How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
COMMANDING AN AMERICAN ARMY. BY MAJOR GENERAL HUNTER LIGGETT. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925.
PERSONALITIES AND REMINISCENCES OF THE WAR. BY MAJOR GENERAL ROBERT LEE BULLARD. Garden City: Doubleday, Page, 1925.
LEAVES FROM A WAR DIARY. BY MAJOR GENERAL JAMES G. HARBORD, New York: Dodd, Mead, 1925.
THE Civil War was fought to the somber strains of "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave" and "In the prison cell I sit." The men who were with Grant, Sherman and Sheridan later read the memoirs of their chiefs and found their own great achievements recorded, in tune with their times, in those excellent volumes. On such and such a date was the battle fought, by such and such units. Success and failure were plotted on the map, and special commendation was awarded where due. The stress and strain of it all was stated as simple fact, largely without the aid of personal sidelight; the highest authorities had spoken and might forever be quoted: clearly these were books to be passed down to one's sons and grandsons. But those same sons and grandsons engaged in a still greater war -- and sang of "Fritzy Boy" and "Madelon." Perhaps in more mature middle age they may be accorded solid pabulum of history as authenticated by their chiefs. In the meantime they must content themselves with the memoirs of Liggett, Bullard and Harbord, generals who make little attempt to rescue Clio from her maze of facts or to instruct future generations.
And well may they be content with those memoirs if they value the personalities of their chiefs and the spirit of the war. There are few better pen pictures of men than Bullard's little etchings of Liggett, Summerall, Harbord, Lassiter, Pétain, Mangin and Degoutte, or than Harbord's more detailed portraiture of Pershing, Dawes and Joffre, and his cynical sketch of House.
Harbord brings into the drama of war an occasional episode of pure comedy. General Pershing, on the point of leaving Paris with his staff, suddenly finds himself minus hat and Sam Brown belt, lent for a day to a portrait painter and not returned. The plot of a French farce could not have woven together, out of so simple an incident, more scatterings and scurryings to and fro or more amusing characters than Harbord's bewildered chauffeur who stalls his engine, "the Count, in much agitation, very much excité," or the faithful aide who stands by his chief through it all and finally lends him hat and belt.
By way of contrast Harbord draws a pathetic picture of the visit of Joffre to American Headquarters. The great French soldier, shelved by his government and deprived of all save the semblance of power, was back for a moment in the limelight on a formal visit to Chaumont. In the French Military Mission there he "acted as though he thought he was still helping the machinery move. He drifted over to the principal desk in the office, settled down over a chair, and asked if there were any papers. There were none to be acted upon by him." Shortly after dinner one of Pershing's aides "was told to tell the old Marshal that he was no doubt fatigued and wished to retire. And he was and he did."
Then there was the flat-footed Marine who waited on General Harbord's table and who, in the thick of the Château Thierry fighting, asked for an afternoon off to go up to the front line and kill a Boche. But major generals, it appears, cannot themselves indulge in even minor forms of risk without being reproved for recklessness. Back in the S. O. S., months after he had passed through his battles, Harbord decided to take a trip by airplane. On starting for the airdome he said to an aide: "Well, Williams, don't you want to go along and see us off?" The aide drew himself up very formally and replied: "Sir, I do not approve of this trip at all, and prefer to have nothing to do with it."
General Bullard likewise finds a bit of humor here and there, even where he himself is concerned: "A passing enemy plane dropped the biggest and loudest bomb that I have ever heard explode. It fell . . . a few rods from where I was. I almost said to myself, like other cowards that I have known, that I was the only one of the whole headquarters that was not killed. . . . And not a soul had been hurt." But, much more than its humor, Bullard's book is notable for its frank honesty. He sets down what he thought at the time, regardless of the light thrown by subsequent events. Through his dark pessimism, in the fall and winter of 1917, one may see those days in their true perspective. In October 17 his diary notes "a conviction that I have long felt, to-wit, that we, the United States, came into the war too late. We may perhaps save France from a shameful peace, but we cannot beat Germany. . . . So far as we are concerned, the war is practically lost; and we will get nothing out of it, not even barren victory." In November he writes: "They are consulting together, the three governments [France, England and Italy]. Of course, they cannot decide to end the war, but this German victory [Caporetto] will nevertheless bring the end." And in January of '18 he is much of the same opinion: "Our Allies will have to reduce their terms very greatly before any peace will come. The Americans talk awfully big but do very little."
