Andrew Carroll has used letters and diaries written by American participants in the Great War to frame an account of the military career of John Pershing. Pershing was the senior most commander of American troops on the Western Front. Pershing was the commander of the American Expeditionary Force that was sent to the Western Front to assist French, Belgium, and British forces, locked in the trench warfare for which the First World War was notorious. Carroll has also used Pershing’s letters to his family and colleagues.
(It is interesting that the focus of letter-writing was to a “mother” rather than a “father” as it had been in the Civil War. Carroll doesn’t speculate on why this was so, and how that correspondence with a mother could indicate a different family structure fifty years later.)
Pershing’s military career did not begin in Europe. He commanded the forces that pursued Pancho Villa in west Texas and New Mexico just as the war in Europe began, August 1014. Having settled with Pancho Villa, Pershing arrived in Europe in June 1917.
From the beginning, Pershing insisted that the American doughboys be kept in their own units with American commanders, rather than being used as replacements in depleted French and British units.
Pershing was a career officer who had served in the Philippines before giving command of the Pancho Villa expedition. Tragically his wife and daughters died in a house fire in military housing in the Presidio in San Francisco. Pershing had failed to make arrangements for accommodations in Texas, and blamed himself for their tragic death.
General Pershing was, like many Americans enthusiastic about getting “over there” while the fight was still going on. However, Americans were not allowed to serve in foreign armies – swear allegiance to a foreign military establishment (We had not yet declared war on Germany.), but American volunteers could join the French Foreign Legion.
Pershing had been sent to the Western Front as an observer, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s pledge not to get us involved in “European entanglements.” Wilson was under pressure to enter the war against Germany. Three German “outrages” motivated American public opinion: the sinking of the passenger liner the Lusitania with the loss of American lives, the willful destruction of the Belgium town of Louvain, and the execution of an American nurse-volunteer, Edith Cavell.
Wilson was finally forced to declare war but he made it a declaration of war against “the Imperial German Government” not the German people. There was a sizeable community of German-Americans who, Wilson worried, would not be enthusiastic participants. President Wilson’s hand was forced as a result of the Zimmermann telegram. Arthur Zimmermann, then the German foreign secretary had sent a telegram to his ambassador to Mexico that proposed the Mexican government join the European war, promising his assistance in regaining the huge territory lost to the U.S. The telegram was leaked to the press. (Then as now the press was being used to weaken the federal government’s foreign policy.)
The war in Europe was not so glorious as the popular songs of the day made it out to be. Those trenches that American volunteers would be entering were filled with water and hence mud. And soldiers who helped win the war had to deal with new weaponry: tanks and armored trucks, flamethrowers, chlorine gas, rapid-firing machine guns, and heavy field pieces for long-range bombardment.
A system of bases were established here in the States, mostly in the South for training purposes. But before they were actually sent to the trenches, Pershing’s “fellow soldiers” were trained behind the lines and supervised by the generals who would be commanding the troops in battle.
That only partially solved the problem of training African-Americans for their role in the fight. African-American soldiers entered a racist military. Mostly they were responsible for the transportation essential the fighting force but generally kept apart from white soldiers. While Pershing had insisted on keeping his troops together, rather than their functioning as replacements, he did agree to use African-American troops to rebuild French African units rather than American. Those who continued to serve under Pershing established a reputation for bravery; eventually they came to be called the Harlem Hellfighters.
Some of Pershing’s soldiers later gained fame in World War II: George Marshall, Bill Donavan, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. Truman and Eisenhower had subsequent political careers as well. Pershing was mentioned as a potential Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in the 1920 Presidential election, but no offer came his way, and Pershing had no interest in campaigning for office. The Republicans, instead chose one of their own, Senator Warren G. Harding, and Pershing retired as a respected former commander of the American Expeditionary Force in the First World War and to a grave in Arlington Cemetery.