Marshall and the Start of the Great War

One hundred years ago this week, President Woodrow Wilson delivered a speech in Congress calling for a declaration of war against Germany. On April 4th the Senate voted 82 to 6 to declare war against Germany. When the declaration passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 373 to 50 on April 6th, it marked the official entry of the United States into World War I. While the American public eagerly anticipated the arrival of American forces in Europe and their success in battle, Captain George C. Marshall was busy trying to resolve the numerous problems confronting an army that was woefully unprepared for war.

Where was Marshall on that fateful day? He notes in Memoirs of My Services in the World War, 1917-1918, that “The declaration of war… found me on duty in San Francisco, as Aide-de-Camp to Major General J. Franklin Bell.” The United States’ entry into the war likely did not surprise Marshall. He described his workload of organizing the regular army and National Guard units of the Western Department to guard “important bridges, tunnels and railroad key points,” in response to the United States breaking diplomatic relations with Germany in February as “heavy and pressing.”

Around the same time that Marshall learned of the U.S. declaration of war, General Bell received a telegram in code informing him that the president had appointed him to command the Department of the East with headquarters at Governors Island, New York. Marshall, who would accompany Bell to his new command, departed from San Francisco on April 26th.

When Marshall arrived at Governors Island, he immediately began organizing officer training camps and selecting candidates to attend the camps. He had a particularly difficult time acquiring enough mattresses, blankets, and pillows for the camps because the Allies had completely exhausted the supplies of these items on the east coast. Marshall wrote, “the pathetic difficulties we encountered in equipping the training camps to accommodate a total of forty thousand men were an impressive demonstration of our complete state of unpreparedness.”

Like his fellow army officers and Americans, Marshall greatly desired an assignment that would send him to France. When General John J. Pershing and his staff departed, Marshall wrote in his memoirs, “I was in a most depressed frame of mind over being left behind.” Marshall would not remain depressed for long because on June 3rd General Bell received a telegram from General William L. Sibert requesting “Marshall’s detail as a general staff officer on my divisional staff for immediate service abroad.” Over the next few days Marshall frantically made preparations for joining the division and sailing for Europe.

On June 14th the 1st Division sailed for France. Years later Marshall recalled that during the voyage:

    “the trench mortar units – the 37 mm units – and several others we had never heard of them. Here they were on paper, but there were no weapons and there was no unit. And we were organizing on the ocean. We had no knowledge of whether we had any of these weapons on board and actually we didn’t. It was certainly a demonstration of complete and utter unpreparedness such as I had never dreamt of in my life.”

Addressing issues relating to the unpreparedness of the army kept Marshall occupied for several months after his arrival in France. Marshall’s experiences during this time would later prove invaluable when as chief of staff he was called on to mobilize the army for World War II.

To learn more about Marshall’s involvement in World War I, you can view the exhibition or attend a program of The World Wars sequence of the Marshall Legacy Series or contact the research library staff.