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MY EXPERIENCES IN THE WORLD WAR. By GENERAL JOHN J. PERSHING. New York: Stokes, 1931, 2 vols., pp. 400, 436.
THE tale of Memoirs of those who held high command in the Great War is approaching completion. I have read all which have so far been published -- British, French, Italian, German, Austrian and Russian; of them all, General Pershing's appear to me to be the frankest.
Some two-thirds of General Pershing's book is concerned with the creation of the American Army in France, the remainder with its employment. That is natural, for General Pershing landed in France on June 13, 1917, and the first battle fought by an American army under his command began on September 12, 1918, with the attack on the Saint Mihiel salient. The work of creating the army was far longer, more arduous and more complicated than the work of leading it when created. It is clearly beyond the competence of an Englishman to express an opinion upon General Pershing's complaints of the delays and lack of vision of the authorities in the United States, but the opening sentence in his book is sufficient to justify much of the trenchant criticism which follows. He begins: "On May 13, 1917, four weeks after the United States had declared war on Germany, I received the following telegram from my father-in-law, the late Senator F. E. Warren in Washington: 'Wire me today how much you speak, read and write French.'" This was Pershing's first intimation that his employment in France was contemplated, and it was nearly a fortnight later that he was informed of his selection as commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force. An army is maintained in order that it may be used in war, if the need arises; to be used, the army must have a commander-in-chief. Political considerations may make it advisable to keep the designation secret, even from the general chosen for command, but the choice should be made before the emergency arises, for when war comes it is clearly important that the chosen commander should be able to set about the selection of his staff and the consideration of plans at the earliest possible moment. Time, as Napoleon has taught us, is a prime consideration in war, and it is astonishing to find that six weeks after the declaration of war the Government of the United States had not nominated its commander-in-chief.
I agree emphatically with General Pershing's statement that if the United States could have put 500,000 men in the field in the spring of 1917 the war would have been won in that year. I would go even further and say that if the United States could have put into the line in France, at that time, an army of three army corps, each of two divisions, equipped for modern war, victory would have been ours before the winter. We know now from German sources the state to which the German Army was reduced in the winter of 1916-1917 as the result of the battles of Verdun and the Somme, and there are many competent French critics who believe that if the delay caused by the removal of Joffre and his replacement by Nivelle had not occurred, and if the Germans thus had not been given time to organize their retreat to the Hindenburg line, victory might have been won on the Western Front even without American aid on land. Foch's summary of the situation at the end of the battle of the Somme runs: "The number of prisoners and the quantity of matériel captured from the Germans, as also the amount of territory reconquered, exceeded by far what had been seen up to that time. On the enemy's side, to the disappointment caused by the check at Verdun there was added the uneasiness aroused by the unexpected material strength which the Allies had just displayed and which was certain to increase. This anxiety had already been manifested several times in the communiqués issued by the German staff during the battle. Other indications were seen in the replacement of Falkenhayn at
General Headquarters by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, as well as in the peace offers made at the end of 1916 and the retreat towards the Hindenburg position effected in the spring of 1917."[i]
General Mangin is even more definite. He says: "We may today assert that if the pressure of the Allied armies had been maintained during the winter (of 1916-1917) the situation in the spring of 1917 would have been the same as it was in July 1918, when our offensive began against an advance which had exhausted its force. . . . Final victory could have been won in 1917 by adopting, in the spring of that year, the methods employed in 1916."[ii] While this is speculation, it adds force to Pershing's contention that the prompt introduction of even a comparatively small American Army in the spring of 1917 would have been decisive. His statement that if the United States had been able to do this her rights would have been respected by Germany and she would not have been forced into the war is, I believe, equally true. Germany was confident that she could make her unrestricted U-boat warfare against British shipping decisive before an American Army could intervene on the Western Front, and as Mr. Churchill points out, the crowning blunder of German statesmen was their misunderstanding of the effect of American intervention. That misunderstanding would have been less likely if the United States was prepared to intervene on land at once.
