Recap on World War I Symposium 1-2 November 2018 Kansas City

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Part I

Recap on World War I Symposium 1-2 November 2018 Kansas City

By H-WAR Correspondent at Large (self-appointed),  John T. Kuehn

All, what follows are edited notes I took while attending the 100th anniversary commemortation symposium at the WW I Museum and Liberty Memeorial in Kansas City last week.  Please excuse in inaccuracies in the reporting.  

Bottom line up front, it was a very successful and informative event and the organizers and contributors to this effort, especilly the Pritzker and CGSC foundations, are gratefully aknowledged along with all the other sponsors and donors.  My understanding is that ALL of the lectures will be eventually posted on YOUTUBE.

World War I, November 1st 2018 Symposium

Crucible of war

First Speaker—Professor Geoffrey Wawro,  expert scholar on Prussia-Germany and Austria in second half of 19th century, especially the Austro-Prussian War.  Now at the newest powerhouse military history program in USA,  University of North Texas, was formerly at Naval war college among other educational institutions.

Title: American Army in WW I

Wawro presented what might be termed the “traditional” narrative of America’s involvement in WW I,  that the US entry gave the Allies hope and, as time went on,  removed all hope for the Germans (the latter my judgement but Wawro implied as much).  He claimed the operations of the United States’ AEF as THE critical component in the latter half of 1918 contributing to the eventual German defeat and agreement to Armistice—also part of the traditional American narrative of the war. Fighting Doughboys saved the day, to put it in a more vernacular tone.

His presentation started out with a slide show of a wide spectrum of Americans who participated, especially sports and popular culture stars:  Sissler, Rickenbacker, Ty Cobb, lots of baseball stars.  Football stars. Gene Tunney, boxer.  writers and intellectuals, too. All the famous names.

He then went to 1917, the year of crisis.  He claimed French Army had about shot its bolt. 3 million causalities to that point in war and then the disastrous Nivelle Offensive—which added hundreds thousands more.  Portions of French Army mutinied. 49 divisions refused to go on the offensive.  Slighted the role of Petain in stabilizing the front and restoring the morale of the French Army.  Presents standard negative view of Petain as informed by 20-20 hindsight of Petain’s role in Vichy 23 years later.  A common error in assessments of Petain.  Readers interested in 1917 and the French are directed to the dated (but better) scholarship on Petain in Correlli Barnett’s  The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the Fist World War. If you have never studied this book you cannot really call yourself a World War I scholar.

He then recapped Russia, 5 million lost, revolution in March.  Conducts the Kerenesky offensive that is at first successful then defeated and Bolshevik message gains currency.  October revolution. Net result, 220 Russian combat divisions leave the war.  

Italy—Caparetto, nearly drives Italy out of the war.  Austrians are his specialty, so it is odd he neglects how much more bankrupt the Austrian Army is than any other major combatant and how much of a strategic albatross it had become to the Germans.

British—Lloyd George and Haig falling out.  Britain does not want to draft remaining reserve military manpower. Politicians dosnot want to underwrite Haig’s bloody offensives with Britain’s future. Talked about how the British political leadership spread Imperial divisions in other theaters to keep them out of Haig’s hands in Mesopotamia, Salonika and elsewhere.  Later talk by Gradyon Tunstall (in a later session) supported this thesis about Haig (but not Wawro’s military thesis vis-à-vis the AEF).

All this discussion set up the second part of Wawro’s major argument, militarily Allies have shot their bolt and a new military force needed on the scene to rescue the effort on the battlefield.

He then talked about the Germans—new tactics for offense. Intelligent artillery use, and infiltration tactics with storm troopers. Mentioned Hutier tactics. Did not mention Georg Bruechmueller and innovative new use of artillery and gas. Germans bring their Russian divisions to the Western Front for a last chance offensive to break the Allies.   Talked this offensive but did not really say how Allies pretty much defeated it with limited US combat forces involvement. Gave the impression the Americans made the difference in the so-called Michael Offensives failures by early summer of 1918.

Wawro claimed Americans are the only hope.  Only they can balance the loss of Russian combat divisions in the war’s calculus, but that balancing will take time. Discusses how small American Army is compared to everyone else. 

Selective Service Act passed and a million man field Army planned for—huge officer shortage—mentioned 90 day wonders.

Returned to discussion of German March 1918 offensives and after---overemphasizes the American contribution.  Says IT saved the Marne River line.  Rock of the Marne,  3rd Infantry Division.  Again, more of the traditional narrative (mythology) reflected in Wawro’s analysis.

Then showed how the AEF Meuse-Argonne offensive was the critical event leading to the Armistice, claimed concurrent French and British offensives had less opposition and discounted their role.   I was praying that Hew Strachan or Richard S. (Shawn) Faulkner would transfigure onto the stage and rebut this claim.

Waro marginalizes the Allied effort, has a triumphalist narrative for the US impact on the actual battlefield.  Most of the audience seemed well-disposed to this narrative (and who wouldn't, to be honest?)

End presentation.

First Question from John T. Kuehn: “We all agree, I think, that America’s entry into the war is a decisive factor that leads to allied victory, it gives Allies hope and removes that hope for the Central Powers, but what about Amiens in 1918?  What about  August "Black day of the German Army" (as attributed to Ludendorff)? What about 160,000 causalities in less than two months  for AEF that belied the flawed tactics of the AEF, especially in the first three weeks of the campaign?

Wawro dodged my question about Amiens and softballed the casualties piece (claimed only 120,000 casualites).  Did acknowledge that AEF learned from its bloody mistakes and spoke to Hunter-Liggett’s use of artillery in second phase of offensive that is more successful and conserves life. Did not mention that hard-fighting French on the left flank of the AEF.

Second question a wash, on shipbuilding,  Wawro claimed US merchant marine was very small and shipbuilding to match when in fact US merchant marine is among top five merchant marines in size in the world at this point,  a later talk by James Holmes made this second (rebuttive point).  Also rebutted by final talk by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Kennedy in his discussion that touched on the US Board.

Third question---quotation used by questioner about how “Americans smothered German machines guns with American flesh.”  Wawro walked back his earlier claims and acknowledged the poor tactics but then (and I paraphrase) said something along lines of these sorts of losses were to be expected and necessary and support thesis that AEF paid the cost for military victory that saved Allies.

Scholarship of recent Award Winner Professor Shawn Faulkner in Pershing’s Crusaders (http://www.oah.org/site/assets/files/8218/2018-awards-program.pdf) for 2018 OAH Leopold prize and his earlier prize-winner (SMH) School of Hard Knocks present a more balanced and objective view of the AEF’s military performance and are authoritative.

Respectfully,  John T. Kuehn, Platte City Missouri 

The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government