What if World War I Had Kept Going? On Nov. 14, 1918, American Expeditionary Force artillery spoke once more. Hundreds of American 75mm guns hammered German positions on the east bank of the River Meuse. After a barrage lasting half an hour, tens of thousands of Doughboys went over the top. Gen. John J. Pershing’s grand offensive toward the German Rhine and Saar valleys had begun.
At the November meeting of the Supreme War Council, Pershing argued that the Allies had the advantage in men, material and momentum over Germany. As such, he pushed for harsh peace terms that would guarantee Germany could not wage war again. Pershing, who was never shy about defending his prerogative as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, asserted himself now. Pershing argued that as commander of the strongest army on the Western front – one growing stronger still – he was first among equals. Gens. Douglas Haig and Ferdinand Foch reluctantly acquiesced, and Foch added Pershing’s demands to his own at the armistice talks. These included surrender of all occupied territory and the withdrawal of the German army behind the Rhine. Not surprisingly, Berlin rebuffed the Allies’ tough terms. Pershing was not displeased. “A Carthaginian peace it is then,” Pershing remarked to Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, the only Allied general officer with whom the intransigent American got along.
World War I, or the Great War, would go on.
By November, General Pershing was an army group commander. The 1st and 2nd armies were on the Meuse, while the 3rd Army was at St. Mihiel, activated by Pershing earlier in the week. The AEF numbered over 2 million men. They were arrayed in 38 divisions, each the size of a British or French army corps. Most had seen combat. With more than 100,000 men arriving from the United States each month, the AEF was more than capable of carrying on the war – alone if need be.
On the east bank of the Meuse, General Max von Gallwitz’s army group waited for the inevitable American offensive. Gallwitz’s divisions had inflicted heavy casualties on the 1st Army during the Meuse/Argonne campaign, gradually retreating from stellung to stellung as Pershing’s raw divisions blundered north. But by early November, Gallwitz’s divisions were beaten and exhausted. Worse, unlike the wooded, hilly Meuse Argonne, the east bank of the Meuse and the Woevre Plain were flat, open, and only occasionally punctuated by defendable terrain. Gallwitz’s forces had had months to prepare the stellungs of the Meuse-Argonne. They had mere days to prepare now.
Pershing had perfectly positioned the AEF to continue the war. In the north of the American sector, the 1st Army under Gen. Hunter Liggett was outside of Sedan and organized into three corps. The 61-year-old, rotund Gen. Liggett, whom Pershing had tried to send home for being fat, had almost singlehandedly rescued the stalled Meuse-Argonne offensive upon taking command of the American 1st Army on Oct. 12. After wrapping up the attacks on the Kriemhilde Stellung, Liggett paused to rest and reorganize the 1st Army, and unsnarl its hopelessly jammed LOC. On Nov. 1, Liggett launched the final attack of the campaign. The 1st Army shattered Gallwitz’s defenses on the Freya Stellung and forced the Germans to withdraw across the Meuse.
On Nov. 14, Liggett’s 1st Army attacked on a three-corps front. On the left flank, the mighty Big Red One advanced toward the Belgian border in support of the grand Allied offensive to the north. In the center, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s 42nd “Rainbow” Division, an amalgamation of National Guard infantry regiments from New York, Iowa, Ohio, and Alabama, pushed toward the central German logistics hub at Montmedy. On the right flank, Gen. William Wright’s 89th Division advanced east, southeast toward the Briey-Longwy Iron Basin, a prize long coveted by Pershing. With elite, battle-experienced divisions leading the way, Liggett’s 1st Army advanced 4-5 miles per day on all fronts.
In the South, Robert Lee Bullard’s 2nd Army had already been fighting for the heights above the Meuse when armistice negotiations failed. Back at Pershing’s headquarters in Chaumont, the head of the AEF’s operations section, the harrowed and much put-upon Col. George Marshall worked tirelessly to reinforce Bullard for the planned offensive. By Nov. 14, Bullard’s 2nd army had increased from four to nine divisions.
On the morning of Nov. 14, Bullard’s army attacked southeast across the Woevre Plain. Bullard’s first objective was the fortress city of Metz. On most days, the badly battered and outnumbered Germans offered stout resistance early on, but sensibly withdrew once the Americans achieved their initial breakthrough and brought superior numbers to bear. In this way Bullard’s 2nd Army advanced toward Metz. The Germans made a stand at Jarny, and Bullard wisely delegated the task of taking the town to Marine Gen. John A. Lejeune’s veteran 2nd Division. The Marines, who had won glory at Belleau Wood, Soissons, and the Meuse Argonne, added Jarny to their battle roll, and had complete control of the town by Nov. 20. Bullard’s 2nd Army rolled east, taking towns made famous by the Prussians in the last century: Mars la Tour and Gravelotte.
Metz lay within reach of the 2nd Army. Gen. von Gallwitz withdrew several divisions into Metz and hoped the Americans would launch headlong attacks against the cities’ defenses, repeating their mistakes of earlier in the war. But Bullard had learned the folly of direct attacks on fortified positions using Pershing’s misconceived “open warfare” tactics. Instead Bullard isolated Metz and consolidated his hold on the west bank of the Moselle.
Even worse for Gallwitz, Pershing was moving the American 3rd Army, bringing nine further divisions into position for an attack across the Moselle. The 3rd Army was commanded by Gen. Joseph T. Dickman, one of Pershing’s most experienced generals. The 3rd Army’s nine divisions were fresh and well supplied, with open LOCs running all the way back to Brest and Le Havre.
Gallwitz made the German high command aware of the new American army even than crossing the Moselle preparatory to advancing against Saarbrucken. “I cannot stop the Americans,” Gallwitz told them frankly. The German government wisely sued for peace, but now on much tougher terms than those offered by Foch in the railroad car.
