America’s entry into World War One was well received by the Allies as her military power was desperately needed on the Western Front after the loss of men at the Somme and Verdun. The turmoil in Russia meant that Germany could move men based on the Eastern Front to the Western, so a nation of such power as America was seen, by the Allies, as a welcome addition to the cause.
In early June 1917, General John Pershing, commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), arrived in Britain for a four-day visit before moving to France where he began to organise his command. On arrival in Britain, Pershing was greeted by the king and the ‘London Graphic’ published a photo of Pershing and his fellow officers with the caption “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious by this sun of (New) York.” Many did see Pershing and his troops as military saviours. By Spring 1917, the campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare was biting – in February 1917, 470,000 tons of ships had been sunk. By April it had risen to 837,000 tons. At the same time the chaos in Russia was set to release tens of thousands of German troops for the Western Front. To cap this, the failure of the Nivelle offensive in 1917, led to widespread mutinies in the French Army. With so many negatives going on for the Allies, it is no wonder that the entry into the war of the world’s most powerful nation was so well received. But what exactly did America bring to the war?
America’s population of 90 million gave the military the potential to have a very large army. America’s industrial might was unparalled in the world. In steel production alone, America produced three times as much as Germany and Austria did. However, America did not have an economy that had been put on a war footing and such a transformation would take time – and the Allies did not have time on their side.
America had been the provider of many war parts for the French and British armies while it was neutral. Ironically, now in war, both the British and French armies provided the first arriving American troops with equipment and uniforms. The AEF was given French artillery guns (the 75 and 155mm) while the British provided mortars, machine guns, steel helmets and some uniforms.
The lack of speed with which the AEF was sent to Europe was later criticised by David Lloyd George. The 1st Division AEF landed in France in June 1917. The 2nd Division did not arrive until September and by October 31st, 1917, the AEF only numbered 6,064 officers and 80,969 men. In roughly the same time span in 1914, the BEF had got 354,750 men into the field. Nine months after America declared war, there were 175,000 American troops in Western Europe. In the same time span of nine months from 1914 to 1915, Britain had put 659,104 men into the various theatres of war. Therefore, in 1917, despite her strength on paper, America played little part in the war activities of that year.
However, was America to blame for the lack of speed in her military build-up? Whereas Britain had spent time in 1914 planning for war and creating 6 divisions for the European campaign, America was all but starting from the beginning. In peacetime, the American army only numbered 190,000 and they were spread across America. Now with the declaration of war, these men had to move to the eastern seaboard where many camps had to be built to accommodate them before they sailed across the Atlantic. French ports had to be greatly expanded to handle the influx of men and the French rail network in the region had to be expanded.
Pershing also wanted the AEF to be perfectly ready for combat. He did not want what Haig and Pétain wanted – that American forces should be used to fill in where the Allies were weak. Pershing wanted an independent fighting unit that was well-trained and self-contained. Therefore, when the Germans launched their great offensive of March 1918, there was only one American division in the Allied lines – with three divisions in training areas. The series of German offensives from March to July 1918 posed great dangers to the French and British armies. Paris was threatened and on two occasions, the British were nearly driven into the Channel on two occasions. But in all of these attacks, the Americans played little part.
However, the German spring offensive had made Pershing realise that he needed to change his course of action. In June it was agreed that American troops would be sent to France from America without space-occupying equipment that could be provided by the French and British once the Americans were in France. In June and July 1918, America sent over 584,000 men. The American merchant marine could not cope with such numbers – so the British merchant marine was used as well. The German army could not hope to match such numbers that arrived in a very short space of time.
On July 18th, 1918, the French launched a major attack against the Germans from the Forest of Villers-Cotterêts. This attack included two American divisions – a total of 54,000 men. By August 1918, there were nearly 1,500,000 American troops in France. Germany could only muster 300,000 youths. The Allies were planning for a major attack in 1919 that would be led by 100 American divisions. Faced with such odds, the Germans had no choice but to look for a way out of fighting. This led to the armistice in November 1918 that itself led to the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.