General Ferdinand Foch, Allied supreme commander, in conversation with US General John Pershing at Le Château Du Val Des Ecoliers, Chaumont (Photo © IWM Q 58390)

The American First Army comes into being

Posted on centenarynews.com on 08 August 2018
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On 10 August 1918 General John Pershing drove from AEF headquarters in Chaumont to La Ferté-sous-Jouarre on the Marne, some 15 miles south-west of Château-Thierry. There he was to take up formal command of the newly created First Army of the American Expeditionary Force, a sign of the growing strength of his troops in the field as they gathered themselves for what would be the last 100 days’ onslaught of WW1. Patrick Gregory reports.

It was a moment of at least some satisfaction for John Pershing as he left Chaumont that morning on the 150-mile cross country drive to La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. It was perhaps not all he desired – his expanding complement of troops was to be limited for now to only one organised Army in the field – but he had at least held out stubbornly for the recognition he had demanded for his men all along: the requirement that they be allowed to operate as a stand- alone fighting force in their own right. It had been a long and acrimonious battle with his fellow Allied commanders, and one which would continue to flare up in fits and starts in the months ahead.

On 24 July 1918, as the first signs began to emerge in the Aisne-Marne area of a shift in fortunes in the war, Marshal Ferdinard Foch set about plotting new objectives for the months ahead. He wanted to maintain the forward momentum the Allied armies had begun to enjoy, rolling back the areas long held by the enemy or those recently captured in 1918’s offensives. But more especially, he thought in strategic terms of freeing up the vital communications links both north and east of the capital, towards Amiens and Avricourt respectively. Roll back the enemy there, he hoped, and a final breakthrough might be in sight. It could, he hoped, herald the beginning of the endgame.

St. Mihiel

For the Americans a specific task was outlined by Foch, one which specifically referenced the role of the “American Army”: no longer an adjunct to Allied forces. The task was identified by Foch as “the release of the Paris-Avricourt railroad in the region of Commercy by the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient.” 

A breakthrough in that area – the nipping off the irksome bulge which had existed since 1914 at St. Mihiel, south-east of Verdun – would put the Allies in a much stronger position in the north-east of the country. It would allow them to fight in the area between the Meuse and Moselle rivers and it could put them within touching distance of the important iron ore and coal mining areas northwest of Metz; with Metz itself a longer term strategic objective for Pershing. 

After four years of German occupation, an elderly French couple greet soldiers of the 77th and 42d Divisions arriving in the village of Brieulles-sur-Bar (Image: US Army photographer/public domain)

Energised by this new role for his men, Pershing initially made plans for two Armies, the First comprised of Hunter Liggett’s I Corps – itself to be expanded – joined by the troops of Robert Lee Bullard’s III Corps. A Second Army would be formed in the St. Mihiel area itself and he, Pershing, would assume a position in overall charge of the two as Commander of the AEF.

But when Foch refined his plans and objectives a fortnight later, they were of a more limited nature as far as Pershing was concerned. Foch required only one American grouping, for now at least; and this presented a dilemma to the American general. He did not wish to forsake his status as a military leader on an equal footing with fellow Allied commanders: he had painstakingly and doggedly carved out such a position over the preceding year. Yet he also craved as the task of commanding an army in the field. What to do? For now, somewhat awkwardly, Pershing decided to ride both horses, assuming the two positions concurrently.

Arguments

The arguments would continue with Foch and others in the weeks ahead as to what all the new American force would now do: its precise role; where and how it would fight; and the hardware placed at its disposal. But a new dynamic had entered the equation, in terms of the new strategic importance of the American forces. Whilst the size of the overall AEF troop strength was still only half that of the French army in the field, and still lower than the combined British Empire forces, Pershing headed up the only grouping that was gathering strength with every passing day. By the end of July, the US troop level stood at 1.2 million, a level increasing by up to 250,000 men per month. Problems still existed with the Services of Supply (SOS) operation provisioning these men, a task which was now to fall to his old Chief-of-Staff and recent general in command of the 2d Division, James Harbord. But the Americans were now an intrinsic part of the Allied equation and Pershing’s views had to be accommodated, however tricky his relations remained with the various personalities involved.

Aisne-Marne counter-attack, July/August 1918

Image from "Rheims and the battles for its possession"  (Guidebook, Michelin & Cie, published 1920) - University of California Libraries/Flickr/ No known copyright restrictions

The fighting of the Aisne-Marne counteroffensive, which the Americans had begun continued through late July and early August. It took in the two other rivers of the area in between the Marne and the Aisnes: the Ourcq and the Vesle. 

After the successful breakthrough of the 1st and 2d Divisions on 18-22 July, cutting off German control of the Soissons- Château-Thierry highway, a total of seven other US divisions joined in the counter-attack alongside the French Tenth, Fourth and Sixth Armies. 

Elements of the AEF’s 26th Division had jumped off at the same time as their 1st and 2d Divisions colleagues in their Soissons operation on 18 July, later being joined in their fight by the 28th ‘Iron’ Division. At the same time, the 3d Division fought its way up from the Marne, having held off the initial German Friedensturm Offensive of 15 July. Between 21 and 29 July the 3d Division took over seven miles of ground in their northern march, and were involved again in August during heavy fighting near the Vesle. 

The 42d ‘Rainbow’ Division was meanwhile engaged in the fight across the Ourcq River, capturing the villages of Sergy and Seringes-et-Nesles and its men were joined on 2-3 August by the 4th ‘Ivy’ Division, passing through its lines to take up an advanced position, moving up towards the Vesle River. The Vesle flowed north-west through Reims, emptying into the Aisne near the important transport hub of Soissons. On 4 August, the Ivy managed to secure first bridgehead over the Vesle at St. Thibaut west of Fismes, in face of heavy German artillery and machine gun fire and gas attack. But the attack ebbed and flowed, such was the ferocity of the enemy bombardment from high ground. Engineers of the 4th would lay a bridge across the river the following day but it took until 9 August to get men over in proper numbers.

There were also debuts during the offensive for the 32d and 77th Divisions, but fighting began to tail off between 6 and 10 August. Once his Allied forces had crossed the Vesle, Foch opted to call a halt for now to fighting in that sector, without attempting to cross the Aisne River. Time was on his side and he wanted to plot precisely how and where the battle would best to taken to the enemy, starting with the Battle for Amiens on 8 August. The final 'Hundred Days' were just beginning.

Also by Patrick Gregory in Centenary News:

Seicheprey - America's First World War baptism of fire.

The US air effort takes off, Spring 1918.

Patrick Gregory is co-author with Elizabeth Nurser of 'An American on the Western Front: The First World WaLetters of Arthur Clifford Kimber 1917-18 (The History Press) American on the Western Front & on Twitter @AmericanOnTheWF

Images courtesy of Imperial War Museums  © IWM Q 58390 (Foch & Pershing); US Army photographer/public domain (US troops at Brieulles-sur-Bar); Map from "Rheims and the battles for its possession" (Guidebook, Michelin & Cie, published 1920) - University of California Libraries/Flickr/ No known copyright restrictions