French Are Bled White, but Are Americans Ready?
What A Way to Get Leave.
Special to The Great War Project.
Editor’s note: an earlier caption on a graphic in this report misidentified it. It is Marshal Foch, the French military leader, not the French president Raymond Poincare
(4 September) Some of the first Americans arrive in Paris and then to the battlefield.
On September 6th a century ago, General John J. Pershing, commander of the American army in France, known as the American Expeditionary Force or AEF, moves his headquarters from Paris to Chaumont, according to historian Martin Gilbert, “near to what would most probably be the American sector of operations.”
But, Gilbert continues…
…“it was proving a hard time to have his men ready for action.”
That same day, the French president, Raymond Poincare, came to review the American troops. The parade ground was muddy and churned up. Neither Pershing nor Poincare was impressed with the readiness of the American troops.
The American Secretary of War insists no American soldiers shall be sent to the front before they are trained thoroughly. When he hears this, the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau “replied acerbically, it was not a question of being ready; nobody was ever fully ready.”
“It was a question of helping France which was exhausted and bled white and needed help.”
“By this time,” reports historian Thomas Fleming, “Pershing had no illusions about what he and Woodrow Wilson were confronting on the Western Front: defeat.”
“Pershing,” reports Gilbert, “understood the almost desperate needs of his allies.” Still, it looks like Pershing does not intend to bring large numbers of American troops to the French battlefield until the summer of 1918.”
In the meantime, the first few American soldiers in France are killed. “On September 4th,” writes Gilbert, “four Americans die during a German air raid on a British base hospital. On the following day two American soldiers, both engineers, were killed by German shellfire while repairing a light railway track…behind the lines.”
The following day a British mine sank the German submarine U-88. There’s an American side to this story.
“In 1915,” reports historian Gilbert, “her captain Walther Schwieger had sunk the Lusitania.” Many Americans died in that attack, and that was responsible for increasing pro-war sentiment in the United States.
Shortly before Schwieger’s death, he was awarded Germany’s highest decoration for bravery. Yet his sinking of the Lusitania went unmentioned in the citation.
Another incident at the time illustrates the sadness and irony of this war.
A British soldier, Private James Smith, was executed for desertion. He joined the army in 1910 and fought at the battle of Gallipoli in 1915. Was buried by a German shell in the trenches. But survived.
His good conduct began to deteriorate after that.
Finally, he deserted, but was caught, put on trial for desertion, was convicted and sentence to death.
Martin Gilbert picks up the story:
“Among those who were ordered to take part in the firing squad was private Richard Blundell who knew Smith well. After the executioners’ volley had been fired, it was discovered that Smith was still alive. The officer in charge, who by tradition would then have shot Smith with his revolver, could not go through with it. Instead, he gave his revolver to Blundell and ordered him to fire the shot. Blundell did as he was ordered. As a reward for his action he was granted ten days home leave.”
Many years later when Blundell himself was on his deathbed, he repeated again and again, “what a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.”