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When America entered the war in April 1917, the contrast between the U.S. Army and those of the other belligerent nations was staggering to contemplate. The United States had a small standing army and National Guard force of some 200,000 men. Two months earlier, it had wrapped up its "Punitive Expedition, U.S. Army," in which General John J. Pershing led 10,000 troops into Mexico to deal with the paramilitary forces of revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa that had killed U.S. citizens and raided across the border.
The army engaged in minor skirmishes for eleven months, but failed to capture Villa. Virtually the entire U.S. regular army and federalized National Guard troops were required to patrol the U.S. border to prevent further raids. The campaign resulted in twenty-four American casualties (fourteen military and ten civilian).
Over roughly that same period, French and German forces clashed in the epic ten-month Battle of Verdun. Both sides employed armies of over a million men, fired an estimated ten million artillery shells, and combined, suffered more than 700,000 casualties — just one battle in a war that routinely dealt in such titanic numbers. The statistics on the Eastern Front were even more stunning.
Nothing was clearer in the spring of 1917 than how ill-prepared the U.S. Army was to join the fighting on the Western Front. It had no experience in the kind of modern warfare being fought in Europe. It did not have enough men and officers, weapons and equipment, training facilities, or ships to transport troops across the Atlantic. Clearly, it would be a long time before America could do its share of the fighting.
Despite this sobering reality, Britain and France urged their new ally to quickly send to France a force — no matter how small — to bolster military and civilian morale. This request set U.S. war preparations moving in two parallel directions. As a small contingent hurried to the war zone to begin training with French veterans, mobilization moved into full swing at home.
To raise an army on the scale of those fighting in Europe, the United States implemented conscription for the first time since the Civil War. Ten million men registered for the draft, the order in which they would be inducted to be determined by a lottery. "The greatest lottery of all time enthroned the gods of fortune in a room at the Capitol today," began the dramatic front-page story in the Washington Times on July 20, 1917. Before a room of dignitaries, military officers, and reporters, Secretary of War Newton Baker, blindfolded, dipped his hand into a glass container to pick the first number. When the clerk announced the first number — 258 — reporters in the room scribbled out the news and handed it to messenger boys, who rushed it to the telegraph in a nearby room. The telegraph clattered out the news to the waiting country that men holding draft cards numbered 258 would be the first called to the trenches in France.
Training camps sprouted around the country and quickly filled with raw recruits who had to be taught the basics of military discipline before they could learn the art of soldiering. The article "My First Six Weeks with the Colors" tells of one man's transformation from civilian to soldier.
One component of U.S. war preparation that was not lacking, however, was leadership. General John J. Pershing, the youngest of America's major generals, was appointed to lead the American Expeditionary Forces. Pershing already had as extensive a military resume as an American officer of that era could, having served in the Philippines, the Spanish-American War, and most recently in the Mexican expedition. He was widely respected both in the military and by the public, and quickly seized on the monumental task that faced him: preparing U.S. military forces for war.
While America began its war preparation, General Pershing sailed to France in early June. He was followed over the next few weeks by 14,000 American troops, some mustered from the regular army and others who were new recruits. They were America's first contingent of fighters. In the article "The First Contingent Sails for France," journalist Nelson Collins details the mood onboard the first troopship to sail for Europe. For many of these soldiers, who had never been far from their home town, the voyage represented the first dose of reality that they were embarking on a grand adventure. To the public, it felt like America was about to enter the war.
Although America was commended for its efforts to "catch up" to the other belligerent countries, a year would pass before the weight of American numbers made an impactful difference in the conflict. In that time, recruitment and training efforts gathered speed, and emergency calls went out for women to serve the cause as nurses and telephone operators. The article "Fighting Sisters of Fighting Men," explains how trained nurses answered the call to be ready for when America joined the fighting. The final selection in this chapter offers a glimpse of the "Hello Girls," a group of bi-lingual, female telephone operators just before it sailed for France to make its unique contribution to the war effort.
* * *
Allies Want U.S. Troops in France Immediately
"The American flag and the American uniform ... would be the veritable signal of approaching deliverance."
"Send Army to France for Moral Effect" The Day Book (Chicago), April 21, 1917
London, April 21. Winston Churchill, former first lord of the admiralty, now himself in khaki, wants an American expeditionary force sent to France as soon as possible simply for the effect the presence of Americans would have on the allied forces.
