Primary Documents - John Pershing on Foch's Appointment as Allied Supreme Commander, 1 September 1919

John J Pershing Reproduced below is the official reaction - from his despatch of September 1919 - of U.S. Commander-in-Chief General John Pershing, to news of the decision to transfer supreme military command of Allied forces on the Western Front to Ferdinand Foch.

The decision to transfer overall command to Foch was taken by Allied government representatives at Doullens on 26 March in the wake of the onset of the powerful German Spring Offensive which was launched five days earlier and which inflicted serious reverses upon the British Army.  It was thus in a period of crisis that Foch was handed his (ultimately highly successful) leading role.

Pershing's reaction to the news was, in spite of the potential for subsequent disagreements (which actually transpired), positive.  He recognised the need for a unified Allied strategy in the face of the current concerted German offensive.

Click here to read the text of his address to Foch on the matter on 28 March.  Click here to read British Prime Minister David Lloyd George's official statement on the subject.  Click here to read a follow-up statement by Lloyd George on the same subject dated 9 April 1918.

John Pershing on Foch's Appointment as Allied Supreme Commander

In the latter part of January, 1918, joint note No. 12, presented by the military representatives with the supreme war council, was approved by the council.

This note concluded that France would be safe during 1918 only under certain conditions, namely:

(a) That the strength of the British and French troops in France are continuously kept up to their present total strength and that they receive the expected reinforcements of not less than two American divisions per month.

The first German offensive of 1918, beginning March 21st, overran all resistance during the initial period of the attack.  Within eight days the enemy had completely crossed the old Somme battlefield and had swept everything before him to a depth of some fifty-six kilometres.

For a few days the loss of the railroad centre of Amiens appeared imminent.  The offensive made such inroads upon French and British reserves that defeat stared them in the face unless the new American troops should prove more immediately available than even the most optimistic had dared to hope.

On March 27th the military representatives with the supreme war council prepared their joint note No. 18.  This note repeated the previously quoted statement from joint note No. 12, and continued:

The battle which is developing at the present moment in France, and which can extend to the other theatres of operations, may very quickly place the Allied armies in a serious situation from the point of view of effectives, and the military representatives are from this moment of opinion that the above-detailed condition can no longer be maintained, and they consider as a general proposition that the new situation requires new decisions.

The military representatives are of opinion that it is highly desirable that the American Government should assist the allied armies as soon as possible by permitting in principle the temporary service of American units in allied army corps and divisions.  Such reinforcements must, however, be obtained from other units than those American divisions which are now operating with the French, and the units so temporarily employed must eventually be returned to the American army.

The military representatives are of the opinion that from the present time, in execution of the foregoing, and until otherwise directed by the supreme war council, only American infantry and machine-gun units, organized as that government may decide, be brought to France, and that all agreements or conventions hitherto made in conflict with this decision be modified accordingly.

The Secretary of War, who was in France at this time, General Bliss, the American military representative with the supreme war council, and I at once conferred on the terms of this note, with the result that the secretary recommended to the President that joint note No. 18 be approved in the following sense:

The purpose of the American Government is to render the fullest cooperation and aid, and therefore the recommendation of the military representatives with regard to the preferential transportation of American infantry and machine-gun units in the present emergency is approved.

Such units, when transported, will be under the direction of the commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, and will be assigned for training and use by him in his discretion.

He will use these and all other military forces of the United States under his command in such manner as to render the greatest military assistance, keeping in mind always the determination of this government to have its various military forces collected, as speedily as their training and the military situation permit, into an independent American army, acting in concert with the armies of Great Britain and France, and all arrangements made by him for their temporary training and service will be made with that end in view.

When, on March 21, 1918, the German army on the western front began its series of offensives, it was by far the most formidable force the world had ever seen.

In fighting men and guns it had a great superiority, but this was of less importance than the advantage in morale, in experience, in training for mobile warfare, and in unity of command.

Ever since the collapse of the Russian armies and the crisis on the Italian front in the fall of 1917, German armies were being assembled and trained for the great campaign which was to end the war before America's effort could be brought to bear.  Germany's best troops, her most successful generals, and all the experience gained in three years of war were mobilized for the supreme effort.

The first blow fell on the right of the British armies, including the junction of the British and French forces.  Only the prompt cooperation of the French and British general headquarters stemmed the tide.

The reason for this objective was obvious and strikingly illustrated the necessity for having someone with sufficient authority over all the Allied armies to meet such an emergency.  The lack of complete cooperation among the Allies on the western front had been appreciated and the question of preparation to meet a crisis had already received attention by the supreme war council.

A plan had been adopted by which each of the Allies would furnish a certain number of divisions for a general reserve to be under the direction of the military representatives of the supreme war council of which General Foch was then the senior member.  But when the time came to meet the German offensive in March these reserves were not found available and the plan failed.

This situation resulted in a conference for the immediate consideration of the question of having an Allied commander-in-chief.  After much discussion during which my view favouring such action was clearly stated, an agreement was reached and General Foch was selected.

His appointment as such was made April 3rd and was approved for the United States by the President on April 16th.  The terms of the agreement under which General Foch exercised his authority were as follows:

Beauvais, April 3, 1918

General Foch is charged by the British, French, and American Governments with the coordination of the action of the allied armies on the western front; to this end there is conferred on him all the powers necessary for its effective realization.  To the same end, the British, French, and American Governments confide in General Foch the strategic direction of military operations.

The commander-in-chief of the British, French, and American armies will exercise to the fullest extent the tactical direction of their armies.

Each commander-in-chief will have the right to appeal to his government, if in his opinion his army is placed in danger by the instructions received from General Foch.

The grave crisis precipitated by the first German offensive caused me to make a hurried visit to General Foch's head-quarters at Bombon, during which all our combatant forces were placed at his disposal.

The acceptance of this offer meant the dispersion of our troops along the Allied front and a consequent delay in building up a distinctive American force in Lorraine, but the serious situation of the Allies demanded this divergence from our plans.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

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