WWI: Pershing on the Western Front

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General Pershing on horseback as he leads a parade of WWI veterans through New York, 1919. Pershing was the architect of the American Expeditionary Force’s heavily criticised ‘open warfare’ strategy, intended to break the deadlock on the Western Front.

When did ‘the American Century’ begin? When did the United States first become a global superpower?

Some might argue it was with the Spanish-American War of 1898, the first major overseas campaign of US forces. But this was really a matter of medium-scale intervention in a couple of local conflicts – in Cuba and the Philippines – and the numbers involved were modest, with only about 70,000 US troops deployed.

Until that time, the US had remained almost exclusively focused on the North American continent. Public opposition to ‘imperialism’ and ‘adventurism’ was strong. European ‘colonialism’ was viewed with suspicion. The Spanish American War was only a partial break with this sentiment.

US intervention in the First World War represented a radical change of tempo. Some half a million American Doughboys would be hurled into action between September and November 1918 as part of the last great offensive on the Western Front.


Europe was a continent both of warring states and of rival empires. Here was a global war that would cost 15 million lives, bring down three empires, trigger several revolutions, and redraw the map of the world. American intervention in 1917 meant that, unequivocally, the US was now launched as a global power.

Altogether, about four million Americans served. Of these, around 100,000 died and 200,000 were wounded. This was the blood-price paid to earn US President Woodrow Wilson a leading role in the peace process in 1919, alongside British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemenceau.

Wilson’s voice was heard but not heeded. Liberal anti-imperialism suited the Americans because they wanted to break into colonial markets. It did not suit the Europeans – a band of feuding brothers consumed by avarice – and the outcome of the war was simply a resetting of the stage for an even greater conflict two decades later. Only then would the US emerge as decisive global arbiter.

One reason for limited influence in 1919 was perhaps the relative immaturity of the US military.

General John Pershing – who thought he knew better – found himself on a steep learning-curve during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, as the battle-hardened veterans of the German Imperial Army took a heavy toll of his raw divisions in the fierce fighting on the Western Front in the last three months of World War I.

General Pershing.


No general in American history held the kind of absolute power General Pershing wielded. With complete backing from President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton D Baker, Pershing could shape the AEF as he saw fit.

When the Great War began, Pershing was on the Mexican border, patrolling the frontier against incursions by Pancho Villa’s bandito revolutionaries. Observing matters from the Rio Grande, Pershing concluded that European tactics were all wrong.

He criticised the European emphasis on artillery and de-emphasising of traditional infantry skills like marksmanship. Of the AEF, he wrote:

To bring about a decision, that army must be driven from the trenches and the fighting carried into the open. It is here that the infantryman with his rifle, supported by the machine-guns, the tanks, the artillery, the airplanes, and all auxiliary arms, determines the issue.

In Pershing’s view, the infantry was to push its way through German lines and break out into the open country beyond. Marksmanship, manoeuvre, and mass would win the battle. Pershing called this doctrine ‘open warfare’.

When building the AEF in 1917-1918, Pershing organised massive, so-called ‘rectangular’, divisions of four regiments (the equivalent of British brigades), totalling 28,000 men in all. This made an American division about the size of a European army corps, and an American brigade, numbering 8,000 men, the size of a European division.

AEF Divisions usually attacked with one brigade in line and one in reserve. Often the reserve brigade’s artillery moved to the front to support the line brigade’s attack.

Brigades were divided into two regiments, each of three battalions. Regiments attacked with three battalions in column: attack, support, and reserve. The attack battalion would take a forward enemy position, while the support battalion would follow immediately behind so as to pass through and continue the assault to the next objective.

Battalions advanced two companies forward, two back, each in three lines of platoons. Behind these was a machine-gun battalion to lay down covering fire. Under Pershing’s concept of ‘open warfare’, lengthy artillery preparation was discouraged, as he felt this would give too much warning to the Germans.

The US 38th Division in action at the Second Battle of the Marne, July-August 1918.


But the doctrine of ‘open warfare’ involved large, unwieldy divisions that were difficult to supply. Throughout the Marne and MeuseArgonne campaigns, supplies and artillery units remained snarled in massive traffic jams. The situation was untenable during the Meuse-Argonne campaign, where only three narrow roads were available to supply the million-man AEF.

Pershing was repeating the mistake that had led British and French generals to launch murderous ‘breakthrough’ offensives during 1916 and 1917: underestimating the defensive power of modern weaponry in general, and the expertise of the German Army in defensive warfare in particular.


This is an extract from a 15-page special feature in the August 2018 issue of Military History Monthly.

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