“For Black Jack, the crux of the issue was that Foch was trying to break up First Army before it even fired a shot.”
THE BATTLE OF Saint-Mihiel is considered by many to be the United States’ most important operation of the First World War. The 100-hour offensive, which began on Sept. 12, 1918, marked the American Expeditionary Forces’ (AEF) true baptism of fire. More than half a million troops took part in the attack, which was the brainchild of the commander of all U.S. forces in France, General John Pershing. The celebrated leader of the famous 1916 Pancho Villa Expedition hoped that the the operation would see 12 fresh American divisions blast their way through the lines in the Lorraine region and rush deep into German-held territory. Although the operation failed to deliver the knock-out blow Pershing hoped for, the damage dealt to the enemy was considerable. More importantly, the Saint-Mihiel Offensive demonstrated the power of American arms. Pershing’s largely novice army had taken on a battle-hardened foe and prevailed, proving beyond all doubt that the United States was indeed a world power. Yet despite its historic significance, the operation very nearly didn’t take place. Both British and French generals scoffed at Pershing’s plan and tried to derail it at every turn. Worse, top brass in both countries sought to break the AEF up and use its troops as replacements for their own exhausted armies. Yet Pershing doggedly resisted all calls to turn his soldiers over to foreign commanders where they’d likely be sacrificed as cannon fodder. Author and past MHN contributor Mitchell Yockelson takes us through the general’s struggle to save America’s army in France during the war’s final bloody year.
By Mitchell Yockelson
Although U.S. troops were only just beginning to arrive in France, the American commander was there to discuss where along the 440-mile long Western Front his gathering force of “Doughboys” would fight. Regardless of the sector chosen, Pershing was adamant that his divisions would go to war as an independent army. He eventually selected Lorraine, an area that stretches between the Argonne Forest and the Vosges Mountains with borders touching Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as Germany itself. But to supply the AEF there, the Americans would need control of the ports of Saint-Nazaire, La Pallice and Bassens on France’s west coast, as well as French railways that converged in Lorraine.
Pétain nodded his head in approval and shifted the conversation to where in Lorraine Pershing wanted the AEF to launch its first offensive. The American commander gestured to a point on the map: The St. Mihiel Salient. By eliminating this bulge in the line, Black Jack opined, U.S. troops could penetrate deep into German-controlled territory and eliminate the rail center at Metz disrupting the flow of enemy supplies and reinforcements to other parts of the front. From there, his army could swoop down on the coalfields of the Saar and the Bassin de Briey, the latter being the greatest iron-producing region in the world, one that provided Germany’s armaments industry with 80 percent of its steel. Accomplishing these objectives would break Berlin’s ability to keep fighting.
To Pétain, it must have seemed like a far-fetched plan. For more than three years, veteran French troops had fought and died trying to break the St. Mihiel Salient. The thought of raw Americans overcoming this obstruction defied reason. Yet, in Pershing’s mind, an American victory in St. Mihiel was possible. And it would do more than just prove that the AEF was capable of planning and executing a major operation — it would bring the war to a speedy conclusion. Listening patiently, Pétain agreed to Pershing’s plan for the moment, yet both men knew it might take several months before such an operation could seriously be considered; there weren’t yet enough Americans in France to fight a small skirmish, much less a large-scale battle. In a year or more, the AEF would have the strength to mount such an ambitious offensive.
A year later, AEF combat divisions had been spread along the Western Front where they trained with the British and French armies. Some Doughboys had even served briefly in combat under foreign commanders. The top brass hoped Pershing would reconsider his plan for an independent army and allow American troops to fight entirely under Allied leadership. Yet the general fought hard to keep his Doughboys under U.S. command.
In August, he formally won the battle when newly appointed Allied commander-in-chief Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch gave Black Jack the go-ahead to organize the American First Army, effective Aug. 10.
Pershing could now set his sights on an operation against the St. Mihiel Salient — the triangle formed between two rivers — the Meuse on the west and the Moselle to the east. Before emptying into the Rhine River, the Moselle flows through France, Luxembourg, and finally Germany. The salient overlooked the Woëvre Plain, a low marshland of ponds and streams surrounded by woods of varying size. The salient’s three anchor cities were Verdun to the north, St. Mihiel in the south and Pont-à-Mousson twenty-five miles to the east.
