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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

Chief of Staff's Flag

The Greatest Unsung American General of the Great War

Peyton C. March

By Edward M. Coffman

Presented the Great War Society

General Peyton C. March
In 1918, John J. Pershing and Peyton C. March were the American generals who gave the edge to Allied victory over Germany. Pershing was the commander who organized and led the American Expeditionary Forces of two million men in France while, during the last eight months of the war, March was the Chief of Staff in Washington, D.C. who oversaw the logistics and general development of the army and the shipment of some 1.8 million troops across the Atlantic. As Secretary of War Newton D. Baker explained shortly after the war, "together they wrought...victory."

March who was almost five years younger [than Pershing] grew up on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. His father, Francis A. March, became one of the most distinguished academics in the United States. His mother, Mildred Conway, was a direct descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Peyton majored in classics at Lafayette, earned a Phi Beta Kappa key, and played on the football and baseball teams. Only 19, when he graduated, he went to West Point a few weeks later because he wanted to be a soldier. . . . .[He graduated] in the Class of 1888 in the top quarter of his class. With a bearing as erect as Pershing's, March was taller at 6' 2" and thinner. The two served in the same company one summer but the cadet corps which numbered less than 400 was small enough that everyone knew everyone else. Given their appropriate age for stars three decades later in World War I, there was a large number of generals in their classes - 26 of the 77 graduates in 1886 and 23 of 44 in 1888. Their early service in the Army sent them in different directions which kept them from serving together except for one two month period until they converged in France in 1917.

     As an artilleryman, March's duties were more prosaic as he served in various East Coast forts. The war in 1898 took him away from garrison life and he won a citation for leading his battery in a charge against a blockhouse during the battle of Manila. After the discharge of this wartime unit, he returned to the Philippines where the war with Emilio Aguinaldo's nationalist forces was in progress. After brief service as Major General Arthur MacArthur's aide, he received a temporary majority in the 33rd Volunteer Infantry Regiment. As Aguinaldo's army disintegrated and the guerrilla war began, it was March's battalion that was close on the leader's trail. He almost caught him and did kill the commander of his bodyguard and capture his chief of staff. MacArthur commended him as he returned to his regular rank of captain: "no officer has rendered more efficient or brilliant field service" on Luzon. Throughout the next decade, while March went through the ranks to colonel and held appropriate command and staff assignments in the States.

March Accepting a Surrender in the Philippines, 1899

     March's first sergeant during the Spanish American War remembered: "Everybody was scared of him." A lieutenant who served in his battalion in garrison at Fort Riley wrote: "He could cut one down to size more completely and in fewer words than any other commander I ever had." Another young officer in that battalion flatly stated: "He was absolutely cold-blooded in performance of his duties." Frederick Palmer, one of the most famous war correspondents of the time, was impressed . . . by March's "absolute absorption in the task at hand."

     When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Pershing was a major general in command of the Southern Department while March was a colonel, commanding the 8th Field Artillery Regiment in that Department. Up to this point, March had had a successful career while Pershing had experienced extraordinary success.

     Promoted to brigadier general in June, March soon joined him as commander of the First Division artillery. Three months later he received another star and became the AEF's Chief of Artillery. While Pershing went about laying the foundation for the entire AEF, March prepared the artillery units for combat. During this training period, he differed with Pershing's staff in that he thought the officers should be kept with their units rather than sent off to various schools. While some of the staff apparently held this against him, Pershing obviously liked what he saw and considered him "an energetic and able commander." In December, he invited March to his headquarters where he stayed in his home and conferred for a few days.

     Earlier, in September, Secretary Baker informed Pershing that he was considering making March Chief of Staff. The Chief of Staff, Tasker H. Bliss, who was deservedly well known as one of the Army's leading intellectuals was due to retire at the end of the year and Baker wanted a younger, more vigorous, dynamic man and had been impressed by March while he served in the Adjutant General's Office. When Pershing told March of this message, March made it clear he wanted to stay in France. In turn, Pershing agreed and wrote Baker that did not want to lose such an outstanding officer and suggested Major General John Biddle, a former Superintendent of West Point, who was then commander of an engineer brigade in the AEF. Baker accepted the recommendation and brought Biddle back as Acting Chief of Staff in October.

