John Joseph Pershing

Laclede (Missouri) 1860 - Washington 1948

John Joseph Pershing - the future commander of the American Expeditionary Force - was born on a farm near Laclede (Missouri) on 13 September 1860.

Coming from a well-off family, after his studies, he initially started the career of teacher at the school for Afro-American children in Laclede, and later at the prestigious Truman State University in Kirksville.

In 1882, tired of the rural Missouri, he decided to enter the Westpoint military academy, which he completed without distinguishing in 1886.

Transferred in the Far West where he fought the last Indian wars, in 1895 was assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, formed by African American recruits and the first nucleus of the future Buffalo Soldiers. He then became military instructor at Westpoint and earned the nickname of Black Jack because of his harshness. In 1898 he took part in the brief Spanish-American war and then on the harsh counter-insurgency operations in the Philippines.

In 1905 he married Helen Warren, daughter of a powerful senator who favored his military career, making him pass in a few years from captain to general. However, the marriage was soon marred by a tragedy, when on 27 August 1915, his wife and three daughters lost their lives in a fire. Pershing would never have remarried.

After various assignments abroad as a military observer, in March 1916 President Wilson commissioned him to lead a military mission in Mexico to block the rebels of the Mexican rebels and capture Pancho Villa. The American troops went deep into the Mexican territory and although they prevailed in the open field clashes, they could not break the guerrilla while Villa remained uncatchable.

The stagnant operations in Mexico and the now imminent American intervention in the great European war, led Wilson to suspend operations in February 1917.

The sudden death in the same month of General Frederick Funston - already appointed to the command of the AEF - led Pershing to command the American expeditionary force in Europe in May 1917. The task entrusted to him was arduous: he had to organize, train and supply the joint forces of the army and the national guard, which would have grown from 27 thousand men to over two million at the end of the war. In order to cope with this, Wilson delegated to the general full authority and freedom of action in all military affairs.

Pershing arrived in France in June 1917 with the 16th Infantry Regiment, symbolically paying tribute to General Lafayette's grave. Initially, in the Allied plans the American troops, lacking of experience and poorly trained, had to be aggregated to the Anglo-French forces as a reinforcements or in order to complete those units short of organic. However, Pershing immediately opposed the dismemberment of American forces, defending its prerogatives in the intent of employing the AEF en masse and as an autonomous force only once the training was completed.

Between 1917 and the first half of 1918, the American forces were employed with the dropper – however - facing with the enormous pressure exerted by the Kaiserchlackt and the risk of the collapse of the Western Front, Pershing yielded to the Anglo-French demands, consenting to the deployment of 8 US divisions. These troops had the baptism of fire during the Second battle of the Marne, with mixed results and heavy losses (12 thousand dead, injured and missing), but they proved decisive in blocking the German advance and in sanctionig the final victory of the Allies. However, it was during the Hundred days counteroffensive that the American Expeditionary Force could show its full potential.

Between 12 and 19 September Pershing's troops (550 thousand men) took control of the salient of Saint Mihiel and a week later joined the French forces in the furious fighting of the Meuse-Argonne. The American losses - also caused by the persistent frontal attacks by Pershing - were huge and despite this, they were not able to definitively break the German defenses. Nevertheless, the enormous pressure exerted by the Americans drained numerous troops that Ludendorff could not replace, greatly weakening the Hindenburg Line.

The armistice of 11 November found Pershing intent on organizing the last leap forward to Metz, which would lead the Allied forces into German territory. The general coldly welcomed the news of the armistice, because on the one hand deprived the AEF of that decisive victory on the battlefield that would show everyone the American military power, on the other he believed that the continuation of the offensive in German territory in 1919 would have made the Allied victory clearer and more tangible. Pershing's concerns lay in the fact that Germany had not fully understood the extent of the defeat suffered.

In December 1918 he contracted the Spanish flue, miraculously saving himself and participating in the great parade of victory in Paris. He later attended the peace conference by joining President Wilson as part of the American delegation.

After World War II, returned home, Pershing was honored and elevated to Chief of the General Staff of the US Army, becoming the most decorated general in American history. He was also very active in ex-combatist associations and in the Thirties denounced the dangers arising from German rearmament and the aggressive policy of fascist regimes. During the Second World War became a supporter of American intervention in Europe. He died in Washington on 15 July 1948, witnessing the triumph of America as world power.

 

Bibliography:

P. P. Cervone, I signori della grande guerra, Milano, Mursia, 2014

Smythe, Donald. Pershing: General of the Armies,Bloomington, Indiana Univ. Press, 1986

Jim Lacey, Pershing. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

David R. Woodward, The American Army and the First World War, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014