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Right economy. Wrong hemisphere.

For discussion of issues relating to that great war
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Right economy. Wrong hemisphere.

Post by cape_royds » Sun Mar 26, 2017 9:17 pm

The four words of the thread title are the briefest way to summarize the USA's effort in the Great War.

More generally, the phrase can describe the problem confronted by any Great Power trying to wage a major war in a distant place.

Here is a quotation from an official US Gov't report, The War with Germany: A Statistical Summary, published in 1919. It's available online:

The stream of supplies going forward to an army may be likened to the water delivered against a fire by an old-fashioned bucket brigade. For every pailful thrown on the fire there must be many that have been taken from the source of supply and are on the way. As the distance from the source increases this supply in transit constantly grows. When an army is 3,000 or 4,000 miles from its sources of supply the amounts of supplies in reserve and in transit are enormous as compared with the quantities actually consumed each month.

I was just talking about "wastage" in the Russia thread. For the USA to maintain any given wastage rate at the battlefront, the USA would need to have a multiple of that wastage rate "in the pipeline." To fill that pipeline, the USA would have to greatly outproduce its distant opponent. This is all the more so, given that offensive operations, to be successful, usually demand a significant margin of strength over the enemy, and entail a higher wastage rate.

In other words, one must not draw the facile conclusion that the mere entry into the war of a major industrial power such as the USA would be decisive in itself. One cannot merely assume that victory is inevitable, from a glance at the apparent gross advantages in terms of aggregate indices of population, resources and production.

A large proportion of the USA's gross resource and industrial advantage was negated by the inherent geographical inefficiency of its strategic location.

If gross resource indices were what mattered most, then after three years of war the Entente should have already defeated the Central Powers, because the British, French and Russian Empires together possessed from the outset a big aggregate advantage in men, material, and productive plant.

Instead, what was happening was that the Central Powers, operating on strategic interior lines, were able to confront, in detail, serial increments of enemy strength that were each insufficient to clear the threshold of superiority needed to defeat them.

The story of time and space, in relation to how human and material resources are applied to war, is a story that tells us just how critical it was to have an industrialized country in the alliance, which did not suffer from geographical inefficiency.

In the Great War, the country in the alliance whose output could go more or less directly to the battle zone was France. In the Second World War, the country in the alliance whose output could go more or less directly to the battle zone was the Soviet Union.

The Danger of Historiographical Retrojection

In WWII, the USA became the "Arsenal of Democracy." After WWII, the USA was a "superpower." After the Cold War, the USA became far and away the mightiest hegemonic power in all of human history.

It is therefore understandable that an observer in the early 21st century would be prone to regard the effort of the USA in the Great War, in the light of what happened subsequently. There is a tendency to retroject the image of a world-striding power back upon the USA of a century ago.

One can certainly study the USA's effort in the Great War as an origin of many later developnents. Indeed to understand those later developments, one must do so. However, there is an important difference between studying the USA's effort in the Great War as a starting point for later things, and retrojecting an image of later things upon the USA's effort in the Great War. The study of origins is done with advantage to one's understanding of what comes after, but the retrojection of latter developments can addle one's understanding of the past.

As usual I've gone on at length, as the plodding bricklayer of the walls of text. In later posts on this thread I'll add illustrations of how the USA in the Great War, although already of course a Great Power in an absolute sense, was nevertheless a very inadequate war machine relative to the demands of that time. The USA of WWI was not the USA of WWII.

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Post by DMB » Sun Mar 26, 2017 9:59 pm

Nevertheless, the Germans were pretty anxious about making a big effort to win WW1 before the Americans were able make an important contribution.

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Post by Hermit » Sun Mar 26, 2017 10:48 pm

I remain of the opinion that material resources determine the outcome of wars in the long run. It is of course possible to overcome enemy forces by means of a short, sharp shock, but when a campaign bogs down in a war of attrition, the side with more hardware and manpower will win.

Yes, in March 1918 the western front was brittle, and the German offensive might have succeeded. Fact is that it failed despite the Germans throwing everything at the enemy they got. It's a bit disingenuous to accuse people of arguing with 'the wisdom of hindsight' when they are actually arguing from historical fact while the accusers are arguing by constructing 'what if' scenarios, extrapolating particular events to general significance and basically indulging in speculation.

While the supply line from the USA to Europe was very long indeed, I put it to you that traversing 3500 miles of the Atlantic is a lot less problematic - submarines notwithstanding - than hauling replacement cannon barrels 1400 miles from the foundries in Essen to within 70 kilometres of Moscow. Most of the way involved horses pulling carts and drays through the mud. By the time the eastern front was done with, the railway network inside Germany was so overtaxed moving military equipment that supply for the civilians could not be taken care of and Germans actually began to starve. That of course resulted in German productivity to decline.

Keep playing the 'could have ... would have' game as long as you like. In the end historical fact wins out. Be it hardware or manpower, in the long run quantity wins out over quality. If you attack an economically superior set of enemies and you're not "home by Christmas" you have lost before realising it. It seems a bit silly to argue against what actually happened by countering with what did not.

