WWI Centennial: The Colossus Begins To Move
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 279th installment in the series.
June 13-15, 1917: The Colossus Begins To Move
Following the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in early April, all eyes in Europe were on the great Republic across the sea, with people on both sides of the great conflict wondering (some in hope, others in fear) whether the Americans really intended to join the fight – and if they did, would they arrive in time to affect the outcome of the war?
A little over two months later they had the answer to at least the first question, as the colossus in the west finally began to move. Mid-June saw the arrival of the top American general in France, as well as the successful closing of the First Liberty Bond, kicking off a mass fundraising campaign to pay for the war effort, largely sponsored by the savings of ordinary American citizens. Meanwhile a crash construction program for a vast network of training camps was also getting underway, laying the groundwork for the creation of a new army numbering in the millions; record-breaking procurement programs to build a huge air force, navy, and merchant marine were also swiftly set in motion.
PERSHING IN PARIS
With the death of Lord Kitchener at sea still fresh in every one’s minds, the voyage of General John “Black Jack” Pershing and his staff across the Atlantic Ocean was kept top secret, in order to protect the top commander of the American Expeditionary Force from ambush by enterprising German U-boats. The gambit worked, as Pershing’s sudden arrival at the British port of Liverpool aboard the ocean liner Baltic on June 8, 1917 seemed to have taken everybody by surprise.
After a train journey to London, Pershing spent four days in the British capital, where he was received by King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace, then met with Prime Minister Lloyd George and conferred with top officials at the War Office. The American commander and his retinue then proceeded by train to the southern port of Folkestone and crossed the English Channel aboard a fast destroyer with a large naval escort, including sea planes and blimps watching for U-boats; the vanguard of the U.S. Army, consisting of 59 officers and 67 enlisted men, arrived in Boulogne and set foot on French soil for the first time on June 13, 1917 (top; below, a doughboy disembarks).
Following a quick tour of Boulogne, which served as the headquarters and main supply hub for the British Expeditionary Force, Pershing’s party continued by train to Paris, where they received a rapturous reception from the city’s population and virtually the entire French government. The American journalist Floyd Gibbons, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, recalled their arrival:
The sooty girders of the Gare du Nord shook with cheers when the special train pulled in. The aisles of the great terminal were carpeted with red plush… General Pershing stepped from his private car. Flashlights boomed and batteries of camera men manoeuvred into positions for the lens barrage. The band of the Garde Republicaine blared forth the strains of the “Star Spangled Banner,” bringing all the military to a halt and a long standing salute. It was followed by the “Marseillaise.” At the conclusion of the train-side greetings and introductions, Marshal Joffre and General Pershing walked down the platform together. The ops of the cars of every train in the station were crowded with workmen. As the tall, slender American commander stepped into view, the privileged observers on the car-tops began to cheer. A minute later, there was a terrific roar from beyond the walls of the station. The crowds outside had heard the cheering within.
There followed a long, slow journey by a convoy of vehicles carrying the Americans and a cross-section of France’s top political and military leaders:
General Pershing and M. Painleve, Minister of War, took seats in a large automobile. They were preceded by a motor containing United States Ambassador Sharp and former Premier Viviani… There were some fifty automobiles in the line, the rear of which was brought up by an enormous motor-bus load of the first American soldiers from the ranks to pass through the streets of Paris. The crowds overflowed the sidewalks. They extended form the building walls out beyond the curbs and into the streets, leaving but a narrow lane through which the motors pressed their way slowly and with the exercise of much care. From the crowded balconies and windows overlooking the route, women and children tossed down showers of flowers and bits of coloured paper. The crowds were so dense that other street traffic became marooned in the dense sea of joyously excited and gesticulating French people. Vehicles thus marooned immediately became islands of vantage. They were soon covered with men and women and children, who climbed on top of them and clung to the sides to get a better look at the khaki-clad occupants of the autos… American flags and red, white and blue bunting waved where the eye rested. English-speaking Frenchmen proudly explained to the uninformed that “Pershing” was pronounced “Peur-chigne” and not “Pair-shang”….
