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Bill Thayer

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Talk 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Soldiers Unmasked
William Addleman Ganoe

published by
The Military Service Publishing Company
Harrisburg, Pa. 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Talk 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p112  XII

Backing and Filling

One day an old friend of mine, whom I had not seen for nearly twenty years, burst into my office. After the gladsome handshakes and slaps of affection, I asked him to tell me about himself.

"Well," he said, "I got married."

"Hm," I said, "That's good."

"No," he said, "Not so good. My wife turned out to be a tartar."

"Well," I said, "That's bad."

"No," he said, "Not so bad. She brought me twenty thousand dollars."

"O," I said, "that's good."

"No," he said, "Not so good. I invested the money in sheep and they all died."

"Hm," I said, "that's bad."

"No," he said, "Not so bad. I sold the wool for more than the sheep cost me."

"Well," I said, "That's good."

"No," he said, "Not so good. I bought a fine home and a fire burned it to the ground."

"Hm," I said, "that's bad."

"No," he said, "Not so bad. My wife was in it."

 p113  Before and during our part of the World War we were not so good and not so bad. Two years after that comedy of errors and tragedy of blood called the Spanish-American War, we did the most unusual thing in our life as a nation. For the first time after a war, we increased and helped our land forces. Under the pressure of the Philippine Wars and onward-looking men like Elihu Root and Theodore Roosevelt, we raised our army to one hundred thousand for a hundred million people. We set up new service schools and broadened others for the higher military education of our officers. We at last formed a general staff. And in 1911 we assembled during peace a regular division of troops for the first time in our history. To be sure, it took months to do so, it drained the country of nearly all its trained forces, and the division couldn't be entirely collected, but the move wasn't so bad. For several years it looked as though our army would be a going concern. Then we lagged. The wolf in sheep's clothing began to bleat. In 1913, Congressman Dies, in the House of Representatives, stated: "God has placed us on this great, rich continent, separate and secure from the broils of Europe." Dr. David Starr Jordan, President of Leland Stanford University, flooded the country with his prophecies. Here is one. "It is apparently not possible for another real war among  p114 the nations of Europe to take place." As for our getting into any war, he threw it off as so much silliness. That was just the opium the country wanted in 1913 and early '14. The people ate up the idea. Anyone who spoke preparedness was a jingoist and wanted war. Why, war was impossible. It meant too much to Wall Street. European nations were too poor to fight. Modern weapons would be too horrible to allow a war. What was the use of paying out good money for scientific training — for modern materials — for being ready at all? War couldn't be. Not so good.

For war suddenly was. Right in the midst of this dangerous propaganda. Someone struck a match at Sarajevo and set all Europe on fire. Despite those priceless brains that had so lately invented no war, Russia, England, France, Belgium, Austria and Germany were flaming. What a sight! Americans rushed for front seats and bought concessions. Wasn't it an awful fire! What a pity! As for us — poof! We couldn't get into it. It was Europe's affair. We sensed no tidal wave of emotions. We didn't even send experts over there to see how modern war was conducted.a Not so good, for the rumblings grew plainer and plainer. In 1915, Colonel House, the President's confidential adviser, wrote to Woodrow Wilson: "If war comes with Germany, it will be because of our  p115 unpreparedness and her belief that we are more or less impotent to do her harm." He was on the ground and saw. But did we take his word and see? Our mobile army then was smaller than our trained force before the Spanish-American War. Our general staff was reduced and our equipment laughable. Not so good. We entered 1916 still unconcernedly watching the drama in Europe, while U‑boats were sinking our shipping, Germany was sticking out her tongue at us and we were getting hotter and hotter. Were we doing anything for our safety? No, no, that would be a violent gesture. Despite our watchful waiting and utter helplessness, General Leonard Wood established the business men's training camp. And Congress, by some miracle, put over our first real National Defense Act — a comprehensive thing built on sound lines. Not so bad.

But the legislation wouldn't be fulfilled for five years — and here we were ten months before we got into the war. Even if the act had been immediately and wholly effective, we wouldn't have had time to get the men and train them. Not so good.

Then out of the blue came Pancho Villa. He crossed our border March 9, 1916, raided the defenseless town of Columbus, New Mexico, and killed eleven civilians and nine soldiers. It looked like a horror for us. Not so good. But the tragedy was a  p116 blessing in disguise. It probably kept France from being German today. It gave an excuse to the President for rushing to the border a large part of the regular army and one hundred and fifty thousand National Guardsmen. There they received fine training in fundamentals. Their experience gave the foundation for the 1st, 2nd, 26th and 42nd Divisions — the first ones to be factors in France later. Not so bad. But it took a brutal act to compel us to do what we wouldn't do under our own steam. Even so we were magnificently unready. And we jumped into the European War, April 16, 1917, because we were angry, inflamed, anxious to punish Germany at any cost. No catch phrases, no plottings of a few could possibly have pitched us into the struggle without that general hatred. And we had little with which to carry out the wholesale desire for force. Immediately we needed two hundred thousand officers. We hadn't ten thousand trained ones to instruct them and at the same time lead our forces. In equipment we were worse off. We had a few out-of‑date airplanes, only enough artillery ammunition for a two‑day battle, no automatic rifles and comparatively few machine guns and ordinary rifles. Materially we lacked almost everything. Although we had the best rifle in the world, there was not anywhere near enough. We had to arm our men largely  p117 with British Enfields — unfamiliar to Americans — at best poor makeshifts. We couldn't manufacture any of these things in time. In July 1917, Congress voted six hundred forty million dollars for airplanes. Nearly a year later we hadn't any of our aircraft in Europe. Where had the money gone? An investigation was ordered. After seventeen thousand pages of testimony were taken down, it was found that aircraft couldn't be built and shipped abroad in that time. Not so good.