     The tremendous problems of mobilization overwhelmed Biddle as they had Bliss. With the onset of winter, supply shortages and general conditions at the hastily erected camps came to the attention of Congress and the chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, George E. Chamberlain, began a hearing in December which continued into January. News papers headlined the testimony of witness after witness who detailed the situation at the camps. Finally, on January 19, 1918, Senator Chamberlain dramatically announced that "the military establishment of America has fallen down" and followed up with a recommendation that a War Cabinet of three leaders be put in control of the war effort. Baker's response a few days later came in his appearance before the committee a few days later when he gave a lengthy explanation of what was going on and what could be expected.

     Before that, however, he called the builder of the Panama Canal, George W. Goethals, back to active duty and put him in charge of the Quartermaster Department and cabled Pershing that he "urgently" needed March. Pershing brought March to his headquarters at Chaumont where he thoroughly briefed him on the GHQ staff and sent him on a brief visit to the American part of the front before he sailed for home. On March 4, March formally assumed the position of Acting Chief of Staff.

     After eleven months of war, the Army and the National Guard had multiplied more than eight times to slightly less than 1.7 million of whom a quarter of a million were in France. Over there, Pershing had the foundation of the AEF in place but, as yet, only a relative few American troops had seen front line service and they had not staged even a regimental assault.

     As Chief of Staff, March brought to that position qualities which his predecessors lacked - a solid sense of the proper place and power of his office and the dynamism and ruthlessness necessary to galvanize the Army's effort. As one of the General Staff officers commented: "He took the War Department like a dog takes a cat by the neck and he shook it." Another recalled that there was an immediate change: "Everyone worked longer hours and with far greater efficiency."

     For more than a century, the bureau chiefs who controlled the Army's logistics had dominated the War Department. Their power continued despite the creation in 1903 of the General Staff which was supposed to coordinate all Army affairs. March who had recently served in one of the most powerful bureaus, the Adjutant General's Office, fully understood this and knew that it was an obstacle to the efficiency of the War Department. Within weeks he neutralized their power by ousting some, restricting others, and bringing in younger AEF veterans to head the Quartermaster and Ordnance Departments. He made no effort to salve the feelings of those he relieved. Soon after he became Chief of Staff, he decided to organize a more comprehensive and powerful agency in the General Staff to coordinate logistics, the Purchase, Storage, and Traffic Division and put Goethals at his head . He called into his office the director of the division that was to be folded into this new organization and bluntly told him: "I have cut your head off and ordered you out of the War Department." The acting Quartermaster General who succeeded Goethals and one of those AEF veterans, Robert E. Wood, recalled that March supported him 100%. He succinctly explained March's method of command: "He did not work out problems with people - he ordered. He was the War Department."

     When the Secretary of the General Staff who gleaned through the pile of staff papers and correspondence to select those to pass on decision to March each morning asked him what his policy was as to letters requesting favors, March curtly responded that "as Chief of Staff I have no friends." Such a policy might bruise egos but his firm policy not to respond to requests for special treatment for friends from Senators and Congressmen naturally alienated the powerful on Capitol Hill.

     Even the President Wilson was not exempt. When Secretary Baker forwarded a note from Wilson asking that, War Department policy permitting, he would like to see a person get a commission or particular assignment, March read the note and then went to see the Secretary. After a lengthy discussion, he returned to his desk and Baker went to the White House with the note in hand. There were no more such letters from the White House. Baker did point out to him that he had to waste a lot of his time going around "with a cruse of oil and bandage to fix up the wounds which he had made" But March did not change his methods. .