If Great Britain had been able in August 1914 to place 250,000 men on the left of the French Army instead of the 100,000 which she sent to Mons, and had declared her intention of supporting France and Belgium if they were attacked by Germany, the World War would almost certainly not have taken place as and when it did take place, though it may be doubted whether in the existing state of Europe it could have been postponed indefinitely. These are matters on which those concerned with the grave and complex problems of the limitations of armaments will do well to ponder. While I believe it to be true that unrestricted competition in armaments is a cause of war, history tells us clearly that neglect to prepare for war has in the past been frequently a cause both of war itself and of its prolongation. It is the difficult task of the world's statesmen to try to arrive at a just balance between blatant aggressive militarism and the neglect of necessary precautions.
I trust it is not impertinent in an Englishman to say that in describing so clearly and graphically what the organization and training of a modern army entails, General Pershing has rendered a great service to his country. The American Army had the immense advantage of being able to carry out that organization and training behind the trench barrier which had been established long before its arrival; it suffered the disadvantage of having both processes constantly interrupted by a series of crises which had to be dealt with as they arose.
The fifth paragraph of the President's instructions to General Pershing, as conveyed to him by the Secretary of War, runs: "In the military operations against the Imperial German Government, you are directed to coöperate with the forces of the other countries employed against that enemy; but in so doing the underlying idea must be kept in view that the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved. This fundamental rule is subject to such minor exceptions in particular circumstances as your judgment may approve. The decision as to when your command, or any of its parts, is ready for action is confided to you, and you will exercise full discretion in determining the manner of coöperation. But, until the forces of the United States are in your judgment sufficiently strong to warrant operations as an independent command, it is understood that you will coöperate as a component of whatever army you may be assigned to by the French Government."
This instruction clearly imposed upon Pershing the duty of creating an American Army as soon as possible, and to that task he set himself with rare determination and courage. But the frankness with which he has written demands that he should be treated with equal frankness, and he certainly shows in his treatment of this problem of the creation of an American Army a suspicion of the aims of his Allies which I believe to be entirely unwarranted. I cannot, of course, speak with the same knowledge of what was behind the French proposals as I can regarding the British, but I believe the French military leaders to have been just as sincere as we were. Of the British objects I had some inside knowledge, for until the spring of 1918 I was closely concerned with them, and, as General Pershing says, I signed with him and Mr. Lloyd George the agreement, reached at Versailles on January 30, 1918, which first regulated the use of British shipping for the transport of American troops and their training with the British Army.
If the situation of the Allies on the Western Front had appeared to be favorable at the time of the entry of the United States into the war, it had changed lamentably for the worse by the time of General Pershing's arrival in France in the middle of June. General Nivelle's campaign had failed disastrously; he had held out extravagant hopes of success, and the reaction in the French Army and amongst the French people was correspondingly severe. The series of mutinies which followed rendered the French Army incapable of action for several months, and the British Army had to shoulder the burden of keeping the enemy occupied while Pétain was engaged in the task, which he accomplished successfully, of restoring the morale of his troops. The crisis became the graver as it became daily more and more certain that Russia was going out of the war. General Pershing appears hardly to have appreciated the causes of the gravity of the situation, perhaps because the French were rightly at great pains to conceal the true state of their army at the time. Concerning this period Pershing says: "It is probable that if the French and British army commanders, in a friendly spirit of coöperation, had made a joint study of the military problem on the Western Front as a whole and then had seriously undertaken to pull together, the Supreme War Council might never have been born. And yet when one analyzed it, coöperation between the armies presented many difficulties with two peoples of such different points of view. For example, as we have seen, the offensive in the spring of 1917, which was under French leadership, received only half-hearted approval of the British. Then later, the British carried on their offensives during most of the summer, but the French conducted only two limited attacks. So they apparently made plans independently, and any advantage gained was purely local, with little material effect upon the final outcome."[iii]
Now, in fact, from the earliest days of trench warfare the situation on the Western Front had been reviewed as a whole by the French and British commanders-in-chief, and, with the single exception of the comparatively small battle of Neuve Chapelle on March 1915, the British had not fought a single battle except as planned by the French commander-in-chief. It is true that Haig did not agree with the optimistic forecast of Nivelle, but that did not prevent the British Army from doing all and more than all Nivelle had asked of it in capturing the Vimy Ridge and in the battle of Arras of April and May 1917. It is certainly strange that the readiness of the British to take up the fighting in the summer and autumn of 1917, at the earnest request of Pétain, in order to give the French time to recover from the mutinies, should be cited as an example of lack of coöperation. There was no difficulty in coördinating plans on the part of the Allies on the Western Front while they possessed the initiative and could choose their own time and place for attack. It was when the initiative passed to the Germans, and the Allies, owing to Russia's collapse, were thrown on the defensive, that one supreme authority became essential. For then each commander-in-chief naturally enough expected the main effort to be made against himself, and some one superior to both was needed to coördinate the defense.
