The Ghost of Black Jack Pershing: the US Army and the Centennial of WWI

It’s the 100th anniversary of the U.S. participation in World War I, as many of you know. The Department of Defense has tapped the Army to lead the way for the whole organization when it comes to centennial activities and planning, because – let’s face it – it was an Army run show. Yes, the Navy did yeoman’s (pun intended) duty at sea, protecting shipping lanes and doing Navy things. And yes, the Marines were there too at Belleau Wood, but only with a few regiments. The Air Force did not exist yet, the so the Army gets to take credit for all the bad-ass aviators like Frank Luke and Eddie Rickenbacker. So yes, it does make sense for the Army to be the DOD lead for commemoration activities.

But with great power comes great responsibility, as we all learned from watching every superhero movie ever. So let this be a cautionary tale for the Army to avoid the specter of Pershing. What do I mean by that? Avoid the errors that Pershing make during the war. Let me explain.

In 1917, the first four American divisions in France were the 1st, 26th, 2nd, and 42nd Divisions. The 1st and 2nd were Regular Army – although that name belied the fact that huge numbers of men in the divisions were green recruits who had been brought in to get the units up to war strength. The 26th and 42nd were both National Guard outfits. The 26th was from New England while the 42nd was from, well, it was from everywhere. These four divisions came to be known as the “Old Reliables,” since they would be in action more than any other divisions. And together, they accounted for 30% of all the casualties taken in the American Expeditionary Force. On paper, their achievements were fairly similar. Each took a boatload of casualties, each advanced 20-30 miles under fire, and they were the four top divisions with the most time in front-line service. And yet their commander, General John Pershing, had eyes for only one division: the Fighting First.

Now, this isn’t to say that the 1st Division didn’t merit the adulation that Pershing heaped on it; it had to earn its nickname as the Fighting First the hard way. But the problem was that Pershing showed his appreciation of the 1st Division to the exclusion of all the rest. And there were some reasons for that. 

Let’s start with the obvious: Pershing was not fond of the National Guard. He actually publically called them the “boy scouts” and criticized them for their “village spirit.” Thousands of Guardsmen would never forgive him for that. Pershing had special animosity towards the commander of the 26th Division, Major General Clarence Edwards, who he viewed as a political general because of his friendship with President Taft. Edwards didn’t make things easier on himself by not knowing when to shut up. As the war went on, Pershing grew more and more irritated with Edwards, and consequently took his feelings for him out on the 26th.

And then there was the 42nd. The 42nd Division was composed of National Guard units from all across the U.S. rather than one specific region. Pershing had planned to use the 42nd as a replacement division rather than a combat division. But the 42nd’s commander, Major General William Mann, managed to pull some political strings and kept the 42nd as a combat unit – probably with some help from his chief of staff, Colonel Doug MacArthur. Pershing was not a man to back down from a good ol’ fashioned Army grudge, and so the 42nd went into his naughty book as well.

All well and good, that accounts for the National Guard divisions. And you know, those ones almost make sense – in a messed up way – because there’s long been a mistrust between the Regular Army and the National Guard. A mistrust that I would hope had disappeared by 2017, but here we are.

The unexpected one was the 2nd Division. The fault of the 2nd Division was that it contained the Marine Brigade. And the fault of the Marine Brigade was that they were reported on. See, during the severe fighting in June of 1918, the 2nd Division was thrown in the way of the German advance on Paris. The Marine Brigade was tasked with taking a tree-covered height called Belleau Wood, while the Army infantry regiments in the division fought alongside the woods. Nearby, the 3rd Division was fighting around Chateau-Thierry. In fact, U.S. Divisions were holding front line sectors everywhere, really getting engaged in serious combat. This was some of the first, prolonged fighting that saw Americans on the offensive and so reporters wanted to capture it. But the censors were quick to knock down anything that was too specific, especially unit names. However, one reporter managed to get in a story about the Marines at Belleau Wood – some say that he had been wounded and was thought to be on his deathbed and so the censors let it pass. For whatever the reason, a story appeared about the action, and since only Marines were be named, it appeared that the Marine Corps was winning World War I on its own. Now, do you think Pershing handled this well? That’s a big ol’ nope. He exploded, and his resulting dislike for the Marines set relationships between the services back by about 50 years.

So Pershing favored his 1st Division. His headquarters – G.H.Q. at Chaumont – essentially became the Fighting First fanclub. They got the most replacements, they got the spots of honor, and, hell, he tried to fix it so that the 1st Division would be the outfit to seize the iconic city of Sedan. Sedan was the site of an embarrassing French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and held immense symbolism for the French Army. Nevermind that the 42d Division was closest, Pershing sent the 1st Division racing for Sedan until the U.S. First Army commander General Hunter Liggett heard of the news and angrily countermanded the order. Eventually the French were allowed to retake their city, despite Pershing’s best efforts.

They say that history is written by the victors. There’s a very strong element of truth in that. One could also say that history is written by the well-connected. With an Allied and U.S. victory – the U.S. wasn’t part of the Alliance – Pershing’s star had never been higher. He was the commander of the victorious A.E.F., the man who led America’s first armies on European soil. And so it was that when the post-war histories were written, Pershing’s axe that he had been grinding since 1917 was unleashed on the manuscripts.

There are dozens of works on the 1st Division, all very easy to find and by some prominent authors. And again, I want to take away nothing from the 1st Infantry Division: they earned all the plaudits they received. There are quite a few on the 42nd given that it was from everywhere, although many are from locals. For the 26th, only local histories were ever written. And for the 2nd, well, try searching “2nd Division in World War I” in Google Books; there ain’t much. Now, Google, “Marines at Belleau Wood” and you’ll have enough paper to build your own house with. This gives you an idea of the historiography of the U.S. experience in World War I.

Fast forward now to 2017, where I would ask that the Army not turn into GHQ all over again. Remember the National Guard. Remember the National Army. Hell, don’t let the Marines have Belleau Wood, as usual. And again, not to take anything away from the Marine Brigade, but only focusing on them forgets the three Army infantry regiments, three Army artillery regiments, and the Army engineer regiment that were also engaged in Belleau Wood.

Let’s remember the Total Force – see, I can do buzzwords too – during the Centennial, and not just a few active duty divisions. Let the ghost of Pershing lie.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.


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