Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
20 July 2015
Review by Sanders Marble, US Army Medical Command
The American Army and the First World War
By David R. Woodward
New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014. Pp. xviii, 465. ISBN 978–1–107–01144–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2015, 20th Century, World War I Print Version

Historian David Woodward (Marshall Univ.) intends his latest book to be "a holistic history of the US Army's role in World War I that examined diverse social, political, diplomatic, and military themes" (xv). His previous work[1] has focused more on higher command and the British than on the American experience in the war. He draws here mostly on secondary literature and printed primary sources like the Papers of Woodrow Wilson;[2] he makes some use of materials in US and British national archives or individual stories from the US Army's World War I Survey (WWIS) of veterans. The author's ambitious agenda is to present an institutional history of the Army, an account of diplomatic relations of the Wilson Administration and the US Congress with Britain and France, and an operational history of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France and elsewhere.

Woodward opens in chapter 1, "Birth of a Modern Army," by surveying the history of the US Army since the Spanish-American War of 1898, with emphasis on the development of a General Staff and administrative improvements. He tells us, as he often does in this book, that events were not foreordained: the Chief of Staff almost lost the battle with the Adjutant General over who would wield more influence.

Despite its title, chapter 2, "World War and American Preparedness," includes little on the actual Preparedness Movement. Instead, Woodward describes deliberations about the appropriate foreign policy posture of the United States: belligerence? neutrality? armed neutrality? Should the nation rely on a regular army manned by conscripts or state volunteer troops organized in a National Guard? Woodward sees Pancho Villa's 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, as a turning point that forced Congress to make firm decisions and commit to funding them.

Chapter 3, "Coercive Power and Wilsonian Diplomacy," considers the US declaration of war in 1917 and the available options for action, which included providing material support to the Allies, sending volunteer troops but not regular units, deploying the existing army or mobilizing a (much?) larger force. President Wilson decided to enlarge and deploy forces in order to ensure greater influence for the United States at the peace table.

Mobilizing men and creating required facilities posed major problems for a bureaucracy lacking precedents and experience. Chapter 4, "'You're in the Army Now,'" covers mobilization and basic training, and advanced and tactical training, with quotations from the WWIS to illustrate the problems involved. Chapter 5, "US Army Doctrine and Industrialized Trench Warfare," stresses that the Americans would have to catch up with developments in the fighting since 1914 and decide how best to use their forces once mobilized.

Chapter 6, "Over Where?" examines the options of placing AEF troops in the Balkans, invading the Netherlands, joining British and French forces, or—the eventual choice—remaining an autonomous entity. Gen. John Pershing was chosen to command the AEF. Chapter 7, "AEF Organization, Overseas Training, and Deployment," offers a trenchant critique of the poor staffing and command structure and lack of effective doctrine; Woodward argues that doctrine was simply a way of differentiating Americans from Europeans. WWIS quotations show enthusiastic officers becoming disenchanted with inherent doctrinal contradictions and mediocre training.

In chapter 8, "Will the Americans Arrive in Time?" the author maintains that, despite the stated goals of the AEF, battlefield conditions drove events. He also highlights the free rein that President Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker gave to General Pershing. Chapter 9, "Failed Expectations," concerns the effects of slow development of US resources of men and matériel on strategy. The Allies had grudgingly yielded to the American desire to maintain an independent force. But when that proved ineffective, they again pressured the United States to deploy its forces with British and French units.

Chapter 10, "Atlantic Ferry," describes the slow build-up of US forces—after a year of belligerency, only one American combat division was in France and only 163 men had died in combat. This soon changed as the German offensives in spring 1918 nearly broke the Allied lines and put enormous pressure on Pershing in France and Wilson and Baker in Washington. The United States did not significantly compromise on an independent force but did increase the pace of troop deployment (from 50,000 per month in spring 1918 to over 250,000 per month in the summer), made possible by the Allies' providing more resources (especially shipping tonnage). But quantity came at the expense of quality, as training time was shortened and cohesion suffered as men were repeatedly shifted from one unit to another. Here Woodward's concentration on France disregards continuing problems in the United States: despite improved facilities and better doctrinal consistency, the men of the second draft received even more haphazard training than had those of the first.