The situation in the winter of 1917-18, then, was that British man-power was low, as a result of six months of isolated effort to keep the Germans engaged; and in default of men to fill the ranks it became necessary to reduce the number of infantry battalions in each British division from 12 to 9. French man-power was also low, as the result of France's prolonged struggle while British military power was being developed. Owing to the defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto in October 1917, France and Great Britain had each sent five divisions from the Western Front to Italy. On the other side of the line, the Germans were bringing divisions from the Eastern Front to the West as fast as trains could convey them. Such was the situation. Is it surprising that in the circumstances we looked to the promptest possible American aid?
In considering how that aid could be most promptly given we naturally remembered that Canada, with a tithe of the resources of the United States, had placed a division in line within six months of the outbreak of war and an army corps in little over a year, while we ourselves had raised and placed in the field, within the year, eleven new divisions for which no nucleus of any kind had existed in time of peace. It was therefore disappointing to find that nine months after the entry of the United States into the war there was not one American division in the line; nor was there any prospect of more than three American divisions going into quiet parts of the front before the expected German attack took place. We therefore proposed, in order to meet the emergency of the German attack, expected in February or March, that the United States should send over in British shipping 150 battalions of infantry for temporary service with the British brigades. The reason for this proposal was that there seemed no prospect of having more American divisions ready by the spring, while American infantry battalions could reach the front in time. We all recognized that this was a temporary expedient and was very far from being an ideal arrangement. Of course, as General Pershing says, all troops fight better under their own flag and there were obvious risks in such an experiment. But it was not the first time it had been used in an emergency. General Pershing was evidently not aware of this fact when he wrote: "There was no instance during the World War that I know of when small units such as battalions and companies of one nation served in the armies of another."[iv] In the early part of the war I was the senior General Staff officer of our 3rd division and during the crisis of the autumn of 1914, when the Germans were making their great attempt to break through to the Channel ports, I know that French, British and Belgian units were, in emergencies, freely intermingled. In October 1914, when our 3rd division was hard pressed by the German 7th corps, near Neuve Chapelle, we had attached to us, as reinforcements under the orders of the divisional commander, seven batteries of French artillery, a battalion of French chasseurs, and a battalion of French cyclists; in the following month during the first battle of Ypres we had similarly attached to us a battalion of French zouaves and two regiments of French cavalry. The experiences of the 3rd division were certainly not unique in this respect. The difficulties of coöperation with French troops in this manner were considerable and both the French and ourselves were glad when the need for it had passed. None the less their services to us were invaluable, and we all hoped that the fact that we had a common language would make coöperation with American troops easier and even more valuable. When Sir William Robertson put this proposal to bring over American infantry in British bottoms to General Pershing on January 9, 1918, there were in France four American divisions and part of a fifth, of which one, after training with the French, was about to take over a sector of the front north of Toul, and General Pershing told General Robertson at that interview that "no one in the world could even guess" when more American divisions would arrive.[v] We were looking for help in March.