"Of course, I can express only my personal opinion," he said to the United Press today, "but it seems to me certain that the presence of even a single American division on the battlefields of France or Flanders this year would exercise influence and afford encouragement out of all proportion to the actual number of men employed.
"It was always represented to us that the timely arrival of even a small force of British troops in France would stimulate and cheer the heart of every French soldier.
"As it turned out, our small army achieved very great material results in addition to its moral effect. Perhaps it played a decisive part in the supreme events of the opening phase of the war. But now, when the terrible weight and burden of this struggle has pressed for nearly three years upon the French, British and Belgian troops, the arrival of the American flag and the American uniform on the actual line of battle would be the veritable signal of approaching deliverance and of victory and would kindle joy and enthusiasm in every heart."
* * *
In the War but not Ready for It
"We have lost a month; we have lost the best month of the war — the best because it was the first."
"Our War Preparations Lagging" The Literary Digest, May 19, 1917
Memories of disastrous unpreparedness in our former wars are recalled by some editors who survey the lack of actual accomplishment in our first thirty days of war. Their criticisms of the officials responsible are not euphemistic. We have been planning, not doing, it is said, and the Boston Transcript (Ind. Rep.) predicts an explosion in Washington the like of which the nation has not witnessed since the war with Spain. The sooner this explosion comes the better for the country, according to this journal. Of opposition journals, the New York Tribune (Rep.) is making the most exhaustive campaign perhaps toward wakefulness. As one of its correspondents in the capital says, this country is "at war but not in it," and he quotes one of the President's "most communicative advisers" as saying:
Don't fool the American people. I am afraid there is an impression through the land that a very great deal has been accomplished. This is a time of all others when it is up to the newspapers to tell the truth, and by that I mean to convey no false impression by the way facts are stated. As a matter of truth, very little has been accomplished, especially in the Navy and War Departments. Our unpreparedness to strike a blow is literally appalling. The task we have ahead of us is prodigious. There is no use deluding ourselves.
The Tribune correspondent gives credit to the Council of National Defense for heroic work, but he tells us "that there is much lost motion." He pictures the Commission as confronted by the difficulties that confront any one endeavoring to do business with the United States Government. The way is impeded at every step by red tape, some of which is necessary but a good deal of which is not. Nevertheless, in spite of obstructions, the Advisory Commission is slowly making head way of a fundamental kind, and he tells us that in its civilian advisers "the Government has some of the best administrative brains of the country." Another Washington correspondent of The Tribune says that men in the Council of National Defense, familiar in the business world, look with dismay on a "vast mechanism that centers nowhere," and he adds:
That is what is the matter. There is an organization for making war or for making ready for war; a vast organization that is growing daily with the creation of boards, but it is an organization that can not get things done. There is no direction given to its efforts. It is an organization without an effective head. It has many energetic members, but they have no definite and certain relation to each other. There are a variety of activities, many of them interesting and impressive, but they run along parallel lines and don't come together in any common center. The Government hasn't a program intelligently framed and executed from above, but it has a lot of parts of a program being pushed upward from below.
It is the realization of this condition, we are told further, that excites discussion of a war-cabinet.
Editorially, The Tribune asks whether "the old American democracy is to rival the new Russia in ineptitude at the critical moment of the struggle between democracy and despotism." Taking as a standard of measurement the first thirty-three days after the beginning of our war and the first thirty-three days of the beginning of the conflict in Europe, this journal reminds us that the end of that period was the first day of the battle of the Marne. Before that date, Germany had mobilized 1,500,000 soldiers and had invaded Belgium, and the army of Kluck had passed Paris and was many miles to the southeast. Belgium had put 100,000 men into the field, Great Britain had mobilized her great fleet, and had transported an army larger than our whole available field force across the Channel. France had mobilized more than 1,000,000 men, suffered many defeats, and was just at the point of launching that great final counter-offensive which "won the battle of the Marne and saved Europe and civilization from German barbarism." The measure of the present situation, according to this critic, is the measure of time, and it is urged that we mistake not the situation, for within a few months the war may be lost and won, and we read:
If it is lost by those who are fighting Germany in Europe it will be lost by us also, and upon us will come the burden of defending ourselves. And if the present chaos and confusion continue in this country the war will be lost and won despite our entrance. We shall be unable to aid our Allies to victory or save them from defeat. We have lost a month; we have lost the best month of the war — the best because it was the first. We are going on in a manner which will insure the loss of a second month. We are imitating the British method of muddling through, but without their advantage. France could and did hold Germany for two years while Britain got ready, but no one can hold Germany for two years while we get ready. If we are not ready to do something at once and much in the next few months, the issue of the war will be decided and we shall have to face the consequences.
