pershingDid America Win the War For The Allies?

The question to be discussed is whether or not American military participation brought about an Allied military victory which would not have happened without its participation. It is, of course, being discussed in retrospect. In 1918 the commanders and men could have no way of knowing whether or not the Allies would win and whether or not American participation would tip the balance in their favor. Therefore, all the Allies were naturally anxious to get as much American participation as soon as possible, and, in anticipation of the arrival of many Americans, the Germans were forced to toss the dice and leave their elaborate defensive positions and go on a series of great offensives beginning March 21, 1918. That alone could have ultimately resulted in the Allied victory, but that would be a result of anticipated American military action, not action itself. In so doing they exhausted themselves and, when attacked, were for the most part no longer in their ideal conditions for defense since they could not select and fortify every inch of ground they had to defend as they had from late 1914 to 1918. They were also weakened by great losses of men who could not be replaced.

I believe the answer to the question is "no" if the answer is limited strictly to action on the field of battle. This narrow interpretation excludes the substantial effect of American financial aid, industrial production and, most importantly, the effect upon all combatants of the knowledge that vast quantities of Americans were actually in France in the summer of 1918. I think that it can be said beyond any question that Allied morale was lifted and German morale lowered by the knowledge of the existence of these fresh troops.

Among those who stated that Americans did tip the balance were Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Lloyd George. These statements were made after the war. It may be that the Germans did not want to admit that they had been defeated primarily by the British and French although they may have been completely sincere in crediting the Americans with making the difference. Lloyd George, unquestionably, did not want to give credit to the British Army for winning the war, for to do so he had to give credit to his generals, especially the detested Douglas Haig. I do agree with that great historian John Terraine that Haig, Robertson and the other westerners were correct that the war had to be won at the Western Front. I further believe, however, that the collapse of the central powers in the east on the Macedonian and Middle Eastern fronts and that the knowledge that the war there was about to be lost, and was then, in fact, lost, made Germany realize it could not win just as surely as the presence of American troops did. Ludendorff realized Germany could not win the war after the Balkan front collapsed. He said: "We could not answer every single cry for help. We had to insist that Bulgaria must do something for herself, for otherwise we, too, were lost. It made no difference whether our defeat came in Macedonia or in the West. We were not strong enough to hold our line in the West and at the same time to establish in the Balkans a German front to replace the Bulgarian, as we should have had to do if we were to hold that front in the long run."

On September 28 he told Hindenburg, "The position could only grow worse, on account of the Balkan situation, even if we held our ground in the West."

Those who believe America made the difference militarily ignore the other theaters where we played no role and which made German victory impossible.

A key factor in my thinking is that Germany knew that huge quantities of Allied troops could move to the Western Front with 500,000 available to go from Macedonia alone. Sixty thousand had already left Palestine for the Western Front. The Germans were withdrawing troops from Bulgaria for the Western Front and Bulgaria was collapsing as were the Ottoman Turks. With Bulgaria and the Turks out of the war, the Serbs, Greeks, rearmed Romanians and Italians were much more than enough to man this front and march on Constantinople if need be. The Italians would have desired to remain in the Balkans in any event for imperialistic reasons.

In order to answer the initial question, an analysis must include:

  1. When did substantial American military participation begin? That is, when did American forces actually begin to impact the war in a substantial manner?
  2. At that time, what was the state of the enemy armies?
  3. At the time German leaders realized and admitted they and their allies could not win, had substantial American participation gone on long enough to have contributed to that realization?
  4. Did the Allies (the United States was an associated power) or central powers have the capacity to increase their forces on the vital Western Front?

Although the United States entered the war in April of 1917 it was October before the First Division was in the line in a quiet zone. There were only 175,000 men in France when 1918 began, an insubstantial number when millions were engaged on this front alone. It was months later before another division took the line. Americans first went on the offensive when elements of the First Division went into action at Cantigny near Montdidier on April 28, 1918. Although this action was successful, it was clearly not militarily significant in the usual sense, that is, it would not have been a noteworthy action had it been fought by French troops.

Late that month the Germans were on the move toward Paris as their great series of offensives which had begun March 21, 1918 continued, although with the ultimate effect of destroying the fighting effectiveness of their army. By this time there were 650,000 Americans in the American Expeditionary Force and, eventually, 2,000,000. On May 31, two companies of the Third Division fought very well at Chateau-Thierry and helped stop the advance at that point. In June, the Marine portion of the Second Division took nearby Belleau Wood at very high cost, and suffered greatly from their inexperience. Although they were called regulars, and some in Allied armies believed them to be such, the vast majority had less than one year of service and their officers were, for the most part, just as green. That action lasted from June 6 till June 26, and there were over 50% casualties in the Marine Brigade, which made up half of that division. The action is famous - at least in the United States - but no one can seriously claim it was significant in the usual military sense, but as at Cantigny and Chateau-Thierry, the Germans were impressed by their vigor and valor and, at times, their competence. The United States Army Regiment of this division also fought in the area and fought well. There was enormous resentment in the army about so much of the credit going to the marines.

