Postwar influences of the AEF experience

In reading histories of the AEF, I have been struck by its unique character and the energetic manner in which it moulded itself into an army capable of breaking through the formidable German front.31,32,33,  34 For a spirited and detailed treatment one should refer to Laurence Stallings’ reminiscences35.: he fought at Belleau Wood as a Marine captain and was badly wounded there, eventually losing a leg. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French. On the Internet, the ’Doughboy Center’ of the Great War Society provides a wealth of information on the AEF.

A particularly attractive feature of AEF literature is the extensive photographic record provided by the US Signal Corps.

The many fine photographs of sturdy, self-assured doughboys have great style and impact. Doughboys were often noticeably healthier and taller than the average Allied or enemy soldier. The main aim of the men and women of the AEF was to get the job done quickly and sail home; after all, it was essentially a conscript army. At a more cerebral level, they were prepared to accept that they were fighting for the principles of democracy and in letters many refer to a ‘crusade’ or ‘great adventure’. However, they were just as likely to die from pneumonia, meningitis or influenza as be killed in combat. Officially, 116,516 American servicemen were killed/died and 204,002 were wounded in World War I.36 Tragically, thousands of AEF veterans would suffer indignity and penury in the great American Depression, becoming the ‘forgotten men’. Many of them, together with sons and daughters, would be drawn into the cockpit of European conflict in the 1940s.

Many former AEF officers would achieve fame during the Second World War e.g. William (‘Wild Bill’) J. Donovan, Edward V. Rickenbacker, Courtney H. Hodges, Ernest J. King, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, Jr. and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. An outstanding example is that of George C. Marshall, Jr., who features twice in the Bathelémont story (Fig. 9). Chester Nimitz and William F. (‘Bull’) Halsey, Jr. served as junior officers in the destroyer force based at Queenstown, Ireland. Captain Harry S. Truman, who once commanded a gun battery of ‘75s’, would become President (1945-53).

Many AEF veterans would return to front-line combat in subsequent wars. For example, Thomas J. Cross (born 1894), who had served as a company commander, 7th. Infantry Regiment, 3rd. Division in 1918, would take command of the 121st. Infantry Regiment, 8th. Division during the punishing Siegfried Line campaign of 1944-5 and then, return to his ‘old’ 3rd. Division during the Korean War (1951-2), first as a Brigadier General and then as a Major General.

Former AEF officers would influence military thinking in the United States during the interwar years. During the First World War, the Air Service was mainly used in a tactical manner to support and protect the ground troops. However, in parallel, there was growing interest in the doctrine of strategic bombardment that aimed at weakening the enemy’s will to fight by destroying his industrial resources. The seeds of total war were being sown.37 Thus, by 1918, mass bombing raids were increasingly made against munition dumps, railheads and industrial plant well behind enemy lines. In post-war America these revolutionary ideas would be promoted and refined by three Air Service veterans, namely, General Henry H. (‘Hap’) Arnold, Major Carl A. (‘Tooey’) Spaatz and Colonel William (‘Billy’) Mitchell. They are often regarded as the ‘fathers’ of the US Army Air Forces (1941-7). For many years they had to contend with strong opposition from the Army and the Navy: Mitchell’s criticisms of the latter led to his court-martial. Mitchell (1879-1936) is now remembered for demonstrating that bombs dropped from aircraft could sink mighty battleships (1921). Acceptance of the strategic bombardment doctrine came with the Roosevelt administration of 1939. In 1942, Spaatz would personally see long-range bombing theory put into devastating practice when he came to England and took command of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the ‘mighty’ Eighth Air Force.38

The previously mentioned ‘square’ divisional structure, because of its size, was unsuited to the open-field, mobile form of attack that General Pershing (1860-1948) always had in mind. After becoming Chief of Staff in 1939, General George C. Marshall ordered the Regular Army to adopt a triangular arrangement of regiments, thereby making each division smaller, more flexible and eliminating the brigade level of control: by the early 1940s a US infantry division numbered about 15,000 men. In historical terms it is intriguing to note that as early as 1917 the German Army changed the structure of its divisions from the four-regiment ‘square’ to the three-regiment ‘triangle’. This tactical modification formed part of Ludendorff’s preparations for the great March offensives of 1918 (Dupuy, A Genius for War, 169).

  1. American Battle Monuments Commission, American Armies and Battlefields in Europe(Washington, D.C.: US Govt. Printing Office, 1938, reprinted 1992) 515: A history, guide and reference book with a wealth of maps and photographs. []
  2. Martin Marix Evans, Retreat, Hell! We just got here! (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1998) ISBN 1 85532 777 5. []
  3. Gary Mead, The Doughboys: America and the First World War, (London: Allen Lane, 2000) ISBN 0 7139 9440 1 []
  4. Edward M. Coffman, The War to end all Wars: the American Military Experience in World War I (Madison, London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986) ISBN 0 299 10964 X []
  5. Laurence Stallings, The Doughboys: the Story of the AEF, 1917-18. (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) . []
  6. ‘Casualties in World War I’; <> []
  7. R. C. Hall, (ed.), Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment (Air Force History & Museums Program) (Washington: US Govt. Printing Office, 1998) Chap.1 by Richard J. Overy, 11-90. ISBN 0 16 049781 7. []
  8. Roger A. Freeman, Mighty Eighth War Manual (London, New York, Sydney: Jane’s Publishing, 1984) ISBN 0 7106 0325 8 []