* * *
General "Black Jack" Pershing to Command U.S. Troops
"The man who will lead the division to France fought Apaches and Sioux Indians."
"Pershing Cool, Brave, Strong" Aberdeen Herald (WA), June 8, 1917
For the first time in history the United States will send a force of troops for military purposes to Europe, and to "Black Jack" Pershing, youngest of the major generals, has fallen the distinction of commanding this expeditionary division. Through skirmishes with the Indians, battles against Spain, Filipino insurrections and clashes with the Mexicans Major General Pershing has won his way until now he receives the active command of the first Americans fighting under this flag who will come to grips with the Germans in the Armageddon. For thirty-one years Pershing has been a soldier, and during that time be has crowded into the chapters of his life action, troubles and laurels that make him a distinctive figure among the general officers of the regular army.
"Black Jack" Pershing, as the men of the rank and file know the commander of the department of the south and the successor to the late Frederick Funston, is the type of the soldier whom Frederic Remington immortalized in his pictures of the Indian campaigns. Lean, but rugged, his six feet and better every inch bone and muscle, he typifies the ideal cavalry officer. He has been hardened by field service physically and has been broadened in executive service by several difficult posts in the Philippines. He cares little for swivel chairs and desks, but he dotes on boots and saddles, and in his Mexican expedition he took his troops ahead with such dash and efficiency that his command won the unstinted praise of foreign officers. One British subaltern, sent for observation purposes, called Pershing's command "the finest body of soldiers of its size in the world."
General Pershing is fifty-three years old, and his honors came with a rush during the last sixteen years. He was born in Laclede, Linn county, Mo. Pershing was appointed to West Point in 1882 and four years later was graduated as senior cadet captain, the highest honors which come to any undergraduate of the Military academy.
Won Fame Fighting Indians
The man who will lead the division to France fought Apaches and Sioux Indians until the militaristic Poor Lo gave up the unequal fight and became pacific again. For seven years Lieutenant Pershing never knew a promotion, but in 1893 he was raised to the rank of first lieutenant. He was assigned to the Tenth cavalry, the crack negro command that afterward won fame at the San Juan blockhouse. Because of the fact that he was appointed to the colored troop he earned the sobriquet of "Black Jack."
The young officer applied himself to a study of tactics, an application which has since resulted in the acknowledgment of Pershing as the best strategist in the regular army. Such became his reputation even then that he was assigned to West Point as an instructor on this subject. He did not remain above the Hudson long, for the war with Spain broke out, and Pershing applied instantly for a place with the negro Tenth. His command was shipped to Cuba among the first troops of that expeditionary force, and he distinguished himself in the field. His colonel termed him "the bravest and coolest man he ever saw under fire," while at the battle of El Caney Pershing was promoted to captain for signal gallantry in action.
Sent to the Philippines
When the war ended President McKinley exercised his executive right and gave Captain Pershing a berth as the head of the customs and insular affairs in the war department. But the life of the bureaucrat was like an opiate to the man of action. Pershing tired of the endless routine and was anxious to get back to the battle line again. So he asked to be sent to the Philippines, where the little brown men were cutting up rough with the nephews of their adopted Uncle Samuel. So to Mindanao Pershing went as adjutant general of that department. He familiarized himself with the Moro problem, for the brown bandits were largely of that tribe, fighters, cruel and bloodthirsty too.
