As General of the Armies, John Joseph Pershing held the highest rank in the U.S. Army until 1978, when a slightly higher rank was created for George Washington. Still, Pershing was the first American general to wear five stars in his lifetime, making him the equivalent of a European Field Marshal.
That he rose to this rank from the modest rank of Captain in a mere thirteen years is the result of both talent and political patronage. Serving in the Army in a pivotal period of its existence, he was the commander who led American Doughboys “over there” and represented America alongside the powers of Europe.
Born in Missouri in 1860, Pershing attended West Point, graduating in 1886. His academic performance was modest, but he distinguished himself as class president. For the next decade, he served in the cavalry in campaigns in the west. Notable features of this service include operations against Geronimo and the fact that Pershing’s unit, the Tenth Cavalry, was a black unit, dubbed the “buffalo soldiers.”
In 1897, he taught briefly at West Point, where cadets called him “Black Jack” for his service in the Tenth Cavalry. The following year, however, he was back with the “buffalo soldiers,” fighting the Spanish in Cuba. From Cuba, he was sent to the Philippines, where he remained until 1905, and to which he returned for further service until 1913. He drew a great deal of attention for his work during the Philippine Insurrection, especially on the island of Mindanao, where he deftly combined military strength with shrewd negotiation against the Islamic Moro fighters.
1905 brought some major changes in Pershing’s life. He served as a military observer in the Russo-Japanese War; that same year, he married Helen Frances Warren. Her father was the chairman of the Senate committee for military affairs. This connection, in addition to a friendly relationship with President Theodore Roosevelt, helped to advance his career substantially: at a single stroke, he went from captain to brigadier general.
With his new rank, he returned to the Philippines, where he served until 1913. Tragedy struck in the summer of 1915: in August his wife was killed in a fire, along with three daughters. He returned to the field in 1916, when Pancho Villa’s raid across the American border provoked a retaliatory strike. Pershing led the Punitive Expedition, and while he failed to catch Villa, he did enough damage for the expedition to be accounted a success. Indeed, it was successful enough to recommend him for supreme command of American forces when the U.S. entered World War I in April, 1917.
In the summer of 1917, Pershing had two stars, but too few troops to make any meaningful contribution to the war effort and too much training to do for the troops being raised. Indeed, Pershing still had only 300,000 troops available in March 1918, when the Germans unleashed a major offensive.
This became a source of great frustration between Pershing and the top commanders of the British and French armies. In a war of attrition, especially in a context in which the withdrawal of Russia from the war freed up enormous numbers of German soldiers, the Allied leaders needed men to replace their own losses. To them, it seemed as if American troops sat idly by, waiting for an ideal time to act.
Pershing, however, had a firm understanding of his orders: he was to build an effective American army in France, and to his thinking, that precluded doling out his troops piecemeal. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) would act when it was ready to act as a unified body, and it would undertake independent action.
It was not necessarily clear that his orders did preclude limited American participation in combined efforts; the Chief of Staff, General Bliss, was inclined to think that such cooperation was possible and even desirable. It would have smoothed out relations with America’s allies, and it would have given parts of the American force exactly the kind of practical experience that it needed to complete its transformation. Despite this difference of opinion, Bliss backed Pershing, much to the frustration of the British and French.
While Pershing’s tenacity deprived his troops of useful practical experience before the summer of 1918, his firmness also did wonders in honing the AEF on an organizational level. He expected performance from his officers and did not hesitate to remove those who did not measure up to his expectations. In this way, he honed the AEF into an effective force, yet it accomplished nothing until the summer of 1918.
In the end, a compromise was reached among the Allied leaders. By summer, Pershing’s force had grown to 800,000, or half a million more than in March. General Bliss assumed the mediator’s role with other Allied commanders, and it was agreed that American troops could fight in mixed company, provided that they were deployed in units no smaller than the divisional level. In this capacity, some American divisions fought with the French at the Marne in June and July.
In August, General Pershing officially established First Army; the following month, he was cleared to undertake offensive action. The first effort was an attack on the salient at St.-Mihiel; it was successful, although the Germans had resolved to withdraw before the attack began, and so the defense was less than stubborn. Two weeks later, First Army opened an offensive in the Meuse-Argonne sector, and here Pershing’s experience as a cavalryman failed him.
Like tank commanders in future wars, cavalry officers tend to think in terms of rapid advances and hard blows. It was precisely the kind of thinking that led to devastating bloodbaths in the first year of the war. Pershing had not had much experience with the machine gun, and the American offensive withered as a result.
Three weeks after the attack began, Pershing placed another commander in charge of First Army, although he retained overall command of American forces in the theater. His proper rank was General, with four stars, but it was breveted to five stars; this reflects a common American practice from past wars, in which officers were given temporary promotions for the purpose of the conflict at hand, but the rank and associated pay grade would not continue into peacetime.
On November 1, the American First Army resumed its attack in coordination with British and French efforts. Pershing is known to have resisted the call for the November 11 armistice, but his was the only voice against it. The armistice went into effect, and the Versailles Treaty followed the next year. That same year, Pershing was promoted permanently to General of the Armies, with five stars.
Shortly after the war, Pershing was appointed Chief of Staff of the Army, serving from 1921 to 1924. Although he retired that year, he still enjoyed considerable influence, and he was instrumental in seeing former subordinate George C. Marshall installed in the same post in 1940. Pershing died in 1948 after a lengthy illness.
To his European Allies, Pershing was a troublesome figure. When they desperately needed men at the front, he kept the AEF away, training, until they could act independently. Then when they finally saw an end to four and a half years of devastating conflict, Pershing wanted to keep fighting. To the Americans, however, Pershing was a celebrated figure, one who created an effective fighting force out of legions of raw recruits. His name has been given to tanks and to strategic missiles.
Cowley, Robert et al. The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001
Forty, Simon. World War I: A Visual Encyclopedia. PRC Publishing, 2002
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms & Armour, 1996
Strachan, Hew. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford, 2001
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