     The German offensives in the spring of 1918 forced the British to make available the transports necessary to bring larger numbers of Americans to France. Meantime, the draft kept bringing in hundreds of thousands of men to the training camps and Bernard M. Baruch, whom President Wilson had named to coordinate industry, pushed industrial leaders to supply the myriad amounts necessary to sustain such a great force. On one occasion, Baruch questioned March about the capacity of the transports and the French railroads to carry the numbers of men March was pushing to the embarkation points. March bluntly responded: "We'll pack them in like sardines" And "What did God give them feet for." Baruch who had participated in the war effort from its beginning appreciated the changes that March had made and later complimented him: "He was the right man in the right place."

     During the eight months from March's arrival to the end of the war, the size of the Army more than doubled to about 3.7 million. In that period, more men, almost 1.8 million, went to France than were in the entire Army on March 1. This enabled the AEF to commit large numbers of troops to battle and they played a significant role during the fighting in the summer and fall of 1918. Secretary Baker summed up March's role: "The war was won by days. Your energy and drive supplied the days necessary for our side to win."

March and Newton Baker Welcome Pershing Home, 1919

     As he celebrated the great victory in France, John J. Pershing was not pleased with March. He could see the fruits of his accomplishments but he was infuriated by March's different conception of the role of Chief of Staff. He had also come to fear that March wanted to replace him. Their most significant disagreement was over the power of the Chief of Staff. Pershing who had given himself the title of Commander-in-Chief of the AEF assumed that his position resembled that of the Commanding General as held by U. S. Grant during the Civil War. The Commanding General who actually had limited power in peacetime was traditionally the dominant leader in war. The other Chiefs of Staff in the early months of the war had accepted this concept. March, however, believed that the Chief of Staff was the dominant Army officer and he spelled this out in General Order #80 in August 1918. The fact that he considered the national war effort as a whole rather than simply that of the AEF also irritated Pershing.

     Pershing's staff customarily planned for a strength larger than that the War Department thought possible. In the climactic summer months when the tide of the war on the Western Front began to turn for the Allies, Pershing sent a plan for a build up of the AEF to 100 divisions, a force he reckoned would be five million men. Astounded by this huge number, General Staff planners studied the problem and concluded that the maximum force the nation could sustain in France was 80 divisions which was they estimated at some 1.6 million less than Pershing's figure. Despite this, the AEF continued to base plans and manpower and supply requests on a force of more than 4.7 million. This led to frustration on both sides during the war and recriminations after the war.

     Soon after March returned to the States, James G. Harbord, Pershing's chief of staff, fueled his general's suspicion that March wanted ultimately to replace him as the AEF commander. The first cause came when the new Chief of Staff asked for a few AEF officers to serve on the General Staff and in other stateside units. Pershing was not too concerned about this but later he was furious about March's handling of recommendations for promotion to general. When Pershing sent in his recommendations, he named AEF officers for all of the available slots. In the past, March's predecessors had accepted all of the recommendations but March replaced some with his own recommendations. When the affronted AEF Commander asked about this change, March informed him that he had to consider the entire Army rather than just the AEF. That was reasonable but March was wrong in promoting some officers in the AEF, including Douglas MacArthur, whom Pershing had not recommended.

     The crux came in the summer when the great flow of men and material to France seemed to overwhelm the AEF commander. The British proposed to Woodrow Wilson that Pershing be relieved of responsibility for logistics. Secretary Baker and March agreed and proposed that Goethals take over the AEF supply operation. Pershing saw this, understandably, as an attempt to undermine him and both he and Harbord suspected that March was using this as a stepping stone to the command of the AEF. He promptly relieved his Services of Supply commander and replaced him with his most loyal subordinate, Harbord who was then commander of the Second Division, and informed the Secretary that this was the appropriate solution. Baker acceded to his request but, early that fall during his visit to France, he rejected Harbord's and Pershing's views of March's intentions and their suggestions that he be relieved.

