General John Pershing was America’s army commander-in-chief when America declared war on Germany in 1917. General Pershing had a distinguished army career though once in France he found it difficult at first to build up a rapport with the likes of Haig and Pétain.
John Pershing was born on September 13th, 1860 in Laclede, Missouri. He spent some time as a school teacher at Prairie Mound but in 1882, Pershing took an exam to enter West Point. At West Point, Pershing was not an outstanding student (he graduated 30th out of 77) but he did make an impression on the training staff there for his leadership potential. Pershing was elected president of the class of 1886 and he commanded the Corps of Cadets when it presented arms as the funeral train of Ulysses Grant passed.
In September 1891, Pershing became Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska He held this position for four years. In the years leading up to America’s military involvement in World War One, Pershing served against the Sioux and Apache tribes, fought in the Cuban War in 1898, in the Philippines in 1903 and served as an observer with the Japanese army in the Russo-Japanese War. In 1906, Pershing was promoted to Brigadier General. In the years before America sent troops to France, Pershing led the Mexican Punitive Expedition to capture Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1915.
On April 6th, 1917, America declared war on Germany. Pershing was appointed to command the American Expeditionary Force. When he landed in England for a four day break before moving on to establish his headquarters in France, Pershing was greeted by the king. Many in Britain saw the AEF as the answer to all the military problems Britain and France had been experiencing. Pershing received a similar reaction when he landed in France.
However, once in France he found himself at odds with the likes of Pétain and Haig. Pétain and Haig wanted American troops to be used with the French and British troops already stationed in France. Pershing had other ideas. He wanted to use American troops as a separate entity to the Allies already there and he wanted to wait until all his equipment was in France before American troops engaged the enemy. This infuriated Haig and Pétain – but the end result was that the Americans played little part in the military events in 1917.
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. Pershing personally commanded the successful Meuse-Argonne offensive.
By August 1918, there were nearly 1,500,000 American troops in France under Pershing’s command. 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 seek surrender terms.
In 1921, Pershing became the US Army Chief of Staff. In 1924, aged 64, Pershing retired from active duty. Prior to this retirement, Congress had awarded him the title ‘General of the Armies’. In 1931, his autobiography ‘My Experience of War’ was published. It won a Pulitzer Prize for history in the following year.
General John Pershing died on July 15th, 1948.