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Post by cape_royds » Tue Mar 28, 2017 2:20 am

Hermit, I'm a bit of a determinist myself, so the historiographical caution I gave in the OP is as much a "memo to self" as to anyone else.

I'm at a bit of a loss, however, to find any "what if" scenario in my OP. Did you read what I wrote?

I scrupulously avoided any counterfactual discussion--something in which I seldom indulge. Instead, I cited a brief but data-heavy US Gov't statistical report, compliled by officials closely involved in the events, who adopted an apologetic tone, in the awareness of the known shortcomings of their country's war effort.

While shipping was of course the main bottleneck for the USA waging a war across the ocean, there were inland break-bulk points as well, since a substantial part of the US heavy industrial base lay in Great Lakes region. Additionally, the USA had to build up a receiving infrastructure in France. Even then many things had to go to British ports first, and then get trans-shipped. The report I cited has diagrams outlining the main flows.

You'll also notice that I mentioned right off the top that what applied with particular force to the US effort in the Great War, also was of more general application to any power fighting a major war against a distant opponent. In the Mesopotamia campaigns of 1915-16, for instance, both Britain and Turkey were operating at the limits of their respective logistical tethers.

The Central Powers did not penetrate very deeply towards Moscow during the Great War (that's not to say that didn't have logistical challenges when fighting in the East). Perhaps you were talking about the German invasion of 1941?

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Post by Hermit » Tue Mar 28, 2017 4:08 am

[quote=""cape_royds""]I'm at a bit of a loss, however, to find any "what if" scenario in my OP.[/quote]So am I now.

[quote=""cape_royds""]Did you read what I wrote?[/quote]I may as well not have. My response to your post was based entirely on what you did not write, a misreading on a massive scale. For that I apologise unreservedly. In retrospect it is very obvious to me that while I was under the illusion of reading your opening post my minds eye was rereading parts of a discussion you, I and several others had in another thread in another forum - probably TR. The scale of my mistake is particularly embarrassing because I quite frequently take others to task for misreading what I said. So, once again, sorry about that.

As for my revised take regarding your opening post, what can one add when one is in fundamental agreement?

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Post by cape_royds » Mon Apr 03, 2017 3:57 am

Until the last few years, when I started doing a lot more reading on the Great War, I had not properly understood that it was only during the last three months of the war that the USA made any important contribution to the fighting on the Western Front.

Before then, I had only a superficial view of US personnel levels overseas, as an index of involvement. But when I studied operations of the spring and summer of 1918, I would look at a map of deployments on the Western Front, and ask myself, "where are the Yanks? They're supposed to already have a million men over in France!"

The USA did indeed have over a million men over in France by mid-1918. But those men had little training, and no artillery. That was not yet an army, but only the makings of one. It had to be done this way, since at a pace of 20,000 men/week, it would take a year to send a million men. If the USA waited for its army to get trained before sending them, their army would arrive too little, too late.

Diagram #13, of the US Gov't report I cited in the OP, tells much of the story:


The dark orange shading, towards the far right of the calendar, indicates when a given division was engaged in battle. Note that during the most critical period of 1918, from Mar-Jun, the USA had only three divisions engaged, and even that's a bit of an overstatement, since two of those divisions were only partly deployed.

The USA did have a few other divisions in the line, but what they were doing was occupying sections of inactive front, e.g. in the Vosges region. That was a way that their green troops could get some "teething," while releasing French divisions to go into the main battle.

Not until August did the USA have substantial forces on the active battlefront, but again even this is a bit overstated, since in some cases their divisions were kept in reserve, rather than actually engaged. Their significance lay in being an insurance against an unforeseen reverse.

It was in September and October that the USA had its armies engaged in proper offensive operations, as an army in its own right.

I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not disparaging the logistical accomplishment of raising a large army and moving it to a different continent. Still less would I disparage the fighting performance of US forces, once they got trained and equipped and sent into battle.

What I am trying to get across here is that US involvement in the Great War was of limited effect. The USA was not a provider of advanced weapons. The US forces did not have a major impact on actual fighting until very near the end of the war.

The USA was not the "arsenal of democracy" in the Great War. The US armies in France relied on the French and the British to supply almost all of their artillery, aircraft, and tanks, plus much else.

Here are some telling quotes from the prologue of a volume of the US Army official history of WWII, Rearming the French, which refers to French help given to the USA in the Great War. It's available online.

http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/ ... b_11-6.pdf

The forty-two divisions, representing a total of 1,390,000 combatant troops, which at the time of the Armistice made up the A.E.F. in France, were equipped almost exclusively with French artillery, artillery ammunition, tanks, and planes.

The French produced 3,532 of the 4,194 pieces of artillery used in combat by the A.E.F. up to 11 November 1918, 227 of the 289 tanks, and all of the 240-mm. and 58-mm. trench mortars. As General Pershing observed: "It was most fortunate that we were able to get these guns from the French, as up to the end of the war no guns manufactured at home for our army, of the types used, except twenty-four 8-inch mortars and six 14-inch naval guns, were fired in battle."


