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The following article on generals of World War 1 is an excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The generals of World War 1 have been considered by some historians to be failures: they left behind an unfinished war that only saw its hellish resolution in the flaming ruins of World War 2.


But according to authors such as H.W. Crocker, the evil that followed the war was no more inevitable than the good—and preventing the Second Reich’s forcible subjugation of the Continent to the likes of Ludendorff was indeed a good thing. The First World War was not pointless. On the Western Front—that European scar that came to epitomize the war’s futility—France, Britain, and the United States successfully repelled an aggressor who had violated Belgian neutrality and planned to impose a not so very gentle domination on the Continent.

The generals who achieved this feat were not insensate brutes who callously ignored the hecatombs on the battlefield. Few people believe the Second World War was a senseless war or that it was fought by idiotic generals. Yet far more lives were lost in the Second World War than in the First (more than 60 million versus about 17 million). The First World War generals of the Western powers achieved their victory in four years; the Allied generals of the Second World War took six. And if the First World War witnessed the collapse of the monarchies of Central Europe and saw the Bolsheviks seize power in Russia, at least the Western powers kept the Bolsheviks, preachers of world revolution, penned up within Russia’s borders. The Second World War ended with Eastern Europe in the hands of the Soviet Communists—Hitler’s former allies and the West’s adversaries in the subsequent decades-long Cold War. In other words, the imperfect outcome of the First World War was no worse than the imperfect outcome of the Second, and both were better than if the Central Powers or the Fascist powers had won.

This article will look closely at the lives and actions of World War 1 Generals Peyton C. Arthur and Douglas MacArthur

World War 1 General Peyton C. Arthur

If not exactly a child prodigy, Peyton C. March (1864-1955), who became chief of staff of the Army during the Great War, passed the entrance examination into Lafayette College when he was not quite sixteen. A lanky scholar-athlete, tall, thin, and studious, his youth didn’t stop him from becoming class president, captain of the baseball team, a starter on the football team, a record-setting member of the track team (scoring the school’s best time in the half mile), and graduating with honors in classics. His father was a distinguished, easygoing, well-liked professor at the school. Peyton was impressed by his father, but did not follow in his footsteps. While many Lafayette graduates went on to advanced degrees, Peyton wanted to be a soldier. His father approved, and in due course Peyton entered the Military Academy at West Point. Lafayette had provided Peyton March with a fine education, but West Point was even more rigorous. March, dedicated to his studies, finished tenth in his class—fewer than half of whom made it to graduation. Two years ahead of him was cadet president of the class of 1886, John J. Pershing.


Fast forward to 1916. At this point March was a full colonel now in command of an artillery regiment. Sharply martial in appearance, March was regarded as brilliant, direct, laconic, decisive, fair, and reserved. He trained his men very much with a mind that war was imminent—and it was not the ongoing skirmish in Mexico that dominated his thinking; it was the war in Europe. After the United States declared war on imperial Germany in April 1917, March expected to see summer in France. He did, as commander of a brigade of artillery.

By September he was a major general and chief of artillery for the American Expeditionary Force. Even so, he insisted on joining the gunners on the artillery range. But his days in the field were numbered. In February 1918, Secretary of War Newton Baker announced he had chosen March to become Army chief of staff. Baker had long admired March as an efficient man of military business—just the sort he needed to expedite the training, deployment, and supply of the rapidly expanding AEF. Indeed, March believed that “entirely too much time was spent on the training considered necessary by General Pershing.” He wanted men in the field now.

He also wanted Army administrators working with the same dedication as field officers in combat. When March arrived, he found that the general staff worked normal business hours. That changed. There was a war to be won, and the general staff would work round the clock until it was. His sense of duty was stringent. His eldest son, an Army aviator, had died in February after a plane crash. As with his wife’s death, March was stoical; he became even more dedicated to his work.

It was clear Baker had chosen the right man—even if March himself deeply regretted being trapped behind a desk in Washington. When Baker asked him if he had received his promotion as chief of staff with “mixed emotions,” March replied, “No, Mr. Secretary, it made me sick at my stomach.” Still, Baker was well satisfied that in March he had a man who was a remarkably quick study, astute, and effective as an administrator. Indeed, within a matter of weeks March had doubled the monthly totals of doughboys crossing the Atlantic—and then doubled them again. If the price Baker had to pay for March’s efficiency was the bruised feelings of others—including Pershing, senior to March in rank, but in March’s view a mere leader of the American Expeditionary Force under the Army chief of staff—it was a small price to pay for the results achieved.

