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Belligerents and Participants
Command of the American Expeditionary Force might have gone to General Frederick Funston who oversaw troops at Vera Cruz and the Mexican Punitive Expedition had he not died in February 1917. President Wilson then chose General John black jack Pershing, who served under Funston in Mexico instead. After being promoted to a full general, Pershing became responsible for organizing, training, and eventually leading his men into combat. He was also given unprecedented authority to take control of American military affairs, and when combined with his shrewd political abilities he became a force to be reckoned with. When in Europe he would tirelessly promote Wilson’s agenda, generally without compromise despite strong opposition by British and French commanders. While he had some able commanders serving under him, it is Pershing alone who became the face of America in this conflict.
Wilson’s unwillingness to integrate Americans into British forces led them to threaten the withdrawal of ships to transport these soldiers to Europe. They wanted America’s men without any interference in running of the War. The French also wanted to use Americans to bolster their own diminished ranks, but they were more desperate to see Americans on their soil. General Petain was still trying to quench the mutiny within the French army, and an American presence was desperately needed to boost the morale of both French soldiers and civilians. Though Pershing’s men were not yet ready to fight, he could see the political necessity and the first troops of the American Expeditionary Force began arriving at St. Nazaire in June 1917. It was only after much political bickering that the British helped transfer more men to Brest and Bordeaux in the year to come to form an entire American army.
The rush to bring in troops early did not supply the French with the most impressive soldiers they had ever scene. They were not all in step when they marched down the streets of Paris in a special parade organized for them on the 4th of July. It didn’t seem to matter to the cheering flower throwing crowds; they were saved. This huge public spectacle was symbolic of the American French friendship, and many postcards were produced documenting its events. Many other cards were also published just to celebrate their arrival.
Pershing already knew that he wanted to avoid getting bogged down in the attrition of trench warfare when he arrived in France. He had a distain for digging in and thought he could revive mobile warfare on the Western Front. He arranged for his army to be positioned so they could attack the St. Mihiel salient and drive into Germany when the time was right. Long lines of communication and supply began to be established with the ports leading back to the United States though the production of military equipment was lagging behind needs. Meanwhile his hastily deployed army, which had done some training in trench warfare on the British model, now received additional instruction from French Alpine troops who had belatedly learned some of the tactics that the Germans had used so effectively on them. Although the Americans Expeditionary Force began arriving in France during the summer of 1917, Pershing thought they he would not have the numbers of trained and armed men needed to send them into battle until 1919, and until then he planned to keep them out of harms way despite British and French protests.
As the Americans prepared themselves, French publishers produced numerous collotype postcards displaying them arriving in Europe and in settings around their new camps. These cards are typically even more uneventful than their corresponding cards of military life from the United States. While the earliest cards were probably directed to a curious French audience, it did not take long for publishers to realize that compared to other soldiers, Americans had a lot of money in their pockets. Production was quickly reoriented to cater to this homesick audience. As time went on the American presence in France grew to well over a million men, which put a strain on publishers to produce enough postcards for them. While French cards were produced with English or English-French captions, many American soldiers wound up using correspondence cards printed solely in French.
Most postcards showing off the American presence in France were photo-based and printed as black & white collotypes. This must have made it easier for French printers to produce considering the ink shortages at this time. It would also have sped up production time when the demand for cards were very high. Despite this many colorful cards were created through embroidery and pochoir by small publisher. While politicians and generals argued bitterly over how best to use American troops, little of these arguments filtered down to ordinary people. Many cards represent a genuine gratitude towards the American presence.
