Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders Corps and the Great War

I make no pretense to accuracy. I shall be quite content if the sensibilities of no one are wounded by anything I may reduce to type.

Recollections of Thomas R. Marshall:  A Hoosier Salad (1925)



Something for the weekend:  Onward Christian Soldiers by Mahalia Jackson.  This stirring hymn was the campaign song of the Bull Moose Party in 1912 and was the unofficial anthem of the Rough Riders Corps that Major General Theodore Roosevelt led in the Great War.  We are almost a century away from the day when the US intervened in that War, and it is a good time to look at the controversial role that our 26th President played in that conflict.

In March of 1917 Congress passed a bill allowing Roosevelt to raise four divisions of volunteers, similar in nature to the Rough Rider regiment he raised and led in the Spanish American War.  It is said that President Wilson opposed this move.  There was certainly no love lost between Wilson and Roosevelt, Roosevelt having been the harshest critic of Wilson.  However, the stroke that killed President Wilson on April 1, 1917 rendered any such opposition moot, except to historians or writers of alternate history.  Vice President Thomas R. Marshall who now became President had no personal animosity towards Roosevelt, rather the reverse, and after his call for a declaration of war on Germany appeared at the White House with Roosevelt and former President Taft, the three men urging that now there were no Republicans and no Democrats, but only Americans united for victory.  After this there was no way that Marshall could probably have kept Roosevelt out of the War if he had wanted to, and he did not attempt to do so.

One other man could have stopped Roosevelt, however, if he had wished to, the commander appointed by President Marshall to lead the American Expeditionary Forces in France.  General John J.Pershing was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt who he had served with at the battle of San Juan Hill when Pershing was a thirty-eight year old First Lieutenant, and whose career Roosevelt had jump started when he was President by promoting him from Captain to Brigadier General, over the heads of 835 officers more senior to Pershing.  Pershing had every reason to be grateful to Roosevelt, and he was, but he was also concerned with a military amateur commanding a corps in the American Expeditionary Forces that he was to lead onto the deadly battlefields of France.  Going to visit Roosevelt at Oyster Bay, he was quickly relieved by their talk, which he discussed in his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, My Experiences in the World War:  

“President  Roosevelt demonstrated that he had been keeping up with military developments in the Great War and was intrigued with the coordination of artillery and infantry with the newfangled air power and tanks.  He told me that he was willing to serve as a private in the force he was raising, and that as far as he was concerned no man would have a commission for any officer rank in the Rough Riders without my permission.  Touched by his self-less patriotism, I suggested that he serve as second in command of the Rough Riders with General Adelbert Cronkhite, currently in command of artillery in the Canal Zone, appointed as commander.  A worried frown passed over his face:  “The Rough Riders are not going to spend the War guarding the Canal Zone are they?”  I laughed.  “No Mr. President, I will need the best troops available with me on the Western Front, and, as was the case in Cuba, I suspect the Rough Riders in this War will be second to none.”  We shook hands and parted, still friends.”

Roosevelt made it known that he was seeking men for the Rough Riders with this advertisement he placed in all major newspapers.

Rough Riders are being recruited by Theodore Roosevelt for service in France.  Roosevelt expects that he and his Rough Riders will be constantly in the forefront of the fighting and their casualties will likely be extreme.  Only fighters with courage need apply.   Regional recruiting offices are being established at the following locations:

Roosevelt’s recruiters were quickly besieged by endless lines of volunteers.  Estimates are that some three million men filled out applications for the 100,000 slots in the four divisions of the Rough Rdiers.  Roosevelt, as with his original Rough Riders, favored men from dangerous out door occupations, men with prior military experience, athletes, and those from unusual backgrounds, like the troupe of circus clowns he allowed to enlist as a group.  Cowboys with nothing in this world except the shirts on their backs, as in the original Rough Riders, rubbed shoulders with the scions of families of great wealth.  Roosevelt made it clear that no man without prior military experience would be commissioned in the Rough Riders, and all other commissions would be earned in battle in France.  Regular Army officers looked askance at all this and referred to the Rough Riders as Teddy’s Wild West Show and by less printable terms.  Pershing assigned a number of junior officers to the Rough Riders to help bring order out of chaos, giving them the temporary rank of full Colonel.  Among them were Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower.

