Borrowing from the enemy.

Author:Barnes, Alexander F.

"The quickest route to peace is by employing the maximum effort," Secretary of War Newton Baker transports an Army to France and redefines "maximum effort."

On 28 May 1917, General John J. Pershing left New York City for France aboard the USS Baltic to establish the advance headquarters for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Accompanying him were 191 soldiers and Marines. Although their departure was considered top secret, one of the coast artillery batteries fired a salute as the ship sailed by. It was an inauspicious start for what many of the Allied leaders from France, Italy and Great Britain hoped would be a fast rising flood of American soldiers. They were to be very disappointed. Not only was the American Army of 1917 extremely small, less than two hundred thousand soldiers, it was more equipped and trained to fight the 1898 Spanish-American War than take on the extremely modern Imperial German Army in the trenches of France.

Although the US government was beginning to recruit, equip and train a large modern army, it would take time and a lot of transportation capability to move it across the Atlantic to France. Unfortunately, as the Army started to round into size and shape, much of the transportation capability needed to move the force was littering the bottom of the ocean. The German Navy's surface raiders and submarine fleet had ravaged the shipping fleets of the Allied and Neutral countries to the point that they could not replace half of their losses, even with a massive shipbuilding program. By July 1917 British Admiral Lord Charles Beresford expressed his fears quite clearly by reporting he was "distressed at the fact that it appears... impossible to provide enough ships to bring the American Army over ... and, after they are brought over, to supply the enormous amount of shipping which will be required to keep them full up with munition, food and equipment." The German General Staff agreed completely. In their opinion, the American Army would not be able to cross the ocean in sufficient numbers or in time to impact the fighting on the Western Front. Many American planners also felt that shipping was an unsolvable problem. Nevertheless, President Woodrow Wilson had committed the United States to war. His Secretary of War, Newton Baker, was determined to end the "Great War" by bringing it to a quick and victorious conclusion. Facing him, however, were some harsh truths:

  1. The German submarine fleet, although primitive by the standards of the fleet that Germany would field in the Second World War, was proving an effective tool in greatly reducing the flow of transatlantic shipping.

  2. The American shipping fleet was large but, being focused almost exclusively on local North American trade, was totally unequipped to move the thousands of men General Pershing needed in France.

  3. What remained of the useable French and British commercial shipping fleets came with a price tag. The Allied commanders wanted the American Doughboys to fill the manpower gaps that the Germans had ripped in the Allied armies and therefore they were determined to dictate what kind of soldiers and equipment would be transported in their countries' ships. Their insistence on restricting passage to only infantrymen would defeat Pershing's unshakeable desire to field a completely American army serving under American leaders.

Given this list of problems, Baker could be forgiven if he were discouraged. Fortunately, he was made of sterner stuff and therefore decided to attack the problems head on. With the Navy's assurance that their warships could protect the transport ships through the use of convoys and vigorous anti-submarine tactics, Baker checked the first problem off his list. The Navy proved as good as its word. The majority of the American fleet was transferred to the Atlantic seaboard and careful coordination with the British fleet helped to maximize the number of anti-submarine vessels assigned to convoy protection. It also helped that the Navy had begun conducting "refueling at sea" operations just a few months before and was now able to extend...

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