Foch Takes Aim
Then on Aug. 30, 1918, Pershing’s plan to attack the salient was about to be de-railed by Foch when the two generals sat down for a meeting.
The French marshal declared that because of recent Allied victories on other fronts, he now believed the Germans were on the verge of collapsing. As such, Pershing should either reduce the scope of the St. Mihiel attack or abandon it altogether. Foch added that a better course of action would be a combined Allied offensive with the British converging on the German lines from north to south, and the French and Americans attacking from the west. An operation against the St. Mihiel Salient was still feasible, Foch assured Pershing, but only a limited attack on the southern face. It would then have to be followed up with a separate attack against German defenses in the Meuse-Argonne, which Foch believed had more strategic importance than St. Mihiel.
As Foch droned on, Pershing listened intently. When the American general tried to fire back, he was cut off.
“I realize that I am presenting a number of new ideas and that you will probably need time to think them over,” Foch said, “but I should like your first impressions.”
“Well, Marshal, this is a very sudden change,” Pershing finally replied. “We are going forward as already recommended to you and approved by you, and I cannot understand why you want these changes.”
For Black Jack, the crux of the issue was that Foch was trying to break up First Army before it even fired a shot.
“The American government and people expected the army to act as a unit,” Pershing said, “and not be dispersed in this way.”
Foch condescendingly asked Pershing, “Do you wish to take part in this battle?”
“Most assuredly, but as an American army and in no other way,” replied Pershing.
The conversation quickly turned heated. Foch appealed to Pershing’s pride, not as an American, but as a soldier just like him.
“Your French and English comrades are going into battle,” Foch lectured. “Are you coming with them?”
Pershing, visibly angry, countered: “Marshal Foch, you have no authority as Allied commander-in-chief to call upon me to yield up my command of the American army and have it scattered among the Allied forces where it will not be an American army at all.”
Foch answered just as irate, “I must insist upon the arrangement.”
Pershing refused to budge.
“Marshal Foch, you may insist all you please, but I decline absolutely to agree to your plan,” he said. “While our army will fight wherever you may decide, it will not fight except as an independent American army.”
After arguing for more than two hours, both commanders finally rose from the table. Pershing recalled wanting to strike Foch, but thought better of it. The French marshal, exhausted and pale after the long exchange, grabbed his maps and papers and headed toward the door. Before leaving, he turned to the American commander, handed him a memorandum of their discussion, and suggested that if he just gave the plan some more thought, Pershing would come to the same conclusion as he had.
The following day, Pershing sent Foch a written response, telling him by no means would he allow the American army to be broken up, and would sacrifice the St. Mihiel operation if necessary. If that were the case, he would comply with Foch and attack only in the Meuse-Argonne — but as a whole American army and nothing less.
Later, Pershing spoke with Pétain about the messy situation. Always a voice of reason, the French general sympathized with his American comrade and agreed that together they would hash out a compromise plan that would be to Foch’s liking. The two proposed that American forces would remain intact while conducting a reduced offensive against the St. Mihiel Salient in mid-September and then strike the Meuse-Argonne two weeks later.
On Sept. 2, Pershing and Pétain met with Foch at Bombon and presented their case. Foch was in a better mood and more reasonable — for that matter, so was Pershing, perhaps because Pétain was there as a mediator. Foch agreed that the American First Army could execute a restricted attack on the St. Mihiel Salient, but they were not to push forward to Metz; they must stop after the salient had been reduced and prepare for a larger operation west of the Meuse. Foch insisted that the St. Mihiel attack take place no later than Sept. 15, and the Meuse-Argonne operation would launch by Sept. 25.
Pershing had now committed his inexperienced army to undertake two large operations over the course of two weeks.
Mitchell Yockelson is the author of the new book Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I. A recipient of the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award, Yockelson is an investigative archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, as well as a former professor of military history at the United States Naval Academy. He currently teaches at Norwich University.