The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

The Great Seal of the
United States of America

Planning the AEF:

The Need for an
Expeditionary Force

A Selection from "Lafayette, We Are Here": The War College Division and American Military Planning for the AEF in World War I
Michael J. McCarthy

Allies Day, 1917
Childe Hassan

Presented by the Great War Society

The decision for war answered only the first half of a two-part question. The United States now had to address how to fight. Controversies surrounding the depth and nature of US involvement abounded during the weeks following the American declaration of war. The central clashes focused first on whether to amalgamate American soldiers into existing Allied lines or to create an independent US Army, and second on whether to send an immediate expeditionary force to France or to withhold US troops until they could be trained and organized within the country. In resolving these dilemmas, Wilson proved once again that he believed strongly in the authority of the civilian President over the military and that his concerns were noticeably different from those of his military advisors.

. . .Even after Pershing had departed for France with the seeds of his first division, some politicians sought to prevent any further American expeditionary force. A concurrent resolution submitted to the House of Representatives on 28 June argued that since the nation waged war ostensibly for self-defense, it should send no soldiers beyond its own shores. Warning that "the contemplated service of American freemen in the Army involves being ordered into the zone of modern artillery and machine-gun fire from which few men escape with their lives and almost none without wounds," this resolution declared:

Rule 1. That the land forces or Army of the Republic, in whatever manner raised or recruited, shall be employed only to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions, and other use is declared to be unconstitutional. Under no circumstances shall it be legal to order soldiers to engage in battle in foreign countries.

Rule 2. That in the proper exercise of their inalienable rights as American freemen, and as proclaimed in rule one, soldiers may legally and honorably refuse to go upon any ship or vessel bound or to be ordered to a foreign shore.

Woodrow Wilson
Even Wilson himself did not yet seem committed to fielding an expeditionary force. His declaration of war speech had made no mention of the possibility, largely because he assumed that the mere threat of American intervention would suffice to convince Germany of the hopelessness of its situation and motivate it to sue for peace. The request for an immediate, direct, American role in the war, therefore, would have to come from the Allies. Some Allied political leaders questioned the wisdom of creating an American expeditionary force as well. They feared that if the US focused its energy on mobilizing, training, equipping, and supplying its own force, it would ignore the immediate Allied needs of food, munitions and most importantly money. The Allied armies might starve or their governments go bankrupt before the United States could raise a significant army. Charles A. Repington, military correspondent for the _Times_ of London, argued that "the direct military intervention of the United States in the war is not practicable, even were America to desire it."

. . . A more formidable obstacle would be time. The most optimistic of American estimates concluded that in addition to the time required to raise and train it, at least ten months would be required to ship a force of 500,000 to Europe. British and French time tables were even less hopeful. The British General Staff concluded that even after a year no more than 250,000 American soldiers could be put into the field. In the face of the German submarine campaign which exacted its largest amount of damage in the month of April -- 881,027 gross tons, over 500,000 tons of which were British -- the Allies might not have that long to wait.

On top of the delay associated with fielding an American army, many Allied commanders had voiced disparaging opinions of the quality of such a force. General Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, issued a rather pointed evaluation of the capacity of the American military when he wrote to a fellow general, "I do not think that it will make much difference whether America comes in or not. What we want to do is to beat the German Armies, until we do that we shall not win the war. America will not help us much in that respect."

In an effort to solve both issues of the quality and the speed of American military involvement, the Allies sought to recruit soldiers directly into their armies. It was seriously doubtful that either the American public or their politicians would allow such an approach, however, so the Allies sought an alternative: amalgamation. American soldiers could enlist into the US Army and then, either individually or in small units, be integrated into existing Entente lines and chains of command. These soldiers could receive the experienced training of the British or French in Europe and could therefore play a role in the fighting more quickly than if they were trained at home.

From the Allied perspective, amalgamation seemed an almost perfect solution; from the American perspective, both militarily and politically, it was out of the question. Military commanders were unlikely to give up the very armies which they commanded, and the public would hardly swallow a plan which seemed to use their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands as mere fodder for the English and French war machines. A third option which the Allies could pursue would be to encourage the United States to send a small expeditionary force immediately to Europe. By doing so they could more quickly get the Americans involved in the war and perhaps even wear down some of the opposition to amalgamation. It was this proposal which the Allies eventually pressed.

Marshal Joffre
With the professed reason of discussing the nature of military cooperation between the US and the Entente Powers, Britain asked to send a mission to the US in early April 1917. The President was not eager for such visits; he desired to maintain both the military and the diplomatic detachment implied by his designated status of "Associate Power," and he wrote to Baker that "a great many will look upon the mission as an attempt to in some degree take charge of us as an assistant to Great Britain." Wilson, however, acquiesced to the request and on 13 April a British mission led by Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Arthur J. Balfour and Lieutenant General Tom Bridges left Liverpool. Wanting to make their appeals heard as well, the French sent a mission led by former Premier Rene Viviani and Marshal Joseph Joffre to coincide with the British visit.

