When Marshall Met Pershing


Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the key moments leading to the Allied victory over the Axis powers in World War II.

Don’t worry, your math is not wrong.

Oct. 3, 1917, is the centennial of General John J. Pershing’s inspection of the 1st Infantry Division at Gondrecourt, France. This obscure event would not only have significant repercussions for the American effort in the next world war, but also offer lessons for leadership development in the U.S. military a century later.

When Pershing assumed command of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), which was created and deployed to France after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, he essentially had to create and organize an army from scratch. In the spring of 1917 no U.S. divisions existed anywhere but on paper. Moreover, upon arriving in France, Pershing was constantly pressured by British leaders to relinquish his troops and integrate them into the British Army. He needed combat-ready forces to strengthen his hand in this debate and prevent the AEF from being stillborn. With few other units yet to reach France, Pershing took an inordinate interest in the summer and fall of 1917 in the first American unit to arrive, the 1st Division.

As the division conducted training in Lorraine, Pershing frequently visited its headquarters on short notice to check on its progress. A previous review with French President Raymond Poincaré on Sept. 6, 1917, was a disaster, and Pershing took out his frustration on the 1st Division’s commander, Major General William L. Sibert. Pershing inspected the 1st Division again on Oct. 3, this time at Gondrecourt to watch a demonstration of a new method for attacking an entrenched enemy. After the demonstration, Pershing called upon Sibert for a critique. Although Sibert possessed a brilliant record as an engineer, he had little experience with infantry tactics and had only witnessed the demonstration for the first time alongside Pershing. Consequently, his comments were halting and confused.

Pershing then called upon two other staff officers whose responses were also unsatisfactory. The general erupted and “just gave everybody hell,” particularly Sibert, whom he dressed down in front of his own officers. The division showed little for the time it had spent in training, Pershing snapped. They had not made good use of the time, and had not followed instructions from AEF headquarters at Chaumont regarding open warfare formations. Pershing excoriated Sibert, questioning his leadership, his attention to details in training, and his acceptance of such poor professionalism.

The 1st Division staff felt a possessive affection for their commander, and as Pershing turned to leave, the tall major who had been serving as acting chief of staff spoke up, angrily protesting Pershing’s unfairness. Pershing was in no mood to listen and began to walk away. Suddenly, he felt the major’s hand grabbing his arm.

“General Pershing,” the major said, “there’s something to be said here and I think I should say it because I’ve been here the longest.”

Pershing turned back and gave the impertinent young officer a cold, appraising glance. “What have you got to say?”

A torrent of facts poured forth: the promised platoon manuals that never arrived and had set back training; the inadequate supplies that left men walking around with gunnysacks on their feet; the inadequate quarters that left troops scattered throughout the countryside, sleeping in barns for a penny a night; the lack of motor transport that forced troops to walk miles to the training grounds. Finally, the deluge subsided.

Pershing looked at the major and calmly said: “You must appreciate the troubles we have.”

The major replied, “Yes, I know you do, General, I know you do. But ours are immediate and every day and have to be solved before night.”

General Pershing eyed the major narrowly and then turned to leave, the 1st Division staff looking nervously at the ground in stunned silence. After a while, Sibert gratefully told Major George C. Marshall that he should not have stuck his neck out on his account, and the rest of the staff predicted that Marshall’s military career was finished. Marshall shrugged off his friends’ condolences, saying: “All I can see is that I may get troop duty instead of staff duty, and certainly that would be a great success.”

Yet no retribution for the incident ever came. Instead, whenever the AEF commander visited 1st Division from Chaumont, he would find a moment to pull Marshall aside to ask how things were really going. Pershing had finally found an officer who would tell him the unvarnished truth rather than gloss over inadequacies. Marshall eventually received orders transferring him to the AEF General Staff to work under Colonel Fox Conner, the head of the AEF’s Operations section. Together, they would form the core of the group that planned the two great U.S. offensives of the war — Saint Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. Pershing was impressed, and after the Armistice asked Marshall to become his aide.

