Demobilization of U.S. Forces After World War I

After World War I ended, the reintegration of two million members of the American Expeditionary Forces had a significant impact on the U.S. economy.

Summary of Event

At 11:00 a.m. Paris time on Thursday, November 11, 1918, World War I, the Great War, ended. News of the German armistice reached the United States at 3:00 a.m. eastern standard time by way of the Associated Press. From the White House that same day, President Woodrow Wilson announced the armistice: World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period
Demobilization of American Expeditionary Forces
American Expeditionary Forces;demobilization
[kw]Demobilization of U.S. Forces After World War I (Nov., 1918-June, 1920)
[kw]U.S. Forces After World War I, Demobilization of (Nov., 1918-June, 1920)
[kw]World War I, Demobilization of U.S. Forces After (Nov., 1918-June, 1920)
[kw]War I, Demobilization of U.S. Forces After World (Nov., 1918-June, 1920)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period
Demobilization of American Expeditionary Forces
American Expeditionary Forces;demobilization
[g]United States;Nov., 1918-June, 1920: Demobilization of U.S. Forces After World War I[04540]
[c]Economics;Nov., 1918-June, 1920: Demobilization of U.S. Forces After World War I[04540]
[c]Business and labor;Nov., 1918-June, 1920: Demobilization of U.S. Forces After World War I[04540]
March, Peyton
Pershing, John J.
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;post-World War I period

Everything for which America fought has been accomplished. It will now be our fortunate duty to assist by example, by sober, friendly counsel, and by material aid in the establishment of just democracy throughout the world.

The events that took place over the next two years indicate that Wilson was thinking primarily of his plans for the peace conference soon to open in Paris. It appears that he was not concerned with the more immediate problems of demobilizing the U.S. armed forces and managing U.S. society itself. By November, 1918, Wilson had planned virtually nothing in the way of a domestic program of postwar reconstruction. Preoccupied with the coming peace conference, he proposed no program of his own and encouraged none from his administration.

U.S. soldiers are mustered out at Camp Dix in New Jersey after World War I.


Even the army seemed surprised when it suddenly faced the problem of disbanding the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Preparations for military demobilization got under way just before the armistice, when a War Department committee began making tentative plans and was faced with certain immediate problems. Should soldiers be demobilized by military units, and as quickly as possible, without reference to their employment opportunities or the industrial needs of the country? Should the army transport soldiers to their home areas before releasing them from service, or would the use of several major mustering-out centers make for a more effective demobilization?

In making its plans, the army had no comparable precedent and few European procedures to emulate. With the armistice, massive pressure arose to demobilize quickly. The soldiers’ families wanted them home at once, and economic arguments were as strong as family sentiment. On November 11, the war was costing the United States approximately $50 million per day; every day’s delay in demobilization added to the burden of taxation required to finance the army’s upkeep.

One great problem faced by General John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, was timing. Pershing had planned for a massive U.S. offensive in the spring of 1919. This involved a huge buildup of AEF troops as well as the procurement of supplies and the letting of contracts for facilities. After the armistice, all of those plans had to be reversed immediately. On the afternoon of November 11, Pershing received a cable from Washington, D.C., stating that on November 12, all overtime pay and Sunday work on behalf of the war effort would end in the United States. It was clear to Pershing that economy was now all-important. Working with Major General James Harbord, Harbord, James his chief of supply, Pershing quickly identified a large number of contracts with the British and French that would have to be canceled immediately. Loud protests came from both London and Paris, as well as from local contractors and suppliers, but Pershing was bound by his instructions from Washington.

Pershing also ordered that all AEF schools be closed as rapidly as possible. Only those soldiers already halfway through their courses of study would be allowed to complete their training. The massive U.S. Army Air Service training center at Issoudun in France, which was the largest in the world, would be closed by December, 1918. Several thousand pilot trainees were released from Issoudun by the end of November and ordered to report to processing stations for return to the United States. All over France this process was repeated, despite the hardships caused to local concerns and protests from the French government. The AEF at the time had some two million troops equipped with thousands of horses, trucks, motorcycles, railroad cars, weapons, tanks, and planes. Most of the equipment, animals, vehicles, and weapons remained in France, there to rust, to die, or to be sold in a huge salvage operation.

To bring the men home, the army had to find transportation. More than half the AEF had been transported to France in foreign ships, mostly English. At war’s end, the British government, wanting to return its people to their countries and also eager to restore its maritime trade, immediately withdrew its ships from use by the United States, as did France and Italy. The U.S. Army began to convert cargo carriers into troop ships, and the U.S. Navy did the same with fourteen battleships and ten cruisers. Several confiscated German ships were added to the demobilization fleet. By June, 1919, that fleet reached its maximum: 174 vessels with one-trip accommodations for 419,000 troops. The fleet could have carried the entire AEF in five trips, with room to spare.