In these circumstances, General Pershing's comment on his interview with Sir William Robertson is really not worthy of him. He says: "The arguments General Robertson advanced clearly indicated that the British were playing for advantage for themselves in offering to transport our troops. In other words, they had the shipping to transport American battalions on condition that they would serve in the British armies. Their purpose was to build up their own units instead of aiding the cause in general by augmenting the number of complete combat divisions on the Western Front."[vi] We wanted to win the war as quickly as possible, and the proposal which we made to General Pershing seemed to us at the time the best expedient for that end. We certainly had not, as General Pershing suggests that we had, any Machiavellian scheme to prevent the creation of an American Army so that the influence of the United States would be diminished at the peace conference. In fact, we all realized that regardless of the part the American Army played in France the influence of the United States would be dominant. I happened to be at a meeting of the British War Cabinet just after the news of the declaration of war by the United States on Germany had come in, and I well remember how our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Bonar Law, said that this had saved the situation, because we could not have gone on for more than a couple of months longer acting as bankers for the Allies. The vast resources of the United States made their influence supreme apart altogether from military action. There are fools in every country and in every army, and there probably was some loose talk by irresponsible persons about the desirability of getting control of American troops, but I refuse to believe that any responsible British soldier or statesman deliberately set about preventing or delaying the creation of an American Army from political motives.
Foch puts the French side of the case clearly when he says: "On July 10 (1918) he (Pershing) came to see me with a request to expedite as much as possible the formation into army corps of American divisions then in the French zone; he also asked me to furnish artillery for those divisions which had none, drawing it, if need be, from French units. I was emphatic on this occasion in once more assuring General Pershing that no one desired more fervently than myself the constitution of American corps and armies, and sectors in which American troops would fight an American battle, and that my best efforts were being directed to this end. I was, indeed, firmly convinced that the soldiers of any country only give of their best when fighting under their own leaders and under their own colors. National self-esteem is then engaged. General Pershing's experience and character, moreover, were a guarantee that, whenever he might engage American troops, he would only halt after success had been achieved. Unfortunately, the lack of guns still prevented the furnishing of artillery to all the American divisions or army corps which it might have been possible to form. However, the object of the Entente was to obtain an indispensable superiority in numbers, and it would scarcely have accorded with its interests to deprive French units of their artillery for the benefit of the American divisions. On the contrary, the American divisions which had no artillery would be very advantageously used to relieve French divisions in quiet sectors, and so make the latter available for battle."[vii]
General Pershing suggests that we suddenly found shipping to be available when it was in our interest to let him have it, but that we had withheld it when it might have been used to bring over complete American divisions. He forgets that during the spring and summer of 1917 the ravages of the German U-boats were at their height. The losses of our shipping were colossal, and there was a very real danger at that time that Germany would achieve her object and compel us to make peace before the resources of the United States could be developed. These losses reached their peak just at the time of the entry of the United States into the war. In the month of April 1917 there were sunk 881,000 tons of British and Allied shipping. The losses to British tonnage due to enemy action in the third quarter of 1917 amounted to 952,938 tons, in the fourth quarter they had dropped to 782,889 tons, and in the first quarter of 1918 to 697,668 tons. In the first half of 1917 British merchant vessels to the number of 89 had been sunk or seriously damaged by mines, in the second half the number had fallen to 48, and in the first half of 1918 to 15.[viii] In the late autumn of 1917 we began, with American naval help, to get control of the U-boat menace and to sweep up the German mine fields. Towards the end of November I first learnt from our Shipping Controller that the situation was so far eased that we could take some risks as regards the supplies of food and raw material, and have more tonnage for the movements of troops. On November 27, 1917, I drafted a memorandum for Sir William Robertson which began, "I learn from the Shipping Controller that the shipping crisis is less acute." And from that statement I went on to outline the proposal for bringing over American battalions which he put to General Pershing. We could not have given the United States tonnage until we knew that we were on the way to master the U-boats, the greater part of our food supplies being sea-borne; and, as it was, our people had to make very real sacrifices to make shipping available. There are today in our midst thousands of mothers who could tell General Pershing that the health of their children has been permanently affected by the fact that they were brought up on margarine and war bread.
