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High Command

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

My Experiences in the World War. By General John J. Pershing. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 2 vols. $10.00. The Memoirs of Marshal Poch. Translated by T. Bentley Mott. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $5.00.

General john j. pershing, despite the fact that he commanded the greatest army ever raised by the American government, has remained to most Americans a rather shadowy figure. He has been no seeker after popularity and applause; and the fact that he performed his task 8,500 miles away across the sea and under the veil of a military censorship has made it difficult to apprehend fully the difficulties of his task, and the abilities which he brought to its accomplishment. These facts lend special significance to the memoirs which he has just pub-ished.

Curiously enough, the appearance of these reminiscences coincides, or nearly coincides, with the publication of a similar volume by Marshal Foch. The two books are very different in their tone. General Pershing’s narrative is decidedly interesting. Its pages glow with color, its description of actual military operations is reasonably clear, its account of the vast administrative task involved in organizing an army of two million men on the soil of France is fascinating, and its emphasis on some of the larger problems of the war gives it a peculiar value. The memoirs of the Allied Generalissimo, on the other hand, are, for the most part, rather dull. They consist, in the main, of a detailed account of military, operations, without the maps indispensable to intelligent comprehension of them; they are the product of a master strategist, who is interested in very little else. Their major interest, from the standpoint of American readers, must lie in the light which they throw upon the r61e of the American army in the final and decisive stage of the war, and it is from this standpoint only that they will be here! considered. I

There is a central theme which runs through much of Gen-j era! Pershing’s story. His clear-cut intention and his nat| ural ambition was to create a powerful independent AmefJ ican army with which to end the war. Such an army was byl no means taken for granted by the civilian and military authorities of the Allies. From the early days of the war, from the time of the Joffre and Balfour missions, down to within a few weeks of the armistice, the pressure for the subordina-; tiori of the American forces, in units large or small, to French or British military commanders, was a factor which had constantly to be reckoned with.

General Pershing’s strong feeling in this matter of an inv dependent army was, no doubt, in part the natural outcome of the position in which he was placed. But it was also based upon sound instincts and principles. Leaving aside all ques* tion of practical difficulties, such as that of language or of divergent national psychologies, public opinion in the United States would hardly have acquiesced, in the long run, in the dispersion and frittering away of American forces in the ranks of the Allies. A sense of national dignity alone would have dictated the creation of an independent American force in France.

In constantly adhering to the idea of such a force General Pershing showed no small measure of moral courage—a moral courage which must have seemed obstinacy to some of those whom he opposed. When, in January, 1918, Clemen-ceau, blinded and limited by his devotion to France, attempted to go over the head of the American Commander and secure the incorporation of American regiments in French brigades through a direct appeal to Washington, Pershing not only refused to budge, but administered a sharp rebuke to the doughty Tiger. In early May of the same year, when the Allied cause seemed to hang in the balance, and when the pressure upon him was severe, he stood up in his boots and contended for his own point of view against Foch, Milner, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando. “Gentlemen, I have thought this program over very deliberately, and will not be coerced,” he declared. On still a third occasion, in late August, Pershing again showed his loyalty to the principle of an independent American army. Marshal Foch came to his headquarters, and proposed that the American army be divided, part of it to be attached to the Second and part to the Fourth French Army, leaving to the rest a limited activity in the region of Saint-Mihiel. ”Marshal Foch,” said the American commander, “you have no authority as Allied Commander-in-Chief to call upon me to yield up my command of the American army and have it scattered among the Allied forces where it will not be an American army at all.” “He was surprised at my remark,” the narrative continues, “and said, ‘I must insist upon the arrangement,’ to which I replied, as we both rose from the table where we sat, ‘Marshal Foch, you may insist all you please, but I decline absolutely to agree to your plan. While our army will fight wherever you decide, it will not fight except as an independent American army.’” And it was Pershing, and not Foch, who had his way.

Such episodes as these reveal a strong will and great courage. They might also be the signs of an unfortunate rigidity of mind. Yet Pershing can hardly be taxed with a blind and unyielding devotion to a principle, at the cost of ignoring other elements in the problem. In the crisis of the spring of 1918, he freely offered his troops, as divisions, to both the British and the French. After a good deal of debate, he finally acquiesced in the shipment simply of infantry and machine-gun troops in May and June of 1918, a measure which greatly aided in the emergency, but which naturally retarded the building up of complete, independent American units. And he used these concessions, wisely and shrewdly, to stimulate the British to make a more vigorous effort than they had hitherto made to aid in the transport of the Aimerican army to France. Stupidly inflexible he cer- I tainly was not—nor anything like it.

Conspicuous among Pershing’s high qualities, in addition 4 to the will and courage which led him to keep steadily and resointely in view the creation of an independent American ; army, was high administrative capacity. The range and scope of his activities in the building up of his vast organization is nothing short of amazing. Large matters and small came under his far-reaching vision. With a breadth of view not to be undervalued, he called from time to time upon the best civilian talent to help him in his task. He cut military red tape ruthlessly. He never spared inefficiency. He never neglected the all-important problem of morale. He infused an immense energy into the military machine which he commanded.

