By First Army Public Affairs OfficeDecember 14, 2017
DAVENPORT, Iowa -- Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing. Gen. George Patton. Gen. George Marshall. Cpl. Alvin York. These legendary Soldiers and their stories from World War I came alive during a public symposium hosted by First Army in the Figge Art Museum here Wednesday.
Nearly 100 years ago, First Army was created during World War I to help defeat the German threat in France. During the symposium, three expert historians talked at length about the unit's impact on that conflict. Earlier that day, they presented the same topics during a leadership development session at First Army headquarters on Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois.
The events supported the celebration of First Army's upcoming centennial.
Speaking were two men with doctorates in history, Dr. Mitchell Yockelson and retired Col. Douglas Mastriano, along with the historian for Army Sustainment Command, retired Lt. Col. George Eaton, who has three master's, including one in military history. Each addressed a particular aspect of the Great War.
Yockelson, author of two books on World War I, spoke about the St. Mihiel campaign, the American Expeditionary Forces, and the initial First Army Commander, General of the Armies John J. Pershing.
"When the U.S. entered World War I, it had to be decided what kind of fighting force would we have and who is going to lead it," Yockelson said. "There weren't a lot of commanders around that had the level of experience as General Pershing. Pershing was selected to lead what eventually would become the American Expeditionary Forces."
President Woodrow Wilson gave Pershing the latitude to do what he needed to do, Yockelson continued.
"Pershing heads over to France in the early summer of 1917, and he's got to figure out how the American forces are going to be set up and how they're going to look in the future," Yockelson said. "We weren't prepared to go to war. We had downsized substantially since the Civil War. The 100,000 troops we had weren't going to cut it, especially fighting on the Western Front against armies that were a million men at a minimum, and fighting in the trenches and using new technologies like airplanes, long-range artillery, and gas warfare."
Pershing established his headquarters with a skeleton staff in hopes that more Americans would come over, and they slowly did, Yockelson said.
"The British and the French continued to pound him about needing more American troops. They had horrific losses at Verdun and three battles in the Ypres area. They needed American men. Eventually he would acquiesce a little bit and allow American troops to train and serve with the British."
When Pershing first came to France, Yockelson explained, "He had his eyes set on the St. Mihiel salient, a bulge 15 miles long and 30 miles wide into the Allied lines. He had one of the more brilliant commanders on his side, the young G3 officer, George C. Marshall. The attack was going to involve 500,000 American troops plus another 110,000 French Soldiers, with the use of American tanks led by Lt. Col. George S. Patton.
"The idea was to drive a wedge into the salient, reduce it, and push the Germans away. It was a great success."
Victories like these were crucial to the eventual Allied victory of the war. "We think about the liberation of France in 1944 and how grateful the French were. Believe me, they were just as grateful in 1918," Yockelson said.
Another huge Allied triumph that helped win the war was the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Mastriano discussed this battle, along with the final days of World War I and the exploits of First Army's Cpl. Alvin York, a Medal of Honor recipient.
"The biggest American battle ever is not Normandy, it's the Meuse-Argonne campaign; 1.2 million Americans were in the fight," Mastriano said. "There were 20,000 casualties a week at some point, and it shaped the Army we have today.
"In 1918, it looked like the Allies were going to lose the war. The Germans knocked the Russians out of the war in 1917, which freed up another million German Soldiers for the Western Front. The Kaiser wanted to knock the French and British out before the Americans could show up."
To help turn the tide, the Allied powers settled on a supreme commander, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who launched a four-pronged attack across the Western Front, with the U.S. starting the attack at Meuse-Argonne.
"It was the most important part of the attack on the Western Front, because if we break through there, we cut off the German supply lines," Mastriano explained. "And it worked like a charm."
Patton was among those leading the charge.
"He was a tank brigade commander on foot, with a handful of Soldiers advancing forward," Mastriano said. "He rallies the tankers, who are stalled in mud and trenches, and pushes them forward. While doing so, he receives a wound through his hip."
Another hero to emerge from the campaign was York, whom Mastriano described as an initially reluctant warrior.
"On Oct. 8, 1918, he entered the fight willing only to die for his country, but not to kill for his country," Mastriano said.
"The attack kicks off, and it goes badly. All hope is lost, but York and 16 other Americans break though the lines and capture 70 Germans. A machine gun opens fire, and nine of the 17 Americans are killed or wounded. York runs up the hill, outflanks the German machine gun and starts picking off the Germans and kills all 19. He sees reinforcement coming, so he runs back down the hill, where a German officer sees him and launches a bayonet against him.
"York drops to his side and whips out his Colt .45 and starts picking off Germans back to front; he learned that trick from hunting turkeys. If he shot the lead bird, the other birds would scatter. He's thinking that if he shoots the lead German, they will also scatter and he'll be surrounded and be dead. The last German to fall was hit by York from six feet away. The rest surrender, and York walks out of the Argonne with 132 prisoners of war."
Eaton wrapped up the symposium by talking about the Christmas Truce.
Secret military alliances between nations, Eaton said, turned what was expected to be a brief conflict into one marked by stalemate and slogging trench warfare. That set the stage for the truce of Christmas 1914, a date by which most combatants had expected to at home, drinking cocoa by the fire.
"They started to appreciate what the other side was doing," Eaton said. "That also included appreciating needing a little time off and not killing people for no reason. Across many parts of the line, especially where the opposing forces were close together, a live-and-let-live mentality sprung up starting around November."
This relatively relaxed state of affairs included allowing enemy Soldiers to retrieve their dead without being fired upon and halting hostilities during dinner.
"By the time you get to December, this idea of live-and-let-live is spreading across the front lines," Eaton said. "Also about this time, the high commands start to think, 'Maybe we won't be home by Christmas.' On Christmas Eve, caroling starts across the front lines. On Christmas, people start to move across the front lines and greet each other." The Soldiers also exchanged gifts, food, drink, and played soccer matches.
First Army is planning a similar symposium on World War II topics next year.