I was not one of those who believed that the association of American and British troops in the manner proposed would tend to foster the all-important ties of friendship between our countries, though there were many high authorities in England who thought it would have that very desirable result, and there was certainly a considerable competition between them and the corresponding authorities in France to get American sympathy. Remembering our experiences of the intermingling of British and French troops, I regarded the proposal merely as a necessary military expedient. When men of different nations are brought together compulsorily they necessarily meet habits and conditions and manners of thought other than those to which they have been brought up, and with the best of good will this tends to produce friction. A little incident which occurred while our negotiations with General Pershing were in progress confirmed me in this view. In a visit to a part of our front I heard that a friend had been wounded and was in a field hospital. I went to see him and in the hospital I heard that an American soldier, who had been with a party of American officers on a visit to our lines, had also been wounded. I went to his bedside, and after inquiring whether he was comfortable and whether I could do anything for him, I said: "Well, how did you get on with the British?" No Hollywood star has ever registered contempt more satisfactorily as he replied: "The British! Why them suckers drink tea!"
Eventually, after prolonged discussion, it was agreed with General Pershing at Versailles on January 30, 1918, that British shipping should be used to bring over complete American divisions and that the infantry of these divisions was to be trained with our army on the understanding that it would be released, when trained, to rejoin the American divisions. Unfortunately for us, though fortunately for the American infantry, none arrived in time to go into the line before the great German attack of March 1918. The losses in that attack created another manpower crisis, and again pressure was put on General Pershing, and again he resisted, but on the unanimous recommendation of the Military Representatives of the Supreme War Council, who of course included General Bliss, it was decided on March 27, 1918, that British shipping should be used to bring over the largest possible number of American infantry and machine-gunners. This still further delayed the completion of the American Army. I may say that throughout these negotiations we were at pains to consult authoritative American opinion, and we found that Generals Bliss and Leonard Wood and Colonel House considered our proposals reasonable in the special circumstances. General Bliss, who had supported the first proposal to bring over 150 battalions, had yielded to General Pershing's insistence; but in March he agreed with the other military representatives. Colonel House wrote to the President at the end of March: "Pershing's feeling that an American Army under his command should be established and made as formidable as possible is understandable. Nevertheless the thing to be done now is to stop the Germans and to stop them it is evident that we must put in every man that is available."[ix] That represented our own view throughout the controversy.
I wish to state our case as frankly as General Pershing has stated his, and he certainly had one argument which he does not mention in his book, but I have a clear recollection of his using it in his discussion with Sir William Robertson. He said in effect: "If you are so anxious as to the safety of the Western Front, why are you planning an offensive campaign in Palestine?" That campaign was planned on the instruction of our Prime Minister, Mr. Lloyd George, against the advice of the British General Staff, because he felt that some offset was required to a prolonged period of defensive warfare on the Western Front, and that a success in Palestine would encourage the British public. In the event, the German attack in France took place before that in Palestine could be begun, and offensive operations in the latter theater were postponed till autumn. After the German attack we brought home from the east two complete divisions, twenty-four other battalions, and five heavy batteries, and these might have been in France before instead of after the German attack.
When Foch was appointed at Doullens to coördinate Allied strategy, Pershing at once placed all the American troops in France at his disposal, and the 1st division went into the line in Picardy, to distinguish itself in the capture of Cantigny on May 27, 1918. A few days later the 2nd and 3rd divisions were called up to save the situation at Château-Thierry, and they put a stop to the third great German offensive of that year. On July 18 and on the following days the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, and 28th divisions took a notable part in the second battle of the Marne, which began the Allied march to victory. But these calls for American divisions and the expedient of sending over American infantry without its artillery and auxiliary troops postponed once more the creation of an American Army.
Soon after his arrival in France General Pershing had selected what was clearly the right front strategically for the American Army when created, and had chosen the reduction of the Saint Mihiel salient as the object of its first enterprise, but it was not until September 12 that the 1st American Army was able to attack as such under his personal direction, when, with the assistance of four French divisions, it triumphantly accomplished its task.