March’s dedication to victory could not be doubted. He was going to provide the American Expeditionary Force with every bit of manpower he could muster—no matter the cost. “We are going to win this war if it takes every man in the United States.” And he was not one for compromises. He wanted everything done well and fast. He wanted his briefings to the point. His questions were terse and penetrating. He wasted no time in micromanagement either, assuming that every man knew his job and should do it unhindered. Inefficiency was the enemy he slew—and kept slaying—in the War Department. Few liked him, most respected him, some hated him—though he counted the haters as a badge of honor: it meant he had crunched the toes of useless bureaucrats beneath his boots. March gave shape to the general staff and to the wartime U.S. Army, successfully merging the Army and the National Guard and creating new branches of the service covering the Air Corps, Transport Corps, Tank Corps, and Chemical Warfare Corps. Financier and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch told March’s biographer that March was “the right man in the right place.” It is hard to gainsay that.


Having built the Army up, in victory he had to take it down—and while March was advised by progressives and economists to demobilize according to the needs of industry, he decided that the best and fairest way to demobilize was in terms of military units, with the easiest (those still stateside) disbanding first, though a few exceptions were made for men in vital industries (such as coal miners). Within ten months, more than three and a quarter million men had been mustered out of the service. To March, it was a point of pride that it had all gone so smoothly. To many of those in uniform, however, ten months was ten months too long. March made more enemies by taking responsibility for demoting generals, of whom there was an inevitable surplus. He made even more enemies when he ordered a reform of the West Point curriculum—he wanted the education it offered to be simultaneously broadened and tightened into a three-year course— and appointed a young general, Douglas MacArthur, to carry it out.

March initially hoped to retain a five-hundred-thousand-man Army after the war, but Congress was of no such mind. His proposal for three months of military training for all nineteen-year-old men was also a nonstarter. March believed, “You cannot run a war on tact,” but his brusque ways had not only made him enemies, they had put him at odds with a postwar Congress disinclined to take orders from the Army chief of staff. Congressional feeling was on display when the House gave a standing ovation to President Wilson’s recommendation that General Pershing be elevated to four-star rank and then sat and grumbled when the president recommended four stars for General March. In the end, Congress slashed appropriations for the Army, agreeing to a standing Army of nearly three hundred thousand men but providing funding for an Army of no more than two hundred thousand, and threatened in subsequent years to cut the Army even further. March was no politician, and his plans were opposed not just by pacific congressmen but by a great many officers, including General Pershing.

In 1920, Warren G. Harding was elected president. His new secretary of war, John W. Weeks—a Naval Academy graduate and former congressman and U.S. senator from Massachusetts—initially rejected March’s offer to resign. In June 1921, however, March became expendable after Weeks reorganized the War Department and made Pershing chief of staff. Though Weeks wanted to keep March employed in Washington in some capacity, the general decided to retire. He spent the next five years traveling in Europe. What started as a presumed unofficial fact-finding mission—including a cordial interview with Hindenburg—became an extended European dalliance (along with trips to Turkey and North Africa) and honeymoon, as he remarried. He returned from his travels worried about the rise of dictators and the apparent animosity of debt-ridden Europe to its creditor, the United States.

Provoked by Pershing’s memoirs of the war and other accounts that he thought were factually incorrect, he waded in with his own book, The Nation at War, in 1932, which irritated Pershing and his camp as much Pershing’s book had irritated March and his. The two generals resented what they regarded as the other’s presumptions of omniscience, but March was far more openly polemical than Pershing had been. Pershing had annoyed March by saying little; March annoyed Pershing by saying much.

In the 1930s, March foresaw the coming world war and knew the United States would have to fight Japan. He was an ardent supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt because he liked him personally, and March associated Republicans with military cuts (though the Democrats had been no better) and with his nemesis Pershing. During the Second World War, March thought air power overrated (he had always had this opinion). He believed in not messing about in North Africa, but driving directly across the English Channel into France (just as in the Great War he had argued vehemently against messing about in revolutionary Russia and for focusing all resources on the Western Front). He opposed the policy of unconditional surrender. And he was an advocate, as he had been in the First World War, of giving the American public as much information about the war as possible. He believed in exposing difficulties and in open criticism of military failures.