Soon after the Germans started what turned out to be their last Western Front offensive on July 15, east of Rheims. It was a failure. Foch had long planned to go on the offensive. This was the time and place as the German offensive ended July 16.

The French began their attack July 18 with the American First and Second Divisions spearheading the attack, along with the Moroccan Division, so substantial American troops were involved and they performed well. There were twenty four divisions involved, four of them American.

The real weakness of the AEF didn't really reveal itself until the only great battle they fought when the Meuse-Argonne offensive began September 26 and continued until the end of the war. Suffice to say that when a really huge number of Americans had to fight, be supplied and coordinated and completely inexperienced divisions had to play significant roles, things began to fall apart. At one time, John Pershing was attempting to be commander of the American Expeditionary Force, the Services of Supply and First Army, although he had, under pressure, relinquished command of the Services of Supply back in June.

It can be legitimately argued that American Forces were significantly involved by the time of the July 18 French attack, but in light of the millions of Allied Troops fighting on the Western Front, I do not believe that argument can prevail. Whether or not they were, the Germans were, in retrospect, headed for inevitable defeat at this point and forced to cancel their planned attack for final victory in Flanders. There was no more hope of victory and Hindenburg admitted this.

Foch realized the tide had turned and so stated on July 24. The Germans were soon admitting that it had in fact turned. On August 4, Ludendorff drafted his first defensive order and on August 14 officially notified the Kaiser and government that the war could not be won. He admitted he knew the game was up on August 8 after the great defeat of the German Army by the British at the Battle of Amiens, the black day of the German Army. On August 8 and 11 the Kaiser admitted the war was lost, stating on the eighth, "We are at the limits of our endurance. The war must be brought to an end." In August alone they had to break up ten divisions for replacements.

I believe substantial American military participation began well after that time, considering that there were at least 4,000,000 Allied soldiers in the field when the Americans began to reduce the St. Mihiel salient on September 12 when over 600,000 troops, including more than 500,000 Americans went on the attack.

My answer to my own first sub-question is then that the AEF began to seriously effect the military situation on the ground on or about September 12, and Germany realized it could not win no later than August 8. Knowing it could not win seems to me to be equivalent to knowing it had lost, although there was still some thought among some Germans that a sort of stalemate could end the war and perhaps Germany could even retain some of its conquests. I do not believe serious people could long have maintained such an illusion in light of the relative strength of the forces.

At that time the state of the enemy armies was bad indeed. In Germany itself the death rate among civilians had doubled since 1914, while the birth rate had been cut in half. During the spring offensives, movements had been delayed because troops stopped to loot Allied food and alcohol supplies. Although soldiers were better fed than civilians during the winter of 1916-1917, workers were reduced to 1,344 calories a day, and by the summer of 1917, 1,000. Many Germans did not have the resources to improve their lot on the black market. Health authorities believed the worker needed at least 3,300 calories. German offensives were further slowed by the pitiful condition of their horses.

According to Crown Prince Rupprecht's First Army Chief of Staff, Von Kuhl, in the Austro-Hungarian Army, by the end of 1917 a number of units were down to a single day's supply of flour and he advised the quartermaster general that the army had reduced the soldier's bread ration to 10 ounces and animal fodder to one and one-half kilograms per day. Austria-Hungary wrote President Wilson asking for an armistice September 15 only a few days after American forces began to be a major factor.

Things were terrible in Bulgaria where German money had displaced their own and Germany had stripped the countryside bare. Things were so bad that the Bulgarian Army, which had performed so well earlier, asked for an armistice September 26 and received one September 30, although less than 1% of their territory was occupied by Allied troops.

The Ottoman Turks had suffered so much that they wrote to President Wilson on October 14 and surrendered October 30. By that time they had less than 100,000 effectives in the field after having had over 800,000 earlier.

It is clear that Germany's allies were in a state of collapse by or near the time substantial American participation began.

As for the Germans, themselves, 10% of the men moved from the east to the west after Russia's collapse deserted. There are estimates of as many as 1,000,000 German deserters by war's end, although that estimate is probably too high. Although they were able to move 32 divisions from the East to the West, constituting about 16% of their strength there, and 13.8% of the first line troops which participated in the 1918 offensive, the equivalent of 35½ divisions remained behind in Ukraine, Russia, the Baltic area and Romania in a largely futile effort to gather food and fuel. John Terraine says one million men were left in the east. These troops were not available for the Western Front because of the enormous demands of Germany on the occupied areas. They were also there for imperialistic, political purposes, that is, annexation or domination post-war.

