Death and glory: the first world war US general whose ambition did for his men

Historian bucks US tradition to show how lives were needlessly lost

US military scholars have rarely been as willing as their British counterparts to find fault with leadership and execution – even when those failures cost thousands of allied servicemen’s lives.

But as commemorations of the first world war’s centenary continue, US military scholars, as their European counterparts did decades earlier, are going back to the original records and looking more closely.

“There’s a strong tradition in American military history to create and maintain heroes,” says William Walker, author of Betrayal at Little Gibraltar, an account of the battle of the Argonne Forest, the final allied push of the war. Walker claims the cost in American lives of that battle would have been far lower if US forces had been not been led by an inept, vainglorious general. “However, centennials have a way of focusing attention on matters. We’re seeing the mistakes that were made. In part, that’s a natural re-evaluation of what happened 100 years ago. But what is astonishing is that we’re seeing how some of the mistakes were covered up.”

Walker claims that the disobedience of one senior officer, Major General Robert Lee Bullard, led to thousands of needless casualties in a battle which, with 122,000 dead and wounded, would become one of the largest and costliest ever fought by American troops.

For three days, Bullard delayed taking a German observation point during the assault on Montfaucon, a village in northern France that French commanders had dubbed the Little Gibraltar of the western front because it was so heavily fortified. His failure allowed the German artillery to pound the allied lines.

In his account, Walker makes the case that Bullard disobeyed General John J. Pershing’s orders to take the position in order to compete with his genial counterpart and rival, George Cameron. At stake was the opportunity to lead the US Second Army.

“At that time, generals were judged on who went the farthest on the battlefield,” explains Walker. “Bullard decided he wanted to go the farthest, and in doing so he abandoned his compatriots in Cameron’s 79th Division.” By leaving the observation point in good shape he has to answer for a three-day delay in the battle.”Bullard, writes Walker, was “encumbered by a large ego and burning ambition … He knew only one direction – forward – and only one speed – fast. Bullard scorned orders from Pershing’s staff that required teamwork and coordination.” Walker also claims that Bullard’s disobedience was covered up by Pershing, commander of the US forces and Bullard’s near-contemporary at West Point military academy. While Pershing has come under criticism from other historians, including Edward Lengel in his 2009 book To Conquer Hell, Walker unearthed a remarkable affidavit published years later by one of the US officers who fought in the battle.

In it, Major Harry Parkin, 316th Infantry, 79th Division, asserted that the decision to delay taking Montfaucon was taken by Bullard explicitly to block his rival. “General Bullard said that he would not help General Cameron, our corps commander, win any battle laurels, so on account of this nasty jealousy between high officers the help was not sent to us, and the 4th Division went ahead with its much easier advance, and left us to be slaughtered … in a frontal attack against the machine guns in Montfaucon.”

Bullard, Parkin continued, “received all the high military decorations of America, France, England, and Belgium. What he deserved was a long term in military prison for deliberately murdering hundreds of American soldiers”.

In Pershing’s account of the war, he briefly described the assault on Montfaucon, saying that a “misrepresentation of orders” had resulted in the failure to capture the observatory on the first day of battle.

The mildness of that rebuke speaks to the close friendship Bullard and Pershing had developed at West Point. “There’s a mythical but well-known entity called the West Point Protective Association – a code of honour – that means you never denigrate another West Point graduate and that was very much in effect,” says Walker.

But the larger question remains whether American historical scholarship will take the opportunity to further examine the US role in the first world war, a conflict Walker considers “the seminal event of the 20th century”.

The exposure of military misadventure and incompetence has little tradition in the US, at least in comparison with historical excoriations of British generals such as John French and Douglas Haig or even of Churchill over the Dardanelles. Walker spent almost two decades combing the records for information about the battle. On the morning of the armistice on 11 November 1918, Bullard ordered a final attack. “He went out to watch it and found it glorious that his men were attacking German lines, despite the … cost in lives,” says Walker.

But the lessons may not have been entirely lost. One of those involved in planning the Meuse-Argonne offensive was George Marshall, US army chief of staff throughout the second world war and later, as US secretary of state, architect of European reconstruction.

“Marshall saw all the shenanigans, and he saw that General Pershing had encouraged competition between Bullard and Cameron, and understood that it intervenes with the execution of proper military orders. His number one criterion for military leadership was a sense of teamwork.”

The paperback of William Walker’s Betrayal at Little Gibraltar is published by Scribner in the US in early April.


Edward Helmore

The GuardianTramp

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