The convoy finally arrived at its destination, the Hotel Crillon, a luxury hotel located in a former aristocratic palace, where the crowd called for Pershing to show himself on the balcony. In a deft bit of public diplomacy, the American general honored his host country by catching a corner of the French tricolor and kissing the national flag of America’s “Sister Republic,” prompting another surge of delirious acclamation from the masses below (however Pershing did not utter the phrase, “Lafayette, we are here,” commonly attributed to him; the famous exclamation was actually delivered by his aide, Charles Stanton, during a speech at the tomb of the Revolutionary War hero in the Picpus Cemetery on July 4, 1917).
Pershing had become an instant hero in France and Britain simply by showing up, but it’s worth noting that not everyone was carried away by these carefully staged propaganda scenes or the romantic myths which grew up around him – especially the American soldiers who would do the actual fighting. Thus some critics noted that America’s top general barely spoke any French, still the universal language of educated people in that era. Others remembered that his nickname was actually an unflattering (not to mention racist) epithet bestowed earlier in his career by rank-and-file troops who resented his prickly parade ground manner and strict discipline. Finally, Pershing showed little inclination to share the privations of his men: the four-star “General of the Armies” – the only officer in the U.S. military to receive this title – traveled everywhere aboard his own ten-car headquarters train, including a wagon carrying two luxuriously appointed automobiles, which sometimes carried the 57-year-old general to secret assignations in Paris with his French mistress, the 23-year-old Micheline Resco.
For the time being the American contribution to the Allied war effort would be mostly symbolic as far as manpower was concerned: in July there were 20,000 U.S. troops in France, rising to 65,000 in October and 129,000 by the end of the year. However these numbers would start to rise rapidly in 1918, raising an important question: would newly-arrived American troops be committed piecemeal to fill in the gaps in the depleted French Army, as the French generals demanded, or would they fight as separate American units, serving under their own officers? It was here that Pershing made one of his first major contributions to the U.S. war effort: although the Americans would initially fight alongside French and British troops as part of their training in trench warfare, Pershing insisted they return to their own divisions, eventually forming entire American armies, which played a decisive role on the Western Front.
THE FIRST LIBERTY LOAN
Back home, June 15, 1917 saw the closing of the First Liberty Loan, an official U.S. government bond authorized by Congress to raise money from the American public for the war effort. The stated goal for the Loan was $2 billion, but it was massively “oversubscribed,” raising a total of $3.04 billion by the closing date, reflecting a surge in patriotic feeling as well as the relatively generous terms of interest.
During the war all the major combatants relied on interest-bearing bonds to raise money from their publics, including private citizens and businesses, in part because this was more politically palatable than other techniques like raising taxes or printing money, which spurred inflation, making everyday goods more expensive. The bond drives were accompanied by ubiquitous publicity and propaganda campaigns portraying the bond purchases as both a civic duty and sound investment.
Over the course of the war, for example, Germany issued nine major loans for public subscription, raising a total of around 93 billion marks, or about 60% of the total war debt of 156 billion marks from 1914-1918. Meanwhile France raised 24.1 billion francs through public war loans and 55 billion francs through ordinary short and medium-term bond sales, accounting for just over half the total debt of 150 billion francs accumulated by the end of the war. British war bonds raised over £1 billion in the last year of the war alone. For its part Austria-Hungary issued eight public loans during the war, while Italy issued five and Russia issued six before the 1917 Revolution.
As time went on, however, public enthusiasm for the war bonds waned, especially in the Central Powers as doubts grew about the chances of victory, raising the question of they would ever be repaid. By contrast the United States government was much better positioned to raise money from the American public, as pre-war public debt was fairly low and war fatigue hadn’t set in, while confidence in victory was high. Over the course of the war the government issued a total of four Liberty Loans and one Victory Loan, raising a total of over $20 billion – a stupendous amount, considering the country’s entire GDP in 1916 (the last peacetime year) was around $41.3 billion.