As in the original Rough Riders, Latinos and Indians from the West served.  A group of black regular officers, headed by Colonel Charles Young, wrote a letter to Roosevelt requesting to serve in the Rough Riders.  Although not wholly free from the racial prejudice of his day, Roosevelt got the approval of Pershing for these officers to serve on detached status with the Rough Riders, and enlisted two black regiments to serve in one of his divisions.  When a group of white Rough Rider officers protested this decision, Roosevelt had the complaining officers immediately cashiered from the Rough Riders.

The training of the Rough Riders was rigorous, with Roosevelt using foreign contacts to have combat experienced British and French officers direct the training.  The Rough Riders emphasized marksmanship, physical training, cover and concealment, and endless training in mock trench warfare.  No man received his Rough Rider shoulder patch, including Roosevelt, until he passed the training, and some 20% of the men who took the Rough Rider training were washed out during the process and reassigned to regular Army conscript training for other units.

The press covered all of this with microscopic attention and Roosevelt was always quotable.  General Cronkhite contented himself with being the behind the scenes commander and wisely never attempted to compete with Roosevelt for public notice.

Training complete by October, 1917, Roosevelt expected the Rough Riders to be immediately sent to France.  Such was not to be, the Army having its own schedule.  The Rough Riders were not transported to France until May of 1918, Roosevelt fuming with frustration during all of the intervening time period.  At one point Roosevelt was heard to lament that the War would be over before the Rough Riders got to France.  He needn’t have worried.

After a tumultuous and joyous march through Paris where the Rough Rider progress was frequently slowed by waves of French women continually charging their ranks, distributing food, drink, flowers, hugs and kisses, the Rough Riders settled down to training in a quiet section of the trenches, awaiting with ill grace their time to fight.  That would come in September during the great Meuse-Argonne offensive.

Fought between September 26-November 11, 1918, and involving 1.2 million American troops, the Meuse Argonne offensive was the largest operation in American military history.  The goal was the occupied French city of Sedan and its rail head.  Capturing it would cripple the ability of the German army to supply its troops in occupied France and Belgium.  The Rough Riders quickly gained a reputation as hard fighting shock troops, taking more ground and incurring, and inflicting, more casualties than any other American corps.

On October 4, 1918, the Rough Riders were to be replaced by fresh troops.  General Cronkhite was away at Pershing’s headquarters for consultations.    The US 1rst Division in its attack against the German 37th, 52nd, and 5th Guards Divisions, drove 1.6 miles through the German trench line.  Roosevelt, hearing of this advance, ordered his divisions to turn around and attack, over the vehement objection of the Rough Riders Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall, who predicted, correctly, that this impromptu attack would lead to chaos in the American offensive.  However, Roosevelt received strong support from the newly promoted Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, commanding the 2nd Rough Rider Division, who stated that the Rough Riders had a golden opportunity that could not be missed.  Leading the attack personally, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders tore a four mile gap in the German line and advanced five miles towards Sedan.  As Marshall had stated, Roosevelt’s attack tossed the American offensive into disarray, with Pershing ordering that all American units were to hold in place until this mess could be sorted out.  Pershing ordered Cronkhite to get back to the Rough Riders and relieve Roosevelt.  Supposedly he told Cronkhite to shoot him if he had to, but to make certain that Roosevelt never issued another order.

