups. During the Civil War, militia units fought alongside regular volunteer regiments in both the Union and Confederate armies. Afterward, the militia served mainly in police duty against strikers. Governors called upon the state units 700 times to preserve order in industrial disputes during the period 1877 to 1903.
But the militia saw itself as more than a law enforcement agency and sought to increase the size of units and evolve as a volunteer reserve. To do so would require money from the federal government. The War Department was willing to oblige but wanted tighter control before it would relinquish funds. State militia units wanted the federal aid, but they also wanted the authority to select their officers and set the size of regiments. It was no surprise that the War Department's General Staff refused and insisted that the states comply with Regular Army tables of organization. This meant balanced divisions of infantry, cavalry, artillery, and auxiliary units.
The impasse was resolved with the passage of the Dick Act in 1903. Named for Congressman Charles W. Dick of Ohio, the chief creator of the legislation, the law established the Division of Militia Affairs (Militia Bureau) as a branch of the General Staff. Among its provisions were increased funds for the militia and federal pay when the militia participated in maneuvers with the Regular Army. It also attempted to standardize requirements for state officers. The most noteworthy components of this law were the designation of the organized militia as the National Guard and the requirement that its officers meet more stringent obligations. Despite the best efforts of the Militia Bureau, a tug of war existed between the National Guard and the War Department. Not until another congressional intervention, the National Defense Act of 1916, was the War Department able to force the National Guard to comply with its mandates.
This act ensured that the National Guard would be the country's main reserve force. The law specified that 400,000 men would be raised over an unspecified number of years and that the U.S. government provide financial support. The law was not one-sided; National Guardsmen had to take a dual oath upon enlistment. They were in the service of the U.S. Army and the state National Guard. As one historian summarized this complicated legislation: It "settled the issue of War Department authority to organize the National Guard according to General Staff dictates, and, at the same time, the National Guardsmen lost the ability to shape their units or select officers according to their own interests, while the Secretary of War could refuse federal funds if states failed to comply with the law."
All of this left bad feelings between the National Guard and the Regulars, and this was one of the reasons why the state units were excluded from the action in Mexico. One National Guard formation did catch the attention of the Regulars along the border — Maj. Gen. John F. O'Ryan's 19,000-strong 6th New York Division. Stationed in McAllen, Texas, from 6 July to 14 December 1916, it was the only National Guard division on the border. The 6th Division's thorough training and professional demeanor ranked it with the best units of the Regular Army. O'Ryan's division included members of New York City's most prominent families, who served alongside farmers and laborers from the more remote northern and central areas. Despite their contrasting economic backgrounds, the men bonded well. O'Ryan made sure that lack of discipline was rarely an issue. He busied his men with constant training and physical fitness, and they had little time to slack.
Lt. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard, later an AEF divisional and army commander, met O'Ryan on the Mexican border and was enormously impressed. A "trim, well-proportioned athletic man," remembered Bullard, "who was supple, springy, and energetic in his movement, punctiliously neat, and up to the mark in his dress and personal appearance." During a second encounter in 1917, Bullard observed "from the training period at Spartanburg, South Carolina, O'Ryan's thoughts seemed turned very much upon his men ... and this feeling of comradeship continued and grew. O'Ryan held himself approachable to his men, showed himself ever thoughtful of them, not only for their comfort, supply and training, but for their personal interests."
O'Ryan proved unusual among National Guard commanders. At an early age, he had prepared himself for a career as an army officer. Allegedly, he signed some of his schoolbooks "John F. O'Ryan, Major General, U.S. Army." Although he attended law school, his first love was always the military. In 1899, O'Ryan accepted a commission in the New York militia. Former Rough Riders Theodore Roosevelt and Leonard Wood were among his admirers and helped him rise through the ranks and catch the eye of the War Department in Washington. Wood nominated him for the Army War College, which O'Ryan attended in 1914, and, in subsequent years, he participated in Regular Army camps and maneuvers, something unheard of for a National Guard officer. Also in 1914, he published his first book, The Modern Army in Action, which warned of the dangers of military unpreparedness. O'Ryan foresaw the National Guard's significance in future conflicts.
