Eighty-seven years ago, June 26, the first American soldiers–elements of the untested American Expeditionary Force (AEF)–began coming ashore at St. Nazaire, France. Days later, throngs of flag-waving Parisians cheered the neatly dressed companies of U.S. troops as they marched along the Champs-Elysées. At the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, a group of American officers stopped briefly to pay homage to the late French nobleman who–as France’s liaison to Gen. George Washington–served the patriot cause during the American Revolution. “Lafayette, we are here!” proclaimed U.S. Army Colonel Charles E. Stanton on behalf of Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, the commander of the AEF.
The mission of the AEF was to stem the tide of the Imperial German army and bring about an end to the carnage of World War I. In so doing, the Americans would–in just over a year–help bring the German Army to its knees, ultimately saving France. But not all Americans were thrilled initially with the idea.
The war’s political, economic, and military origins were confusing then, and even today are often misunderstood: The origins dating back to a period in the 19th century when a newly industrialized Europe was struggling with issues of empire, boundaries, holdings, and a growing sense of nationalism.
Germany had defeated France in 1870 and subsequent disputes over territory created a tremendous animosity between the two nations. Great Britain still ruled the seas, but on the continent Germany was rapidly emerging as a great military power. Alliances were created to balance the power in Europe, but the tension was volatile.
When problems began surfacing in Europe, the continent’s American offspring, the United States, was still licking its wounds from a devastating Civil War and expanding its westward territories. The new nation had no real interest in the affairs of the Old World. Europe’s problems were Europe’s, and the average American wanted no part of them.
That perception began a slow process of erosion in the summer of 1914. In late June, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist while touring the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. The Archduke’s death set off a complex chain of events leading to a massive mobilization of European armies and ultimately a world war.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was initially opposed to war. He believed it was not America’s fight, but a “natural raking-out of the (European) continent’s pent-up jealousies.”
When Wilson was nominated to a second term, his campaign slogan was “He kept us out of war.” But his isolationism began to thaw on May 1, 1915 when a German U-Boat torpedoed RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner enroute from New York to Liverpool. The ship sank within minutes, taking 1,195 civilian men, women, and children–including 123 Americans–to the bottom.
Then, on January 16, 1917, the British admiralty intercepted a coded message from German foreign minister Alfred Zimmermann to Mexican President Venustiano Carranza, proposing a German-Mexican alliance. The message stated that Germany would begin unrestricted submarine warfare in February. Moreover, if the United States did not remain neutral, a Mexican declaration of war against the U.S. would be greatly rewarded. Such rewards would include German support for Mexico in the conquest of previously lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Carranza rejected the offer, and the British released the message to Wilson, who made it available to the American press.
On January 31, Germany announced the renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare. This included attacks against neutral American vessels. Three days later, The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Germany. And in early April, Wilson asked Congress for–and was granted–a declaration of war.
Wilson entered the war with great personal reservation. Unlike his allies who fought for the continuation of empire, Wilson, ever the idealist, fought for a “new world order.” He wanted his soldiers to fight for a “war to end all wars; in order to make the world safe for democracy.”
In mid-June 1917, Gen. Pershing and his staff landed in France. On June 26, the first units of the AEF began coming ashore. Over the next several months tens-of-thousands of American soldiers poured onto the continent.
America’s commitment to pulling its share of the war load was never in question. How American forces would be led and deployed was. Whether-or-not American units would be broken up and absorbed into the armies of France and Great Britain was often the subject of debate. Ultimately, Pershing agreed that the AEF would fall under the umbrella of French armies and corps. American units would however retain their identities and exist as full American divisions. In time, those divisions would prove their worth, and by war’s end the AEF would be fighting as an independent Army of the United States.
The introduction of the eager “doughboys” was a welcome sight to French troops who–like their British allies–had been bled white by nearly three years of bitter combat at places that today have ominous-sounding names like Ypres, Verdun, and the Somme. In fact, the sheer eagerness of the Americans served to stiffen the backbone of the often-demoralized French.
In one instance during the Chateau Thierry campaign in the spring of 1918, advancing AEF troops encountered lines of weary French troops falling back from the front. The Frenchmen, pale and hollow-eyed, looked curiously at the fresh-faced Americans who were laughing and singing on the backs of trucks rolling toward the sound of the guns “as if they were going to a party.” One of the French soldiers purportedly shouted to a group of Marines, “Turn back, retreat, the Germans are coming.” Marine Captain Lloyd Williams responded, “Retreat hell, we just got here.”
For the most part, World War I was viewed by Americans back home as something of “a lark:” A brief adventure where American farmboys and factory workers were able to travel abroad, enjoy French wine and French women, and maybe kill a few Germans on the side. It was far more than that. Of the approximately four million Americans who swelled the ranks of the armed forces, over two million served “over there.” Of that number, over 112,000 Yanks died (half were killed in action, half died of disease and other causes) and another 234,000 were wounded. Casualties suffered by the French, British, Italians, Russians, and Germans were appallingly greater: A terrible result of mixing 18th Century linear tactics and 19th Century massed formations with 20th Century weapons.
Making matters worse, most American infantrymen were young inexperienced recruits. And, with the exception of the Marines, many American soldiers had never fired a weapon in training. They learned quickly in the killing fields of France.
At ground zero, infantrymen on both sides lived for months in freezing, wet, rat-infested trenchworks. If disease didn’t kill them, there was a good chance the enemy’s high explosive shells or poisonous gas would. Infantrymen were also subjected to sniper fire or the occasional enemy trench raiders–fierce fighting commandos who would slip into the opposing force’s works at night, then attack them with pistols, knives, brass knuckles, and entrenching tools before the defenders knew what had hit them.
When ordered to attack the enemy’s works, the infantrymen had to climb up and over their own breastworks and into the open where the enemy’s machineguns and mortars were trained on them. Those who survived the first few minutes usually found themselves advancing in line with their buddies, bayonets fixed to the upper receivers of their bolt-action rifles.
The lines, led by whistleblowing officers, moved across open muddy fields often strewn with rotting corpses and unexploded munitions. As they advanced, the enemy poured a murderous fire into their ranks. Bullets and red-hot shell fragments whistled past their heads. Unfortunate souls around them were ripped to shreds. When one man fell, another rushed forward to plug the gap. If the attackers survived to reach the enemy’s lines, they had to struggle through rolls of barbed wire, then rush the enemy with the bayonet. Once within the enemy’s trenches, the fighting devolved into a grisly close quarters action.
To make life easier for the attacking force, a technique known as a creeping or rolling artillery barrage was implemented. This technique consisted of a forward-rolling curtain of exploding shells moving just in front of a line of advancing soldiers. Unfortunately, battlefield communications in World War I had not advanced much beyond that of the American Civil War. Thus, the barrages often moved too far and too fast beyond strongly defended enemy trenches. The barrages ceased too early leaving the advancing troops exposed without adequate covering fire. Or worse, advancing troops were often shelled by their own guns.
When there was a lull in the fighting, soldiers did pretty much what soldiers have always done. They attended to housekeeping matters: Cleaning weapons and equipment, reconstructing trenchworks, bailing water, tending the wounded, burying the dead, and praying. They entertained themselves by writing letters, playing cards, sharing exaggerated tales of their sexual exploits, and dreaming about girls back home. Occasionally, they would be treated to a “dogfight” between opposing airplanes above the lines.
On November 11, 1918, Germany threw in the towel. France was saved less than one-and-a-half years after the Americans had landed.
Less than three decades later, on June 6, 1944, Americans again waded ashore onto French soil. France was again saved, this time in less than six months.
How quick France’s leadership seems to have forgotten.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.