An Examination of the Use of Armor and Infantry on the Battlefield during World War I from the Battle of Cambrai to the Battle of St. Mihiel
The gigantic logistics organization that supported American forces during the Cold War also had its genesis in World War I. The Army school system set up by General Pershing in France to serve the leaders of the AEF was moved to the United States after World War I, and was instrumental in our winning World War II and the Cold War. And the system, with few exceptions, still provides the backbone of professional education and development within the Army. -- Richard G. Trefry, 2002
The epigram above suggests that General of the Armies John Joseph Pershing was responsible for a legacy that remains largely unrecognized among military leaders in the United States today. Certainly, World War I established new precedents across a number of measures, particularly in terms of the amount of death and destruction it caused. The First World War only lasted four years (1914 -- 1918), but by the time the conflict ended, it had involved most of the European nations of Europe as well as the United States, Russia, countries in the Middle East, and other regions (Royde-Smith, 2005). Along the way, though, a military infrastructure emerged that would serve as the basis for military doctrine and training up to the present day. To this end, the paper will provide an examination of the use of armor and infantry on the battlefield during the First World War from the Battle of Cambrai up the Battle of St. Mihiel. A discussion of the tactics used for the deployment of tanks and infantry will be followed by a description of the integration of combined arms tactics used by General Pershing and others. A summary of how the synchronized or simultaneous application of armor, infantry, artillery, engineers, air defense and aviation changed the course of modern warfare will be provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview. In his book, The Patton Papers, Martin Blumenson (1972) makes the point that the great military leaders of World War II were able to draw on the battlefield experiences of their World War I counterparts and recognized early on the advantages to be realized through a fully coordinated and synchronized application of armor, infantry, artillery, engineers, air defense and aviation resources. The amount of resources available to the Central and Allied Powers, though, was inordinately balanced against the former from the outset of the conflict as can be seen in Table 1 and Figure 1 below.
Table 1: Respective Strength of the Belligerents, August 4, 1914.
Population (in millions)
Steel production (in millions of metric tons)
Army div. avail. In August 1914
Figure 1. Respective Strength of the Belligerents, August 4, 1914.
Source: Based on tabular data in Royde-Smith, 2005.
The Allied Powers' ability to outproduce the Central Powers in steel and war materiel was clearly became evident as an absolute necessity in winning as the war progressed: "The daily cost of war materials in World War I," Ziff says, "was $10,000,000. Seventy-five tons of metal plus twenty-five tons of powder were shipped for each German killed or wounded" (p. 209). Likewise, the number of military forces available for immediate mobilization was clearly in favor of the Allied Powers from the beginning, but it took some time to realize these advantages on the battlefield (Royde-Smith, 2005). The initial stages of World War I were largely characterized by a variety of uncoordinated and ineffective organizational techniques that failed to provide the level of training required for organizing large numbers of troops and materiel on the modern battlefield.
According to Richard G. Trefry, "The American soldier of today, who experienced the wars in Vietnam, Panama, and the Gulf, may find it difficult to understand that the battle tactics and techniques of World War I were patterned on those of our own Civil War that occurred a half century before" (p. 123). According to Richard G. Terry (2002), "The trials and tribulations experienced by General Pershing in creating an Army, as well as his problems in relationships with the Allied commanders at home and in Europe, provide lessons for any officer aspiring to high command and staff. Joint and combined operations, coalitions, politics, and statesmanship were but a few of the challenges presented to a comparatively innocent American high command" (p. 122). One of the fundamental challenges faced by Pershing was the need to provide the American military with a logistical base and a training command that could transform the amateur American force into an efficient and sustained fighting machine; a further challenge was to integrate this largely untrained American military force with a number of multinational allied forces on a European battlefield that quickly developed into a stalemated quagmire that showed no easy solutions.
The fact that Pershing was able to accomplish this organizational integration with any degree of success at all is remarkable given the enormity of the endeavor and the respective -- and frequently conflicting -- interests of the Allied powers involved. According to Childs, interdepartmental rivalries within the British government caused significant delays of shipments of Mk IV tanks for use in France. In October 1917, those in charge of the various facets of British tanks engaged in such an extended (and heated) debate over their use and effectiveness that by the time the Battle of Cambrai took place, there were an insufficient number of tanks available for use on the battlefield (Childs, 1999).
While much finger-pointed resulted, Childs suggests that, "This is a moot point. The surplus Mk IVs were not delivered until early 1918; only machines from the original 1,000 ordered by the War Office took part in the Battle of Cambrai" (Childs, 1999 p. 22). In fact, of the 1,400 tanks originally ordered for the 1917 British tank program, just 769 had been delivered by the end of September and it was determined that no more than 800 would be required for the fighting in all of France. Childs points there were actually between 380 and 450 tanks used in the Battle of Cambrai, representing half of the machines in use France just a month earlier. "A further 150 would be accepted for training in England and for demands from other theaters," he adds, and "Of the remainder, 216 would be converted for use as tender and supply tanks. The contracts for the remaining 234 were canceled" (p. 23). In his report "Movement of Tanks" (26 November 1917), Major E.W. Hicks of the British Royal Engineers recorded the transport of over 480 tanks in preparation for the Battle of Cambrai (20 November 1917); the major emphasized the numerous logistical difficulties involved in moving large numbers of tanks around the battlefields of France (see graphic at Appendix A) (Childs, 1999 p. 110).
According to Michael E. Hanlon, the Battle of St. Mihiel took place over the course of several days (September 12-16, 1918); this author reports that the Headquarters, United States First Army first became operational on July 31, 1918, and General Pershing and his staff were ready when the orders finally came:
When the situation [in the Aisne-Marne] stabilized...Pershing obtained Foch's permission to take over the St. Mihiel sector instead, leaving three or four American divisions on the Vesle under French command. Preparations for the St. Mihiel attack [the first phase of an anticipated thrust into Germany through Metz] -- long planned by Pershing and his staff -- were begun at once. The St. Mihiel salient, which had been formed in the fall of 1914, seriously hampered French rail communications between Paris and the eastern segments of the front. Pershing's First Army headquarters opened in the St. Mihiel area on 13 August. The concentration of troops for the operation began at once (emphasis added). (Hanlon, 2000, p. 3).
In his book, The Rainbow Division in the Great War, 1917-1919, James Cooke (1994) reports that the concentration of troops for the operation at St. Mihiel had started in earnest by August 10, 1918, when the First American Army was formed with Pershing in command; on that date, Pershing received a dispatch authorizing him to prepare for the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient. "For Pershing," Cooke says, "this document was a personal triumph, culminating months of demanding that an American Army be committed to battle as an American force. There had been severe opposition, but the commanding general stuck to his guns and had finally won" (emphasis added) (p. 144). Pershing recognized that this was an important objective for the Allied Powers. Donald Smythe points out: "It cut the Paris-Nancy railway and served as a jump-off line for a possible German flanking attack against Verdun to the west or Nancy to the east. It also served as an effective German bulwark against any allied advance against Metz or the vital Briey iron mines" (p. 179). In this…