In our equipment we were helpless without our Allies. But in our manpower, we did surprisingly well. A little over a month after war was declared, we did the astonishing thing of passing a Draft Act. We put teeth in the law of 1792 promoted by George Washington, which had been a dead statute for over one hundred and twenty-five years. Instead of the horrors of volunteering, of utterly untrained men, of political shilly-shallying, we turned to a just and equalizing system. We did away with the woes of extra disease and death — and put our soldiers into training. Not in this war would absolutely green officers send into eternity helpless volunteers. Our best men went to training camps, where they at least had to qualify in leading others. Not so bad. But of course these candidates couldn't be fully trained in eighty days. And the regular officers, who had been  p118 deprived of modern methods in Europe, couldn't give them all they needed. But they did get many essentials, which they could pass on to the drafted men.

Today, many don't realize that a vast amount of hardship, sickness and death was saved by our moves of the draft and officers' training camps. It has been estimated that by the draft alone we saved five per cent in money and possibly twenty per cent in human life. Not so bad. To be sure we had unnecessary suffering and materiality. No system invented as late as 1917 could have overcome our shiftlessness during the years before. A month after we declared war, General Pershing was sent to Europe with a handful. "Where are the Americans?" asked our Allies. "Why," he had to explain, "they are back in the United States getting ready." And for a year they had to keep getting ready before they were of real physical help.

Suppose you were attacked on the street by a strong bandit. I calmly from my window watch you struggling against him for several hours. Finally my wrath gets the best of me. I rush out to the curb. I see blood and bruises on your face. I yell to you: "I'm for you, old man. I'll fight on your side, but chuck me a pair of brass knuckles. I'll go down town and have them made to fit me. I may get a few boxing  p119 lessons too. I'll be back in about an hour. Just keep on going. You're doing fine." What would you think of me? Not so good. Well, we did that very thing to our Allies. Sixteen months after we entered the war, General Pershing pathetically stated: "This is the first time the American Army has been recognized as a participant alongside of the Allies." What we did after war was declared was about as good as could humanly be expected. What we didn't do beforehand was about as dumb as could humanly be expected. Most of the unnecessary woes of the war can justly be laid to this stupidity. Out of nearly two million Americans who went to Europe, over fifty thousand were killed by battle. Out of the three and one‑half millions in service, sixty-five thousand died of accident or disease. Much of this waste could have been avoided. It is estimated that there are fifteen thousand graves of our soldiers in France, which should not be there. Men were sent overseas who didn't know how to load their rifles, use their gas masks, or take the simplest precautions of taking cover or care of themselves. They hadn't been given a chance to learn. There was no time to teach them. The training camp products, though better than untrained volunteers, were too often uncertain in their movements and orders. There were times when they brought unnecessary slaughter to themselves and  p120 their commands. The German General Ludendorff after the war, paid great tribute to the gallantry of the individual American soldier, but at the same time told of the inferior quality of some American troops — as troops. General Pershing's complaints about the lack of training of men sent over, remind us of George Washington's pitiful pleas during our Revolution. We waited for the calamity to get us, instead of getting the calamity beforehand. The sad part is that our losses, our hardships, our waste of money and material could all have been prevented, had we had strength in '14, '15 and '16. German records and statements brought to light since the war, prove beyond doubt that we would never have been insulted by Germany, had our people drowned at sea and been drawn into the war at all, had we not been considered so senselessly weak. And we were weak — just as weak as Germany estimated us. As it was we were barely able to help. In the spring of 1918 all looked lost for our Allies. They were making their last stand. A matter of hours and nothing could stem the German onrush. By the greatest fortune and luck we had, by that time, a few troops worthy of taking the places of French and British reserve divisions and releasing them to the front. It was that plugging up of the tiny hole in the dyke that let the Allies hold on. Had we not  p121 shown an unbelievable efficiency over all of our other wars, after we got into the fight, and had not Villa crossed our border in 1916, the hole could not have been plugged — and America would have been on the losing side. Our unreadiness before war — not so good. Our surprising efficiency after we got into the war — not so bad. Our dependence upon a Mexican bandit for partial preparation — not so good.

But suppose we had been forced to fight our enemy alone. Suppose we hadn't had Allies to spend their lives in defense for a whole year. Suppose in wandering off for brass knuckles and boxing lessons we'd have been left alone with him. Can you picture the frightful, extravagant, tremendous deaths we would have dealt out to our own young men?

Thayer's Note:

a This isn't quite true. To judge from the posting of West Point graduates, while the United States did have a lull in military observers during the early part of World War I, picking up only in mid‑1917 (especially in the new field of military aviation), a few American military observers can be noted in 1913‑1914: among those West Pointers, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Samuel W. Miller, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John Biddle, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Clarence C. Williams, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Dwight E. Aultman, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wilson B. Burtt. All of them would retire as general officers.

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Page updated: 17 Sep 20