By Michael Knapp, US Army Military History Institute, US Army Heritage and Education Center.April 11, 2007
Ninety years ago this week, General John J. Pershing was selected to lead an American Expeditionary Force to France to assist the Allies in their fight against the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Freshly recalled to Washington from the Mexican border where he was involved in the Punitive Expedition chasing the bandit Pancho Villa, Pershing would have to create a force unlike any previous force in the history of the U.S. Army.
The U.S. Army entered the 20th Century still using the basic structure it used in the Civil War. During the Spanish-American War , this was found to be unwieldy and slow to mobilize and move large numbers of men overseas. War Department studies, commissioned early in the century by Secretary of War Elihu Root , and the National Defense Act of 1916 had begun to address this problem, yet serious challenges still faced Pershing. He would have to craft a plan to use the small Regular Army along with the mobilized National Guard as well as the newly created National Army of draftees and form these into Divisions which would fight this new war.
Just as today's Army is undergoing a transformation to more mobile, lethal and self-contained units, the Army of the First World War became Pershing's vision of the force needed to fight for America's cause among the Great Powers of Europe. He began to build a 100 Division force; the same divisions are still with us today, having seen service in all of America's wars since 1918. The American Expeditionary Force was crafted to address the new realities of modern war. The technological leaps forward in weapons gave rise to new formations in the Army Air Service , the birth of the Tank Corps , and the Chemical Corps . Another field which evolved to meet new and horrendous aspects of this war was military medicine , and an enormous logistic need arose to supply the millions of men in army bases and on the front lines overseas. Pershing realized that such a force would require a great deal of organization and leadership. In response to this, he created the concept of a General Staff , complete with staff sections dealing with the various aspects of an army in the field.
Chosen as a proven leader, with a strong personality and known public persona from his service with the 10th Cavalry and most recently on the Mexican Border, "Black Jack" Pershing seemed the obvious choice to lead a fledgling force to France. Few could have foreseen his strenuous efforts to avoid sending American soldiers piecemeal to fill the ranks of the depleted British and French armies. Instead, he insisted on maintaining the integrity of American divisions, and he eventually formed them into the American First , Second , and Third Armies. The structure which he created would be the template for the American Army as we know it. Just as it did in 1917-18, the Army is once again transforming itself to meet the challenges of warfare in the 21st Century. Pershing would be proud!