March was always fit, liked to play tennis and walk, and was an ardent baseball and football fan who retained his ramrod posture and good health until roughly the last two years of his life. He eventually took up residence at Walter Reed—ironically in the same rooms that had been Pershing’s. He died aged ninety, remembered as a brilliant military administrator, though he would no doubt have relished Douglas MacArthur’s reminder that he was also a combat soldier: “The sights and smells of a battlefield which are repugnant to many were exhilarating to him. He always wanted to go to the front.” It was March’s fate, however, that the front for him was most often the political battles of Washington.

World War 1 General Douglas MacArthur

ww1 general douglas macarthur

There was never much doubt about Douglas MacArthur’s (1880-1964) career; he was a precocious soldier. He grew up in the saddle, rifle in hand, the son of a war hero. He spent his boyhood listening to old soldiers spin their yarns. His mother venerated Robert E. Lee and military service and instilled in her sons a sense of aristocratic honor, a catechism of duty and destiny.

After stops in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Washington, DC, the family returned to Texas, and Douglas, at age thirteen, was enrolled at the West Texas Military Academy. His father had tagged his youngest son as a likely soldier (the eldest son, Arthur III, had entered the Naval Academy), and Douglas took to the military school regimen with élan. A previously indifferent student, he excelled at the academy. Like Winston Churchill’s at Sandhurst, MacArthur’s marks soared when education had a martial cast: “Abstruse mathematics began to appear as a challenge to analysis, dull Latin and Greek seemed a gateway to the moving words of the leaders of the past, laborious historical data led to the nerve-tingling battlefields of the great captains, Biblical lessons began to open the spiritual portals of growing faith, literature lay bare the souls of men.” In addition, if he did not quite excel at sports, he wanted to, and he was a gamer: a scrappy shortstop, a tough quarterback, and a somewhat awkward but school-champion-caliber tennis player. At military drill he was an acknowledged leader, and he graduated as class valedictorian.

His appointment to West Point would have seemed inevitable, but despite—or perhaps because of—the political connections of his grandfather (a judge) and his father (both Republicans), he was passed over twice for an at-large appointment (made by the president, in the first case the Democrat Grover Cleveland) and once flunked the physical (for having mild scoliosis). A friendly congressman came to the rescue, inviting MacArthur to sit the West Point entrance exam as a grandson, if not son, of Wisconsin. Douglas moved to Milwaukee with his mother and spent a year establishing residency while attending school to cram for the examination and seeing a doctor who prescribed a regimen of exercise to strengthen his back. The work paid off: MacArthur’s score was far and away the best, and in due course, in 1899, he received his appointment to West Point. Mom went too, staying four years at a hotel near the Military Academy where she could remain his confidant while he was a cadet.

MacArthur immediately impressed his fellows as tall and dashingly handsome, with an arresting command presence, a lightningfast brain, and a determination to excel. None of this spared him the brutal hazing that plebes then had to get through—so brutal that it killed one—and MacArthur exerted every sinew to endure it (stifling cries of pain and attempting to hide the fact that one of the ordeals had given him convulsions). When called to testify to Congress about what had happened to him and other plebes, MacArthur conceded little about the regime’s cruelty, which made him a hero to the cadets, though the system was necessarily reformed.

MacArthur graduated not only top of his class, but one of the highest-scoring cadets in the Military Academy’s history, just below his mother’s hero, Robert E. Lee. He was cadet captain, like Pershing, and for three of his four years at West Point played baseball—a weak-hitting but canny and determined right fielder. On graduation, he wanted a posting in the cavalry, but the Army made him an engineer. Brains like his weren’t to be wasted on a horse.

