Evocative French poster from the period.
Of the contributions made by American forces to the Allied effort in World War I, the most important may have been the Americans' role in reviving French morale. Arriving in June 1917 after the failure of the Nivelle offensive and amid a spate of mutinies within the French Army, the Americans initially did little to reassure French soldiers in the trenches, but their eager entry into battle against the German offensive in March 1918 soon contributed significantly to restoring French morale and assuring Allied victory. Without this assistance, the French Army might have disintegrated and the Germans emerged victorious.
Though historians often note the importance of American troop strength and industrial power, especially in the erosion of German resolve, they rarely give the Americans much credit for reviving French morale. British historian John Keegan's recent book, The First World War, exemplifies this view. While Keegan highlights the appearance of the Americans in the title of his final chapter, "America and Armageddon," he largely discounts their military significance. Keegan emphasizes the Americans' large numbers, but he neglects their contribution to the fighting and the impact of their combat successes on the revival of French determination and hope. Indeed, he largely dismisses the U.S. Army's contribution by repeatedly mentioning its lack of professionalism and competence and by neglecting its achievements on the battlefield. Instead, using the colorful language that makes his books appealing to so many readers, Keegan merely explains in a general way that the Germans were "confronted with an army whose soldiers sprang, in uncountable numbers, as if from soil sown with dragons' teeth."
Keegan's line of interpretation, which tends to minimize the importance of the French and Americans in the final phase of the war and to inflate the role of Sir Douglas Haig's British forces, is one to which British authors have long adhered. The roots of this view go back to the war itself, when the British bridled under the tutelage of the French in the first years of the war and demanded greater credit for Allied successes later for shouldering a larger part of the war's burden, and its casualties, in the Somme and Passchendaele offensives in 1916 and 1917. After the war, the complexity and significance of the British effort emerged as important themes in the British official history which Brig. Gen. Sir James Edmonds and his colleagues compiled. Not immune to pressure from high-ranking officers who had served in the war, Edmonds crafted the volumes in the official history to present a favorable view of senior British commanders and exhibited what Canadian historian Tim Travers has called a "bias in favour of Haig and his GHQ." Moreover, Edmonds fired broadsides at the French official history for its alleged failure to give sufficient credit to the British. Whatever the shortcomings of the British official history, Edmonds's work provided the foundation for many historians' understanding of the war and influenced most of them-including Americans-to give the British the lion's share of credit for Allied success in the latter phase of the war.
Company D, 165th Infantry [42nd Div.] advances past troops of the French VII Corps near Lunéville, France, 1 March 1918.
In his book on World War I Keegan relies excessively on Edmonds's work and its derivatives. While making ample use of recent works about the Eastern Front, he uses few French sources and remarks that the French official history, "though detailed, is desiccated in tone." He also focuses more on British battles than those fought by the armies of other nations. The reader of his book learns far more, for example, about the British at Neuve-Chapelle than the French in Champagne, even though the battles in Champagne were far larger and more important. The reader thus views the Great War through the prism of the British experience and learns little about either the fragility of the French Army in 1917-1918 or the significance of the American contribution to restoring the will of the French soldier to fight.
Even though American soldiers served more frequently with the French than the British in World War I, American historians have long viewed the Great War primarily through the eyes of British participants and the works of British authors. Many have relied on works published in London to expand their understanding of the war beyond the American experience, and they have rarely used French sources or archives. More comfortable with English- than French-language materials, they often have worked in the Public Records Office in London, but few of them have conducted research in the massive holdings of the Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre at the Château de Vincennes in Paris. Moreover, American historians have rarely used the French official history, even though it includes important documents pertaining to the service of American units in the war.
Of the numerous holdings in French archives that shed light on the American contribution, the most significant may be the reports submitted by the postal service during the war. In brief, the French censored the letters written by soldiers during the war to prevent their revealing secret information-locations of units, plans for upcoming operations, casualties, etc.-in their letters to their loved ones. As the postal officials read the letters, they quickly realized they could obtain valuable information about French soldiers' morale, and they soon began submitting regular reports to senior military leaders. These reports tell us a great deal about French perceptions of the Americans and thus illustrate the effect the Americans had on the French.
When the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany in early February 1917, French confidence, according to the postal reports, briefly soared. The report of 15 February noted, "The mass [of the soldiers] think that an ally of this importance would not join our side if Germany was not at the end of its rope." Ten days after the United States declared war on 6 April, however, French General Robert Nivelle launched an ill-fated attack against the German lines along the Chemin des Dames north of the Aisne River. The attack cost the French over 134,000 casualties without producing the anticipated breakthrough. Whatever optimism had existed before the attack quickly dissipated.
