Pershing, the British, the French, and an Amazing History Lesson

May 22, 1918 – Full diary entry:

“Went to gas mask and rifle drill today. The RIR men instruct us.

The French people put up with this bunch patiently. Their lives are hardly their own.”

“RIR” was the Royal Irish Regiment, part of the British Army 30th Division as mentioned by Robert a few days ago.

The details of how American troops came to be trained by and embedded in British Army units is fascinating. Meeting summaries, memos, telegrams and letters written by both governments are captured in United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919, vol. 3: Training and Use of American Units with the British and French. All quoted material (in italics) below is from this book.

Throughout 1917 and into 1918, the British and French governments were terrified that their available manpower would be insufficient to hold back the German advance. Both countries requested help from the Americans, who had not yet sent large quantities of men to fight. Specifically, both countries wanted battalions or companies of American soldiers to be brought over, trained, and made part of the British or French armies.

On December 2, 1917, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George approved a proposal by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff William Robertson to request assistance from the American military. George commented:

We shall be hard-pressed to hold our own and keep Italy standing during 1918. Our manpower is pretty well exhausted. We can only call up men of 45-50 and boys of 17. France is done. The American soldiers will not be ready to fight as an army until late in 1918. Our experience proves that meanwhile we must keep the fight going. Even half-trained American companies or battalions would fight well if mixed with two or three years’ veterans. Beg House to consider this favorably. 

“House” was “Colonel” Edward House – he was a colonel in nickname only – President Wilson’s closest confidant during the war. The British felt convincing House was their best approach to convince Wilson.

On December 16, 1917, Colonel Fox Conner of the AEF recommended to the Chief of Staff that the British proposal be rejected:

1. In May it was decided that our land forces should be more immediately
associated with the French than with the British. 

2. The relations between the French and British have for a long time left much to be desired. Both are jealous of our immediate cooperation. 

3. We are operating on French soil and due to our long oversea communications are far more dependent upon good understanding with the French than are the British. 

4. To place our troops with the British means straining our relations with the
French to the breaking point. Practically, we could only put such elements as come through England with the British. An attempt to bring units through our base ports and distribute such troops on the British front would be met with the various difficulties and obstacles which the French are such masters in politely presenting when they care to do so. 

A summary of the negotiations as of December 23 reiterated some of the concerns on the American side (some of which seem really surprising 100 years later):

The various objections to this were carefully considered, being principally the probable resulting dissatisfaction with the French; the fact that the training would be British and not American; that if an emergency called for the sudden employment of our troops they would stand to be widely scattered, part going in near the British and part farther to the east, their identity as an American force thus being lost. 

By January 9, General Pershing and British Chief of Staff Robertson were discussing details of using British ships and ports to transport American troops, and the British again raised the question of bringing over battalions to be incorporated with the British brigades. General Pershing raised the issues that would be caused by breaking up the American divisions, but also mentioned that he would be having a similar discussion later that afternoon with the French. Robertson pointed out the difficulties that would arise from the French and English languages.

The British were so desperate for help that they discussed taking ships that were currently transporting food and materials and using them to transport the American troops – a huge risk. If the Americans insisted on keeping their divisions together, the movement of forces would take too long. They could only offer the ships with the agreement that American troops could be moved in smaller battalions.

In a summary of these meetings on January 10, Robertson was very clear about how dire the situation had become:

It is obvious that Germany may be expected to strive her utmost, if not to win outright, to place herself in a winning position during the next 7 or 8 months. Russia’s defection enables her greatly to strengthen her forces on the west or Italian front or both, and for the last three months German divisions have been coming over as quickly as they can be transported. Italy is still weak and will probably continue to require British and French assistance. The manpower of France is rapidly diminishing. The British divisions are being reduced from 12 to 9 battalions because of the shortage of men and it will be difficult for us to maintain at strength even 9 battalion divisions throughout the year. There are already twelve more German divisions on the west front
than a year ago; there are 11 fewer British and French divisions (gone to Italy), making a net gain to Germany of 39 divisions; she can easily bring over 40 more divisions by May, as well as a large number of heavy guns; and as shown above, the British divisions will in future have 25% less infantry in them than in 1917. The situation is, therefore, becoming very serious and it is with considerable anxiety that the British and French authorities look forward to the summer, because even if we hold up the German attacks, as
we hope to do, our divisions may become so attenuated and exhausted in the process as to be fit for little employment afterwards. In other words, if France and England do not receive substantial American military assistance before the summer, the assistance America is now preparing may come too late to admit of the Entente securing the kind of peace for which they are fighting. 

