The US Army of World War I

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General John J. Among these was the belief in the sufficiency of rifle-armed infantry and the conviction that the American rifleman in particular — through his skill, certainly, but above all thanks to his great character and spirit — would do what the British and French had failed to do: break the Hun. The implication was that the allies were lacking in character and were almost unmanly in their taste for trenches and the various accoutrements associated with trench warfare, chief among them machine guns and massed artillery, but also grenades and mortars.

On his own, Pershing might never have understood the war he helped to win. His contributions arguably lay in his political and organizational skills , his ability to create and lead a vast military built essentially from scratch.


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However, as Grotelueschen has ably documented, a number of his division commanders and lower-ranking commanders caught on. They, with help from British and French advisers, and in some cases in defiance of their superiors and even their orders, learned in weeks and months what the allies and the Germans had figured out over the course of three years of horror.

Today, the AEF serves as a cautionary tale about the risks of remaining beholden to old ideas, and an optimistic reminder of the benefits of being willing to learn from allies and adapt, even in the face of outmoded institutional thinking.

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The problem in World War I, the reason the two sides found themselves locked in a murderous stalemate, was firepower. Modern rifles, machine guns, and above all artillery rendered suicidal the kind of open field maneuvers British, French, and German commanders dreamed of in , and that Pershing still did in One simply could not survive above ground. At any rate those advancing troopslargely lacked the ability to communicate with those guns that were in range. Thus defenders could mass their own fires, smash to pieces advancing forces, and push them back nearly to the point of departure.

Armies on the Western Front had to learn to fight differently from what their doctrines and field manuals advocated at the beginning of the war. They had to learn to eschew closely formed columns or waves and use terrain features for cover. They also had to learn true combined arms combat, which meant figuring out how to remain in contact and work closely with artillery while integrating organic firepower — mortars, hand grenades, and rifle grenades — into smaller units.

Everything You Know About How World War I Ended Is Wrong

The armies had to incorporate and bring forward far more machine guns than any of them originally had on their tables of organization. Up until that point, it seems institutional culture and the cult of the rifle and the bayonet had blocked the full adoption of these weapons. The armies also had to learn to give up on the fantasy of the big breakthrough in favor of incremental advances carefully coordinated with artillery.

The British, French, and Germans all figured this out, learning and evolving, however slowly. The force learned to attack using more fluid lines, dispersed units, and far greater quantities of firepower.


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  7. It learned to mass barrages and then have its men hug the rolling curtain of fire. It learned to flow around strong points and have others mop them up. According to Goya, France fielded in that year a profoundly different army than it had in , one that truly combined arms at the lowest echelons and had mastered challenges such as keeping infantry in communication with artillery and using aircraft to keep both informed while also providing close air support.

    Artillery and other fires, rather than being auxiliaries to the infantry, became the focus. If anything, it was infantry that supported them. Given all this, it was no accident that the German offensive in the spring of achieved as much as it did and restored an unprecedented degree of movement; it was no accident either that the counter-offensive launched by the allies, Americans among them, did so well. As for why it took so long for the three great European armies to achieve this level of proficiency, Griffith offers a compelling explanation: The rate of attrition in the armies was so great as to inhibit the accumulation of institutional memory.

    There were simply not enough survivors in veteran units to pass on hard-won knowledge, and it took time for units to acquire the skills needed to perform the tasks they increasingly understood to be necessary. Once in France, most American units were taken under the wing of the French army the rest by the British , which tried to teach what it could. Sometimes these lessons ran contrary to the preferences of American commanders who, according to Grotelueschen as well as Kenneth Hamburger , feared the foreign advisers might pollute the men with their ideas about trench warfare.

    Both studies describe a tug of war in the training camps between the French, who wanted to teach trench warfare, and AEF headquarters, which clung to other ideas. Once in battle in the spring and summer of American officers defaulted to the old-school, infantry-centric approach favored by Pershing. This amounted to lines of infantrymen with fixed bayonets advancing on enemy positions with little in the way of artillery preparation prior to the attack, light fire support, and inadequate communications with supporting artillery.

    On the defensive, men were expected largely to rely on guts and the firepower of their Springfield rifles. The hope was for a breakthrough and a rapid resumption of maneuver warfare rather than static fighting. Remarkably, though, AEF units learned fast, sometimes within days and weeks. Perhaps more importantly, they learned not to operate without massive fire support, close coordination with artillery, and ample supplies of mortars, rifle grenades, Chauchat light machine guns, and field guns.

    Thanks to French trainers and French-supplied guns , American gunners mastered the art of carefully planned barrages, rolling barrages, and box barrages; commanders, for their part, learned to value these things and make them central to their plans and operations. Finally, they learned to keep the gunners connected to everyone else, so that they knew where to aim and where not to.

    When Americans did not have enough of their own supporting forces, they learned to borrow them from the British and French, which also meant learning to interoperate with them. The Americans also discovered the power of aircraft — again borrowed above all from the French, for the U. They also learned to work with tanks — British and French tanks, often with British and French crews. When the United States declared war against Germany in April of , War Department planners quickly realized that the standing Army of , men would not be enough to ensure victory overseas.

    The standard volunteer system proved to be inadequate in raising an Army, so on 18 May Congress passed the Selective Service Act requiring all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for the draft. Even before the act was passed, African American males from all over the country eagerly joined the war effort. They viewed the conflict as an opportunity to prove their loyalty, patriotism, and worthiness for equal treatment in the United States.