The soldiers' discontent soon boiled over into mutinies, particularly in the units involved in the failed April offensive, and dispirited French soldiers even began to question the benefit their nation would derive from American military support. The postal authorities reported on 1 May, "Many [soldiers] think that the entry of America into the war, while giving us numerous advantages, will prolong the war at least a year and, by the relief of workers [who will be replaced by Americans], send thousands of French to their deaths."
According to Guy Pedroncini, who has written the standard work on the subject, the most violent phase of the mutinies occurred between 1-6 June, when for the first time French soldiers shot or beat to death their fellow countrymen, perhaps as many as six. In fact, most of the acts of indiscipline that resulted in court-martial convictions occurred during this brief period. French morale, both civilian and military, had apparently collapsed, and the French Army seemed on the edge of disintegration. Amid the turmoil of these mutinies, the psychological effect of the Americans' arrival in mid-June could not have been more opportune. When General John J. Pershing debarked at the Gare du Nord in Paris on 13 June, the French Army had just weathered the most violent phase of the mutinies, and the high-ranking civilian and military officials who met him did not know if the soldiers' anger would subside or surge.
Though the effect of Pershing's arrival on French soldiers was not yet apparent, his appearance immediately heartened the citizens of Paris. In his memoirs the American general wrote:
Dense masses of people lined the boulevards and filled the squares. It was said that never before in the history of Paris had there been such an outpouring of people. Men, women, and children absolutely packed every foot of space, even to the windows and housetops. Cheers and tears were mingled together and shouts of enthusiasm fairly rent the air. Women climbed into our automobiles screaming, "Vive l'Amérique," and threw flowers until we were literally buried. Everybody waved flags and banners.
When Pershing met General Philippe Pétain on 16 June, the French general-in-chief emphasized the importance of the American presence and said, "I hope it is not too late." Recognizing the fragility of the situation, Pershing told Washington the French could "hold on until spring" but warned that, if the French government failed to support its army, "the latter will lose its morale and disaster [will] follow."
To prop up sagging French morale, Pétain personally visited numerous units, including perhaps as many as ninety divisions. During these visits he spoke to groups of soldiers and sought to reassure them by describing the strategic situation and the enormous resources of the United States and by asserting the inevitability of France's victory with the United States as an ally. He also issued a pamphlet entitled "Why We Fight" and distributed a memorandum on the strategic situation that concluded, "France can expect with reasonable confidence a victorious peace that is indispensable to it and that it deserves because of its heavy sacrifices." Though the relationship between Pershing's arrival in Paris on 13 June and the decline that had begun a week earlier in the number and severity of mutinies cannot be precisely measured, Pétain's words and the Americans' arrival must both have contributed to the restoration of discipline in the French Army.
American soldiers of the 18th Infantry and 6th Field Artillery [1st Div.], receive the French Croix de Guerre on 3 March 1918. French Premier Georges Clemenceau attended the ceremony.
Despite the enthusiastic reception Pershing received in Paris and the end of the mutinies, the promise of American involvement did not fully restore French soldiers' morale immediately. Indeed, hope declined further as German successes on the Eastern Front, combined with the recent revolution in Russia, threatened to permit the Germans to shift more forces to the Western Front, a situation that seriously worried French troops. The French military mission in Russia had provided detailed reports outlining the worsening situation that developed there following the overthrow of the tsar and the establishment of a provisional government in Petrograd in March 1917. Though French soldiers initially perceived events in Russia as "democratic" and "anti-German," more realistic and ominous insights came from the French military mission. It reported that General Mikhail Alexeyev, the Russian commander-in-chief, had been obliged to assemble his army group commanders for a meeting with representatives of the provisional government and a committee of workers and soldiers. The military mission also reported that the Germans had sent emissaries to talk to the Russian soldiers about peace.
Two weeks before Pershing arrived in Paris, another report from Petrograd described the situation there as "calm anarchy" and observed, "The [Russian] officers remain passive, the men do whatever they want." On 24 July the French mission, terming the existing situation a "debacle," mentioned some of the efforts by the Russians to reestablish discipline. Subsequent reports from Russia described the situation in bleak terms, observing the collapse of morale, the breakup of units, the abandonment of defensive positions, and significant German advances into Russia. Although the Bolsheviks did not begin formal peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk until December 1917 and only in April 1918 signed a treaty effecting Russia's withdrawal from the war, the Allies quickly recognized the changing strategic equation. In late July 1917 Allied military leaders met to discuss alternatives if the Russians left the war, and, as Pershing noted in his memoirs, "the opinion prevailed in the conference that Russia was practically eliminated as a military factor."
