Small Wars Journal

General Pershing And Mission Command During The Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Sat, 07/16/2022 - 8:46pm

General Pershing And Mission Command During The Meuse-Argonne Offensive


By David Brazel


On September 26th, 1918, the US First Army, under the command of General John Pershing, contributed to an allied assault on the remaining German defenses in France.  The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the American effort of this advance.  This paper will examine General Pershing’s use of the principles of mission command.  His performance demonstrated that mission command is a valuable leadership tool, yet strict adherence to its seven principles is not necessarily required for mission accomplishment.  While the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was ultimately successful, it followed some principles of mission command and ignored others. According to Army Doctrine Publication 6-0 (ADP 6-0) “mission command is the Army’s approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation.[1]  The seven principles of this decentralized decision-making process are competence, mutual trust, shared understanding, commander’s intent, mission orders, disciplined initiative and risk acceptance.[2]

Prior to becoming the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, John J. Pershing was one of the most combat experienced American officers to date.  After graduating West Point, he saw action in engagements on the American frontier, in the Spanish-American War, in the Philippines, and along the Mexican border.  When the Meuse-Argonne Offensive began, he was in command of the US First Army.  Prior to the offensive he assembled a three corps front between the Argonne Forest in the west and the Meuse River in the east.  Their mission was to aggressively advance through the defenses of ten German Divisions.  Capturing the railroads beyond the defenses and cutting off “German supplies and reinforcements to France,” would then become the objective. [3]

            The battle began on September 26th and continued until the Armistice of November 11th, 1918.  The German army had fortified their terrain with four trench lines stretching through the entire battlefield.  The battle began with a heavy artillery barrage on German positions prior to the American forces daylight advance.  V Corps seized Malancourt and Montfaucon in the initial advance and III Corps secured the second German trench by the evening of September 28th.  However, the advance stagnated due to heavy resistance in the Argonne Forest and because First Army had outrun its supply lines.  First Army was able to repel a German counterattack during a pause to reorganize and resumed its advance on October 4th.  First Army cleared the Argonne Forest, Romagne Heights and Cune Heights before reconsolidating their supply lines again.  On October 10th, Pershing reorganized his forces into the First and Second Armies.  When the advance resumed on November 1st, First Army saw massive gains, and by November 10th the Second Army was organized to join the offensive.  The AEF pushed the German defenses back to the Meuse River and prepared for further offensive operations when the Armistice was reached on November 11th, ending World War One. [4]  

            During the offensive, General Pershing and other senior American officers followed some principles of mission command and ignored others.  He had highly competent subordinate officers, which allowed for a level of mutual trust amongst senior leaders.  While his force’s ability to have a shared understanding and use of commander’s intent lead to a successful offensive, it was not flawless.  The chaos of war also will show that the AEF’s use of mission orders, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance left more to be desired.  

            To begin, competence amongst leaders is critical to effective mission command and the senior leaders of the AEF met this standard.  Pershing himself was the most experienced American combat veteran in the army.  He also hand-picked division and corps commanders who could lead an inexperienced force.  The US Army was woefully underprepared for war and bolstered its ranks by drafting thousands of unexperienced men.  For these men to stand a chance, they were going to need some of the most experienced leaders guiding them.  For example, Major General Joseph E. Kuhn had been a professional officer for over thirty years.  He was a Military Observer in the Russo-Japanese War and a member of the military mission to Germany, frequently visiting the lines of WWI prior to US entry.[5]  He assumed command of the 79th Division, made up of draftees mainly from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  By the time they first saw battle in the Meuse-Argonne only half of the Soldiers had been in the Army more than four months.[6]  During the battle, it was the inexperienced 79th Division that was able to capture the defensive strongpoint of Montfaucon in the opening days of the battle.  They did this, despite their inexperience and with their critics believing there “was no chance for the 79th to develop the psychological attributes required for an effective combat unit.”[7]  General Pershing’s ability to pick competent leaders directly led to mission success.