Bullard has no patience with that form of American optimism which foresees great accomplishments in the future from small performances in the present. Even as late as October of '18 he complains of "too much talk, a great deal of expectation and too little realization. This has been the great American failing in the war. We have talked at long range. . . . It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that we made good only on the men: the gas came too late, and the airplanes and many other things did not come at all." Not pleasant reading, this; but it rings more true than General Liggett's soothing statement, in commenting on the "whole-hearted" manner in which we entered the war, that "there has been no other instance where all the military, naval and civilian resources of a country were so promptly and completely mobilized and thrown into a conflict."
Bullard's admiration for the American soldier is unquestioned: almost so much a matter of course as to be left unspoken. He indulges in no glowing encomiums. But now and then his uncompromising frankness strikes out at certain shortcomings. The Negro troops he puts down as being "hopelessly inferior," and gives his reasons for thinking so. Nor did he always find the rest of the army perfect, for he writes: "We are now going to transmit to our children the same exaggeration of uniform American duty, bravery and prowess as fill the popular histories of our Revolution. . . . The hardest work that I did or saw done in France was the holding of men to duty in service and battle." Four years later Marshal Foch, visiting America, asked a representative group of his former companions in arms what had been the greatest difficulty they had encountered in the war. One of them gave him, without knowing it, something like Bullard's answer: "Getting orders obeyed." And the Marshal agreed.
Bullard's pessimism spared not himself: "I do not believe I have the ability to make good," is a diary note. And to a certain degree it extended to his chief. "General Pershing is not a fighter," he wrote in December of '17. Yet with all his misgivings and in spite of the terrible handicap (during the summer and fall of '18) of severe and constant attacks of neuritis, he drove on through his work, sparing neither his subordinates nor himself.
Perhaps he had absorbed a little of the French spirit which he so well understood. "Miles and miles of them passed in column," he writes of their troops in the spring of '18, "steadily marching towards battle, deliberate, self-possessed, quietly smoking, silently gazing at me and other passers. No excitement, no worry or despair on those faces, only calm, a look not of determination but of resignation to go on and face whatever lay before them. I cannot think that they believed that they could stem the awful tide of German victory; they seemed only to feel that they could face it. . . . Death, annihilation, to fall and pass as they had seen many others fall and pass forever from their world. I wondered if these men were thinking of these things. Doubtless; but they moved on, looking calmly at one as they passed. Surely, where the war takes a good man, it makes and puts two in his place. Men may be lost, but manhood is never diminished by war."
It is these true pictures of war-time France, without any subsequent retouching, that give value and flavor to the memoirs of Bullard and Harbord. General Liggett is unfortunately prone, at times, to fix a battle line or chronicle in due order the achievements of his divisions and corps. But this occasional reversion to Civil War type only emphasizes the more that outstanding quality of Harbord's and Bullard's books, the personal reaction of these men to the appalling situations with which they coped. Their books are clear-cut silhouettes of their times and trials, poignant human contacts with the reality of war.
Liggett was a major general when we declared war and, after commanding the largest single army the United States has ever put into the field, was retired by a not over-grateful government with his pre-war rank. He was the only successful army commander of all the many nations who was retired after the war with the same grade he held when hostilities began. It is much to the credit of such a man, whose pen is by no means lacking in facility, that he should have written so dispassionately and so impersonally. But through this restraint his book suffers.
Once only does he give us a glimpse of the inner meaning of things. It is the 25th of October, before the last drive in the Argonne, and he is commanding the First American Army. General Gouraud commands the neighboring French army. Naturally both wish to attack at the same time, for mutual support. Liggett visits Gouraud, taking the occasion to return a call of the previous month -- and to line up the French in the attack, if he can. "When will you be able to attack?" Liggett asks. "When will you?" rejoins Gouraud, preferring to make the last bid. "We are directed to attack October 28th," Liggett replies -- he had, as a matter of fact, received formal orders to that effect four days before. Gouraud will not hear of so early a date, cannot possibly make it, and proposes the 2d of November. This really pleases Liggett, who thinks his own date too early. Finally a satisfactory bargain is struck between them for November 1st -- later approved by Pershing and Foch. And so the little scene closes, with its hint as to the real workings of the much heralded unity of command.
It is curious that not one of the three American generals (except Liggett, in a short paragraph) mentions this burning question of unity of command, supposed to have been the sine qua non of victory. General Bliss, in FOREIGN AFFAIRS for December, 1922, has described the "Evolution of the Unified Command" from the view point of the Supreme War Council at Versailles. But for the Chaumont side of that story, and its effect on American command in France, we will probably have to wait for General Pershing's long expected book. Harbord knew most about it, next to Pershing; but his book consists of his journal-letters to his wife, intimate and sometimes rather too personal. Perhaps in their ménage unity of command was a question of purely academic interest.