The vast sums raised by the loans helped pay for a breathtakingly ambitious (and remarkably rapid) war construction program, including dozens of training camps across the United States, where millions of drafted men from all over the country would learn the basics of military discipline, drill and maneuver (below, Camp Meade).
Congress had also approved a program to build a huge navy of ten battleships, six battle cruisers, 30 submarines, and 50 destroyers, the latter critical for the fight against German U-boats, and also authorized the formation of a new Emergency Fleet Corporation with the goal of building millions of tons of new cargo shipping to offset huge losses to submarines. Although the success of the EFC was debatable – it didn’t manage to produce any ships before December 1917 – the U.S. also commandeered around 3.5 million tons of shipping from the Central Powers and later neutral powers including the Netherlands, raising total U.S. seagoing tonnage to 12.4 million tons by the end of the war. Last but not least, Congress agreed to a plan to build 22,500 aircraft engines for both the United States Army Air Force (then a single branch under the Army) and the Allies, who were prepared to build thousands of airframes but needed the “Liberty Engines” to power them.
Foreign observers were surprised at how swiftly the new training camps and factories seemed to spring up. Lord Northcliffe, the British newspaper tycoon, recalled the construction of a new camp not far from his estate on Long Island in June 1917: “My American home is some miles out of New York City. When I took up my residence there in June last there were no signs of war about me. I went to Washington and returned after the space of a few days. A vast camp, as big as ours at Witley in Surrey appeared at my doors as though it had grown by magic.”
Not long afterwards he was invited to witness work on a huge complex of camps near San Antonio Texas (see map above):
Early in July there lay three miles outside San Antonio, Texas, a stretch of ground covered with a difficult kind of scrub or bush. On the 6th of July there appeared an army of between nine and ten thousand workmen of every known nationality, directed by young Americans of the Harvard and Yale type. The ten thousand arrived in every kind of conveyance, in mule carts, farm waggons, horse cabs, motors, and huge motor vans. At the end of the day’s work, when the whistle had blown, the scene resembled that of some eccentric elaborately-staged cinematograph film. Together with the army of ten thousand men came many kinds of semi-automatic machinery… In this new town outside of San Antonio twelve miles of rail, twenty-five miles of road, thirty-one miles of water pipe, thirty miles of sewer were accomplished in forty-five days… Nearly all material had to be brought from what appear to us vast distances. As often as not the thermometer stood at 100 degrees, yet the daily photographs taken by the contractors show that progress was continuous, until on August 25th a considerable part of the city was ready for occupation. The strongly and comfortably built huts are all provided with heating arrangements for the winter, and baths hot and cold are attached to each building; there are vast stores and office blocks, several post offices, a huge bakery, laundry, stables for thirteen hundred horses and mules, hospitals, schools; in all between twelve and thirteen hundred buildings.
The men who were soon training in these camps weren’t always as impressed with the comforts provided, often finding barracks and tents cold and drafty and the food unappetizing. As always it was usually a shock for civilians to adjust to military life, where they were suddenly subjected to the rigors and arbitrary whims of military discipline; it was also an eye-opening cultural experience, as volunteers and conscripts found themselves thrown together with people from all walks of life and social strata.
One newly enlisted man, Paul Green, expressed typical sentiments in a letter home in the summer of 1917, in which he described the training camp at Goldsboro, NC:
When I was at Chapel Hill, I thought that was a rough place; but this is the roughest place on earth. The profanity of the soldiers is awful. Co. B. is a roaring, rough set of fellows. There is an old blacksmith that sleeps in our tent who is the roughest man, I know, that ever saw day daylight… The drill leaders are pretty rough on you. Some of the men have fainted each day while drilling since I came. The way they bring them to their senses is to send three men for three buckets of water. Then they dash these on them and in their faces. After doing that they grab them by the collar and shove them back into ranks. One fellow drilled beside me this morning, coughing and vomiting every few minutes. After a short time, he fell out and lay in the hot sun, slobbering like steer. After they had poured about a barrel of water on him, he got better… For my part, I never am going to curse. I’m going to stay straight. It will not be hard for me to do it, for all profanity and vulgarity sickens me.