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Military History/American Tactics before WWII


I was wondering about what kind of tactics that America used before we entered into WWII.


Interesting question.  First thing you have to understand is the makeup of the US military during that period.

Look at the wars we were involved in from the Civil War to WWI.  Only one comes to mind, the Spanish American War.  What tactics did we use?  Basically the same as were used in the Civil War.  Maneuver was still done on the Regiment basis.  The regiment was still the unit of maneuver, in that war, and was broken down into ten companies and on occasion some would be grouped into an ad hoc unit called a battalion.

In the early 1800's the army began a reorganization, but the Indian wars still laid heavy on the Army who was mainly involved in pursuit type activities, as witness by our incursion into Mexico chasing Villa after his raid on New Mexico.  

The only other wars were the dirty little wars against insurgents in Nicaragua, the Phillipines, and Dominican Republic and Haiti on the part of the Marine Corps.  BTW, the handbook on how to fight insurgencies was written then and forgotten until we rediscoverd the lessons learned again in Viet Nam.

So going into WWI we had a very small Regular Army,  backed by National Guard units in reserve, basically what we had in the Civil War.  Remember Theodore Roosvelt raised a Regiment of Volunteer Cavalry much the same as was done in the Civil War.  The President would call for raising xx thousand volunteers which meant raising XX volunteer regiments.  States were expected to raise a number proportional to their state populations.  Roosvelt drew his from all over since his was a special unit not drawn from any one state.

Now going into WWI the national guard divisions from the various states were federalized, meaning their support and additional training was taken over by the federal government.  Usually the Guard units might actually only be a regiment (900-1200 men and the rest (full strenght division was 12,000 or more) would have to be filled out and trained.  The existing unit was called the cadre, and would be used to fill NCO and officer positions for the expanding unit.  The Army did this in WWII and Vietnam.  They would train a unit, then transfer one out of every three NCOs and Officers to two more units to form the basis of a new unit who would then be filled out and trained around the experienced NCOs and Officers and so on until they had built 99 divisions used in WWII.

In WWI the army trained the raw recuits in the basics of weapons handling, living in bivouac, how to be a soldier, kitting up, drill, bayonet and so forth.  US forces underwent additional training in France when they disembarked.  Luck for US soldiers they go training from French  Bataillons de Chasseurs Alpins, or Alpine Hunters Batallions.  These were elite troops raised to protect the passages through the alps from the Italians and were first organized in 1888.  The chasseurs a pied from which they were drawn, 12 of 31 battalions being renamed and given a new job, were first elite troops.  If you ever watched "Sharpe" the BBC series, you will know that most light troops were "chosen men" that is elite, independent, motivated and brave.  They did not fight in massed units with a man less than a foot away, they were skirmishers standing alone firing from cover and usually separated from the morale booster of having a man next to them. They fought more like what you think of today than in the civil war or napoleonic times.  They had to depend on themselves.

So these elite units trained the US troops.  A good reference is Mosiers book, The Myth of the Great War.  You might not agree with all he has to say, but in light of what we know of how governments and militaries do to perserve themselves and their reputations, it is not a far stretch.

In any event, the tactics the chasseurs a pied used were more like what the Germans developed independently with their Sturmtruppen or Stosstruppen (thrust troops) in order to avoid the horrendous casualties seen when employing frontal assaults into machine guns.  Instead the germans started using infiltration tactics usig flame throwers, (flammenwerfers) and trench mortars to infiltrate and destroy strong points ahead of the main assault.  

While the US army did have occasion to use mass assaults, similar to what all the other armies did at the time, I feel they tried to avoid it and the training in small unit tactics by the French probably helped them avoid the ruinous casualties that the British and regular French forces endured in the early years of the war.  That and the Army's willingness to adopt and use the French Renault tanks they recieved from the French helped as well.  These tanks were the only turreted tanks in the war.  They came in male (cannon armed) and female (armed with a machine gun in the turret) pairs.  Gen.  then Col. Patton, was to command one battalion of such tanks, proably using his connections to Gen of the AEF Pershing to get that assignment.  He had been on Pershings staff in Mexico while chasing Villa and had shot two of Villas men from their saddles with his pistol when they rode into a town he was searching with a patrol car.  Patton had been a competitor at the Olympics in the modern pentathlon which included epee fencing, pistol shooting swining and horse jumping as well as the cross country run. It is no longer competed since it was too war like.  I think Patton medaled probably a bronze but can't be sure.  Anyway, he drove back to HQ with the Villistas tied to his patrol car fenders.

I am sure Pershing gave him his first armor command, the rest is history.

The Army first started to toy with the idea of the squad before the civil war, in the 1841, where the file of two men, informally told to stick together in a fight, to knots or groupings of men for training purposes and this might have grown out of the informal messes. A company being quite large, was divided into platoons (half companies) and sections (half platoons).  Sociology of gangs has found that for the maximum cohesion among men, that is to get to know and identify and rely on each other the ideal number is 9-12 with the ideal number being the smallest.  Today a squad has shrunk from a high of 15 in the WWII Marines, 12 in the army to today's 9 making up two four man fire teams.   The germans used this approach in WWII which probably accounts for their superior combat effectiveness in the face of foes of larger numbers.  This multiplies the team cohesion and willingness to fight.

You can see how the Chasseur a Pied concepts probably worked its way slowly into the US Army.  Fighting in broken terrain and in skirmishing mode was thier forte and it is hard to think that some of this elite methodology did not make it into their training of the new American troops just as the techniques and equipment used by the SOCOM special forces troops is now filtering its way down through the army as a whole.

As a rule I would have to say that fighting in WWI was probably done on the Platoon and section level(half platoon) for command and control and maneuver where possible.  In the face of machine guns dispersion was a life saver which meant officers had to rely on the NCOs and corporals to lead ever smaller units of mean to carry out assigned orders.

So in general, the US Army used linear tactics, but I think the training they recieved played a large part in their successes in the Muese Argonne, and Belleau Wood fighting in broken terrain which helped end the war.

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Keith H. Patton


I can answer questions pertaining to weapons and tactics, personalities, battles, and strategies in european and U.S. history.


I was a history major, and had done extensive research in the subject area. I have designed and tested numerous computer games for various
historical periods.

B.A History M.S. Science
I have had the opportunity to live abroad and walk numerous battlefields both in the United States, Europe, and the Pacific.

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