On this day in 1919, almost one year after an armistice officially ended the First World War, New York City holds a parade to welcome home General John J. Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), and some 25,000 soldiers who had served in the AEF’s 1st Division on the Western Front.
The United States, which maintained its neutrality when World War I broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, declared war on Germany in April 1917. Though the U.S. was initially able to muster only about 100,000 men to send to France under Pershing’s command that summer, President Woodrow Wilson swiftly adopted a policy of conscription. By the time the war ended 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. Demobilization began in late 1918; by September 1919 the last combat divisions had left France, though an occupation force of 16,000 U.S. soldiers remained until 1923, based in the town of Coblenz, Germany, as part of the post-war Allied presence in the Rhine Valley determined by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Before the AEF’s combat units left service, the U.S. War Department gave citizens the chance to honor their troops. “New York lived yesterday probably the last chapter in its history of great military spectacles growing out of the war,” trumpeted The New York Times of the parade that took place September 10, 1914. According to the paper, an enthusiastic crowd turned out to cheer the 25,000 members of the 1st Division, who filed down Fifth Avenue from 107th Street to Washington Square in Greenwich Village, wearing trench helmets and full combat equipment.
The Times report continued: “It was the town’s first opportunity to greet the men of the 1st Division, and to let them know it remembered their glorious part in the American Army’s smashing drives at Toul, at Cantigny, at Soissons, at St. Mihiel, and at the Meuse and the Argonne.” The loudest cheers were for Pershing himself, who “was kept at almost continual salute by the tributes volleyed at him from both sides of the avenue.”
Pershing led a similar parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. on September 17; two days later, he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, which that same month created a new rank for him—”General of the Armies,” a rank only he has held—making him the highest-ranking military figure in the country. During his tenure as chief of staff of the U.S. Army, from 1921 to 1924, Pershing completely reorganized the structure of the army, combining the regular army, the National Guard, and the permanent army reserves into one organization. Upon his retirement, he headed up a commission supervising the construction of American war memorials in France. Pershing died in 1948.