Cronkhite was unable to carry out this command, because the Germans, summoning their last reserves, quickly surrounded the Rough Riders, and for six days, until October 10, 1918, attempted to overrun them.  (Ironically the Germans were aided in surrounding the Rough Riders by Pershing’s stand in place order.)  Before the Germans launched their final assault on the battered Rough Riders, on October 8, 1918, a delegation under a white flag led by a Prussian colonel was taken to Roosevelt’s headquarters in a captured German bunker. Douglas MacArthur was present and left an account in his Reminiscences:

“The German delegation were dressed immaculately.  We, including General Roosevelt, looked mud smeared and tired, an interesting contrast to our foes.  After listening to their presentation that surrender was necessary to prevent useless effusion of blood, the President told them in flawless German that we did not have the facilities to accept the surrender of the entire German army, but that if they dropped their arms, raised their hands, and proceeded to the Allied lines with white flags that he was sure our colleagues would accommodate them.  This attempt at humor only baffled the Teutons, never noted for possessing an ample sense of the absurd.  The General tried again by telling them that when he lived in the West he had heard of a US Territorial Marshal, a tough and fearless man, who sent dozens of bandits and assorted desperadoes to the territorial prison.  Political enemies railroaded him on false charges and he was sent to the same territorial prison.  When he got there the men that he had sent there were quite eager to see him, anticipating revenge.  He laughed and looked at them as a wolf might look at a group of sheep.  “Boys, you are quite mistaken.  I am not locked in here with you.  You are locked in here with me!”  The analogy to our current situation eluded the Germans.

Sighing, Roosevelt shrugged and said simply, “Rough Riders do not surrender.  We will fight as long as one of us can lift a rifle.”  This the Germans did understand.  The Prussian colonel saluted and in fifteen minutes we were under the heaviest artillery bombardment I ever experienced.”

In some of the fiercest fighting of the War, the Rough Riders held. On October 10, 1918 the 82nd Division, the All-American Division, linked up with the Rough Riders and the Lost Corps, as the press sensationally dubbed the Rough Riders, was no longer lost. Corporal Alvin C. York, who had just earned a Medal of Honor, noted in his diary:

“Them Rough Riders had put up quite a scrap.  Their lines were surrounded by German dead.  They was mighty glad to see us All-Americans and we were mighty glad to see them.”

The Rough Riders had incurred about forty percent casualties and had fought their last fight of the War, Pershing putting them in reserve and keeping them in reserve.  Roosevelt was ordered home by President Marshall, at the urgent request of General Pershing who did not want to have to court-martial a former president and national hero.  Marshall indicated that Roosevelt was being ordered home to be honored and to advise the President as to conditions among the fighting men in France.

On December 7, 1917, at a ceremony at the White House that earned huge press coverage, Marshall presented Roosevelt with two Medals of Honor, one for San Juan Hill and one for the Meuse-Argonne.  Roosevelt looked happy but tired, and his remarks after the award ceremony to the press  were uncharacteristically brief.

Roosevelt was under no illusions as to why he had been sent home and busied himself in three projects:  a defense of his actions in the Meuse-Argonne, preparations for a huge parade and celebration in New York City when the Rough Riders came back from France, and the beginning of picking his cabinet, since it was clear to him from the plaudits that he received from average Americans that he would receive the Republican nomination for President in 1920 and would almost certainly be elected.

All of these plans came to an end when Roosevelt died in his sleep on January 6, 1919.  Historians have battled since his death as to whether his attack in the Meuse-Argonne was a brilliant decision or a piece of folly.  Agreement on this subject is impossible.  However, almost all Americans would agree with the comment President Marshall made upon hearing of the death of Roosevelt:

“Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”




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  1. One quibble, you should have had Wilson die just after asking for a declaration of war. “Damn President Marshall for getting us into war, Wilson would never have don that!” You would have had a prelude to the JFK myth on Vietnam.

  2. Wilson was under a lot of stress Tom just before the declaration. He had a history of strokes, so the concept of him having a fatal stroke just before the day he asked Congress for a Declaration of War was plausible. The fact that the day was April 1 was icing on the cake.

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