            The next principle of mission command that Pershing leveraged was mutual trust. Mutual trust means having “shared confidence between commanders, subordinates and partners that they can be relied on.”[8]  Pershing’s decision to restructure the AEF into the First and Second Armies during the battle is the most significant demonstration of his trust in his subordinates from the entire campaign.  He recognized that his force was too large to keep under a single command and maintain the tempo required for victory.  After he split his forces to subordinate leaders, the First Army was able to advance faster and more efficiently.  This trust between Pershing and his officers contributed to the success of the offensive.

            The AEF under Pershing experienced a mix of success and failures regarding both the principles of commander’s intent and shared understanding.  According to current doctrine, “the commander’s intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state.”[9]  Simply put, when the commander’s end state is effectively communicated and understood by their subordinates, a shared understanding exists.  Prior to the battle Pershing’s “generals and the staff knew their commander’s intent as far as the battle was concerned, and they believed in Pershing’s concepts of open warfare.”[10]  While his staff that made the plans for the AEF bought into their commander’s intent, this was not universal.  For example, prior to the leaving the United States, the 77th Division trained “almost exclusively for trench fighting” even though their superiors “could not have stressed more the importance of training for open warfare.”[11]  While this brief example demonstrates that commander’s intent requires subordinates to follow it, the offensive was still successful despite a lack of universal understanding for General Pershing’s vision.

            General Pershing’s mission orders for the AEF during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive sometimes lacked clarity and based on unrealistic expectations.  A mission order is issued to subordinates to emphasize “the results to be attained, not how they are to achieve them.”[12]  During the initial orders, the AEF was arrayed evenly across the line and expected to advance eight miles a day through the German defenses.  Pershing did not consolidate forces to meet the strong points of the German defenses that had stood for years.  His plan did not designate a main effort for the attack, “nor did the distribution of forces indicate any weighing of the main effort.”[13]  This led to an uneven advance due to heavier resistance in the Argonne Forest and the German strongpoint in Montfaucon.  Critics would also later say that demands for such an aggressive advance with such an inexperienced force against such a well-fortified enemy “had no basis in reality.”[14]  Yet, the offensive was still successful despite the AEF’s lack of realistic mission orders from General Pershing.

            Another reason for the stalled offensive is the lack of disciplined initiative during the attack at Montfaucon.  Disciplined initiative requires subordinates to know their orders and adapt the plan rapidly when it is “no longer suitable for the situation.”[15]  During the initial advance, General Hines, the commander of the 4th Division, sought permission from his corps headquarters to flank Montfaucon.  He did so because Montfaucon was a defensive strongpoint and was holding out against the 79th Division’s attack.  He was initially told only to conduct a limited attack before his orders were changed to continue his own attack and remain within the 4th Divisions assigned advance.[16]  The request was initially denied by the III Corps Chief of Staff in the commander’s absence, and ordered units to maintain their battlefield boundaries. If disciplined initiative had been exercised, then either General Hines would have simply acted to the evolving situation, or the III Corps should have granted him permission to act. Not maneuvering to support the assault on Montfaucon slowed the First Army’s advance and delayed their mission accomplishment.[17]  While this lack of disciplined initiative is not directly Pershing’s fault, the impulse to strictly follow orders and not deviate from the plan may be indicative of his leadership.

            The final principle of mission command is risk acceptance, and Pershing used this principle liberally.  General Pershing made it clear through his orders that he was willing to trade men’s lives for ground during the offensive.  During the operation, he continually issued orders to “push on regardless of the men or guns, night and day.”[18]  Perishing’s subordinate commanders shared his view on risk acceptance during the advance.  III Corps reached the mainstay of the German defensive network known as the Kriemhilde Stellung on October 12th.  At this point, both their commander, General Bullard and General Pershing goaded subordinate commanders into action because they were “inadequately aggressive” despite the mounting casualties.[19]  The level of risk acceptance by AEF leadership is worthy of debate because it produced 117,000 casualties during the twilight of the war.  Although this aggressive advance applied pressure which lead to the Armistice, Pershing had plans for further attacks with similar tempo well into 1919.