I could cite many statistics about the parlous state of Germany, but instead refer you to chapter two of To Win a War by John Terraine where he quotes Correlli Barnett, as describing Germany as "a great European nation living as a starving pauper, with all the moral hopelessness and collapse of will that goes with pauperism." Mr. Terraine paints a grim picture indeed of the state of the German nation.

In the German Army by mid-August vast quantities of men were surrendering and calling on replacements to desert because they were prolonging a lost war. Germany had no troops with which to make up their losses. In addition to vast quantities of Americans, the Allies would have been able to move 500,000 men from Macedonia alone following the collapse of Bulgaria. I believe that this would have enabled the Allies to prevail even without American participation whether these men moved against Germany through the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire or were transported to the Western Front.

Could Germany have moved more troops from the east to the west? Late in the war Ludendorff said: "Divisions recently removed from east to west had not done well under their new conditions, and I had had very unfavorable reports of them. In spite of the shortage of men, drafts from the east were received with the greatest reluctance. They brought a bad morale and had an unfavorable effect on their fellows."

Perhaps they could have moved west, although the vaunted German railroad system was in very bad repair by this time. It doesn't matter because Ludendorff didn't want them. Also, they were left because Germany was afraid of Russia re-entering the war.

Could American participation have contributed more substantially?

Of course. It should have been obvious to all after the sinking of the Lusitania in May of 1915 that there was a substantial possibility of the United States entering the war on the side of the Allies. Nonetheless, next to nothing was done to prepare for that likely event. The United States entered the war with less that 130,000 men in its Army and from those could not put one entire division in the field.

Another way in which American participation could have had more effect and done so more quickly would, of course, have been an amalgamation with British and French forces. This was never a realistic possibility because of General Pershing and American opinion. Although his original instructions had been to fight as an American Army, that was later modified. His original instructions were: "In military operations against the Imperial German Government you are directed to co-operate with the forces of the other countries employed against that enemy; but in so doing the underlying idea must be kept in view that the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identify of which must be preserved. This fundamental rule is subject to such minor exceptions in particular circumstances as your judgment may approve. The action is confided to you and you will exercise full discretion in determining the manner of co-operation."

Many feel that he was under orders not to amalgamate but, in fact, the decision was left to him and he received several later messages from Chief of Staff Peyton March and Secretary of War Newton Baker which would have permitted him to amalgamate if he wished. I believe the earliest was one of December 20, 1917 when Secretary Baker cabled Pershing stating, "Both English and French are pressing upon the president their desires to have your forces amalgamated with theirs by regiments and companies, and both expressed the belief in impending heavy drive by Germans somewhere along the lines of the Western Front. We do not desire loss of our forces, but regard that as secondary to the meeting of any critical situation by the most helpful use possible of the troops at your command... . The president, however, desires you have full authority to use the forces at your command as you deem wise and consultation with the French and British commanders in chief."

I must say in Pershing's defense that I believe the vast majority of the American people were supportive of his decision. However, as a military commander and not the average citizen back home, Pershing was much more aware of the danger the Allies faced from a great German attack in 1918 when he received this message in 1917.

In conclusion, I do believe that the United States eventually contributed very substantially to the military effort against Germany. By the end of the war, about one million Americans were engaged in combat, primarily in the Meuse-Argonne, but also elsewhere, with black troops not wanted by the United States Army as well as others doing fine service with the French and the 27th and 30th Divisions performing very well with the British. By the time that substantial participation began, however, Germany's allies and Germany itself were well along the road to collapse. In retrospect, Germany's fate was sealed when its last offensive failed in July.

Many factors contributed to the defeat of the Germany Army and none of the commanders of any of the armies could have predicted that defeat would come as soon as November 1918 as they saw the situation in July 1918 when it still appeared possible for Germany to prevail. Its allies had, however, by then begun to collapse. United States military participation certainly had nothing to do with that. The German Army itself was nearing exhaustion as would be demonstrated as soon as early August. Although no one could realize it at the time, in light of its recent losses of territory and men, the British Army, including of course its troops from the dominions, had become the finest army on the Western Front and it advanced much farther during the late summer and fall of 1918 than did its French or American counterparts. It was the greatest force of the final hundred days. From July 8 on the French had taken 139,000 prisoners and 1,880 guns, Americans 43,000 and 1,421 and the British 188,700 and 2,840. They and their French and other allies could have prevailed without American military action.

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