Coming out of the January 9-10 meetings, Robertson was not optimistic. He wrote to the British War Cabinet on January 12:

 The War Cabinet will wish to know the result of my interview with General Pershing. Apparently he had never seriously considered the proposal sent to Colonel House by the Prime Minister, although Colonel House had shown him the memorandum on the subject. The fact is, he does not like the proposal because (a) he is anxious to bring over his divisions as such: (b) he naturally prefers to preserve national identity and argues, quite rightly, that American battalions cannot be expected to do as well in British as in American divisions. The result of the interview was that he will forward our proposal to his Government, giving it a mild form of support and telegraphing me a copy of the communication he sends…

I have never been very sanguine as to American assistance in any form this year, and I must tell the War Cabinet that I have returned still less sanguine. The raising of new armies is a tremendous task for any country, and although one might expect that America, with her two previous experiences, and her supposed great business and hustling qualities, would do better than other countries, the fact is she is doing very badly. She had, of course, very little to work upon in the way of cadets and officers; she has never made any real study of war organization; and there is no adequate decentralization. The French have lost all patience and their relations with the Americans are the reverse of good. The French are always much too optimistic in such matters, but they may well be excused for being dissatisfied in the present case. The Americans are proceeding as if they had years in which to prepare… 

General Pershing is looking older and rather tired, and I doubt if he yet has an intelligent and considered view of the nature of his task, or how to set about it. My general impression is that America’s power to help us to win the war – that is, to help us to defeat the Germans in battle – is a very weak reed to lean upon at present, and will continue to be so for a very long time to come unless she follows up her words with actions much more practical and energetic than any she has yet taken.

Fortunately, General Pershing seems to have been more convinced by the British arguments than it appeared. He wrote to the Secretary of War Newton Baker on January 13:

Held conference in PARIS on tenth January with General Robertson on subject of providing additional men for British divisions. He presents request from British Government that American battalions be sent over for service with British divisions. This memorandum is practically the same as that submitted to General Bliss. 

This whole question seems to me to be one of necessity, and we must consider the probability of strong German attacks in early spring and summer.

Have had a full and frank discussion of this question with the French as far as
any such plan relates to them. And have stated that, in my opinion, generally speaking it would be a dangerous experiment on account of differences in language to put our regiments into French divisions for active work. They apparently hold the same view. M. Clemenceau gave his entire approval of the plan of our aiding the British as above set forth. General Petain also gave it his approval. 

I would, therefore, recommend (1) that this request of the British Government be given serious consideration from the point of view of our national attitude regarding service in another army; (2) that it be regarded as a temporary measure to meet a probable emergency; (3) that as soon as possible the remaining troops of divisions thus temporarily broken up be brought over and the divisions reorganized; (4) that division, brigade and regimental commanders and their staffs be sent over with their infantry for training with corresponding British units; (5) that the infantry be taken from those divisions that would not otherwise be transported until after June. 

Following this, on January 21 Secretary of War Baker directed the US Army Chief of Staff Tasker Bliss to move forward:

This project has the approval of Pershing and the French General Staff. You are authorized to make necessary arrangements with the British to carry the plan into execution. I infer from cablegram received from Pershing today that he is in PARIS. Please discuss the matter with him before acting. 

Pershing, however, cast some doubt in a letter to Bliss that same day:

I think we should be very guarded in making any concessions to the British with reference to providing troops for them, and I trust that any final conclusion in the matter may be deferred until we can discuss the entire question here in Paris after your arrival.