    In , the infantry regiments were reorganized into the 24th and 25th Infantry. The two cavalry regiments, the 9th and 10th, were retained. These regiments were posted in the West and Southwest where they were heavily engaged in the Indian War. During the Spanish-American War, all four regiments saw service. When World War I broke out, there were four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.

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    The men in these units were considered heroes in their communities. When it came to the draft, however, there was a reversal in usual discriminatory policy. Draft boards were comprised entirely of white men. Although there were no specific segregation provisions outlined in the draft legislation, blacks were told to tear off one corner of their registration cards so they could easily be identified and inducted separately.

    Now instead of turning blacks away, the draft boards were doing all they could to bring them into service, southern draft boards in particular. One Georgia county exemption board discharged forty-four percent of white registrants on physical grounds and exempted only three percent of black registrants based on the same requirements. It was fairly common for southern postal workers to deliberately withhold the registration cards of eligible black men and have them arrested for being draft dodgers.

    African American men who owned their own farms and had families were often drafted before single white employees of large planters. Although comprising just ten percent of the entire United States population, blacks supplied thirteen percent of inductees. While still discriminatory, the Army was far more progressive in race relations than the other branches of the military.

    Blacks could not serve in the Marines, and could only serve limited and menial positions in the Navy and the Coast Guard. By the end of World War I, African Americans served in cavalry, infantry, signal, medical, engineer, and artillery units, as well as serving as chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists, and intelligence officers. Although technically eligible for many positions in the Army, very few blacks got the opportunity to serve in combat units.

    Most were limited to labor battalions. The combat elements of the U. Army were kept completely segregated. The four established all-black Regular Army regiments were not used in overseas combat roles but instead were diffused throughout American held territory. There was such a backlash from the African American community, however, that the War Department finally created the 92d and 93d Divisions, both primarily black combat units, in With the creation of African American units also came the demand for African-American officers.

    The War Department thought the soldiers would be more likely to follow men of their own color, thereby reducing the risk of any sort of uprising. Most leaders of the African American community agreed, and it was decided that the Army would create a segregated, but supposedly equal, officer training camp.

    In May , Fort Des Moines opened its doors to black officer-trainees. Approximately 1, men attended the camp in Des Moines, Iowa. Two hundred fifty of those men were already noncommissioned officers, and the rest were civilians. The average man attending the camp only had to have a high school education, and only twelve percent scored above average in the classification tests given by the Army. They practiced drilling with and without arms, signaling, physical training, memorizing the organization of the regiment, reading maps, and training on the rifle and bayonet. However, as Ballou noted after the war, the men doing the training did not take the job very seriously, and seemed to consider the school, and the candidates, a waste of time.

    Consequently, the War Department determined that the instruction at Fort Des Moines was poor and inadequate. Also adding to the poor training was the fact that no one knew exactly what to expect in France, so it was difficult to train as precisely as was needed. On 15 October , African-American men received their commissions as either captain or first or second lieutenant, and were assigned to infantry, artillery, and engineer units with the 92d Division. This was to be the first and only class to graduate from Fort Des Moines; the War Department shut it down soon after their departure.

    Future black candidates attended either special training camps in Puerto Rico from which officers graduated , the Philippines, Hawaii, and Panama, or regular officer training facilities in the United States.

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    The Army had no written policy on what to do if an officer training camp became integrated, so each camp was allowed to decide for itself the manner in which the integration was executed. Some were completely segregated and others allowed for blacks and whites to train together. Over additional black officers graduated from these camps, bringing the total number to 1, Although African Americans were earning higher positions in the Army, that did not necessarily mean they were getting equal treatment.

    Black draftees were treated with extreme hostility when they arrived for training. The War Department rarely interceded, and discrimination was usually overlooked or sometimes condoned. Because many Southern civilians protested having blacks from other states inhabit nearby training camps, the War Department stipulated that no more than one-fourth of the trainees in any Army camp in the U.

    Even when integrated into fairly progressive camps, black soldiers were often treated badly and sometimes went for long periods without proper clothing. There were also reports of blacks receiving old Civil War uniforms and being forced to sleep outside in pitched tents instead of warmer, sturdier barracks.

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    Some were forced to eat outside in the winter months, while others went without a change of clothes for months at a time. Not all black soldiers suffered treatment like this, however, as those who were lucky enough to train at newly erected National Army cantonments lived in comfortable barracks and had sanitary latrines, hot food, and plenty of clothes. The first black troops sent overseas belonged to service units. Because the work that these units did was absolutely invaluable to the war effort, commanders promised special privileges in return for high-yield results.

    With such motivation, the soldiers would often work for twenty-four hours straight unloading ships and transporting men and materiel to and from various bases, ports, and railroad depots.

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    As the war continued and soldiers took to the battlefields, black labor units became responsible for digging trenches, removing unexploded shells from fields, clearing disabled equipment and barbed wire, and burying soldiers killed in action. Despite all the hard and essential work they provided, African American stevedores received the worst treatment of all black troops serving in World War I. Although not nearly as respected as any of the white soldiers involved in the war effort, African American combat troops, in many respects, were much better off than the laborers.

    The two combat divisions—the 92d and 93d Divisions—had two completely different experiences while fighting the Great War. Ballou, who had organized the first African American officer candidate school. Organized in a manner similar to the other American divisions, the 92d was made up of four infantry regiments, three field artillery regiments, a trench mortar battery, three machine gun battalions, a signal battalion, an engineer regiment, an engineer train, and various support units.

    Although in no case did a black officer command a white officer, most of the officers up to the rank of first lieutenant in the unit were African American. Unlike just about every other American unit training to go into battle, soldiers from the 92d were forced to train separately while in the United States.