Harbord, steeped in French history and sensitive to all the beauty of France, occasionally gets a moment's respite from his great responsibilities by describing to his wife cathedrals and châteaux. Of Chenonceaux he finds time to write, at the height of the war: "One of the most beautiful dwellings ever fashioned by the art of man, in a most exquisite setting of vinelands sloping to the river's edge, -- a site too lovely to be long left without an occupant, -- the best of the plus excellents bâtiments de France, with its towers, turrets and gables, caught the eye while Tours was still just behind us. It has no stain of murder on its walls, almost the only great château of France of which that can be said, but stands as it has stood for centuries, a memory of the love and luxury of women." The man who could write that at such a time and place can be forgiven many omissions concerning unity of command.
But more to the point in a war diary are his descriptions of the fighting at Château Thierry and Soissons. The French were not at their best at those critical moments, and General Harbord, sympathetic always towards their difficulties and failings, is very sparing of criticism. Nevertheless the picture he draws of the almost indescribable confusion behind the lines and of changes of orders at the last moment puts the French command and staff in a far from favorable light.
Running through the three American memoirs from the time of Pershing's landing to the battle of Château Thierry, are constant echoes of the long and bitter struggle to form an American army. The French and British knew full well that our pre-war army had consisted of small isolated units, and that it contained no officers of proven capacity in the handling of even a division under war conditions. They therefore contended that we could not learn command and staff work -- the handling and supply of large forces in war -- in time to be of use, and hence that our troops should be given to them in small units. The logic of their contention seemed almost perfect at that time, and they backed it up with powerful pressure on the authorities in Washington. Against them stood only a rather inarticulate national pride, and the stubborn conviction of the professional American soldiers that they could meet the issue.
The scales seemed heavily weighted against an American army. The British threw in against it the promise of more shipping if our troops came over in separate battalions consigned to them. (And, according to Harbord, Pershing had determined to send our troops to the British rather than to the French if they were not to serve under their own flag.) Furthermore, in contending against the formation of a separate American army, the tried soldiers of England and France were presumably thinking only of the best means of winning the war, while the American generals were advocating a policy which would also lead to their own advancement and renown. To that extent their contention had to be discounted. Doubtless it was; yet withal, so honest, so firm (and perhaps also so innately American) was their faith in their own and their countrymen's ability to meet a gigantic trial of brain and stamina, that they finally carried the day. The American armies were formed.
That, in the end, we fought as a full-fledged ally and equal, and did not merely furnish small units of cannon-fodder to foreign armies, we owe largely to the old Regulars, especially to Pershing, Harbord, Liggett and Bullard. Harbord's vivid account of the confusion incident to the operation of American troops under French command at Château Thierry and Soissons, and Bullard's equally unpromising experience with French orders at Montdidier and Fismette, go far to prove how right and necessary was the formation of the American armies.
On one other vital point the three American memoirs throw a light. It was another conflict with our Allies -- a conflict intricately involved in the question of the formation of the American armies. General Pershing and his subordinates stood out for open warfare, aggressive action unhampered and unsheltered by elaborate systems of entrenchments. Only by breaking the German lines and pushing through into the open in vigorous offensive, they held, could the war be won. The French (and, to a certain extent, the British), with the bitter experience of three years of war behind them, could see little hope in anything but position warfare. The trench, to them, was the basis of everything.
In all those long months of organization and training which preceded our attack at Cantigny, well over a year after we declared war, this conflict continued, all the way down from Pershing's headquarters to the smallest training center. French officers were on the staffs of our schools and camps, and our divisions had to have their first try-outs in their trenches. At every point of contact the question of open vs. trench warfare was paramount in all matters of training and in much that concerned organization. Success in open warfare is largely dependent on accurate rifle and machine-gun fire at longer ranges, flexible infantry formations and artillery methods, and a command and staff which can function without the voluminous and meticulous orders of 1917. We prided ourselves on rifle fire: the French thought little of it. We were lost in the mazes of their trenches and the still more confusing labyrinth of the detailed orders and rigid methods produced by their stabilized warfare: they were habituated to it all as to a necessity of life. Pétain wrote, in an official memorandum on instruction dated as late as May 1, 1918: "Americans dream of operating in open country, after having broken through the front. This results in too much attention being devoted to that form of warfare." "So, too," writes Harbord, "with the staff organization; they sent us instruction as to how to organize our staff, ignoring our former organization, our history, our peculiarities, our laws; and are a bit sad that in training and organization we have insisted on remaining American."