Active command of the expedition to subjugate these tribesmen was finally given to Captain Pershing, and after months of applied diplomacy and bullets he brought them to subjection. He was made military governor of Mindanao and showed such executive foresight and prescience in his dealings with the natives that the Moros chose Pershing to be a datto, or ruler. This subjugation of a fighting race was accomplished with the loss of but two American lives.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The AEF in Print"
Copyright © 2018 Chris Dubbs and John-Daniel Kelley.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Chapter 1 Mobilization 1
Allies Want U.S. Troops in France Immediately The Day Book, April 21, 1917 4
In the War but not Ready for It The Literary Digest, May 19, 1917 5
General "Black Jack" Pershing to Command U.S. Troops Aberdeen Herald, June 8, 1917 7
Training with the National Army The Independent, November 3, 1917 11
The First Contingent Sails for France The Century Magazine, September 1917 18
Women Respond to the Call for Nurses The Bourbon News, May 21, 1918 29
Women Recruited as Bi-Lingual Telephone Operators The Evening World, June 24, 1918 31
Chapter 2 First American Troops Arrive in Europe 35
Paris Celebrates General Pershing's Arrival Harrisburg Telegraph, June 14, 1917 36
First U.S. Troops Land in France The Sunday Star, July 1, 1917 39
America's "Solemn-Looking Blokes" March in London The Century Magazine, December 1917 44
Long, Disappointing Delay before U.S. Joins the Fight Evening Ledger, July 6, 1917 50
Chapter 3 Learning to Fight 55
U.S. Army Must Become Greatest Force in the World The Sunday Star, July 29, 1917 56
Learning to Fight a Modern War South Bend News-Times, August 19, 1917 64
Troops Eager to Get in the Fight Evening Star, August 17, 1917 68
American Artillery to Beat Infantry to the Front Associated Press, September 14, 1917 70
Americans Trained to Attack Rather than Defend International News Service, October 17, 1917 72
Chapter 4 American Firsts 75
First U.S. Attack on a U-Boat The Rock Island Argus, April 25, 1917 76
America's First Shot of the War Evening Ledger, November 26, 1917 78
First Prisoner Taken New York Times, October 30, 1917 82
First Americans to Die in the Fighting The Daily Capital Journal, December 13, 1917 83
First-Time Experience in the Trenches Washington Herald, December 28, 1917 84
Americans Suffer First Gas Attack The Daily Capital Journal, February 27, 1918 87
Americans Get their Own Section of the Front Line Collier's Weekly, March 23, 1918 90
First U.S. Division to Engage in a Fight The Independent, August 3, 1918 96
Chapter 5 At Sea 101
U-Boat Sinks First U.S. Ship The Literary Digest, November 3, 1917 102
Watching a Troop Ship Sink Saturday Evening Post, March 9, 1918 104
Convoy System Reducing Losses to U-Boats Bismarck Daily Tribune, August 17, 1918 113
Vanquishing the U-Boat Everybody's Magazine, October 1918 114
Chapter 6 In the Air 131
American Fliers in Training Evening Ledger, July 26, 1917 133
First AEF Air Victory The Sun, June 16, 1917 138
Top U.S. Ace Killed New York Tribune, May 28, 1918 142
A Day at an American Airfield The Sunday Star, July 21, 1918 145
Rickenbacker Duels in the Sky The Daily Gate City, August 9, 1918 154
Chapter 7 In the Trenches 157
Americans Get Their Piece of the Line Evening Star, March 6, 1918 158
A Fight in No Man's Land Evening Star, March 26, 1918 162
A Visit to the Front-Line Trench Collier's Weekly, June 8, 1918 166
Soldiers of Canvas and Papier-Mâché The Evening World, September 28, 1918 177
Chapter 8 Battles 183
Cantigny-America's First Battle Everybody's Magazine, November 1918 185
When the Americans "Saved Paris" Washington Times, September 28, 29, 1918 200
Into the Action with the Marines at Belleau Wood American Magazine, March 1919 212
The First All-American Offensive The Evening World, September 13, 1918 225
Argonne Fighting Breaks the German Army Chicago Tribune, November 18, 1918 231
Chapter 9 Wounded Warriors 237
The First Flood of Wounded New York Times, June 10, 1918 238
Evacuating the Wounded on a Hospital Train The Outlook, October 16, 1918 243
Bringing Religion to the Gas Ward The Outlook, October 9, 1918 249
Working as a Nurse's Aide and Red Cross "Searcher" The Bellman, October 19, 1918 255
Masking the Disfigurements of War Daily Capital Journal, December 19, 1918 262
The Nation Prepares to Welcome Home 190,000 Wounded The Sunday Star, December 15, 1918 267
Chapter 10 Heroes 271
Black Fighters Earn First Honors Chicago Defender, May 25, 1918 273
Kidnapped by a U-Boat New York Tribune, November 24, 1918 277
Story of the Lost Battalion Chicago Tribune, October 16, 1918 284
Alvin York Hero of the Meuse-Argonne Saturday Evening Post, April 26, 1919 291
Chapter 11 Armistice 309
False Armistice El Paso Herald, November 8, 1918 310
The Instant the Fighting Stopped New York Times, November 14, 1918 312
News of Armistice Flashed to New York The Evening World, November 11, 1918 316
Aerial View of the End of the War The Daily Capital Journal, November 18, 1918 320