He was also sensitive to the animosity the Regulars had toward the National Guard. While in Texas, O'Ryan was shown an unflattering newspaper article that quoted three unnamed Regular officers as saying the militia was "little better than 'Kitchener's Mob.'" O'Ryan fired back with a letter berating the editor for "the hostile matter that is being circulated by the press ... a willful attempt to discredit the service." He bolstered his letter with statistics revealing the infrequency of venereal disease among his troops and bragged that they had the lowest rate of illness of the troops on the border.
Conflict between the Regulars and the state units notwithstanding, the National Guard was a necessary and vital component of the newly formed AEF. Eventually one-third of the divisions serving overseas were National Guard. Still, the War Department was ill prepared for these units. To ease the problem, the National Guard was mobilized in two increments. The first call-up, on 25 July, affected units in eleven states, and the remaining units were mobilized more than a week later. Among those called up in the first wave were regiments from New York, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina.
Because of a lack of training camps, it was three months before National Guard units could begin training as part of the army. To keep state regiments busy and out of trouble until the camps were ready for occupancy, the president ordered that they safeguard vital bridges, waterways, and munitions factories susceptible to sabotage. The main reason that training was delayed was that the Quartermaster Corps, the War Department agency charged with constructing and supplying the camps, was woefully unprepared. It had not learned from the Spanish-American War in 1898, when the army had too few ships to transport troops to Cuba and sent many of those that did go to the hot and humid Caribbean in wool uniforms. Nineteen years later, the agency was again under strength and lacked the funds to contend with a rapidly expanding army. The Quartermaster Corps simply did not have the resources to construct the cantonments for the National Guard units. So the agency created the Cantonment Division, and with the assistance of an advisory organization, the Committee on Emergency Construction, its board selected 1 September 1917 as the target date to have camps ready. Adding to its troubles, the Quartermaster Corps did not have enough clothing for the troops. Blame was placed on the General Staff for failing to provide troop schedules so that sufficient uniforms and supplies could be on hand. The situation was remedied when factories in the eastern United States worked around the clock to reach the quotas. Still, many troops had to wait weeks before they were issued uniforms.CHAPTER 2
WANTED: AMERICAN TROOPS
Three thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the British government observed the growing pains of the U.S. military, the same process its own army had gone through over the previous three years. In 1914, the British Army entered the war with a small standing force of 247,432 that was supplemented by 300,000 reserves and territorial units. In January 1916, the British government introduced conscription with the Military Service Act. Unmarried men from 18 to 41 were required to register, and in May 1917, the act was amended to include married men. In April 1918, a second Military Service Act raised the age limit to 50. The drafted troops were necessary to supplement a successful volunteer enlistment campaign organized by Secretary of State for War Field Marshal Lord Kitchener. Over 54 million recruiting posters were distributed throughout Great Britain, and by 1916, over 2 million men had volunteered for military service in "Kitchener's Army."
Once the U.S. declared war, the British War Office was eager to convince the Americans to send troops to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The British Army General Staff addressed this issue when they drew up plans for 1917. American troops "could best be employed with the British Armies," they determined, "and so fight with men of the same language and temperament."
Maj. Gen. Tom Bridges, who traveled to Washington with Sir Arthur Balfour's British mission as its military representative, hoped to outflank the French representatives who were pressuring the White House to amalgamate American troops into their army. Bridges told U.S. Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hugh Scott, "If you ask me how your force could most quickly make itself felt in Europe, I would say by sending 500,000 untrained men at once to our depots in England to be trained there, and drafted into our armies in France."
Although Scott's response is unknown, it is likely that Bridge's suggestion was ignored. John J. Pershing, now a major general, was the newly appointed commander of the AEF and had been given orders from President Wilson and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker that his troops would fight independently. "It was necessary at all times to preserve the independence and identity of the American forces," Baker said, "so that they could never be anything but an instrument of the policy of the United States." Initially, the Allies sought only munitions from the United States. But as the war dragged on and casualties increased, the Allies' need for manpower grew.
