May 2

This Day in History

World War I

May 2, 1918:

Allies argue over U.S. troops joining battle on Western Front

On this day in 1918, in a conference of Allied military leaders at Abbeville, France, the U.S., Britain and France argue over the entrance of American troops into World War I.

On March 23, two days after the launch of a major German offensive in northern France, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George telegraphed the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Reading, urging him to explain to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson that without help from the U.S., "we cannot keep our divisions suppliedfor more than a short time at the present rate of loss.This situation is undoubtedly critical and if America delays now she may be too late." In response, Wilson agreed to send a direct order to the commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, telling him that American troops already in France should join British and French divisions immediately, without waiting for enough soldiers to arrive to form brigades of their own. Pershing agreed to this on April 2, providing a boost in morale for the exhausted Allies.

The continued German offensive continued to take its toll throughout the month of April, however, as the majority of American troops in Europe—now arriving at a rate of 120,000 month—still did not see battle. In a meeting of the Supreme War Council of Allied leaders at Abbeville, near the coast of the English Channel, which began on May 1, 1918, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and General Ferdinand Foch, the recently named generalissimo of all Allied forces on the Western Front, worked to persuade Pershing to send all the existing American troops into the fray at once. Pershing resisted, reminding the group that the U.S. had entered the war "independently" of the other Allies—indeed, the U.S. would insist during and after the war on being known as an "associate" rather than a full-fledged ally—and stating "I do not suppose that the American army is to be entirely at the disposal of the French and British commands."

On May 2, the second day of the meeting, the debate continued, with Pershing holding his ground in the face of heated appeals by the other leaders. He proposed a compromise, which in the end Lloyd George and Clemenceau had no choice but to accept: the U.S. would send the 130,000 troops arriving in May, as well as another 150,000 in June, to join the Allied line directly. He would make no provision for July. This agreement meant that of the 650,000 American troops in Europe by the end of May 1918, roughly one-third would see action that summer; the other two-thirds would not join the line until they were organized, trained and ready to fight as a purely American army, which Pershing estimated would not happen until the late spring of 1919. By the time the war ended, though, on November 11, 1918, more than 2 million American soldiers had served on the battlefields of Western Europe, and some 50,000 of them had lost their lives.

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