And then the agreement seemed to fall apart. Pershing met with French Marshal Joseph Joffre on January 26. Joffre had previously led the French Army, but had been removed and placed in a largely ceremonial role in 1916. It appears the Marshal intended to sabotage the British and American agreement:

[Joffre] stated that the condition of the British was not so good, and that they
were confronted with the necessity of very soon reducing the number of battalions in their divisions from 12 to 9. 

Without further comment the Marshal then remarked on the British proposition to bring over 150 American battalions (of which he seem thoroughly informed), that it was on these American battalions that the British relied to relieve them from the necessity of reducing their divisions from 12 to 9 battalions each. He then stated that, as a friend of General Pershing. he wished to express his views as to the matter of incorporating American battalions in British divisions. First, he said, there would be an adverse effect in the division itself. American battalions would find themselves commanded by a British general with a British staff. They would resent orders received under such circumstances which they would accept without question under an American commander. In case of a reverse there would at once be the tendency to assess the blame to the command. 

Further, in case of an attack, American infantry would be supported by British artillery. He did not believe it possible that there could exist between them that perfect confidence and liaison that was absolutely necessary and would exist between American infantry supported by American artillery. As indicative that it was not a policy indicated by good practice and organization, the Marshal pointed out that during the whole course of the war the British have never found it advisable to incorporate in the same divisions Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Portuguese, or even Scotch with English. They have never mixed them in the same division. There must also be considered the effect on the American people at home; on their interest in and support of the war, which he seemed to think would be adversely affected by amalgamating American battalions with British divisions. 

The next day, Bliss wrote back to the Secretary of War:

Your [cable] stated that General Pershing had approved the project of 150 of our Infantry battalions to serve temporarily with the British but directed me to confer with him before making final arrangements to carry project into effect. General Pershing states that he has never approved this project and in conference with British Chief of Staff, General Robertson, and myself, he insisted that British should bring over 6 of our complete divisions instead of the 150 battalions. This would give British 72 battalions instead of the 150 which they want. General Robertson telegraphed General Pershing’s proposition to Mr. Lloyd George and he has replied tonight asking for an interview with General Pershing and myself at Versailles January 29. 

The meeting on January 29, which included Pershing, Bliss, Robertson, and the Prime Minister, was heated:

Mr. Lloyd George asked what the position was as to the proposed incorporation of American battalions in British brigades. 

General Pershing stated that the question was for the moment in abeyance awaiting the action of the British Government on the receipt of General Robertson’s dispatch. 

General Robertson explained that General Pershing, contrary to their understanding, had not approved the plan from the first, and had not intended that the administration at Washington should believe he did. He had felt very strongly the sentimental and national consideration involved in the proposal. His latest proposal was that not merely the infantry divisions should be brought over, but the rest of the fighting troops in those divisions as well. In this case there would be only sufficient transport for 72 battalions instead of the 150 which they had hoped for. The question therefore arose as to whether it was worthwhile for them to carry out the transaction in view of the shipping sacrifices involved. 

The prime minister read the cable General Bliss had received in London and stated that this meant that Washington agreed to the proposition. 

General Bliss said that the question had now got into an inexplicable confusion; that the cable from Washington expressed no approval of the proposition, but rather submitted it to General Pershing who does not approve. He, himself, after reading all the telegrams on the subject. was unable to understand how Washington had come to the conclusion that
General Pershing had approved the recent project for the 150 battalions; that General Pershing had recommended it for serious consideration, and had called attention to objections in connection with the proposition. 

Mr. Lloyd George said that the British Government had understood from General Pershing’s telegram to the British that he approved the proposal for the bringing of 150 battalions for incorporation in British brigades. 

General Pershing stated that this telegram was sent to outline conditions which the British would have to fulfill before he could submit the proposition to Washington recommending serious consideration, and that he had never stated any approval of it and had never so gone on record. 

Mr. Lloyd George said that the British Government had taken the words “serious consideration” to be tantamount to approval. 