On the Western Front, the British and French were in the midst of a new series of offensives, and if they echoed the previous campaigns of the Somme and Verdun, both armies would suffer heavy losses. Planning for the campaign took place during meetings between Allied political and military leaders even as the costly Somme campaign was winding down. A Franco-British offensive would occur on a broad front, the Allied commanders concluded, with the French attacking between the Oise and Somme rivers. At the same time, the British would operate between Bapaume and Vimy Ridge. The plans changed a short time later when French Commander-in-Chief Gen. Robert Nivelle, who had replaced Marshal Joseph Joffre, suggested an alternative plan. Nivelle wanted the British and French to carry out preliminary attacks between Arras and the Oise River to lure the German reserves from the main French attack on the Aisne River. Field Marshal Haig, commander of the BEF, wanted a Flanders operation, but the British War Cabinet intervened and ordered him to accept Nivelle's plan. Nivelle reduced the BEF to a supporting role and appeased Haig by telling him that a Flanders attack would be next if the French plan lived up to expectations.
Haig's reluctance to serve as Nivelle's subordinate echoed the uneasy coalition between France and Britain. Politically, the two European powers were longstanding rivals, a point touched upon during a private conversation between Maj. Paul Clark, the AEF liaison to French headquarters, and Captain LeBleu, a secretary at French general headquarters. The latter revealed that France had "the least affection for the Germans, and after them, for the English." Although LeBleu appreciated the excellence and magnitude of the British effort, he reminded Clark that they had been "traditional enemies throughout the last several centuries ... and [that] the British have always worsted the French in diplomatic negotiations." Of course, LeBleu exaggerated his country's relationship with Great Britain, but the tension between Haig and Nivelle was real.
Excerpted from Borrowed Soldiers by Mitchell A. Yockelson. Copyright © 2008 Mitchell A. Yockelson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Foreword, by John S. D. Eisenhower,
1. Organizing an Army,
2. Wanted: American Troops,
4. The Sunny South: Training in the United States,
5. Organizing II Corps,
6. Goodbye, South Carolina: The Final Weeks of Training,
8. Training Overseas Commences,
9. Division Training,
10. We Have Found Each Other at Last,
11. Visitors and Inspectors,
12. Alone with the British,
14. Aftermath of Battle,
15. Prelude to the Big Battle,
16. The Americans Move Forward,
17. The Americans Enter the Line,
18. Main Operation: 29 September 1918,
19. Attack by 30th Division,
20. Assessing the Battle Performance of the Americans,
21. Back to the Front,
22. A Change in the Line,
23. Reflections on the Selle Operation,
24. Brothers in Arms,
25. Borrowed Soldiers,
Appendix A: Staff, American II Corps, 29 September 1918,
Appendix B: Order of Battle, American 27th and 30th Divisions, 10 August–1 September 1918,
Appendix C: Order of Battle, Allied Army, 29 September 1918,
Appendix D: Order of Battle, German Army (Second and Eighteenth Armies), 29 September 1918, North and South,
Appendix E: Comparative Strength of American and British Divisions, 1918,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
great example of forgotten history off WWI it was a good read about forgotten Americans who fought in WWI with little to no support from their goverment and no replacements
One of the main objectives of my study of WWI was to find out as much as possible about the role of American Divisions in the Great War. Borrowed Soldiers by Mitch Yockelson has done exactly that, telling the story of the 27th and 30th Divisions of II Corp as part of the British 2nd Army fighting in Belgium and the 4th Army in France. Yockelson brings one through II Corp organization and training in the US, transport to England and then the continent where Pershing assigns II Corp to the British. One item that makes a book better is the skillful use of maps and positions of divisions and regiments as well as their objective lines in each operation. This book is excellent in that regard as one can always follow the description of the battles. For anyone who has an interest in WWI and the role of US Divisions, do not pass this book up.