As late as the beginning of August, when the concentration for the battle of Saint Mihiel was begun, four American divisions were in the line attached to British armies and nine in the line attached to French armies, and no one wanted to part with them. All this made the organization of an American Army more difficult, and by the time it was actually formed the successes gained by the British and French Armies had caused Foch to envisage an early victory, provided a combined general advance could be made against the line of the Maubeuge-Mézières-Sedan railway, which was the backbone of the German system of communications. Foch therefore proposed on September 2 that between September 20 and 25 the American army should begin an attack west of the Meuse directed on Sedan in the greatest possible strength, and that the Saint Mihiel operation should be abandoned if it were likely to delay the inception of the Meuse-Argonne battle.[x] General Pershing considered that if the Saint Mihiel operation were limited in scope he could still undertake to begin the Meuse-Argonne battle in time, and so it was agreed. The transfer of troops from the Saint Mihiel salient to the Meuse-Argonne front was, as General Pershing says with just pride, admirably carried out, and the American attack was launched on September 26. But the time left for its preparation was very limited. It was soon in difficulties, which General Pershing deals with somewhat lightly. Of the situation on September 29 Foch says: "The American Army, squeezed into the narrow corridor between the Meuse and the Argonne, opposed by a resistance which was all the stronger because favored by difficult, broken country, and hampered in its advance by flanking fire both from the Argonne and from the east bank of the Meuse, continued to mark time. It tried to overcome these difficulties by increasing its forces in the front line; but this only intensified these difficulties, and resulted in a complete blocking of its rear and the bottling up of its communications." This experience was relatively no worse than had been our own in the battle of Loos of September 1915, or in the French attacks in Champagne in that year. The problem of organizing the rear of a battle-front in trench warfare was terribly difficult, but we and the French had learned something by bitter experience, and Foch wished to put that experience at Pershing's disposal. On October 3 he sent Weygand to him to suggest the transfer of some American divisions from the congested front, partly to the east of the Meuse, partly to the west of the Argonne. General Pershing seems to have seen in this another attempt to disrupt the American Army, and he resisted it stoutly. He attributes the suggestion to M. Clemenceau. The French Prime Minister had visited the American front on September 29 and was apparently not very favorably impressed with what he saw, but we now know from Foch's memoirs that it was not until October 21, eighteen days after Weygand had put Foch's proposal to Pershing, that Clemenceau intervened, when he proposed that Foch should call for Pershing's removal. Foch ignored this request, which he suggests was made in ignorance of "the difficulties encountered by commanders in handling the masses of modern armies." It might well have been that Foch's proposal would have led to speedier results with less loss of American lives, and it would have been more generous of Pershing to have seen that the proposal was made with that object and not as part of an intricate scheme to destroy the American Army. In the event, that army won through and was the first to reach the German spinal cord.
On November 11 General Pershing could claim that throughout his tenure of command no American troops had met with a reverse, that they had saved the situation in June 1918, taken a distinguished part in the victory of July, and that the American Army had made a decisive contribution to the final effort of the Allies. This is a notable record, but it is not made more notable by attributing unworthy motives and selfish scheming to those who had the honor of fighting alongside the soldiers of the United States.
[i] "The Memoirs of Marshal Foch." New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1931, pp. 220-21.
[ii] Joseph Mangin: "Comment finit la Guerre." Paris: Plon, 1920, p. 105.
[iii] Pershing, Vol. I, p. 217.
[iv] Pershing, Vol. II, p. 27.
[v] Sir William Robertson: "Soldiers and Statesmen, 1914-1918." New York: Scribner, 2 vols., 1926. Vol. I, p. 327.
[vi] Pershing, Vol. I, pp. 288-89.
[vii] Foch, pp. 345-46.
[viii] The War Cabinet. Report for the year 1918, pp. 424-48.
[ix] "The Intimate Papers of Colonel House." Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 4 vols., 1926-28. Vol. III, p. 444.
[x] Foch, pp. 399-401.