General Pershing’s leadership during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive demonstrated that mission command is a valuable leadership tool.  However, strict adherence to its seven principles is not necessarily required for mission accomplishment.  The force consisted of competent and experienced General Officers that were fit to lead large forces of primarily inexperienced Soldiers.  These leaders had mutual trust in their superiors and subordinates.  The force demonstrated success despite universal understanding of their commander’s intent.  The AEF also succeeded during the offensive despite a lack of realistic orders and occasionally shying away from exercising disciplined initiative.  Although some of their success may have come from their willingness to accept large amounts of risk in terms of Soldiers lives.  Thus, General Pershing proved that perfect execution of the seven principles of mission command is not a prerequisite for mission success.   




Barber, J. Frank. History of the 79th Division A.E.F. During the World War: 1917-1919. Lancaster, PA: Steinman and Steinman, 1922.


Cooke, James J.  Pershing and His Generals: Command and Staff in the AEF. Westport CT: Osprey Publishing, 1997.


Fax, Gene. With their Bare Hands: General Pershing, the 79th Division, and the battle for Montfaucon. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2017.


Grotelueschen, Mark Ethan. The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.


Pownall, Lieutenant Jerry D. “The Meuse Argonne Offensive.” US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ. 1980.

U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. ADP 6-0: Mission Command. Command and Control of Army Forces. Washington, D.C: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2019.


Zabecki, David T. ed. Pershings Lieutenants: American Military Leadership in World War I. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2020.



[1] US Army Training and Doctrine Command, ADP 6-0: Mission Command. Command and Control of Army Forces (Washington, D.C.: Headquarter, Department of the Army, 2019), chapter 1, page 3.

[2] Ibid., Chapter 1, page 7.

[3] Lieutenant Jerry D. Pownall, “The Meuse Argonne Offensive” (US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ, 1980), 7. 

[4] Pownall, “The Meuse Argonne Offensive,” 10. 

[5] Frank J. Barber, History of the 79th Division A.E.F. During the World War: 1917-1919 (Lancaster, PA,: Steinman and Steinman, 1922) 8-9.

[6] David T. Zabecki and Douglas V. Mastriano, Pershing’s Lieutenants: American Military Leadership in World War I (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2020) 235.

[7] James J. Cooke, Pershing and His Generals: Command and Staff in the AEF (Westport CT: Osprey Publishing, 1997), 129.

[8] US Army Training and Doctrine Command, ADP 6-0, chapter 1, page 7.

[9] US Army Training and Doctrine Command, ADP 6-0, chapter 1, Page 10.

[10] Cooke, Pershing and His Generals, 126-127.

[11] Mark Ethan Grotelueschen, The AEF War of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 341.

[12] US Army Training and Doctrine Command, ADP 6-0, chapter 1, page 11.

[13] Zabecki, Pershing’s Lieutenants, 48.

[14] Ibid., 49.

[15] US Army Training and Doctrine Command, ADP 6-0, chapter 1, page 12.

[16] Zabecki, Pershing’s Lieutenants, 214.

[17] Ibid., 215.

[18] Ibid., 49.

[19] Ibid., 215.

About the Author(s)

Captain David Brazel serves as the Battalion S2 for the 23rd Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA. His previous assignments include Headquarters and Headquarters Troop Executive Officer, Platoon Leader and Operations Officer for the 3rd Squadron 61st Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, CO. Captain Brazel’s Military Schools include the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course (IBOLC), the Military Intelligence Officer Transition Course (MIOTC), Military Intelligence Captains Career Course (MICCC) and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) Fundamentals Course. He has a bachelor’s of arts degree in History from Gustavus Adolphus College. Captain Brazel has completed one rotation to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center and one deployment in support of Operation Joint Guardian.