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11-08-2015, 17:50

John J. Pershing ( 1 860- 1 948)

John J. Pershing was the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Europe during World War I and the most important American military leader in the conflict. Two of his strongly held beliefs shaped his country's participation in the war: building an American army to fight in an American sector of the front under American leaders; and pursuing offensive operations without regard to the cost in lives. The future general was born on September 13, 1860, in Laclede, Missouri, the son of a farmer and storekeeper. He graduated from West Point in 1882, served in the last stages of the Indian wars from 1886 to 1891, and saw combat as a first lieutenant in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. A turning point in his career came in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt promoted Pershing, then a captain, over the heads of many of his fellow officers to the rank of brigadier general. In his newly elevated rank, Pershing went on to important commands in the Philippines and the United States. In a second critical point in his career, Pershing commanded the cavalry force that pursued Pancho Villa into Mexico in 1916. Thus, within the tiny officer corps of the United States Army, Pershing had an unmatched record of command in the field. Shortly after the country entered World War I in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson named Pershing commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. Wilson's only specific instructions to the general required Pershing to build and lead an independent fighting force. It was a guideline Pershing followed zealously. With a small staff, Pershing arrived in France in June. Despite the bitter experience of the British and French earlier in the war, Pershing was enthusiastic about taking the offensive. He hoped to transform the fighting into a conflict marked by what he called "open warfare." He rejected the idea of placing his troops under British and French commanders. And he organized his troops into divisions twice the size of those of Britain and France. He hoped thereby to absorb heavy casualties without being forced to withdraw the units from combat. Large divisions also offered a way to overcome the shortage of experienced American commanders and staff officers. Pershing bent his principles in the summer of 191 8 as Allied forces faced the storm of the final German offensives. He despatched some Americans to critical sectors under British or French leadership. Nonetheless, he remained committed to having a large and independent American force fighting in its own sector of the western front. In a famous confrontation with Allied military and government leaders at Versailles in early June, Pershing told them he was willing to risk seeing the Allies retreat to the Loire rather than abandon his basic stance. Meanwhile, American troops in substantial numbers had their first encounters with the German army. Pershing showed his enthusiasm for offensives in the form of mass frontal assaults at Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. These showed how costly the American leader's style of fighting would be. In early September 1918, Pershing achieved his long-standing ambition. Attacking the St. Mihiel salient near Verdun, an independent American field army fought on its own portion of the front. Encouragingly, it won an easy victory. The Germans paved the way for American success by withdrawing from the salient without heavy resistance. Later that month, commanding a force of over a million men, Pershing launched his Meuse-Argonne offensive. It continued to the close of the war, and historians view it as the event by which to judge Pershing as a fighting general. In this climactic effort, Pershing bowed to Foch's wishes. He turned away from the St. Mihiel region and his hopes of advancing on Metz. Instead, in accordance with the overall Allied offensive effort Foch promoted, Pershing attacked along a narrow front between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest. Under its aggressive commander, a massive American force, eventually composed of two field armies and numbering 1 million men, moved forward on September 26. Pershing's advance bogged down almost immediately. German resistance, featuring skilled machine gun crews, was stubborn. The mass attacks by American troops, often across open terrain, led to heavy casualties. Meanwhile, German artillery fired on Pershing's forces from the Argonne Forest to the west and the heights of the Meuse to the east. An equally heavy burden n the Americans was the breakdown of the army's staff. Pershing had concentrated a huge number of forces on this narrow section of the front, and inexperienced staff officers could not maintain a system of supply and communicadon. Liaison among Pershing's units, especially the crucial links between artillery and infantry units, also broke down. With casualdes mounting, confusion rampant, and the rear filled with deserters, Pershing paused to reorganize, then pressed forward. Only in the last days of the war, starting on November 1, did the forces in the Meuse Argonne achieve a breakthrough. Pershing later defended his leadership and his troops' performance by noting how the German high command was forced to divert numerous forces to block the American advance. The American contribution to victory in 1918 rested in the additional pressure Pershing's AEF put on the German front. At the least, it released more experienced French and British units to conduct successful advances elsewhere. Historian David Trask has suggested that Pershing should have been more flexible in permitting greater temporary amalgamation of AEF units with British and French forces. This would have created more experienced American troops as well as American commanders and staff officers able to lead a complex offense such as the Meuse-Argonne operation. In his view, Pershing was losing the confidence of President Wilson as the war drew to a close and might well have been replaced if the war had gone on into 1919. Pershing stepped awkwardly into the political arena in the last days of the war when he argued against an Armistice. He desired the war to continue until the Germans surrendered unconditionally. Nonetheless, he returned to the United States in triumph. He received the unusual and highly prestigious rank of general of the armies, and he took over as the army's chief of staff in 1921. He retired in 1924 and lived long enough to offer his services, at the age of eighty-one, to President Franklin Roosevelt at the start of World War II. Pershing died in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 1948.

 

 

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