David M. Esposito argues that Wilson's reluctance to receive the missions also stemmed from the fear that the Allies would attempt to limit America's role in the war and thereby to decrease the President's influence at the peace settlement

From the British perspective, the objective of convincing the Americans to send an immediate expeditionary force to Europe, regardless of its size, was second only to the need for spurring American shipbuilding. The British would argue that an American presence, whatever its form, could achieve two purposes: first, it would boost the sagging morale of the Tommies and _Poilu_, and second, it would provide the US an opportunity to show the flag and demonstrate its commitment to the cause. A third reason offered by some was not to be presented to the Americans: the thought that by getting its nose bloodied in combat with the Germans, the US might dedicate itself even more to the Allies. Robertson had written to Haig, "I am also urging them to send some troops to France at once even if only a brigade. It would be a good thing to get some Americans killed and so get the country to take a real interest in the war."

Washington "cheered, clapped, honked, tooted and in other noisy ways showed its approval" when the British Mission arrived at Union Station at three o'clock on 22 April. After being greeted by several government officials, including Lansing, and under a canopy of British and French flags flying over houses, the visitors were taken by cavalry escort to the Franklin McVeagh Home on 16th Street. Bridges lost no time in stepping on toes at the US War Department. Within a week of his arrival in Washington he wrote to Scott and requested that a regular division be sent immediately across the Atlantic. Citing the effect of such a presence on the morale of both the Entente and the Central Powers he wrote, "The sight of the Stars and Stripes on this continent will make a great impression on both sides. . . . To this end I would like to see one of your regular divisions sent to France at once."

He also suggested how America's participation should evolve: "If you ask me how your force could most quickly make itself felt in Europe, I would say by sending 500,000 untrained men at once to our depots in England to be trained there, and drafted into our armies in France." Bridges claimed that in only a little more than ten weeks these soldiers could be killing the Hun. He attempted to soften this proposal by suggesting that these soldiers could eventually be "drafted back into the US Army and would be a good leavening of seasoned men," but his suggestion met with a cool reception from the Chief of Staff. Potentially more worrisome for Bridges, both Baker and Wilson saw this letter. When the British general pressed the issue with Baker, the Secretary of War informed him that recruiting American citizens directly into the British or French army was unacceptable because it would undermine America's war effort.

[Presidential Advisor Col.] House had already forwarded a similar proposal from Herbert Hoover to Wilson in mid-February. The President had made no comment then and his position had not mellowed by the time of the British visit. The Allies would not receive Wilson's blank check to recruit Americans and thus -- with amalgamation at least temporarily out of the picture as well -- they would have to resort instead to obtaining an immediate American expeditionary force.

The French seemed at first no more successful than the British in their discussions with the American military planners. They arrived in Washington on 25 April and their mission was made all the more important by the failure of the Nivelle offensive earlier that same month, a disastrous attack which cost 120,000 casualties (twelve times greater than Nivelle's own estimates) and precipitated mutiny in fifty-four divisions -- half of the entire French army!

Tasker Bliss
They did seek to coordinate their effort with the British, and on 26 April they agreed to pursue the goal of the immediate dispatch of a regular division to France, followed as quickly as possible by conscripted reinforcements. On 27 April Joffre spoke to the students at the Army War College. Following the speech he retired to the college president's office to meet with Baker, Scott and Bliss. The Frenchman repeated his appeal for "men, men, men" and requested that an American division be sent to Europe at once, submitting a tentative plan drafted by the French General Staff and the American Military Attache in Paris two weeks before. He emphasized that the Americans needed to organize and raise an independent army, but reiterated that they should nonetheless send an expeditionary force immediately to the front.

The General Staff opposed such a course of action with a strong and unified voice. Even before the declaration of war, American military planners had rejected such an idea. Bliss also correctly surmised the unstated British hope that a few American casualties might stimulate the US fighting spirit. He cautioned against this tactic, however, and further asked:

What about the moral effect of this at home? It is conceivable that from the English or French point of view these very losses, unnecessarily severe, will produce the moral effect that they desire. They may think that this will still further our fighting blood. But for what purpose and to what effect? Will they want to so stir us that we will insist on rushing great armies of ill-trained men into the field? They certainly will not want this; therefore, if they as well as the Central Powers _know_ that the vast bulk of our forces must be held for prolonged training, what is the valuable moral effect that will result? Will not the moral effect turn into depression when they find that a rapidly dwindling small force will not be followed by others for a good many months?

Hugh L. Scott
When Scott had ordered the study from the General Staff on possible lines of action the event of war with Germany at the beginning of February, the military planners counseled against sending any troops abroad before a complete American army was raised. In his initial report on 3 February, Kuhn wrote: The War College Division earnestly recommends that no American troops be employed in active service in any European theatre until after an adequate period of training, and that during this period all available trained officers and men in the Regular Army and the National Guard be employed in training the new levies called into service. It should, therefore, be our policy at first to devote all of our energies to raising troops in sufficient numbers to exert a substantial influence in a later stage of the war.

