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Posted on Jan 10, 2022 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Documenting Black Jack Pershing’s War. Book Review

Documenting Black Jack Pershing’s War. Book Review

Ray Garbee

John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, 1917-1919, Volume 1: April 1917 – September 30, 1917.Author: John T. Greenwood (editor). Publisher: University of Kentucky Press. Price: $ 65.00

I’ll admit my knowledge regarding the United States military in the First World War is not a deep river. But you can argue that the Allied Powers may not have won the war without the declaration of war by the United States of America in April, 1917. The outbreak of war found the United States Army having to pivot from its recent ‘punitive’ campaign against Pancho Villa in Mexico to recruiting, training, equipping and transporting an entire army across the Atlantic into action in Europe.

Fortunately, the country had a capable officer available for the task – John J. Pershing. General Pershing was faced with the intimidating task of transforming the US Army from a force engaged in counter-insurgency operations into a large standing force capable of waging modern war on a foreign battlefield. How General Pershing accomplished this task is the subject of an eight-volume set edited by Dr. John T. Greenwood. The folks at the University of Kentucky Press were kind enough to furnish volume 1 for review – John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, 1917-1919, Volume 1: April 1917 – September 30, 1917 .

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Within this volume, Dr. Greenwood has produced an engaging review of General Pershing’s activities from the time war was declared through September of 1917. The narrative of activity is viewed through the lens of the correspondence and directives General Pershing sent, annotated with editorial notes that provide context and clarifications.

It is an impress achievement, and one that drives home just what a huge task General Pershing shouldered in 1917. While General Pershing is best remembered for leading the US Army to victory in the First World War, the activities in volume 1 are focused on the organizational efforts in creating a modern army and equipping it to fight in Europe. It’s reminiscent of the details in the “Green Books” volumes on the Army Ground Forces and Army Service Forces during the Second World War.

Dr. Greenwood has provided an important contribution to both the role of the United States Army in the First World War, as well as an example of the complex nature of coordinating the formation and deployment of military forces. General Pershing recognized that an army marched on its stomach and he spent as much effort in devising and implementing an independent logistical system as he did in organizing ground and air combat units.

The deployment of the American Army to France was a task much greater than just pointing half a million men east, and proclaiming that ‘the Yanks are coming!’  John J. Pershing faced a challenge beyond Winfield Scott at the outbreak of the American Civil War or Nelson Miles in the Spanish American War.  Pershing was required to not just create a combat force, but to fabricate the entire infrastructure that would carry that force to the front lines, then support and sustain combat operations by the force against the Germans.

Beyond capturing the bureaucracy required in organizing for war, this book provides insights into Pershing’s leadership and management style.  Pershing’s responsibilities encompassed logistics, military operations, aviation, sanitation, procurement and politics. Pile on top of that, he would be leading an American field army that was operating within a European coalition for the first time since the American Revolution.

Speaking of revolution, it was interesting to read Pershing’s comments to General Hugh L. Scott regarding the outcome of the Russian March 1917 Revolution. “I would like to have had the opportunity of seeing the transition from a monarchy to a free government….” (p. 311) The communication shows the power of hindsight as even Pershing could not foresee the rise of the Bolshevik state following the October 1917 revolution. It’s an excellent example showing how difficult it is to predict the future from the events happening at the moment.

The correspondence in the book nicely documents the enduring challenges in managing large organizations as they prepare for action. A century of hindsight shows the proven value of weapons and equipment – the Springfield rifle, and the Liberty V-12 engine being but two examples of the industrial might of the United States. But the various letters and messages reveal the wide-ranging debate and administrative finagling that to ensure these arms and equipment were adopted.

The book’s illustrations include this image of General Pershing (right, in darker uniform) inspecting a French airplane in 1917.

The diplomatic maneuvers regarding how to best organize and equip the American Army reveal chauvinistic national blinders regarding British and French opinions towards the Americans. When the Americans offered their Springfield rifle to the French, the response was “keep it”. Meanwhile, British opinion suggested that the Americans would be best served by fully adopting British arms and ordnance in the spirit of simplifying the coalitions logistics. (Pitched as ‘we’ve got more .303 than we can use and introducing a third caliber to the logistics train is going to be confusing’).

This national debate extended far beyond logistics issues. Pershing is well known for his opposition to having American troops serve under French or British command. The correspondence in Volume 1 nicely documents the tension between the alliance partners, as well as showcasing how Pershing’s force of will could both hinder and help the Allied cause.

John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, 1917-1919, Volume 1: April 1917 – September 30, 1917 is a well-organized, informative work. The volume is an admirable synthesis of letters, cables and diary entries. When required, Dr. Greenwood provides narrative clarity and introduces material from other participants. A linear approach to the material is understandable, and a format the reader can readily engage.  Where documents reference attachments that are not reproduced in the book, notes direct the reader to the archival location of those attachments.

The book is an invaluable reference for historians of American involvement in the First World War. General Pershing’s role as commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe placed him at the intersection of logistics, strategy and politics. This position made him a key observer as well as a decision maker in the last year and a half of the war. Pershing’s correspondence is critical to understanding his point of view, decision-making process and management style.

The correspondence retains a sense of purpose and drive. In a way, reviewing the documents shows how the printed word is similar to the communications done via e-mail, or the various productivity applications used by modern business, albeit at a slower physical pace. Volume 1 shows Pershing as a detail orientated leader, driven to project American military (and at times political) power while functioning as part of a multi-polar coalition.

Casual readers will find the details of the correspondence between Pershing and others a fascinating insight into leadership and management at what today would be termed the “C” level suite. The narrative aids in understanding how Pershing translated strategic goals into tasks for his subordinates. If subsequent entries in the series hold to the high standard on display in this volume, the series will be a welcome addition to the history of the U.S. Army during the First World War.

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