Coupled with the impending loss of Russia as an ally, the outbreak of mutiny left the French Army extremely vulnerable. A postal report in early June emphasized French soldiers' concern about Russia and observed, "Russia inspires great mistrust." Even though the official bulletin that the French Army circulated as a newspaper among its soldiers said little about the turbulent events in Russia before 6 June, the soldiers managed to follow events on the Eastern Front carefully, and some even called for a revolution in France or an immediate end to the war. Recognizing that French soldiers were near their breaking point, the Army's high command identified the Russian revolution as one of the principal external causes of the mutinies. Though the mutinies in France waned after the first week of June, the French Army remained the weak link in Allied defenses, as Pétain acknowledged to Pershing when the two met privately in early July. Though not mentioning the mutinies, the French general, who knew his soldiers as well as or better than any other commander in the war, expressed concern about a revolution breaking out in France and observed, "Such an outcome . . . would permit the Germans to dictate the terms of peace instead of the Allies."
As the Russian Army disintegrated, the arrival of the first Americans gave the French some reason for hope. French soldiers soon realized, however, that the Americans were not well prepared for high-intensity warfare, leading the French to become more critical, uncertain, and discouraged. The postal report for late November observed, "The Americans are judged intelligent and easy to train, strong and generous; they are criticized for having little discipline, for liking champagne and women too much, [and] for being a bit presumptuous." When France's High Commissioner in the United States, André Tardieu, stated publicly that the Americans would not be ready until 1919, the attitude of French soldiers worsened. The French high command also had reservations about the Americans and noted in a strategic assessment, "It will be dangerous to hasten the entry of American divisions into the front."
By mid-December, the French high command noted a "crisis of pessimism" among the soldiers and cited as major factors events in Russia and German propaganda. Pétain had painted a bleak picture of the strategic situation at the first meeting of the Comité de Guerre convened by Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau earlier that month. The situation would, however, become even more daunting, as French intelligence reported in March 1918 that the number of German divisions on the Western Front had increased to 188 from 157 two months earlier. Even the arrival of more Americans could not halt the decline of French morale during the winter of 1917-1918. In mid-February 1918 the postal report emphasized the growing doubts among French soldiers about the Americans and their "anxiety" about whether U.S. cooperation would "shorten the war or prolong it." The late-February morale report observed, "The depth of weariness [in French soldiers] is obvious."
That the Americans could indeed help to shorten the war first became apparent to French soldiers as the Allies struggled to respond to the German spring offensive in March 1918. After Pershing met with Prime Minister Clemenceau and Generals Ferdinand Foch and Pétain on 28 March and announced his willingness to commit all available troops to the fight, the hopes of French soldiers rose as they watched the Americans go into action. Though the format and method of compiling the report on morale changed during this crucial period, comments about the Americans became more and more positive as the weeks passed. The postal report of 6 April stated, "The units that are in contact with the Americans (Second, Eighth, Sixth Armies) have a more and more favorable assessment of our new allies. . . . Rapport between French and Americans is cordial everywhere." While the report of 5 May was critical of the performance of the British in the initial phase of the German spring offensive, it emphasized the courage of the Americans under fire and the value of their presence in strengthening the confidence of French soldiers. That report included a statistical analysis of the positive factors influencing French morale, as mentioned in their correspondence, and the "cooperation of the Americans" ranked higher than any other.
The Americans' presence and participation in the fighting had an even more positive effect in subsequent weeks. While expressing concern about the "fatigue" of French soldiers, the report of 15 May emphasized the "cordial" relationship between the French and Americans. It also praised the soldierly qualities of African American soldiers, observing that "they are considered 'well trained and well disciplined.' They establish very good relations with our troops. The units charged with providing training for these new allies are struck by their 'good will' and by their desire to do well. . . . They are above all very dedicated." A few weeks later even more positive comments appeared, relating this time to American troops in general: "Our soldiers establish very cordial relationships with these allies; they value the good appearance of their men, their valiant conduct under fire, the audacity of their aviators; they admire the strength and quality of their equipment." Adding to the kudos for the Americans, the senior engineer officer in French Second Army emphasized the greater confidence of his troops and observed, "The sight of numerous Americans, their willing participation in operations, sustains this confidence."
In early June 1918 the Americans' most visible entry into battle occurred along the Marne River. In his postwar memoirs, Jean de Pierrefeu, a French staff officer who worked at Pétain's headquarters, painted a vivid picture of the Americans moving toward Belleau Wood, Vaux, and Château Thierry:
Amidst enthusiastic civilians, they passed in interminable columns, tightly packed in trucks, feet in the air, in extraordinary positions, some perched on the tops, nearly all bare-headed and unbuttoned, singing their national songs at the top of their voices. The spectacle of this magnificent youth from across the sea, these youngsters of twenty years with smooth faces, radiating strength and health in their new uniforms, had an immense effect. They offered a striking contrast with our regiments in soiled uniforms, worn by the years of war, with our emaciated soldiers and their somber eyes who were nothing more than bundles of nerves held together by a heroic, sacrificial will. The general impression was that a magical transfusion of blood was taking place. Life was returning in floods to revive the half-dead body of France, which was almost drained of blood after four years of innumerable wounds. No one said anything about these soldiers not being trained, about their having only courage . . . When one looked at this event in the broadest sense, one perceived the presence of gushing, untiring force that would overcome everything because of its strength.