Chapter 11, "Neck of the Bottle," concerns logistics. Supporting a large force in a foreign country posed unprecedented problems for the AEF, exacerbated by the choice to maintain a high living standard for its troops—only fresh, not canned, beef for Doughboys. Work in the rear areas occupied a large percentage of AEF personnel, and changes in plans sent ripples back through the deployment pipeline, even when they saved time and space. For example, it was decided to stop shipping cut lumber across the Atlantic and instead send lumberjacks and build sawmills in Europe. This delayed scheduled deployments of combat units in favor of gathering, equipping, and training lumber workers. Washington left decisions about the use of manpower almost entirely to Pershing, who had no idea of what was achievable. For instance, it was impossible even to produce enough fabric for the uniforms of all the troops he wanted.

The remaining chapters treat operational matters as US troops reached the front lines in growing numbers. At times, tactical details crowd out discussions of policy. Thus, we learn more about the poor tactics at Belleau Wood than about the debate over expanding the draft from ages 21–30 to 18–41.

Chapter 12, "Uncertain Times," describes the crisis of spring 1918. Chapter 13, "Cantigny," details the first combat action of US troops (the First Infantry Division) in taking and holding the insignificant French village of Cantigny. Chapter 14, "Into the Breach," looks at the last major German offensive, which led Pershing to release all his available divisions for action under Allied command. Chapter 15 detours into an account of the 13,600 "American Soldiers in North Russia and Siberia." Chapter 16, "The Beginning of the End," recounts American defensive battles in June 1918 and counterattacks in July. Ongoing themes in these chapters are Allied demands for American manpower at the front and poor US training practices owing to faulty doctrine.

Three chapters cover operations of the First US Army beginning in late August 1918. The strategic situation had by then changed and the Allies were less preoccupied with manpower needs than with effective US action on the battlefield. Though Pershing believed the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, the subject of chapter 17, "The Establishment of the American First Army and Saint-Mihiel," proved the wisdom of maintaining a separate AEF, the Allies were unimpressed.

Chapter 18, "Meuse-Argonne, September 26-October 31," describes the Americans' problems during the Meuse-Argonne offensive and growing Allied frustrations with Pershing, both as commander of the First Army (until October) and as supreme AEF commander. Pershing remained blissfully confident, despite poor battlefield performance and persistent serious logistical problems.

In chapter 19, "Breakout, November 1–11," Woodward assesses the AEF's last major offensive, as the Allies were negotiating for an armistice with the Germans. The First Army, without Pershing directly in charge, finally fought a successful pitched battle against threadbare and demoralized German defenders, achieving an unremarkable breakthrough. Severe logistical problems continued, especially as American troops finally gained chunks of ground. Whatever Pershing thought, the AEF could not have advanced any farther, had the war continued even a few more days.

Woodward grants that the US "beggar army" depended on Allied matériel (artillery, aircraft, gas, food, horses) and Allied transport to get its support units to France. However, he claims American enthusiasm boosted Allied morale in 1917 and complicated German strategy for 1918. More controversially, he writes that Meuse-Argonne "played a significant, arguably decisive, role in abruptly and unexpectedly ending the war in November 1918" (379). He relies here on the comments made by the defeated German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to an American reporter in 1918, disregarding the overwhelming German defeat all along the Western Front. In chapter 20, "Epilogue," Woodward describes the US Army's occupation of the Rhineland from the perspective of individuals. He also considers the impact of the war on veterans' benefits, military doctrine, and the policies codified in the 1920 National Defense Act.

Each chapter in this survey could be expanded to book length. David Woodward deserves praise for his succinct assessment of so many aspects of the American military experience in the First World War and for his judicious use of secondary research, precise illustrative details,[3] and telling quotations of veterans. World War I specialists will find The American Army and the First World War to be a helpful synthesis of material already available; it can also serve as a textbook for college students in need of a reliable overview of the war.

[1] Including Lloyd George and the Generals (Newark: U Delaware Pr, 1983), Trial by Friendship: Anglo-American Relations, 1917–1918 (Lexington: U Kentucky Pr, 1993), Field Marshal Sir William Robertson: Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the Great War (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998), and Hell in the Holy Land: World War I in the Middle East (Lexington: U Kentucky Pr, 2006).

[2]Ed. Arthur S. Link et alii in sixty-nine volumes (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 1966–94).

[3] E.g., "Approximately 50,000 carpenters and 150,000 other workers raced to complete 32 cantonments, 16 camps with wooden barracks for the National Army, and an additional 16 tent camps for the national guard…. A single wooden cantonment required 4,500,000 board feet of lumber, and thousands of doors, toilet bowls, and cots" (55).

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