After the disastrous Italian defeat at Battle of Caporetto in the fall of 1917, the Kingdom might have collapsed had it not been for the great influx of British and French troops that reinforced their defenses on the Piave River. The United States, already at war with Germany since April, then declared war on Austria-Hungary on December 7th. Although this move was largely for moral support, the 332nd U.S. Infantry Regiment along with ambulances sections and bomber pilots were deployed on the Italian Front to accommodate the Italian Prime Minister and the Italian-American community back home. Despite the larger contingents of other allies, it seems that most Italian postcards give thanks to American help. This is at least part due to the exaggerated expectations of American involvement. Though a special propaganda unit meant to deceive the Austro-Hungarians into believing the front had been reinforced by a much larger number of Americans was deployed here, Americans did take part in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto.
American Generals may have held a long term view of the War but the German General Staff did not have the same luxury. Germany was growing exhausted, and even if they did not think much of American troops they knew they could arrive in numbers that they could not cope with. Believing the Americans would not be ready to fight until the end of summer, Germany pooled all their resources to launch a major offensive beginning in March 1918. They hoped that with the influx of reinforcements from the defunct Russian Front and the use of specially trained stormtroopers they could break through the Allied lines. If this didn’t knock Britain and France out of the War before the Americans got involved, the territory captured could still become a valuable negotiating tool.
When the German attack came it hit hard. The Allies were driven back over terrain they had so bitterly fought for and beyond. Tough their advance looked unstoppable, the Germans had miscalculated on American participation. Up until now, General Pershing had kept Americans out of the fighting to have leverage in maintaining them as a united force. Now seeing the crisis at hand, he began parceling out American troops out to be used as needed. They would mainly go in to help the French blunt the German spearhead at Chateau-Thierry.
Though the Americans engaged the Germans at the Battle of Cantigny in May, their real test came in June when they blocked the Germans heading for Reims and drove them off of high ground at Belleau Wood in an independent attack. Here the American troops showed their weakness in training and judgement, taking high casualties, but their resolve did not break. While this place held little strategic importance, the need for an American victory was so strong that the press blew the Battle of Belleau Wood way out of proportion. The Germans however became much more worried over their inability to dominate the battlefield as they had done in the past. While the battle was highly publicized and romanticized in the United States, little of this seems to have found its way into postcard production.
By September Pershing had consolidated his army and launching his long planned independent operation against the St. Mihiel salient and the Woevre. His Allies, fearful of an American victory where they had so long failed, tried to stop the attack and break up and disperse the American army once more. Pershing simply refused to obey the orders of supreme commander Foch, and there was nothing he could do about it. Though heavily fortified, the Germans had already removed troops from this sector and could no longer properly man all the defense works of the salient. When heavily attacked from all sides they were forced to completely abandon this position. The retaking of St. Mihiel reopened the supply lines to Verdun, which in turn made it available to stage offensive operations against Germany.
While Pershing wanted to follow up on this victory by advancing on Metz, he succumbed to the promise made to Generalissimo Foch and he redeployed his forces to the Meuse Valley above Verdun where they could aid the French offensive in Champagne. Though the attack on St. Mihiel was a major victory, it is largely represented on postcards by only unauthorized real photos and photo-based printed cards of the devastation left behind. While it might be said that European resentment over an American victory contributed to this low output, this late period of the War generally seemed to lack the diversity and plethora of cards found in earlier years.
Pershing was confident that he could rush up the Meuse to Sedan after breaking through German lines, but once German resistance stiffened he was forced to extend the fight into the Argonne Forest to protect his flank. The fighting in this difficult terrain proved as slow and hard as previous battles here and a war of attrition set in. The Americans took heavy casualties while inching forward against a tenacious defense but by the end of October it was the Germans that were finally forced to withdraw to their main defensive line once their own flanks were threatened.
Before the United States entered the Great War, President Wilson like others, made a number of attempts to see if a negotiated peace was possible, but with both sides believing they would win the war neither was willing to consider compromise. While Wilson was an idealist espousing a moral cause, the other belligerents all had imperialistic ambitions over each other’s territory that the President was only made aware of after war was declared. When the secret arrangements made with the Czar were publicly exposed by the new Bolsheviks government, the embarrassment had to be addressed to keep up propaganda efforts.