In its memorandum to Scott on 29 March the War College Division reiterated the argument that a small force could exert no influence on the front and could only bring harm to an American effort to create an independent army. Trained soldiers and officers were scarce in America, and forming most of them into a single division would undermine future American mobilization:

Even more than a month after the US declaration of war, Kuhn and the War College Division again counseled against the immediate dispatch of troops. Even when Baker ordered them to draft plans for a possible expeditionary force on 10 May, the military planners restated their misgivings about this idea. Once more they warned, "The War College Division is of the opinion from a purely military point of view, that the early dispatch of any expeditionary force to France is inadvisable because of lack of organization and training, and because the trained personnel contained therein will be needed for the expansion and training of the national forces."

The military planners, then, had made their position clear: the immediate dispatch of an expeditionary force to Europe would not, in their opinion, be in the best interest of the American war effort. Just such an expeditionary force, however, departed in June 1917 under the command of General John J. Pershing. The British and French missions seem to have persuaded Wilson, and during the President's four o'clock private meeting with the French Field Marshal on 2 May he had "allowed General Joffre to take it for granted that such a force would be sent just as soon as we could send it." In his sixty-five minute audience with Wilson the French commander successfully elicited what the American military planners had opposed so passionately ever since war had appeared likely. It is noteworthy that the President was informing Baker of this commitment after he had already made it; it does not seem that Wilson directly consulted his Secretary of War. Similarly, the President appears to have reached his decision independently of the advice being issued from the nation's military planners.

While the Secretary of War did refer to the worries of the General Staff that this expeditionary force might motivate the Allies to seek additional, untrained soldiers from the US and therefore undermine the creation of an independent American army, he expressed none of the fears that the military planners had so emotionally voiced about the potential slaughter of US soldiers. Therefore, it is unlikely that the President directly overruled the War College Division and it seems quite certain that Wilson arrived at his decision independently of any military counsel other than that offered by his Secretary of War. Wilson most likely acted on his own with a diplomatic goal in mind when he promised Joffre an immediate expeditionary force.

To this extent, Colonel W.H. Johnston was correct in his dissent on 11 May: "If the expedition must be sent it is assumed that diplomatic rather than military reasons suggest such [a] course." Wilson had decided by 2 April that "right was more precious than the peace," and he had sought a role as a mediator of the conflict for quite some time before the US entered the fray. Although some historians discount this desire for mediation as a motive for entering the war, few contend that such desires did not move the President once he had committed the US to the struggle.

It was to be this desire for a seat at the peace conference that would guide Wilson's decisions, and while such harmony between policy and objectives is admirable, the President was to make this resolution -- as he had before and would again -- with no direct consultation with his military planners. In order to claim Wilson's desired role in the eventual negotiations, America would certainly have to endure a large share of the fighting and dying. If the United States waged war tardily or from a distance, the Allies would never recognize Wilson's ideas for the postwar world.

Contributions such as munitions, food and money were too easily discounted; it would matter little that bullets were manufactured in the United States if it were only French and British soldiers who fired them. Only if America influenced the outcome of the war, and only if the US had a sizable army on the battlefield under its own flag to demonstrate this influence, could Wilson mold the shape of the peace.

The General Staff's opposition to this expeditionary force was not, on the surface, antithetical to the idea of a significant American role after the war. Their concern had been that an impetuous decision now might jeopardize the strength of any American involvement and therefore threaten not only the success of an independent American army but also the triumph of American postwar diplomacy. In reality, of course, had the United States delayed it would have found itself with almost no military presence on the Continent at the close of the war. Judging from Wilson's inability to convert the Allied leaders to his way of thinking even in light of the degree of American participation, it is likely that the President would have had little or no diplomatic influence whatsoever at the postwar negotiations. Therefore, Wilson's decision was sound in the final analysis. It is still impossible to ignore, however, that the President's choice was made with no direct consultation with the military planners in the War Department General Staff.

On 14 May Baker and Joffre drew up a detailed plan for American cooperation with the French. Four days later, the same day on which Wilson signed the Selective Service Act, Baker announced publicly that Major General John J. Pershing would lead a force of about one division to France. The dense fog which engulfed Pershing and his staff as they departed New York on the _Baltic_ symbolically enshrouded America's military planning. The nature of American involvement was beginning to take shape, but the complete foundation of America's wartime policy had not yet been laid.

To read Mr. McCarthy's complete thesis: "Lafayette, We Are Here": The War College Division and American Military Planning for the AEF in World War I,visit his website.

Sources and thanks: Images from the U.S. Army Chiefs of Staff page and the Library of Congress American Memory Website. MH

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