General Pershing stated that this was not the case; that he had only submitted it for consideration and that his telegram referred to the political considerations involved and the moral effect; in a subsequent telegram he had laid great stress on the importance of keeping the American troops under the command of their own officers. 

General Robertson pointed out that Washington, in its reply, had not mentioned the political difficulties and had only pointed out the shipping difficulty and he had thought that the government had no objections to the proposition. 

General Pershing remarked that General Bliss had just pointed out that this was not the case. 

Mr. Lloyd George said he gathered that the question was now left to General Pershing to decide. 

General Pershing said he thought Washington wanted a straight recommendation from him. 

It goes on like this for many, many pages. At one point they discuss the feasibility of combining troops from different countries and Pershing throws in a gibe from his earlier conversation with the French:

General Pershing remarked that even the Canadians had not amalgamated with the British. 

Sir William Robertson stated that there had been no call for this. 

Shortly thereafter, another indication that Marshal Joffe’s comments had had a strong impact on Pershing’s thinking:

In reply to a remark by Sir Douglas Haig, General Pershing stated that Sir Douglas implies that we are to continue supplying the British army with recruits. He asked where this proposition is supposed to stop. In his opinion, it should stop now, and we should bend all our efforts toward building up an American army. 

Field Marshal Haig said that he had always understood the scheme to be a stepping stone towards training and turning out American divisions more rapidly. 

General Pershing said that, in this case, he thought he and the field marshal were in entire agreement. He was quite willing to train troops in the British army. and had actually telegraphed this as a recommendation. He understood, however, that General Robertson wanted to feed American troops into the British line as a more or less permanent arrangement. 

Mr. Lloyd George said that the British War Cabinet had never understood this. 

Field Marshal Haig said that he had quite understood that the scheme was intended for training American troops. 

General Pershing said he had understood that General Robertson wanted American battalions put into the British divisions in order to fill up the depleted British battalions. 

Lord Milner said that he understood that the proposal was to use the battalions in the British divisions, in order to form United States divisions more rapidly. As he understood the matter, General Pershing would
get his divisions formed more rapidly by passing them through the British line than by confining his training to the American camps. 

General Robertson then read out the conditions which had been agreed on as the basis for the incorporation of the American battalions in British divisions. 

General Pershing said that he had not himself laid down these conditions, but had merely stated them as General Robertson’s proposals. He said he wished to make a clear distinction between placing battalions with the British for training and for service. He agreed that fighting is the best training that troops can have. He wanted, however, to make it clear that the American battalions were not coming to stay in British divisions, but merely to train until they were ready for incorporation in a division of their own. 

Mr. Lloyd George asked if they proposed to take the battalions out of the line before the fighting was over. 

General Pershing replied in the affirmative. He wished to be free to take them over when they were sufficiently trained to be united into American divisions. 

Mr. Lloyd George asked if he would be prepared to put in more American battalions to replace those taken away. 

General Pershing asked where they were to come from. If he did so it would interfere with his scheme for organizing an American army. He insisted that whatever might be done in carrying out this scheme must be a perfectly separate and independent scheme from the formation of the American army.

So much going on here, but after originally getting the impression that Pershing was being wishy-washy about this, I now get the sense that he was right to be suspicious. It really does seem that the British were looking at American troops as a source of manpower to bolster their own army, not just offering to provide training.

On January 30, the British agreed to Pershing’s proposal to bring over six complete divisions, totaling 150,000 men, instead of 150 infantry battalions. The men would be transported at a rate of 12,000 per month. The logistics involved, including land and sea transportation, supplies and equipment, medical arrangements, training plans, etc., were staggering and negotiations on these areas continued throughout February and March. Cables and letters from the British to the US Army and government, urging the Americans to send men as quickly as possible, continued into April.

This has been by far my longest post and if you have read this far, you have my gratitude. I’m fascinated by this account (and the drama continues long after I stopped my report) and am very thankful to have found it today.

Where was Robert today? See the timeline.

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