In response President Wilson gave a very idealistic speech in January of 1918 revealing the Fourteen Points that he thought would bring about a fair and lasting peace. While his ideas were lofty they were also naive for all the other Allies who wanted to expand their empire found them anathema. Only Germany saw a a glimmer of hope in this speech. As the War began going badly for Germany on all fronts and the American presence growing stronger by the day, they began negotiating an armistice with the United States in October based on Wilson’s principals. Wilson stalled until the current leadership of Germany resigned, but this delay proved his undoing.
After President Wilson came to terms with Germany he found there was little support for his deal. His Fourteen Points were anathema to his imperialist allies, and France wanted to bring the War to Germany and force an unconditional surrender. Theodore Roosevelt, setting himself up for a new bid for the white house became the voice of Republican opposition. He had been very critical of the presidents handling of the War, but once victory was near he switched his vehemence to the peace plan. Wilson then made the 1918 mid-term election a referendum on his peace negotiations, but he even lost the support of many of his own Democrats. Creel’s propaganda war had done its job too well; hatred for the enemy was so stirred up in the United States that the American people were demanding retribution over fairness. In November the Republicans took control over the House and the Senate, but Wilson refused to modify his principals.
The delegation from the new German Republic quickly found it would have to negotiate an armistice on new unfavorable terms and there was some question if they would sign. Things however had changed significantly on the ground. General Pershing who did not share his Commander in Chief’s views took it upon himself to launch a new offensive against the Germans even though the American army was ill prepared to do so. He too believed in forcing an unconditional surrender before Wilson could negotiate good terms. By the time he broke through the last German defense line in early November, it hardly mattered, the United States had little negotiating power left. Their would be no American presence at the armistice talks when the new Socialist government of Germany asked for peace at any price. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were completely forgotten.
The signing of the Armistice did not immediately halt Pershing’s drive toward Germany. Though he knew peace was immanent, he forced his men to fight up to the very end of the War. Henry Gunther would be the last official casualty taking a bullet in the head a minute before the fighting stopped. Pershing had worked unyieldingly to keep control over American troops out of the hands of incompetent British and French generals, and in the last days of the War he through them away needlessly to suit his personal agenda. There would be Congressional hearings regarding these needless deaths, but the results were suppressed to protect our war heroes. The American army would follow the German withdrawal to the Rhine as the terms of the Armistice dictated. While not as celebratory as French cards depicting the return of Alsace and Loraine, there are still real photo cards that capture the final American advance.
President Wilson wanted Germany to sign the Armistice from a position of strength so that the power of American Expeditionary Force could be used to give him more power in shaping the final peace to his liking. When Pershing broke the German army, his own army became inconsequential and the president was left without any bargaining strength. The other Allies were not only uninterested in WilsonÕs idealism, they made it known that he was unwelcome at the Paris Peace Talks. Wilson unwilling to accept this sailed to France, and he was greeted in Paris by gigantic crowds of well wishers. While most seemed to consider him the savior of Europe, it did not reflect the political reality. Wilson could find little popular support for anything he tried to accomplish as the other Allies just wanted to loot and take revenge. His insistence on a fair peace made him nearly as hated as Kaiser Wilhelm, at least among politicians and generals.
When the Paris Peace Talks began, there was little interest in Wilson’s proposal for the League of Nations that would mediate future discord. His obsession that its creation be tied to the final treaty proved his undoing. A watered down version was eventually included in the Versailles Treaty that officially ended the War on June 28th, 1919. In return the president dropped his demands for a fair peace and accepted the idea of teaching Germany a historical lessen. All of Wilson’s principals had been discarded at the peace talks, and Germany felt the president had betrayed them.
While Wilson signed the peace accord, it still had to be ratified by congress. The vitriol against him back home slackened with the death of Theodore Roosevelt in January, but the Republicans still challenged the idea of the League of Nations. Many refused to tie the United States to an institution that they saw as only supporting the greed of the other Allies. A compromise may have been reached had the president not stubbornly insisted that it be ratified as it stood. By contrast, Pershing, now General of the Armies was celebrated as a national hero. He hoped his newly found fame would propel him into the White House on a reconciliation ticket in 1920, but as an appointee of Wilson his support was limited.