After all, what presumption it was for us, who had not fought a great war in half a century, to go to France in 1917 and preach the offensive! And to the French, of all people, -- the French, who had begun the war with an army so thoroughly indoctrinated with the aggressive spirit. During that awful August of 1914 I happened to be thrown in close contact with an officer of the French General Staff. The agony of spirit of that man before the battle of the Marne cried aloud that intense French faith in the offensive, only the offensive, nothing but the offensive. The miracle of the Marne clearly lay not so much in the élan of that great counter-blow as in the retention of any cohesion in their high-strung and aggressive armies throughout the long retreat which preceded the battle.
An army which had had so gallant a spirit crushed out of it by the unanswerable logic of war, which had been forced to learn at Verdun the slogan of "Ils ne passeront pas" and to forget Danton's "De l'audace, encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace," was now, if you please, to have the offensive doctrine of open warfare preached to it by newly arrived soldiers whom one might so easily mistake for amateurs! It is not surprising that there was trouble, and plenty of it. One wonders what would have happened had not the Germans, breaking through the great lines of Allied entrenchments, forced the fighting under conditions of relatively open warfare, and so brought into strong relief the native fighting ability of the fresh and determined American riflemen and gunners. For, as it happened, we won our spurs and vindicated the faith of our chiefs in open warfare, not by driving Germans to it, but by meeting them after they had driven through the Allied trench systems. And the irony of it all lay in the fact that the Germans broke through the Allied lines by methods of open, rather than position warfare, -- by strategical and tactical surprise, by flexible infantry formations, by accompanying artillery, by unlimited objectives and by immediate and vigorous exploitation of success.
We were right in our contention for open warfare, as the Germans helped us to prove. But the interesting point is that we were right at that particular time. Had we come into the war immediately after the sinking of the Lusitania and advocated open warfare in September of '15, we would have found our Allies in complete accord with us. The great attempts to break through at Champagne-Artois, Verdun, the Somme and the Aisne-Arras had not then failed. Little practical evidence then existed to show that the deep systems of entrenchments were impenetrable. But by the fall of '17 the evidence against the probability of a break-through into open warfare must have seemed almost overwhelming. It had been tried so many times by the Allies and the Germans without success. Some of the best military minds in the world, with three years' practical experience behind them, had been thrown back onto the expedient of the limited objective attack. This meant attrition by relatively small bites into the deep zone of hostile fortifications. It was the best that position warfare could offer; but essentially it was a form of attack exacting most rigid methods and intricate preparations, enormous expenditure of munitions and great loss of time. Withal, it offered very small returns. It could not be decisive, save through the slow process of attrition. Messines and Malmaison were the classic examples.
That our people should not have embraced this form of warfare with any enthusiasm was to have been expected. No one liked it. But that they should have rejected it in the face of so much evidence against its alternative (which Harbord's and Bullard's books clearly show they did) is very remarkable. Did they know that the Germans were training their troops for open warfare? They probably did: but through British and French sources. Did they perceive that time was working for the German submarines and against the slow methods of position warfare? Why, then, was not this also apparent to the British and French? Did they foresee that air-force, tanks and gas would soon give the offensive sufficient superiority over the defensive to enable the war to be wrenched out of the trenches ? If they did, their calculations were wrong, for this factor alone does not account for what actually happened in 1918. Or did they sense the fact that the American troops, with all their lack of training and experience in war, had nevertheless a marked superiority over the Germans in the open, in that they were fresh and of prime vigor while the corresponding German manhood had been killed off in the preceding years?
To train our troops for the offensive in the open was one of the crucial decisions of the war. It is rather a pity that the memoirs of the three generals throw so little light on the reasons which led to it. They were not doctrinaires, those men, but hard-headed Americans facing a practical problem; yet in their books they say only that the offensive had always been the American doctrine, and that by it alone are wars won. This, of course, begs the question, since the offensive is everyone's doctrine in war (when it can be used), and everyone knows that it alone brings decisive victory. What one would really like to know is whether our generals were right in 1917 simply because capable on-lookers sometimes see more clearly into the true essentials of a problem than those who are deeply involved in it, or because the American military mind was, at that period at least, decidedly superior to the British and French.
But these three books do clearly show, if such showing be necessary, that war is not an enterprise which lends itself to international management. It is too intense, too wearing on the nerves. We fought on French soil, in close contact with French troops, and our lines of supply ran from one end to the other of their country. At a thousand points two high-strung races, differing even more in a temperament than in language, impinged on each other. Under those trying conditions it was fortunate that we had in high command in France men whose sympathetic eyes looked deeply into the French character. Beneath all irritating superficialities they saw underlying virtues, and on those they patiently built a modus vivendi -- while at the same time they "insisted on remaining American."