Article by Gene Fax
By the Spring of 1918, as American troops started to arrive in Europe in large numbers, the Western Front was transforming itself from a three-year stalemate to a war of mobility.
The British, French, and German armies had all evolved their versions of combined-arms operations comprising small-unit “infiltration” tactics, sophisticated artillery firing schedules, and above all, integration of infantry, artillery, airplanes, and (in the case of the Allies) tanks into a mutually supporting and well-choreographed assault system.
General John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, acknowledged none of this.
To him, the European powers were stuck in a defensive, trench-bound, no-win mentality.
It would be up to the Americans to introduce a war of movement that would stress "individual and group initiative, resourcefulness and tactical judgment".
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The key training objective was expertise in the rifle and bayonet. He wrote:
“Open warfare is marked by... irregularity of formation, comparatively little regulation of space and time by the higher command, the greatest possible use of the infantry's own firepower to enable it to get forward, variable distances and intervals between units and individuals, use of every form of cover and accident of the ground during the advance, brief orders, and the greatest possible use of individual initiative by all troops engaged in the action”.
Artillery and machine guns would be useful, but only as an adjunct to the infantry.
Some knowledge of trench methods would be needed to get into open country, but that could be imparted as an afterthought once the troops reached France.
But except for the exhortation quoted above (and variations on it), the General never explained what “open warfare” meant in terms that could be used to train the troops.
The manuals produced by his headquarters contained no study problems, map exercises, or examples of plans and orders to illustrate his ideas.
Training officers in the US and in France were caught in a dilemma: How to teach the troops to pierce the German entrenchments, while adhering to Pershing’s vague mandate to train for fighting in open country.
This conflict was never resolved.
As it happened, doctrine was the least of the AEF’s training problems.
When the US declared war on April 6, 1917, the Army had only about 120,000 men and 5,000 officers, mostly Indian chasers and coastal artillerymen.
There was no precedent for raising and training a force of (eventually) four million men.
The War Department saw no alternative to having the officers of each newly created division train their own recruits.
That might have worked had there existed a cadre of experienced trainers, but the officers were as green as their men - in practice, they made it up as they went along.
Inexperience at all levels was compounded by the practice of stripping the best-prepared men from divisions still in training to fill out the ranks of other divisions going overseas.
As a result, most divisions contained men at all levels of preparedness, from fairly competent to raw recruit.
The 79th, at full strength 28,000 men, actually trained 95,000 between July 1917 and July 1918, when it left for France.
Half of its men reached the division only two months before departing; many had never gotten a chance to fire their rifles.
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The training camps lacked weapons. The army entered the war with a motley collection of 1,100 mostly obsolete machine guns, and modern artillery pieces were wholly unavailable.
Wooden replicas of both had to be used for training in the States; the real things were purchased from the French once the troops got overseas.
Most rifle production was destined for the French and British under contract; many recruits trained with Krag-Jorgensens dating from the Spanish-American War.
The lack of artillery in the US meant that all gunnery practice had to done in France.
But suitable ranges were far from the front, so artillery brigades were separated from their own divisions upon arrival, to be replaced by other artillery units unfamiliar to the divisional officers.
Infantry brigades never did get to train with the guns.
The irony in this tale is that the "individual and group initiative, resourcefulness and tactical judgment” touted by Pershing really did exist.
Those qualities allowed the men of the AEF to train themselves in the midst of combat.
Mostly on their own, with some help from British and French officers, they learned to spread out and take cover when advancing, to mop up bypassed German positions, and to use fire-and-maneuver tactics when assaulting enemy strongpoints.
Coordination with the artillery steadily improved, as did the ability to execute complex battlefield manoeuvres.
By the end of the war, the soldiers of the AEF had learned the skills they needed.
But the price of that knowledge was visible in the brown-clad bodies strewn across the Argonne Forest and the slopes of Montfaucon.
Gene Fax is a graduate of MIT who began his career doing research and tactical studies in anti-submarine warfare as a contractor to the US Navy. He is now Chairman of the company he co-founded, The Cadmus Group, Inc.
His book, 'With Their Bare Hands: General Pershing, the 79th Division, and the Battle for Montfaucon', has just been published by Osprey Publishing. Additional image of American 'Doughboys' in trenches taken from 'The US Army of World War I' by Mark Henry and illustrated by Stephen Walsh.
Cover image: Americans in the Champagne-Marne offensive, July 15-18, 1918 (image: Don Troiani)