Wilson’s attempts to rally national support for his cause ended in early September 1919 when he suffered a massive stroke. Although paralyzed and possibly suffering mental impairment, he remained in office hiding his disability and nothing progressed. When elections rolled around, the Republicans turned it into a referendum on Wilson’s policies and they won by a landslide. The United States would finally make a separate peace with the New Weimar Republic on July 25, 1921, without ever joining the League of Nations. President Wilson was the only world leader that became engaged in the Great War professing idealistic principals that went beyond mere propaganda. His ultimate abandoning of them, even though reluctantly, calls his rhetoric into question. Was he ever actually commitment to them or were they just talking points to advance an agenda?
While most Americans fought on the Western Front, a large contingency was sent to Siberia under the command of General William S. Graves, landing in Vladivostok in August 1918 as part of a larger Allied intervention. While this operation was supposedly initiated in fear that the large stockpiles of military supplies that the Allies had shipped to Siberia would be seized by the Germans now that Russia dropped out of the War, Wilson seems to have had little motive outside for his disdain for Lenin. Others like Britain and France were eager to join up with the Czech Legion that was stranded there to topple the Bolshevik government and bring Russia back into the War. American railroad interests also wanted to open the Trans-Siberian Railroad while the Japanese wanted it shut so they could more easily secure the region for themselves. The orders General Graves took with him were rather vague, so while he defended himself against attack, he refused to make this a political mission. After the war in Europe ended, President Wilson with the help of William Cristian Bullitt tried to negotiate an end to the civil war in early 1919 but his efforts failed and the intervention continued now in support of the Whites. Despite efforts by the other Allies to convince Wilson to participate in a broader intervention to topple Lenin, his dissatisfaction with them led to an order for withdrawal in January 1920 after White resistance collapsed.
Americans were the subject of many French cards after the War ended. While some were designed specifically to show thanks, others show American troops proudly marching in the streets of Paris to celebrate a hybrid Independence Day - Bastille Day festivities in 1919. These should not be confused with images from a similar parade held in Paris in 1917 to show off the presence of the newly arrived American Expeditionary Force. While the Paris parade got most of the attention from postcard publishers, there were also many smaller parades and celebrations all over France that honored Americans in places where they were stationed. These events were captured on real photo cards.
Many victory parades and celebrations also took place in the United States. These often depict heavily attended parades and displays of captured German military equipment, as well as memorial victory arches in the Roman tradition. Many of these cards depict celebratory events in New York City, not only because it was the nation’s largest city but a the port of return for most soldiers serving overseas. There were also many small towns across the United States as there were in France that had victory celebrations, which were captured by real photo and printed postcards.
Americans can also be found on postcards of their occupation of the Rhineland. Some of these are printed but most seem to be real photo cards most likely taken by the soldiers themselves. They often capture views of the Rhine around Coblenz since it was a recognizable landmark. The last Americans left Germany in January of 1923 though the Allied occupation of the Rhineland continued long afterwards.
Sometimes ordinary view-cards can be transformed into military cards by their sender. Many examples can be found after the war when troops occupying Germany used whatever cards they could find to send messages home. There was much less bitterness between Germans and Americans when compared to other soldiers, with many Americans preferring the Germans over the French. This led to a lot more fraternization and chances to acquire cards. With the War over there was no longer a military necessity to censor soldiers mail as rigorously as before, which resulted in more specific information being spelled out on postcards.
Just as French publishers took advantage of the American presence during the War to sell them postcards, many realized that those now occupying the Rhineland still composed a big market. Unlike before, many of these cards were now published by advertisers hawking their goods. Such activities were more permissible now because they looked less like war profiteering.