The entire supply of ammunition fired by American artillery up until the last days of the war was of French origin because practically none of U.S. manufacture (other than shrapnel) had reached the front. As for automatic weapons, reports show that the first twelve U.S. divisions were completely equipped with Hotchkiss heavy machine guns and Chauchat rifles purchased from the French Government.


Another striking figure is the number of aircraft. By the time of the Armistice, equipment in the hands of the Air Service consisted of 3,210 combat and 3,154 training airplanes, or a total of 6,364, of which 4,874 had been supplied by French industry. Of the forty-three American squadrons engaged in operations on 31 October 1918, only ten were equipped with aircraft manufactured in the United States and three with planes of British manufacture, as compared with thirty equipped with French-made planes.

This is a long post, but I should talk a bit more about shipping here. The USA not only needed its allies to supply most of the heavy and advanced weapons for its army, they also needed the allies to transport their men and supplies. In 1917, the USA did not have a very large merchant marine. Diagram #17 of the 1919 report shows that the UK moved about half the US army:


A large part of the "American" share of the shipping was actually German shipping, which had taken refuge in US harbours at war's outbreak, and was subsequently confiscated when the USA declared war. Another large portion was "leased" from the neutral Dutch, who were reluctant to have their vessels directly involved in transporting the troops of a belligerent power. However, since the Dutch needed food imports, it was easy for the Allies to pressure them into offering their vessels on cheap leases. Another diagram from the US Gov't 1919 report gets across the idea:


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Post by Jobar » Mon Apr 03, 2017 3:54 pm

“Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.”
-General Omar Bradley

Much the same problem bit the Germans on the ass in WWII, despite the advances in transportation technology. When the Russian front got far enough away from the industrial centers of Germany, the Wehrmacht stalled out.

I suppose nowadays we Americans have enough methods and amounts of force projection that we could win a war anywhere in the world; carriers, littoral assault ships, long-range bombers, Tomahawk missiles, and drones. But when we have to put boots on the ground, it still requires vast expense and much time to build up, if the battleground is on another continent, as is usually the case.

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Post by cape_royds » Mon Apr 03, 2017 6:13 pm

Logistical "overstretch" is universal in war, but the USA in the world wars is an extreme and historically important case, and most of all in the Great War. Much of the USA's big advantages in headline numbers was offset by distance and bottlenecks, so one must avoid the tendency to look at some gross figures and then deduce, "automatic win."

In both world wars what was critical for Entente or Allied victory was an industrial power whose output could proceed more directly to battle. You could say that, if Oceania wants to fight Eurasia, it needs a productive base in Eurasia. In WWI, that was France, which equipped not only its own imperial forces but also, as I showed above, the AEF as well. In WWII the sine qua non of Allied victory was the USSR, which filled a role analogous to France in the Great War.

Unpreparedness for the Great War was also nearly universal, in so far as none of the participating powers were ready for what ended up happening. For such a big war, it's impossible to be fully prepared. If a power tried to maintain such a level of readiness, it would not only ruin itself pretty quickly, it would also likely precipitate a major conflict since other powers would take alarm.

Unpreparedness was deeper for a great power such as the British Empire, which lacked a large land warfare establishment. The UK had to build what they literally called a "New Army." All the powers were unprepared to a degree. A naval power like the UK was unprepared to a second degree.

Again, WRT to the USA in the Great War, the particular case stands out sharply from the general case. Like the UK, the USA had a strong navy but a small land warfare establishment.

But the USA was also unprepared to a third degree. The British Empire had political institutions which proved suitable for a prolonged global conflict, even if the military and the economy at first were not. For example, there was the Committee of Imperial Defense--a permanent body with a secretariat, that brought together senior armed forces officers, senior bureaucrats from civil departments, and cabinet-level politicians, so that they could discuss issues, intelligence, and policy. The CID was not an actual executive body, and it also proved inadequate in war, but the system and habit of handling things that way was a basis for rapid further institutional development.

In 1917 the USA did not have equivalent institutions. Because of the economic pressure and market dislocations caused by large sales to the Entente, the USA had just created a War Industries Board. But that was about all of it. Although USA's foreign policy had been moving toward war since 1915, and although the USA had many attaches, agents and senior officials observing and reporting on developments throughout the war, there were no institutions in their government at that time that could coordinate a response to those developments. That's why when the USA did enter the war in 1917, they were less ready to intervene than Britain had been in 1914.

On the eve of WWII, the USA also more or less lacked an army. But in WWII the USA was only second-degree unprepared, like Britain in 1914. By 1940 the USA had already laid down political institutions for comprehensive war mobilization. It's not surprising that key men involved had been firsthand witnesses of the institutional failures in 1917-18, who were determined not to repeat mistakes. e.g. George Marshall had been on Pershing's staff. FDR has been an Undersecretary of the Navy. Over a year before the USA entered WWII, they have already coordinated a grand strategy with Britain, introduced conscription, revised their army doctrine, and begun to mobilize industry.

Post-WWII, we see the full flourish of permanent war institutions in the USA--the splendid things which the whole world now knows and loves: Pentagon, CIA, NSA. Yesterday's solution would become tomorrow's problem.

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