After the victory parades and celebrations of 1919 faded, Marshall began an apprenticeship that would not only broaden his horizons, but also indelibly shape the leadership of American forces in World War II. Although military historians still debate how the Allies were able to defeat the Axis powers in World War II, Marshall’s efforts as Chief of Staff beginning in 1939 directly contributed to each plausible theory. More specifically, Marshall’s contributions under each explanation can be traced back to his experiences serving with Pershing during the five-plus years after World War I.

Some historians argue that the Allied victory was primarily due to U.S. commanders who displayed “aggressive and determined leadership.” If so, much of the credit for these commanders’ success belongs to Marshall, who as Chief of Staff selected or approved all army and corps commanders. However, this process began when Pershing became Chief of Staff of the Army in 1921 and Marshall was installed in an office near his chief in the State, War, and Navy Building. As other staff officers who had been with Pershing in France moved on to other assignments, Marshall became increasingly important, and Pershing sent many proposed letters, draft reports, and staff recommendations to him for comment. Reading the flow of paper in and out of the office, Marshall eventually became familiar with the entire army establishment. In the fall of 1921, he served on a board investigating the alleged inequities of the Army’s single-list promotion system. Examining the service records of hundreds of officers gave him detailed background on the careers of many men who would later serve under him.

More importantly, perhaps, Marshall served as a mentor to many of the generals who served under him over the next two decades, including Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgway, and Joe Collins. Bradley stated that, “No man had a greater influence on me personally or professionally” than Marshall. One hundred and fifty future generals attended the Infantry School at Fort Benning during Marshall’s tenure as assistant commandant, with another 50 serving on the faculty under his direction.

Other historians cite the American infantry’s ability to adapt to the battlefield as the key to victory. Peter Mansoor, for example, argues in The GI Offensive in Europe that the U.S. Army “accomplished its mission in Western Europe because it evolved over time into a more combat-effective force that Germany could sustain on the battlefield.” Again, Marshall deserves a share of the credit under this theory, thanks to his efforts from 1927-1932 to revolutionize the training of company grade officers at the Infantry School. And again, the origins of Marshall’s efforts can be traced back to his years with Pershing.

After World War I, Pershing sought to lay the foundation for fighting a future war by establishing boards to evaluate the lessons offered by the AEF’s experience. Marshall was put to work sifting through the reports of these boards and the records of the AEF. He set down these lessons in the January 1921 issue of the Infantry Journal, warning of the dangers of divided command, of reliance on textbook tactics, and of assuming the next war would be the same tactically as the last one. He also noted that quick thinking and quick action were more important than proper order formats:

Many orders, models in their form, failed to reach the troop in time to affect their actions, and many apparently crude and fragmentary instructions did reach front-line commanders in time to enable the purpose of the higher command to be carried out on the battlefield.

Marshall disseminated these lessons as assistant commandant of the Infantry School,  warning students that an officer “must be prepared to take prompt and decisive action in spite of the scarcity or total absence of reliable information. He must learn that in war, the abnormal is normal and that uncertainty is certain.” Indeed, even historian Jorg Muth, who is highly critical of professional military education and leadership development in the interwar Army, concludes: “The only highlight of the U.S. Army’s educational system in the first decades of the twentieth century was the Infantry School and then only when George C. Marshall was the assistant commander.”

Conversely, Martin Van Crevald in Fighting Power argues, “The American officer corps of World War II was less than mediocre.” Although few historians go quite to that extreme in disparaging the U.S. Army’s performance, others such as Russell Weigley argue that America’s materiel preponderance in terms of weapons systems and munitions deliverable to the front lines ultimately mattered more than battlefield effectiveness. Once again, Marshall’s understanding of mobilization and logistical issues can be traced to the early post-war years. In December 1919, Secretary of War Newton Baker sent Pershing — with Marshall and his other staff accompanying him — on a national tour of army camps and war plants to recommend those to be retained in the post-war drawdown. By the end of the inspection tour, Pershing knew more about the Army than anyone else, knowledge that was almost completely shared by Marshall.