After a layover in San Francisco, MacArthur was off to the Philippines, where his father had been military governor (until relieved by the new civilian governor, William Howard Taft). He had his baptism of fire—his hat took a bullet; he shot down his two wouldbe killers—as well as his baptism of malaria, and earned promotion to first lieutenant. After a brief return stateside, he was named aidede-camp to his father, assisting him in an Asian tour d’horizon of the Far East and the Pacific, from Japan to Java, from Bangkok to the northwest frontier of the British Raj, from Singapore to Saigon and Shanghai. His father had already been a military observer of the Russo-Japanese War in Manchuria, and the younger MacArthur was one of the notable few who saw America’s future in the Pacific rather than in Europe or in isolation.

Returning to America, he was sent to engineering school, served as an aide to President Theodore Roosevelt, and eventually moved back with his parents to Milwaukee, where he had engineering duties. But engineering bored MacArthur. He was slack in his studies and more interested in talking with his father about Asia and the Pacific than he was in working on projects in the upper Midwest— and both shortfalls were noted in his military record. Rejuvenation came when he was assigned to Fort Leavenworth and command of a company of engineers. Drilling men was more his style. The twenty-eight-year-old lieutenant shook off his anomie, relished taking Company K from the lowest ranked on the post to the highest, and again seemed an officer of remarkable activity and distinction. In 1911 he was made captain and sent on tours of duty that included Panama and Texas. In 1913, his father died and his mother became a griefstricken invalid, at least temporarily. With his brother’s long absences at sea, it was left to MacArthur to look after her—something he found hard to do at Fort Leavenworth. But Army chief of staff Major General Leonard Wood helped finagle MacArthur a job with the general staff in Washington, which settled Mrs. MacArthur nicely.

MacArthur got a chance for action, too, sailing to Vera Cruz in 1914 as an intelligence officer. His mission into the Mexican interior, a reconnaissance that might be useful in case of war, was so top secret that the American commander in Vera Cruz didn’t know about it. MacArthur operated on his own with initiative and bravery and proved himself a dab hand at gunfights, of which he had several, leaving many of his would-be assailants dead and his own uniform perforated by bullets. He was recommended for a Medal of Honor, and when that was denied lest it encourage other officers—without MacArthur’s War Department orders—to go secretly into Mexico, he protested. Self-regard was an unfortunate component of his merit—and there were those who held it against him.


In 1916, MacArthur became military assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker and took on the duty of press officer for the Army. The press liked him—and so did Baker. The two of them shared a belief that National Guard units should be melded into the American Expeditionary Force, and won the president to their side; MacArthur, in fact, played a formative role in the 42nd “Rainbow” Division (MacArthur called it that because it was assembled from National Guard units that spanned the country). Baker rewarded him with a promotion to colonel (at MacArthur’s request, a colonel of infantry, not engineers) and chief of staff to the brigadier general commanding the division. It was, MacArthur knew, his ticket to battle and command.

By November 1917, MacArthur was in France with advance elements of the Rainbow Division, soon to be commanded by Major General Charles Menoher, a favorite of Pershing’s. MacArthur, in turn, became a favorite of Menoher’s—and of the men of the 42nd. MacArthur was openly proud of the division’s men, praising them and defending them at every opportunity, and impressing them with his dash. He removed the wire innards of his hat to give it a more swashbuckling look and patrolled into noman’s-land armed with a cigarette holder, a long knitted scarf, a West Point letterman’s sweater, and a riding crop, earning himself the nickname “the d’Artagnan of the A.E.F.” While diligent in drafting his plans and pushing paperwork, he was also deliberately not a micromanager. He did not want to make himself indispensable behind a desk. He wanted to be in the field with his men. When an officer reminded MacArthur that a chief of staff’s duties did not normally include raiding enemy trenches, MacArthur replied nonchalantly, “It’s all in the game.” For one raid he was awarded a Silver Star, for another the Distinguished Service Cross for “coolness and conspicuous courage.”

He seemed invulnerable. Indeed, he once said, “All of Germany cannot fabricate the shell that will kill me.” His men wore helmets.