     The end of the war came on November 11 - far sooner than either March or Pershing anticipated - and it was won with slightly less than two million men in the AEF. While Pershing dealt with the problems of maintaining an occupation zone in Germany and keeping up the morale of men restive to go home, March supervised the demobilization and return of the AEF. By the first of August 1919, only 133,000 were in Europe and less than 575,000 in the entire Army. In September, Baker and March greeted Pershing when his transport arrived in New York. Over the next year, Pershing toured the nation and reviewed victory parades.

     Baker had recommended permanent four star rank for both March and Pershing but, while Congress created and bestowed the rank of General of the Armies for the latter they refused to continue March in his temporary rank of full general. They thus got their revenge for his refusal to consider their requests for favors. Nor were returning regular army officers pleased with March or, indeed, any of the War Department officers. Many had worn stars as brigade or division commanders or in key staff positions yet they had reverted to their permanent ranks when their units and the AEF ceased to exist. Those men were embittered when they learned that War Department officers continued to hold their wartime rank because their organization still existed. On June 30, 1920, as wartime rank legislation came to an end, March along with the others lost their temporary rank. Ten years later, Congress restored the highest wartime rank to those on the retired list.

     March continued as Chief of Staff until his retirement at the end of June 1921. Pershing replaced him and brought in Harbord as his Assistant Chief of Staff. They reorganized the General Staff in the form of their GHQ General Staff and attempted to keep up an Army beset with severe budget restrictions. Three years later he retired and began work on his memoir of the war.

     In 1931, My Experiences in the World War appeared to critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize for history. Rather than a personal memoir, although Pershing did quote diary entries, letters, and cables as well as some reminiscences, this two volume work is essentially a history of the AEF. Not surprisingly, March was not pleased with the criticism of the War Department. Immediately, he set to work on his own account of the war which emphasized his and the War Department's accomplishments and, at times, harshly criticized Pershing. When it came out in 1932, it did not have as grand a reception as Pershing's book but the General of the Armies was badly stung by the criticism.

     Pershing wanted redress and he and Harbord debated the best medium for this. Ultimately, they decided that Harbord would write a book detailing the achievements of the AEF while rebutting March's book. After consultation with the two most distinguished former Secretaries of War, Elihu Root and Newton Baker, their solution was to sum up their views on March in a lengthy footnote which, incidentally, Baker wrote. Baker, like March, had been hurt by Pershing's book but March's fanning the flames of the controversy irritated him even more. The American Army in France: 1917-1919 came out in 1936 which wound up the battle of the generals. Both lived to see World War II with Pershing dying in 1948 and March who commented on the Korean War living until 1955.

March's Grave at Arlington

     George C. Marshall talked with his biographer, Forrest C. Pogue, in the late 1950s about the two principal American generals of a war that was already fading from national memory. He had served as a division, corps, field army, and GHQ staff officer in the AEF and then been Pershing's aide for five years after the war. He was as close to Pershing as anyone and greatly admired him. "General Pershing as a leader always dominated any gathering where he was. He was a tremendous driver, if necessary; a kindly, likeable man on off-duty status, but very stern on a duty basis."

     He never was closely associated with March but he had studied the operations of the War Department during World War I and concluded that March "was a master administrator, an executive with a great weakness of antagonizing everybody." He considered both at fault in the strained relationship. "It was essential that they get together and they didn't." Baker won his highest praise for saving the situation. He "rode a very difficult horse there between General Pershing and General March and did it extraordinarily well."

     Their efforts were crucial in bringing about the Allies' victory. The Army and the nation should not forget them.

This article is an abridgement of Professor Coffman's presentation in the Summer 2006 issue of Military History Quarterly [MHQ]. He is also the author of the 1996 work The Hilt of the Sword The Career of (General) Peyton C. March (Army Chief of Staff,1918-1921) from the University of Wisconsin Press, and of the history of the American Expeditionary Force, The War To End All Wars, which is on the current reading list of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff and which was reprinted by the University Press of Kentucky in 1998.

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