Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Test of Battle: The American Expeditionary Forces in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign

The Test of Battle: The American Expeditionary Forces in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign by Paul F. Braim (1998) is about the experience and contribution of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during WWI. It provides a brief background prior to the War, and prior to USA involvement, but concentrates on the AEF involvement in WWI. The author states the AEF had "a hard-working group of relatively inexperienced leaders, struggling mightily with a most unique and challenging set of battlefield requirements, which taxed their resources and capabilities to the limit" (pp. xv-xvi).

My Rating: Good (***). A scholarly written book by a former military officer with battlefield experience who walked the battlefields of Meuse-Argonne as part of his research for this book.

Strategies Used:

  1. Safety in numbers with an escort. In spite of broad British opposition, US Admiral William Smith established the convoy system for shipping with a destroyer escort. This quickly ended excessive losses in Allied shipping and eased the supply shortage.
  2. More effort and sacrifice will result in more influence in the new order. Presidential advisor Herbert Hoover stated: "Our terms of peace will probably run counter to most of the European proposals, and our weight in the accomplishment of our ideals will be greatly in proportion to the strength which we can throw into the scale." (p. 19)
  3. Clearly establish the organizational reporting structure. The French and British wanted the US troops to act as replacements, filling the ranks of their under strength units. President Wilson and US commanding general Jack Pershing insisted the US troops only engage as a separate entity, under the command of American officers. Pershing was right and this may have been his greatest accomplishment in WWI since the Allies would have used the AEF as replacements and placed them in the most dangerous front lines to alleviate the strain on the French and British home fronts where almost every family lost one or more members to the war. Both the French and British sought the resources of the AEF, and they did not trust each other with regard to sharing the AEF support equally. Overall, the Allied command was not unified, and this was a factor in their ineffectiveness. This was something Dwight Eisenhower overcame in WWII and was probably his greatest accomplishment.
  4. The key to battle was the efficacy of the well-trained soldier using his rifle and bayonet (General Jack Pershing). Pershing failed to learn from the results of the prior two years of war which clearly established the machine gun and artillery as the major factors on the battle field.
  5. Training was sacrificed to meet operational demands. Historians, commanding officers, and veteran troops all concur the troops (both officers and enlisted men) were not adequately prepared for the warfare they would face. "Their leadership had revealed that it was insufficiently trained and experienced to meet this trial by fire." (p. 137)
  6. Use enthusiasm and resources to overcome experience and knowledge. "The very size of the US square division, reaching 28,000, compared to the 9,000 of the understrength European divisions, infused great strength to the Allies. The US would play their trump--inexperienced but willing manpower....They would succeed by manpower and enthusiasm." (p. 50)

  7. Use common sense and initiative. Allied leaders worried about the US infantry crossing barbed wire where artillery failed to breach it. Some troops simply "stepped on the wire and just walked over it. The French were amazed and claimed it was possible only because the Americans had big feet." (p. 71)
  8. Leadership would make up for untrained troops. Unfortunately, the generals and senior officers did not come through for their troops. American troops under the British and French "did splendidly well", but "owing to inexperience, particularly in the higher ranks, American divisions ... under their own command, suffer wastage out of all proportion to results achieved." (p. 152) "Clearly, the AEF learned to fight by fighting" (p. 169).
  9. I think the prevailing opinion that the British and French were better officers because of their experience fighting in the war since it started is a theme common in many history books. However, one only has to look at the casualties and especially the battles in Ypres, and the only logical conclusion is the British and French were as inept as the American senior officers. The average experience of a battlefield non-com or officer was quite short, given the casualty rate caused by the ridiculous strategy of frontal assault in the face of machine gun fire and artillery. Therefore, how is possible that the British and French were so experienced? I believe the American forces on the front line gained that battlefield experience quickly, in weeks, but the rear echelon officers making the biggest decisions were inept, to the same degree as their Allied counterparts.

  10. The offensive strategy was to cause attrition of the enemy in its defensive positions (General Pershing). Unfortunately, "An offensive strategy based on the attrition of an enemy in strong defenses is really no strategy at all." (p. 159) "there weren't any tactics employed. Committing hundreds of thousands of infantrymen in a narrow zone directly against heavily fortified and defended positions guaranteed high casualties and small gains. ... why did Pershing, or his subordinate commanders not move to the flanks ... to break out of the killing cauldron of enemy fires?" (p. 160)
  11. The ability to coordinate the use of all resources or forces available, can make the sum of those forces far more effective than each being deployed individually. Unfortunately, this appears to be the major shortfall of the AEF, and can be directly attributed to a lack of talent in the commanding officer ranks.

    • "the artillery was poorly employed. ... it tended to move its rolling barrages forward too swiftly for the rate of infantry movement in difficult terrain" (p. 161).
    • "Infantry and artillery commanders can also be faulted for their infrequent use of smoke to screen movements and their reluctance to use poison gas" (p. 161).
    • "A major problem affecting all others was the failure to maintain communication ... the responsibility for maintaining communications is upon the higher headquarters to establish and maintain contact with its lower unit headquarters." (p. 162)
    • "Insufficient attention was given to solving the problem of moving supplies over no man's land" and "many of the veterans commented about the lack of resupply of water." (p. 163)
    • "Commanders at all levels of the AEF are also criticized herein for failure to employ reserves properly" (p. 163)
    • "Failure to use natural cover and concealment in approach to enemy defenses" (p. 164)
    • "Pershing and his 'old army' associates were deprecatory about the value of the tank in warfare." (p. 166)
    • "the desire of senior AEF commanders to gain the assignment of cavalry to their forces." (p. 166) Cavalry was totally ineffective against machine guns and artillery.
    • "Pershing's lack of attention to the employment of air power" (p. 167).

  12. Attitude and morale can overcome many hurdles. "American soldiers ... morale, their stamina, and their competitiveness" were unanimously praised by the Allies. (p. 173)

Some opinions expressed by the American troops regarding their Allies and foes (p. 174):

  • "They were critical of the food provided by the Allies, particularly the sour French wine and British 'hardtack.'
  • "Some ... made uncomplimentary remarks about the French people."
  • "they had very few complaints regarding their associations with the 'Tommy' [British soldier] and 'Poilu' [French infantryman]."
  • "they felt a greater kinship with the Australians and Canadians than they did with the Europeans."
  • They "described the Germans as good soldiers."

Did the US win the War for the Allies? This is a long standing question, still in dispute. The European position was that the AEF only entered the war in its last year, and did not even get to deploy many of its divisions that were still being formed, transported to Europe, and trained. The number of US forces on the front lines, and the percentage of casualties was not very large compared to the Allies. Those arguments are valid, but the AEF's major contribution was that it added fresh troops to the front lines who were willing and able to engage in combat, not being worn down by several years of bloodshed for little gain. Additionally, the troops in reserve and on the way to Europe signified that the Allies could continue the war for several more years--something the Germans could not accomplish. The German's knew the end of the war was coming as soon as the AEF began arriving in force and had a degree of success in battle.

The leader of the German forces, General Ludendorff, said, "The American infantry in the Argonne won the war." (p. 176) No matter what the historians conclude after the fact nor the opinion of the Allies is relevant on this issue. It is the opinion of the leader of the opponent, General Ludendorff, which only matters. After all, the German's sought peace since they knew the end was coming. What brought Ludendorff and the German leadership to the peace table? The performance and number of infantrymen in the American Expeditionary Forces.

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