He wore his soft cap. He ordered them to wear gas masks but did not stoop to such precautions himself—and twice paid the price during German gas attacks, and once had to be hospitalized. But he believed such shows were important to inspire his men. “There are times,” he said, “when even general officers have to be expendable.” French officers admired MacArthur’s élan; Pershing was less impressed. Seeing MacArthur’s men just out of the fighting line in Lorraine, he rebuked MacArthur for what he took to be their slovenly appearance—and it was telling that he berated MacArthur rather than Menoher. Within the American Expeditionary Force, it was well known that the 42nd Division took its tone from its chief of staff. If an officer personified the Rainbow Division, it was MacArthur, and MacArthur’s attitude to dress and conduct was obviously not regulation or parade ground; it came perhaps from his mother’s tales of Confederate valor, of beau geste officers like J. E. B. Stuart and loyal fighting men in the ranks dressed in any old combination of butternut and grey. In June 1918, MacArthur became a brigadier general—the youngest in the Army. Unknown to him, he had not been on Pershing’s list for promotions. Army chief of staff Peyton C. March had put him on the list and deleted five of Pershing’s staff officers.

MacArthur won his second Silver Star defending the road to Châlons against Ludendorff’s pressing legions in July 1918. Menoher said, “MacArthur is the bloodiest fighting man in this army. I’m afraid we’re going to lose him sometime, for there’s no risk of battle that any soldier is called upon to take that he is not liable to look up and see MacArthur at his side.” MacArthur took his greatest pride—and pleasure—in the fact that when he advanced against the enemy, he need have no doubt that the men of the 42nd would be swarming ahead with him.

At Château-Thierry, MacArthur led his men with “tactics I had seen so often in the Indian wars of my frontier days. Crawling forward in twos and threes against each stubborn nest of enemy guns, we closed in with the bayonet and the hand grenade. It was savage and there was no quarter asked or given.”10 It was successful too, and MacArthur earned his third Silver Star.

Menoher then gave him command of the division’s 84th Brigade to put some fire in its belly, turning him loose from his responsibilities as chief of staff. MacArthur was immediately at the front, pressing the attack on the enemy. In one eerie reconnaissance through the dead and dying in no-man’s-land, a flare suddenly burst overhead, illuminating a three-man German machine gun crew; MacArthur hit the dirt. After a tense few moments, he realized they were dead: “the lieutenant with shrapnel through his heart, the sergeant with his belly blown into his back, the corporal with his spine where his head should have been.” He also established the Germans had withdrawn. He personally reported the news to Menoher and Major General Hunter Liggett, commander of I Corps, and then promptly collapsed with fatigue. He had not slept for four days. He had just earned his fourth Silver Star.

He earned his fifth leading his men in the reduction of the enemy salient at Saint-Mihiel. He also deeply impressed Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton, who called MacArthur “the bravest man I ever met.” At one point the two officers were standing on a little hill, when a German barrage began beating its way toward them. Patton flinched slightly when a shell burst nearby, sending up a shower of dirt. MacArthur remarked coolly, “Don’t worry, Colonel, you never hear the one that gets you.”

At the outset of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, MacArthur earned yet another Silver Star for two successfully conducted raids. But there was a bigger battle to come. MacArthur was drawing up plans to attack the Côte de Châtillon, a key point in the German line, when Major General Charles Summerall, commander of V Corps, told him, “Give me Châtillon, MacArthur. Give me Châtillon, or a list of five thousand casualties.” MacArthur, who was still suffering from gas poisoning, replied, “If this brigade does not capture Châtillon you can publish a casualty list of the entire Brigade with the Brigade Commander’s name at the top.” After two days of fierce fighting, MacArthur delivered Châtillon. Reflecting on the cost, MacArthur later said of Summerall, “I have hated him ever since.”

In the final push to victory, MacArthur was awarded his seventh Silver Star and was briefly given command of the division (Menoher had taken command of VI Corps). He then led the 84th Brigade for its triumphal march into Germany and occupation duties. In April 1919, he and the Rainbow Division came home.

In 1962, two years before he died, MacArthur spoke at West Point, where he told the cadets, “The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. . . . But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and reechoes: duty, honor, country. Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of the corps, and the corps, and the corps.” MacArthur’s loyalty, like his brilliance, was never in doubt. What is sometimes forgotten is how one of the greatest generals in American history was formed in the Great War, a war that is itself fading from America’s memory.

This article is part of our extensive collection of articles on the Great War. Click here to see our comprehensive article on World War 1. 

This article is from the book The Yanks Are Coming! A Military HIstory of the United States in World War I © 2014 by H.W Crocker III. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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