In his administrative zeal and driving power, however, General Pershing is not always fair to others. He writes, for example, as if the French were wholly obsessed with the idea of limited and defensive operations. Certainly this was not true of the high command in 1918; the reading of Foch’s Memoirs makes it clear that the doctrine of the offensive was always the teaching of the French General Staff, and still more certainly of the Marshal himself. Pershing’s implication that it was he, in particular, who brought about the decision for the counter-offensive of July, 1918, seems equally without foundation. The General is also unduly impatient of the authorities at home. The natural antagonism between a commander of troops and the staff officers at home more than once creeps into his comment on the conduct of affairs in Washington.

Of Secretary Newton D. Baker, however, the General writes in terms of the warmest praise. “No American general in the field,” he declares, “ever received the perfect sup- % port accorded me by Mr. Baker.” . . . “His attitude throughout the war, in so far as it concerned me personally and the Army in France, is a model for the guidance of future secretaries in such an emergency.” In these impressive words Pershing pays a more than deserved tribute. In no other war in American history has a commanding general been given such a free hand, unhampered by political interference. Though distance may have facilitated this relationship, immense credit goes to those who were responsible for such wise and liberal administration.

But what of the actual fighting? On this side the narrative of the American commander is somewhat less satisfactory. The picture which he gives of the role of the American forces is incomplete, and by no means provides the data for a final judgment on American operations. There are, of course, many interesting points. General Pershing in the fall of 1918 desired to develop the Saint-Mihiel drive into a push toward Metz. In this he was over-ruled by the Allied Generalissimo, wisely, one is inclined to believe, in view of the formidable defenses which the Germans had prepared in that region, and the difficulty of maintaining contact with the Allied advance further to the west. But, if, on this point, he was compelled to yield, he had his own way with Foch when it was decided to extend the American front to the Angonne, and give to the American army the arduous task of storming the Hindenburg line in this difficult region. He calls attention with natural pride to the difficult staff problem which this involved, with an offensive on one front (Saint-Mihiel) in early September, and then the transfer of forces to a new front for a second offensive only some fourteen days later.

Of the Argonne operations themselves, however, General Pershing gives what is, perhaps, a partial view. There is no one, certainly no American, who will depreciate the valor and dash of our army in this long and bloody engagement. The task assigned to the American forces was a very hard one. A tremendous advance was prescribed to the Americans over a terrain of the most difficult character; the roads in ihe rear were few, in the worst possible condition, and inadequate for transport; the transportation facilities themselves were far from sufficient; of the troops engaged a considerable number had had entirely insufficient training. The operations themselves were finally pressed to a successful conclusion; indeed the Americans advanced more rapidly than the French Fourth Army, on their left, and might have gone ahead still faster had they been better supported on this flank. All these facts taken together give ample room for appreciation of the results achieved.

But the view of the battle set forth by General Pershing is not a little different from that which appears in the Memoirs of Foch. From these latter it appears that the smashing of the Hindenburg line took place in the north nearly four weeks before it was achieved by the American troops. To the Allied Generalissimo the results achieved in the fighting of September 25-October 5 on the Argonne front were “inferior to what it was permissible to expect.” Indeed he meditated bringing up the Second French Army, and interposing it between the Fourth Army and the Americans. Later on, he speaks of the offensive in terms which imply that it was pretty badly stalled. And as evidence of how another distinguished, if not always cool-minded, Frenchman felt, Foch includes in his Memoirs an extraordinary letter from Clemenceau, dated October 21, in which the fiery Tiger bitterly excoriated the Americans for “marking time,” and actually went so far as to suggest an appeal to President Wilson to remove General Pershing from his command, Foch responded in a sagacious letter, in which he paid due tribute to the “immense effort” made, and to the results achieved, and on the same day directed a new advance. It was, however, only on November 1 that, after much preliminary work, the American army moved triumphantly forward in a series of operations which brought forth warm congratulations from the Allied Generalissimo.

The story of the armistice is one already known. Neither Foch nor Pershing add much that is new. But it is interesting to see that it was the American commander who was in favor of the most drastic terms. He even hints that what ought to have been required of the Germans was unconditional surrender. One cannot help feeling that in this matter the General’s fighting spirit had gotten the better of his usually excellent judgment. His immense energy and force bade fair to lead him decidedly astray. It is a fact hardly to be denied that the terms to which the German government subscribed on that fateful eleventh of November gave to the Allies every facility which they could have desired to impose a peace. Men may and will differ as to the rigor of that peace, but that it was imposed rather than negotiated is pellucidly clear.

Of any philosophical approach to the great drama of the World War, the Memoirs of Foch and of Pershing are alike innocent. In their emphasis on preparedness, in their reliance on force, both men are conventional soldiers. To say this is not to depreciate them. They were strong men, well formed for their great tasks. It is for another generation, as it was for other men of their generation, to see to it that the burdens and the sacrifices which they bravely, and wisely required shall not need to be borne again.


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