Until the United States did so in 1917 and 1918, no country in all history had tried to deploy a 2-million-man force 3,000 miles across an ocean and engage a major enemy army close to its own home territory. It wasn’t easy, and it was anything but smooth and efficient; but it worked.
Twenty-five years later, the United States would do the same thing again, except this time, simultaneously across two oceans, and in opposite directions. The hard-learned lessons of 1917-18 became the blueprint for 1942-45.
Upon entering World War One, America had to “grow” a huge army in a matter of just months. Starting in mid-1916 with a total force of about only 300,000 Regular Army and National Guard troops, by the end of 1918 the U.S. Army had 4 million soldiers. Half that number was in Europe, and much of the remainder in America was preparing to deploy.
A force of that size required more than 200,000 officers, who had to be recruited and trained. Those officers already in uniform quickly found themselves commanding brigades, divisions, and even corps – echelons of command that had not existed in the U.S. Army since the end of the Civil War in 1865.
After cutting back drastically following World War One, America had to go through another massive rebuilding process prior to World War Two. But this time, the United States started the process in 1939, more than two years before being attacked by Japan on 7 December 1941.
Furthermore, a dedicated cohort of senior army officers during the late 1920s and early 1930s saw clearly what America would have to face in the not distant future. They assiduously did the planning and laid the groundwork to rebuild and modernise America’s military power.
The vast majority of America’s most senior army leaders during the interwar period and through World War Two learned their trades on the battlefields of World War One under General John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
Pershing’s Lieutenants included a future president of the United States and a future vice president. Major Harry S. Truman served in the Meuse-Argonne campaign as an artillery battery commander. He experienced first-hand the cost of ill-preparation for war.
The lack of strategic leadership during World War One by President Woodrow Wilson was not lost on Truman when he became president during the final months of World War Two. And subsequently, during the dawn of the Cold War, Truman adapted the hard lessons of 1918 to the new strategic challenges.
Brigadier General Charles G. Dawes, a banker in civilian life, served as the chairman of the AEF’s General Purchasing Board. After the war he was the principal author of the Dawes Plan for World War One reparations, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. From 1925 to 1929 he served as the vice president of the United States under President Calvin Coolidge.
Chiefs of Staff
Following the war, Pershing served as the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army (CSA) from 1921 to 1924. Every one of his successors in this role through to 1945 had served under him in France.
General John L. Hines (1924-1926) commanded the 4th Division and then III Corps in France. General Charles P. Summerall (1926-1930) commanded the 1st Division and V Corps. General Douglas MacArthur (1930-1935), was the chief of staff of the 42nd Division and the commander of the 84th Infantry Brigade.
Then, General Malin Craig (1935-1939) was the Chief of Staff of I Corps, and then of Third Army during the occupation of the German Rhineland. General George C. Marshall (1939-1945) was the G-3 chief operations officer of First Army during the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne campaigns.
The retired MacArthur was recalled to active duty to command the Southwest Pacific Theater. He remained on active duty after the war as the commander of the occupation forces in Japan, and then as the United Nations supreme commander during the first phases of the Korean War. Marshall, of course, is remembered today as America’s “Organizer of Victory” in World War Two. They became the second and first Americans respectively to be promoted to five-star general of the army rank.
Largely forgotten today, unfortunately, is Malin Craig, who during his tenure as chief of staff laid much of the foundation upon which Marshall built; and who was primarily responsible for Marshall succeeding him in office.
Pershing’s Lieutenants included two future commandants of the U.S. Marine Corps. General John A. Lejeune, the Marine Corps’ commandant from 1920 to 1929, commanded the mixed Army-Marine 2nd Division during World War One. Lejeune was arguably the most skillful American divisional commander of the war.
General Wendell Neville, who succeeded Lejeune as commandant, but died in office a year later, commanded the 2nd Division’s 4th Marine Brigade. Together, Lejeune and Neville shaped their U.S. Marine Corps into the premier amphibious force that dominated the island-hoping campaign in the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War Two.
Also among those serving under Pershing in France were the senior leaders of the 1920s and 1930s who, although little remembered today, shaped the United States Army across the generations by their mentorship, commentary, and writing.
General Fox Conner was one of the most important to those strategic thinkers, whose greatest contributions included undertaking at various times George Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George S. Patton as professional protégées.
General Hunter Liggett, who assumed command of the First Army during the middle of Meuse-Argonne campaign, was arguably America’s best senior-level battlefield commander of the war. His approach to combined arms warfare profoundly influenced American battlefield tactics ever since.
Other future senior leaders serving under Pershing in World War One included George S. Patton, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, William “Billy” Mitchell, and Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Jr. Patton’s first experience in armored warfare was in a French-made tank on the Western Front. He would build on those experiences years later while facing German Panzers in North Africa and Western Europe.
Donovan, who as a regimental commander earned the Medal of Honor in the Meuse-Argonne, went on to organize and lead the Office of Strategic Services, which following World War Two became the foundation for the Central Intelligence Agency.
As the leader of Pershing’s AEF Air Service, Mitchell’s theory of strategic bombing, influenced heavily by the RAF’s General Sir Hugh Trenchard, shaped the way that the United States waged aerial warfare in both Europe and the Pacific between 1942 and 1945.
Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., the son of the former president, commanded a regiment in the Meuse-Argonne. As the assistant division commander of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, he earned the Medal of Honor for his leadership on Utah Beach during D-Day, 6 June 1944.
Many historians today argue that the two World Wars were essentially one large war, with a twenty-year cease-fire between the beginning and the end. The influence of Pershing’s Lieutenants on the U.S. Army of World War Two strongly supports that argument.
The story of many of these significant officers, some unfortunately long-forgotten today, is retold in the book Pershing’s Lieutenants: American Military Leadership in World War I, published in November 2020 by Osprey and edited by Major General (ret) David T. Ząbecki and Colonel (ret) Douglas V. Mastriano.