We’ve before enjoyed the great prose and center-of-the-action position of World War I’s Major General James G. Harbord in the form of his (curated and edited) collection of letters to his wife at home, Leaves from the War. Harbord was a very central figure in the American participation in the war: from the start he was Chief of Staff to AEF Commander John J. Pershing; then he commanded the Marine Brigade; then he commanded the 26th Division; then the Services of Supply; the war was over.
So it was with some delight we found further Harbordiana on Archive.org, made free by the relentless workings of time on the copyright laws. (The last book was so entertaining we wish there was somewhere we could PayPal a small honorarium in honor of the great man to his living posterity, if any). The description of the work on archive.org was promising:
Outline biography of Maj. Gen. James G. Harbord.–A year as chief of staff of the American expeditionary forces.–The Army as a career.–The American general staff.–A month in Belleau woods in 1918.–The dedication of Bois de Belleau.–The Chattanooga war memorial
In fact, it was a collection of speeches, something that became clear only on the reading. Had we known that we might not have clicked, for what soldier has not sat through a speech from some ancient VIP, and what speech of those has not droned on interminably in the direction of Judgment Day, with nought to show for it but the knowledge that you sat where Authority sat you and endured what you were tasked to endure.
Soldiers being soldiers, some of the recipients of these speeches, like classes at the War College, may well have felt that way, but today, from a dry page, they raise the ghost of this dead period of history and make it come alive before you. These are not the anodyne speeches that today’s enervated, deracinated, homogenized political generals and admirals read haltingly from a TelePrompTer; they’re war stories from a man who was, at one time or another, in every key seat not occupied by Pershing himself: Staff Chief, Brigade Commander, Division Commander, Commander of the Services of Supply.
You sit with Harbord and Pershing in Room 223 of the old State, War and Navy building (now the Old Executive Office Department; principally the offices of the Vice President and his staff and the First Lady’s staff, both of which staffs are larger than that with which we planned and conducted our million-man contribution to the Great War). The staff was, shall we say, select in that it was small enough to get things done, unlike today’s bloated headquarters. How small was it? Small enough to put a name to every key officer in a single paragraph.
The Field Regulations of 1914 provided for three sections of the General Staff. Majors John McA. Palmer and Dennis E. Nolan were detailed from the War Department General Staff, and from stations outside of Washington General Pershing secured Captains Hugh A. Drum, Arthur L. Conger and William O. Reed, who became members of the General Staff of the American Expeditionary Forces and joined us before departure.
Are you listening, Pentagon? General Staff for planning a war (which, by the way, we won, beating the nation that gets credit for inventing the General Staff): 1 x Colonel, 2 x Major, 3 x Captain. Six guys. There was probably more brass involved in the 2015 decision to supply that same building with tranny lavatories.
In all about fifty officers of all grades and departments, including a number of medical and other reserve officers, sailed with General Pershing for France on May 28th,1917.
Along with special staff, those fifty included prospective unit commanders.
For long after our arrival abroad requests for additional officers were grudgingly granted in the light of the numbers we had taken with us; and, in the preparation of this paper, I have read an approved history which states that General Pershing took an “ample staff” to France.
Getting some of the officers out of the States and away from their independent branches was difficult:
The myopic vision of the War Department of what lay before us in France was shown by the reluctance with which staff officers were furnished us at the beginning. Embarking for the greatest war of all time, there were some officers performing duties “too important” to admit of their being spared for a mere war.
At first, Harbord, then a colonel, was not sure Pershing, with whom he had been very friendly, but hadn’t seen since that man’s return from Mexico, wanted to see him. He was afraid that Pershing would feel that Harbord had snubbed him, by not joining the human wave of supplicants and preference-seekers that descended upon the commander-designee.
On meeting Pershing again, the friendship and working relationship were just about perfect. Pershing initially did not want Harbord for Chief of Staff, because he believed that either the Commandant or the Chief of Staff for the American Expeditionary Force in France ought to speak the French language; he was disappointed to learn that Harbord no more spoke French than he did himself.
That, in the end, didn’t matter. After considering two other, presumably Francophone, officers, Harbord’s performance in the position as an “acting” chief changed Pershing’s mind. The Language of Love was going to have to fend for itself.
Pershing never regretted that decision, and Harbord never let him down, drawing one tough task (how about an Army officer commanding a Marine Brigade!) after another. And quite a few of those stories are told in this book.
Since the speeches were often to officers or veterans, this book has more martial detail than Leaves from a War Diary, which is an edited collection of personal letters to his wife.