Pershing’s gambit had worked.
World War I: Bonus Photo Essay
June 21, 2022 at 2:01 pm
Interesting and incredibly detailed scenario! I’ve often wondered what might have happened if Germany had chosen to dig in and fortify the Western Front throughout 1918 like they did with the Siegfried Line in ’17 instead of going on the offensive. If they had dug in and waited for a grand Allied offensive in 1919, this opens up many interesting questions, like how Pershing would have reacted to having to assault a strong defensive line manned by fresh troops fed by Ukrainian wheat and if the Germans might have inflicted enough massive casualties to shatter American morale and spark an American-style Neville mutinies. Perhaps Germany could have continued an offensive in Italy during 1918 and force an Italian peace settlement? Maybe German industrial strength would have been crippled beyond saving by that point and what consequences might have resulted from that? Lots of things to ponder on.
June 21, 2022 at 7:25 pm
The most significant difference in this counterfactual scenario is that it would put to rest for good the “knife in the back” theory that became prevalent in Germany and set up the rise of the Nazis. It would have been a clear-cut loss on the field for the German army.
June 21, 2022 at 8:46 pm
Now that’s a heck of a point.
June 21, 2022 at 10:59 pm
The disaster of the First World War was made possible by Teddy Roosevelt’s extremely poor decision to run as a third party candidate in 1912. He promised not to run for re-election in 2008, and soon regretted it. He and Taft split the vote, allowing Wilson to win easily. Wilson, of course, after promising ‘he kept us out of war’ to eagerly get involved, ‘in search of monsters.’
A victory in WWI by Germany would have settled things in Europe for 100 years. The world would have been a much safer place, and Hitler could have found work as a street artist in Vienna.
June 22, 2022 at 8:42 am
I’m not sure about the TR point. Hmmmm…Maybe? He’s probably running around badgering President Taft about getting in the war. But even after having written a history of Pershing and the AEF, I don’t understand why we joined the war and don’t agree with the reasoning.
June 22, 2022 at 2:11 pm
No to every point.
WWI occurred because the World Order at that time was European Imperialism and by virtue of all of the good places having been taken the various powers were locked in a zero sum game.
What happened in 1914 was the overture from the 4th opera in the Ring Cycle — Gotterdamerung: The Twilight of the Gods. That was the start of The Long War which would not end until all of the European Empires had died. That occurred in 1991 when the last empire — The Russian Empire — broke up. Note: what’s going on in Ukraine right now is the risen zombie of that Russian Empire; If it spreads I’d revise the end of the Long War to some future date.
As for Wilson, bigoted turd of a man that he was, his “Self determination” demand at Versailles was the seed that grew into a new World Order in WWII. FDR was a fan of Wilson and it was at his insistence the various changes after WWII changed most everything AND set the tone for American Foreign Policy to the present: We oppose Imperial Ambitions.
June 22, 2022 at 9:24 am
This is probably the greatest “what if” of the 20th century. We’ll written counter factual that I think very accurately portrays what would have happened if the Allies had continued the war on the western front. The AEF was now battle tested, well supplied and highly motivated to take the allied offensive into Germany.
June 22, 2022 at 10:57 am
*a Belleau Wood enlisted veteran who begrudgingly adds a ‘Jarny’ streamer to his companies battle flag*
“Man, fuck this glory hunting Pershing prick. We could have been home by Christmas.”
June 22, 2022 at 12:41 pm
June 22, 2022 at 1:41 pm
MacArthur would have done amphibious landings up the coast to flank the Germans and avoid headlong attacks.
June 29, 2022 at 11:58 am
Not real sure about that. The British and the French may have been able to veto that idea with the memories of the Gallipoli Campaign from a few years back. Also, that idea may have never formed in McArthur’s mind in a European land war. The technology just wasn’t available to land a lot of men on a beach effectively.
Lucius Severus Pertinax
June 22, 2022 at 2:41 pm
There is also the political aspect- With no end of the war in sight, the Democrats would have, in early November of 1918,taken an even WORSE beating than they did historically. Remember that US civilian support for the war was like the Platte River in Nebraska- a mile wide and a yard deep- a sort of, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” thing.
If the Germans had never mounded their Spring 1918 Offensive, and had , instead, strengthened and deepened their defenses, awaiting the coming American storm, I believe the American public would have quickly soured on the ever-mounting casualties in a war that public did not want.
Woodrow Wilson ran, in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of War”, yet, but 2 weeks into his Second Term, he was asking congress to declare War.
Republicans generally, and many Democrats felt betrayed by Wilson and, by the Spring of 1919, a now Republican-dominated Congress would be bringing enormous pressure to bear on the Wilson White House to seek a negotiated settlement.
The REAL reason the US entered the War against the Central Powers in the first place, unrestricted submarine warfare and Zimmerman Telegram notwithstanding, was because of the (then) enormous loans the US had made to the UK, France, Russia and Italy. Some 85% of that paper was held by Goldman-Sachs, J.P.Morgan and the Chase Bank of Manhattan. If the the Entente was to fold up, the financial consequences for the US by that time would have been very bad. The Wall Street Bankers were not at all shy about making Wilson aware of this.
Thomas Darcy Jackson
June 29, 2022 at 6:09 am
The AEF had troops, but not enough equipment or supplies to carry the war on alone. Tanks, artillery, food, fuel, horses, transports, these were all provided in large part by their allies.
June 29, 2022 at 2:54 pm
This is why I love History “WHAT IFs” I learned a lot about WWI because serious writers and history buffs will not go along with “Lee won at Gettysburg and the South won the war” stuff. They have to or want you to prove it.