French officers honor their American comrades-in-arms at a banquet in the Hôtel des Vosges in Lunéville, France, on 18 March 1918.
No one saw the effects of the "magical transfusion of blood" better than French field army commanders. The Second Army commander emphasized in early July the increase in French morale: "Some of our men already have begun to envisage the possibility of a fifth winter in the war, but it should be noted that this eventuality does not seem to depress their morale, for they are persuaded that victory will not escape us." In mid-July, on the eve of the combined Franco-American offensive between the Marne and Aisne Rivers near Soissons which gave the Allies the initiative and began the series of operations that would result in Germany's defeat, the Sixth Army commander, who had several U.S. divisions under his command for the operation, stated, "One can see that the military situation will in the near future turn to the benefit of the Allies, thanks to the resources that America has liberally placed in the service of the common cause. The continual arrival of new, robust, combative troops with an abundance of matériel reassures our men and arouses their highest hopes." Two weeks after the recapture of Soissons, the commander of Seventh Army remarked on the importance of that counteroffensive in changing the attitude of his soldiers from "somber" to "clear enthusiasm." At the same time the Second Army commander reported, "The current morale of the troops is splendid. . . . Their confidence is based on the continued success of the operations under way, the value of the High Command, [and] the cooperation of our allies, the Americans above all. The combative qualities demonstrated every day [by the Americans], their almost inexhaustible reserves, and their prodigious effort sustain all the hopes [of the French soldiers]."
Even more positive reports came in subsequent weeks. The Second Army commander reported in September: "The continued arrival of American troops, who have already proved their combat value, gives all our soldiers complete confidence in our forces, and at the same time a certitude of result. The soldiers discuss only the date of the decision, which most expect to achieve in the coming spring." He added, "Confidence in victory remains absolute." Also in September the commander of Eighth Army reported, "The uneasiness which existed several months ago has completely disappeared. Everyone believes that with the powerful cooperation of the Americans the battle against Germany can result only in its defeat." A month later, the Eighth Army commander highlighted improved morale and emphasized the boost coming from the Americans' contribution. He concluded, "The morale of all the units of Eighth Army has never been better."
As one reads these reports, one cannot help but be struck by the profoundly positive effect the Americans and their military contributions had on the morale of French soldiers. Again and again one reads about the numerous Americans arriving in France and about the great pleasure French soldiers had in watching and helping the Americans prepare for combat. Many of the reports, such as the Eighth Army's report of 14 October 1918, note the importance of all of France's allies in the final phases of the war but emphasize the enthusiasm and abilities of the Americans. Clearly, the reports on morale offer important evidence about the contribution of the Americans to the Allied victory and suggest that their importance came from far more than mere numbers.
Though saying the Americans won the war exaggerates their contribution, it is clear that the fortuitous arrival of the Americans helped Pétain keep his army in the trenches and resume offensive operations. Had the Americans arrived a few months later, or had Pershing not offered all his forces to the Allies on 28 March 1918, the outcome of the war could have been significantly different. The task Pershing faced between 13 June 1917, the date of his arrival in Paris, and 28 March 1918 was an incredibly difficult one given the complexity of organizing, equipping, and training the American army and transporting it to Europe. The success that Pershing's forces achieved on the battlefield is truly one of the most remarkable military accomplishments of the twentieth century, one that derived not only from the numbers of his forces but also from the quality and aggressiveness of his officers and soldiers. Clearly, the effect the Americans had on the outcome of the war came from far more than their confronting the Germans "with an army whose soldiers sprang, in uncountable numbers, as if from soil sown with dragons' teeth." While the doughboys did not win the war for the Allies, France might have collapsed and the Allies lost had the Americans not entered battle energetically and effectively a year after declaring war.
Sources and thanks: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Army History. Limitations of the internet kept us from including the author's extensive list of citations, but these are available in the journal. Dr. Charles Hendricks, editor of Army History, was extremely helpful and cooperative in bring this work to the Doughboy Center. He made both the text and photos available. Col. Robert A. Doughty has been head of the Department of History at the U.S. Military Academy since 1985. He is the author of The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939 (Hamden, Conn., 1985), and The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940 (Hamden, Conn., 1990), and he holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of Kansas. An armor officer, he was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam. Tony Langley of Antwerp, Belgium provided the poster from 1918. MH