Leadership Prerequisites: Colonel Conrad S. Babcock and Command Development during World War I

By Johnson, Douglas | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Leadership Prerequisites: Colonel Conrad S. Babcock and Command Development during World War I


Johnson, Douglas, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


THE PRESENT CHIEF OF staff of the U.S. Army, General Peter J. Schoomaker, tells anyone who asks that the U.S. Army's Core Competency today is to develop leaders.1 Prior to the Vietnam War, leadership training, like most military training, was based upon what the Military Academies taught, augmented by what the branch schools thought was needed for their particular branch expertise. Even at the Army War College, leadership was the subject only of occasional lectures by distinguished general officers and tended to be mostly about personal wartime experiences.2 Leadership as a science had to wait until the training revolution of the latter 1970s was well under way. That is not to say that leadership was not studied in industry, business, and the military, but the shortcomings of the war in Vietnam demanded a complete relook at everything in the army, in particular at what it was being taught and how it was being led.

One thread of thought that emerged early in the process was the concept that every officer should know as well as, if not better than, any soldier how to perform the soldier's duties. While that might have been appropriate for the Civil War, and barely possible for World War I, by 1972 that possibility was beyond reality. Furthermore, there have been very successful leaders in many realms of endeavor who have come to a profession from the outside and have performed exceptionally well while knowing little of the details of the laborer's duties. In fact, there is some demonstrated validity to the proposition that some of the U.S. Army's best leaders rose to deserved fame by not following the traditional path at all. Arguably, these men were not qualified to perform the duties ultimately thrust upon them by circumstances, yet they succeeded and surpassed many or most of their fellow soldiers who had sought to rise through the ranks by the traditional process. Colonel Conrad Stanton Babcock did not have the benefit of the type of leadership training available today, yet he led three different infantry regiments in battle in the final five months of World War I.

Colonel Babcock entered upon his first command of a regiment of infantry some seven hours before that regiment jumped off in the main attack of the XX French Corps, which was, in turn, the main attack of the French Tenth Army on July 18, 1918, near the town of Soissons, France.3 Babcock was a cavalryman, but he had sailed to Europe in search of a combat command, and that meant infantry. The twists and turns of his struggles to obtain a command are told compellingly in his unpublished memoir "From This Generation to the Next."4 But it was his contention, written in an acerbic tone, that command of an American infantry regiment in combat should not be given to just anybody, especially not to those who lacked intimate familiarity with that organization, which was unique in its size and even more so in its internal complexity.

A Civil War infantry regiment had consisted often companies, each nominally of one hundred men, usually armed with a rifled musket of one design or another and all operating in essentially similar fashion. The 1917 prewar U.S. Army infantry regiments were larger on paper but manned at much lower levels, and they were armed with the bolt-action, magazine-fed Model 1903 Springfield rifle. The officers carried the M-1911 45-caliber pistol. Peacetime company strength was 58 soldiers, while wartime strength was 150 soldiers. The regiment that Babcock was straining to command was composed of approximately 3,600 soldiers formed into three battalions, each made up of four 250-man companies, plus a machine-gun company, a supply company, and a headquarters company. Some of the regiment's rifles were capable of being fitted with projectors that made them grenade launchers. The soldiers, unless members of a machine-gun, a Stokes Mortar, or a 37-milimeter one-pounder gun team, also carried hand grenades.5 None of these weapons were standard issue in the prewar U. …

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