Academic journal article Military Review

Under the Gun: Training the American Expeditionary Forces, 1917-1918

Academic journal article Military Review

Under the Gun: Training the American Expeditionary Forces, 1917-1918

Article excerpt

Immediately preceding World War II, US national policy sought to avoid entanglement in European of fairs. Accordingly, military strategy focused on coastal defenses, patrolling the Western Hemisphere and protecting the United States' few overseas possessions. In early 1917, the situation changed dramatically with the adoption of a hard-line policy toward German submarine attacks. The declaration of war on Germany found the United States at a greater disadvantage than at any time in its history, despite passage of the National Defense Act of 1916, the birth of a popular preparedness movement and the conduct of military operations on the Mexican border.1

The successful mobilization of US national resources decisively influenced the war's outcome. The United States's awesome warmaking potential cast a foreboding shadow on the Reich's future. Germany's strategic underestimation of the quantity and quality of US fighting forces prominently figured in its defeat, despite the fact that US forces arrived in France with little training beyond physical conditioning and drill.

State of Preparedness

In April 1917, the US Army's ability to influence the war in Europe appeared negligible. The Regular Army consisted of 38 infantry regiments, 17 cavalry regiments, 9 artillery regiments and 3 engineer regiments, most of which were at least one-third undermanned. No divisions existed. The National Guard numbered only 182,000-less than onehalf the number that had died in a single day on the Western Front.2

European armies were armed with machineguns and automatic rifles100 in each regiment. In contrast, the US Army lacked most of the new weapons of trench warfare. Mortars, hand grenades, howitzers, tanks, 37-millimeter guns and gas masks were not in the Army inventory. Infantry regiments manned only four machineguns, the dominant weapon in close combat in Europe. Procuring and testing a new standard machinegun was a low priority. Also, the National Guard mobilization in response to the Mexican border crisis in 1916 had depleted stocks of many individual issue items such as uniforms and helmets.3

Training consisted of drill, some rifle marksmanship, physical conditioning and inspections. Maneuvers involved no more than battalion-size units. The duty day usually ended by noon to escape the afternoon heat. Selected officers studied at the Leavenworth schools and acquired excellent staff skills; many more played cards and rode horses to pass the boring days in an Army garrison. With the exception of Philippine Campaign and Mexican Punitive Expedition veterans, few men had experienced combat. None had seen combat like that on the Western Front.

The General Staff was divided and weak, and its Congressional opponents undercut what effectiveness it had by strictly limiting its numbers. The tiny 19-man war-planning staff necessarily focused on the immediate crises in Mexico to the neglect of contingency planning for operations in Europe.4

The declaration of war against Germany on 6 April 1917 surprised few. But, US President Woodrow Wilson had refused to prepare openly for war. He naively hoped that US threats would deter the Germans from continuing unrestricted submarine warfare. Consequently, US mobilization began from a standstill.

Mobilization Challenges

Providing personnel presented no problem. After brief debate, Wilson approved conscription and volunteering to meet the manpower requirement. The draft eventually provided 67 percent of the troops.5 Training and equipping the rapidly expanding force was not as easy. Initial estimates placed the projected US contribution at one million men; over three times that number were serving by 1918.

General Staff planning only addressed manpower mobilization; its neglect of economic and industrial mobilization planning meant the US could not adequately equip the forces bound for Europe. The fine US-made Browning automatic weapons and Springfield rifles did not arrive in Europe until July 1918. …

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