Moreover, Marshall’s time in Washington gave him essential experience in dealing with the nation’s civilian leaders. He dealt with congressmen on the two military affairs committees, rubbed shoulders with the secretary of war, and briefed Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Despite his personal aloofness from partisan politics, he came to understand politics and politicians far better than most military men. This skill would prove critical two decades later when President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed a point man to convince a still-isolationist Congress of the urgency of mobilization before Pearl Harbor. Without Marshall’s credibility and skillful lobbying, followed by his herculean efforts to expand, train, and equip the army, transforming it from a constabulary force of 100,000 to an efficient eight million-man force, there would have been no materiel preponderance to fall back on when combat effectiveness fell short. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would describe Marshall as “the Organizer of Victory,” and President Harry S. Truman would say of Marshall’s role as Army Chief of Staff: “Millions of Americans gave their country outstanding service … George C. Marshall gave it victory.”

This is not to argue that Marshall was solely responsible for the Allied victory or that he was infallible. To be sure, he made a number of errors in judgment: arguing against providing aid to England during the Blitz, promoting Lloyd Fredendall to a corps command (in which position Fredendall would fail badly during the North Africa campaign), and supporting an early invasion of France before U.S. forces could gain badly needed hardening in North Africa and Sicily. These mistakes show Marshall was human. Yet it is far from hagiography to acknowledge his critical role in the Allied war effort, or to recognize that if America owed an incalculable debt to Marshall for his leadership in the next world war, a significant portion of the interest would deservedly go to General John J. Pershing. As Bradley would later note of Marshall’s apprenticeship under Pershing: “Few junior officers in the history of the U.S. Army had ever had … so much high-level exposure and responsibility for so long a period. Few gained so much in terms of personal and professional growth.” Marshall’s relationship with Pershing marked him for high command, and Pershing’s loyalty to and support for his former aide would prove critical in the years to come.

This relationship might never have come to fruition if not for Marshall’s moral courage in challenging the intimidating AEF Commander one hundred years ago today. Yet of at least equal importance was Pershing’s ability to appreciate and productively channel dissent. History is replete with military officers who spoke their minds freely but were squelched by intolerant senior officers or an entrenched military bureaucracy uninterested in heterodox or innovative ideas. George Patton, for example, was repeatedly reprimanded for his outspokenness, and consequently spent the 1930s writing anachronistic treatises on the continuing importance of the horse cavalry in order to save his career. As Stephen P. Rosen notes in Winning the Next War, military innovations are often stillborn without the top cover from a senior officer capable of giving subordinates space in which to flourish. Marshall was fortunate to find such leadership not only in Pershing, but again twenty years later when, as Assistant Chief of Staff of the Army, he dared to openly disagree with FDR’s pronouncements on mobilization in a 1938 Oval Office meeting. FDR, like Pershing before him, saw the value of Marshall’s frankness rather than insubordination.

In the wake of the controversies surrounding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the quality of American generalship has been called into serious question. In May 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling wrote that the “debacles” in Iraq “are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officers corps,” who “failed to prepare our armed forces for war.” In 2012, Thomas Ricks argued that, “To a shocking degree, the Army’s leadership ranks have become populated by mediocre officers placed in positions where they are likely to fail. Success goes unrewarded, and everything but the most extreme failure goes unpunished.”

Regardless of the merits of these critiques, the retention and development of junior officers for future strategic leadership is today a hotly debated topic amongst generals, former commanders, and academics — debates that formed the backdrop for the Obama administration’s uncompleted “Force of the Future” initiative. The centennial of the Marshall-Pershing confrontation offers a reminder that a key to developing strong leaders is to foster an environment in which openness and criticism are not only tolerated, but can be channeled to foster innovation.


Benjamin Runkle is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and has served as in the Defense Department, as a Director on the National Security Council, and as a Professional Staff Member on the House Armed Services Committee. He is current a Senior Policy Fellow with Artis International.

Images: Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives/U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center