100 years ago today, General John Pershing arrived in France at the head of the first contingent of the American Expeditionary Force, the first official US troops to set foot in Europe. As CN’s Patrick Gregory reports, the small size of this initial WWI deployment belied the importance attached to its arrival by the Allies.
When the liner SS Baltic slipped anchor off Governors Island in New York Harbour late on the afternoon of 28 May 1917, General John Pershing was sailing into an uncertain future.
He had left behind him in Washington as many questions to be answered as he knew he would now face in Europe; and he might have been forgiven for viewing the swirling fog which surrounded his boat for its first two days at sea as a metaphor for the uncertainties he faced ahead.
On board with him were some 190 officers and staff and Pershing used the days at sea to get down to developing working plans and estimates for some of the men and materiel needed in the months ahead.
When planning began for the Great War in Europe, and when it was handing Pershing the responsibility for assembling the American Expeditionary Force, the War Department had been working on the assumption that around 500,000 men would need to be taken under arms. Pershing, however, had his own ideas. Almost from the outset, and with the help of his newly-appointed chief of staff, Major – later Brigadier General – James Harbord, Pershing set a goal of twice that figure. It was an ambitious target but one he felt was justified and necessary.
Yet he knew that ambition and delivery were two very different things: an upgrading on this scale posed huge challenges of organisation and supply; it would take time. For now – whatever the war machine presently cranking into gear back home would produce – Pershing concentrated on plans for the surveying of ports, railways and other logistical necessities to supply an army as soon as he reached Europe; alongside it, the bread and butter of what types and quantities of guns, artillery and ammunition would be needed.
When the Baltic made port in Liverpool at 0930 on 8 June it was to be the first of several enthusiastic welcomes he and his party would receive in Europe. The Lord Mayor of the city and his wife and local representatives of the army and navy were in attendance. As a band played renditions of the countries’ two anthems, Pershing felt moved to observe: ‘We are very glad indeed to be the standard bearers of our country in this great war for civilisation. To land on British soil and to receive the welcome accorded us seems very significant and is deeply appreciated.’
In London later that day Pershing would be met by the War Secretary Lord Derby, Field Marshal Sir John French and the American ambassador Walter Hines Page, and in the days following he would see Prime Minister Lloyd George and King George V.
And then to France. Arriving in Boulogne on the morning of 13 June, and in Paris that afternoon, this advance guard of the AEF was accorded a welcome of even greater fervour. As the New York Times reported the following day, Pershing took all parts of Paris ‘by storm’.
From the dignitaries and all the principal figures of the French War Department – Joffre and Foch at their head – to the excited and cheering crowds massed on the street, it was indeed an enthusiastic reception.
Back in London, Page noted: ‘Pershing made an admirable impression here, and in France he has simply set them wild with joy. His coming and his little army have been worth what a real army will be worth later.’
Little indeed. But Page was right. Whilst it solved nothing yet in military terms, the arrival of this first contingent of the AEF at least acted as something of a tonic to a country still reeling from the disaster of the Nivelle Offensive only weeks before, and with an Allied war effort stubbornly stuck in neutral.
Pershing tried not to be distracted by too much of the optimism surrounding his arrival. He knew the huge obstacles which lay in his way in terms of recruitment, training, armament manufacture and supply. The lists he had drawn up on his way across the Atlantic included an initial requirement of just over 2,500 artillery pieces of various calibres, a calculation confirmed by a visit to British GHQ in France the following month. Their forces possessed nearly 6,000 field guns, howitzers and guns of other calibres. Yet current projections of manufacture in the US fell lamentably short of such a figure: US foundries would be able to produce just 80 cannon in September and 40 more in October.
But a fortnight later men, at least, began to arrive in more creditable numbers: the first 14,000, the main cohort of what would become the 1st Division, the Big Red One, arrived in the port of St Nazaire.
Where precisely would they, and the others who followed, fight? And in what order? Arguments for another day, arguments which Pershing in those opening weeks sidestepped.
His new allies would be quick enough to tell him that they wanted these new recruits to be parcelled up between them on the Western Front. Yet he had other ideas. Pershing had made sure, before taking his leave of Washington, that he had the instructions he wanted and which he thought an American army would be comfortable with: orders to ensure a separate and distinct army and to maintain an independent fighting force.