100th Anniversary of the Abbeville Conference


 

 

Relations between the United States and Germany during the First World War steadily worsened as the conflict progressed, with Germany’s submarine warfare, directed against merchant vessels as well as naval ships, a particularly sore point.

The United States broke off diplomatic relationships with Germany in early 1917, and then on 6 April, amid tremendous internal opposition, war was declared between the two countries. This decision was made with great reluctance by the President, Woodrow Wilson

and it was strongly opposed by peace activist groups, including some American women’s organisations who had forged international links with their counterparts in the United Kingdom and Europe.

The US Army at the time was small in comparison with those of England, France and Germany,

and it was to take time to build into a large operational force. In addition, there were deeply ingrained racial problems within the US Army that required careful handling, and this also slowed the rate of mobilisation.

Early US involvement in the war included the Battle of Cambrai, (November to December 1917), the Somme Defence (21 March to 6 April 1918) and Lys (9 to 27 April 1918). However, the numbers of US troops engaged in these actions was comparatively small.

The increasing number of German offensives during the spring of 1918 greatly concerned the British and French military and heavy Allied casualties during this time raised the fear of severe manpower shortages. There was therefore a push to accelerate US involvement, and this was discussed in detail at the fifth meeting of the Allied Supreme War Council, held at Abbeville in France on 1 and 2 May 1918.

The main object of this conference was to get much larger numbers of US troops on to the battlefield as soon as possible. It was apparent that delicate diplomacy was required to accomplish this as there was considerable disagreement as to where the American troops would be placed, and under whose command they would operate.

The American Commander General John Pershing, under direct orders from President Wilson, wanted a fully trained and independent US Army,

but this would not be ready for major operations until 1919.

However both the British and French wanted large scale US commitment immediately, under the control of Allied commanders. The French Premier Georges Clemenceau was famously quoted as saying “Give me some of that American meat”, a remark that was not well received back in the United States.

After lengthy negotiations, a compromise was struck and it was agreed that 130,000 American troops would be available for front line action in late May, with both the British and French Armies finally receiving much needed US reinforcements. Pershing, however would not commit further US troops after June but agreed that the situation would be reviewed after that.

The sometimes-fractious relationship between the British and French was at least temporarily eased when the British agreed to support the French Army in the event of a retreat and also agreed to allow a French military planner to visit London to review the British war effort.

The influx of American troops into the frontline from the end of May changed the course of the war and was a major factor in the ultimate Allied victory in November 1918.

 

By: R. Whitaker

Image: US general John Pershing, photographed at Chaumont in France, October 1918.