Remembering World War I: Gen. John J. Pershing Arrives in Europe
On June 13, 1917, a little more than two months after the United States entered World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing arrived in France with his staff to establish American forces in Europe. Although not the first Americans to arrive, Pershing’s presence served as an important symbol to the British and French. Thousands of Americans were already serving in Allied uniform, or as international medical and relief volunteers. American military units, an Army hospital, U.S. Navy destroyers, and advanced military missions were by now supporting Allied forces. But Pershing’s arrival signified that the United States had arrived in earnest as a partner of the Allied powers.
Pershing and his staff departed from Governor’s Island, New York in secrecy for fear of U-boats. They wore civilian clothing until aboard the British liner RMS Baltic. The press kept silent and did not announce the American Expeditionary Forces’ (AEF) command staff departure from New York. Despite the cooperation of the press, muddled war secrecy measures caused Pershing much consternation. Uniformed officers bustled around New York cosigning supplies to his staff, and crates stacked on the dockside bore the label “A.E.F. care of General Pershing.” As the ship got underway an artillery battery at Governor’s Island sent them off with a noisy salute.[i]
The “Baltic Group,” a name given to Pershing’s AEF headquarters’ staff on the ship, included more than 50 hand-picked officers, over 100 enlisted men, and a number of attached civilian personnel. [ii] They used the time on the ship to prepare and plan the AEF’s strategy. British and Canadian veteran officers aboard gave experienced advice. Confidential Allied military reports were unsealed and studied in detail. Pershing and Chief of Staff Maj. James Harbord deliberated the structure and organization of an AEF of one million men. Officers aboard the Baltic received assignments for specific duties in Europe with one staff committee tasked to urgently survey ports, roads, and railways for the arrival and deployment of American forces.
On June 5th the ship began to zigzag as they entered the zone threatened by U-boats. Army staff was ordered to don civilian clothes. If attacked and sunk, German sailors would notice life boats full of uniformed men. The next day two American destroyers from Queenstown, Ireland began escorting the ship. The Baltic passed through the Irish Sea and anchored in the mouth of the Mersey River June 7th unscathed.
On the 8th Pershing and ranking officers landed with ceremony in Liverpool, marking the first ever official welcome of American soldiers in Britain. The party then traveled to London by rail in the Royal Family’s coach, and waiting on the train was Capt. Charles de Marenches, who served as Pershing’s personal French military aide for the duration.
In London Pershing met with British and American officials, including the King and Queen, Winston Churchill, then a member of Parliament, and Prime Minister Lloyd George. Pershing and George discussed the German submarine threat to arriving American troops and supply ships as reported by U.S. Navy Admiral William Sims. Pershing noted that, though little noticed by the public, they received a warm reception from military and political leaders. The visit gave Pershing a positive sense of British resolve and their relief at U.S. intervention. After discussions in London, he became deeply concerned the submarine threat could starve Britain and prevent the arrival and supply of the AEF.
On the 13th of June, AEF headquarters staff departed for Boulogne, France. They were met by ranking French and British military officers from the front and an honor guard of battle veterans. Unlike in Britain, a large crowd of welcoming civilians also had gathered. French Gen. de Brigade Patrick Peltier met him and became his ranking French liaison officer. Upon arriving in Paris, Pershing and his staff were escorted to cars by distinguished French officials. These included Marshal Joffre and René Viviani, whose recent diplomatic mission to the United States influenced American strategy. Pershing walked with Minister of War Paul Painlevé between crowds of civilians elated with the American arrival. He reported the streets, windows, and roof tops were crowded by cheering Parisians who buried them in flowers and burst through police lines to wish them well.
French leaders and American diplomats expressed great relief at American intervention and hoped it had not arrived too late. They wanted American troops to deploy to the front soon. Pershing remarked in his diary that he was at a loss as to how he might meet the high expectations of the French government and public.[iii] Despite a practical apprehension of the task at hand, Pershing was moved by the welcome of the French people. In his memoire of the war he remarked,“It brought home to us as nothing else could have done a full appreciation of the war weary state of the nation and stirred within us a deep sense of the responsibility resting upon America.”[iv]
[i] John Pershing, My Experience in the World War Vol. 1 (Blue Ridge Summit, TAB, 1989) p.42.
[ii] Richard W. Stewart, The U.S. Army in World War 1, 1917–1918 (Washington, Center of Military History,2010) p.11.
[iii] John Pershing, My Experience in the World War Vol. 1 (Blue Ridge Summit, TAB, 1989) p. 60.
[iv] Ibid p. 59.