Acting with dispatch, U.S. Army chief of staff Peyton March issued orders on November 16 for mustering out the first 200,000 troops. March expected to release 30,000 soldiers per day when the process was in full operation. In the months to come, the War Department occasionally tried to demobilize according to soldiers’ occupational skills, but such sporadic gestures did not occur until the great machine of military demobilization had begun pouring the AEF back into the United States from stations abroad. For nearly a year thereafter, the homecoming stream continued, reaching a peak in June, 1919, when almost 350,000 troops reached the United States. By September, 1919, only 40,000 U.S. troops remained in Europe, all of them either serving in logistical units or part of the U.S. occupation force in Germany.

At home, demobilization went even more rapidly. In December, 1918, the army discharged more than 600,000 of the soldiers then stationed in the United States. By April 1, 1920, the population of the U.S. Army was less than one-eighth of 1 percent of the size it had been when the ranks were swelled with men enlisted for emergency duty during the war. The U.S. Navy discharged with equal dispatch, releasing 400,000 persons within a year after the armistice. The U.S. Marine Corps demobilized 50,000 in the same period.

Efficient though it was, this massive demobilization was not free of delays and frustrations. In France, after the armistice, fifty-one new companies of military police were organized and kept busy as soldiers began to grumble and discipline began to break down. Soldiers who were absent without leave began to collect in Paris and at the French embarkation ports. Barracks graffiti appeared: “Lafayette, we are still here.”

Meanwhile, the machinery of demobilization did its job. The U.S. Quartermaster Service chose Brest, Bordeaux, and Saint-Nazaire as French ports of embarkation. Midway between Paris and the Biscay coast of France, at Le Mans, the army built an enormous assembly area for troops bound for the coast. At Le Mans or at the embarkation port itself, the troops received medical examinations, treatment from barbers and dentists, and new or supplementary outfits of clothing. They also went through a delousing center. Coming in from the western front, with its filth and stench, nine out of ten U.S. service personnel brought with them the infamous louse, or “cootie,” parasite of the trenches.

Once they had made the routine voyage across the Atlantic—during which not one life was lost—the troops docked at one of four ports: Boston, New York, Newport News, or Charleston. Each person leaving the army kept a complete outfit of clothing and various items of equipment, such as a safety razor. The enterprising Gillette Safety Razor Company Gillette Safety Razor Company had designed and sold this item to the army, thereby changing the shaving habits of a generation of Americans while making a fortune for itself. Many soldiers carried duffel bags that bulged with souvenirs of their time in Europe.

Once back in the United States, soldiers were rushed through processing stations. Many were told to take all of their military equipment home, and the government would send for it later, but it never did. Each soldier was to receive sixty dollars in cash to buy a new suit of clothes. The processing was so rapid that a majority of soldiers did not receive their victory medals. When the soldiers arrived back home, they found they had no job protection, and many remained unemployed for some time after the war. Record keeping tended to be sloppy, given the emphasis on speedy demobilization, and a large number of soldiers with wounds and disabilities never had their medical status properly recorded.

Although Pershing was under orders to send the troops home as rapidly as possible, he still had to send a sizable military force, eventually numbering thirty divisions, to occupy Germany. This newly created Third Army had to be ready to commence combat operations if the Versailles peace talks failed. Pershing sent to Germany the oldest, most experienced combat divisions he had, which caused a good deal of grumbling among those soldiers who had been in combat the longest. U.S. troops were scattered from the port of Antwerp, Belgium, to the west bank of the Rhine River, with army headquarters in Koblenz, Germany. By the spring of 1919, Pershing had begun to send those divisions back to the United States. The troops returning from the occupation were among those who suffered the most from the lack of employment.

Demobilization did not officially end until the army of occupation had come home and the U.S. Army had disposed of its huge properties in Europe. Portions of the occupation army remained on the Rhine until January, 1923. Well before that date, the army disposed of its European properties. Pershing had been authorized to sell all surplus property on the spot, and the supply section of the AEF remained busy with contracts. Except for some 850,000 tons of artillery, road-making machinery, and other heavy equipment that it shipped home, the army sold its holdings in Europe or simply allowed them to disintegrate or disappear. The French government agreed to pay $400 million for some of it. The Czechs bought overcoats, the Estonians bought army bacon, and the Portuguese bought shoes. At home, the army disposed of much unneeded property through surplus stores. It gave up other items in sundry ways; for example, fourteen National Guard camps, three embarkation camps, sixteen training camps, four flying fields, four hospitals, and various other buildings brought a total return to the government of $4.2 million. One camp in Louisiana, built at a cost of $4.3 million, sold for $43,000 in “salvage recovery.”

As the army’s property diminished, so did its regular workforce. As soon as the war ended, debates began concerning the proper size and functions of a peacetime military force. In June, 1920, through the new National Defense Act, Congress cut the size of the regular army to 280,000 soldiers. It reduced this number still more in the next two years; by 1927, the U.S. Army had been reduced to little more than a token force. The U.S. Navy was reduced in 1921 to fewer than 138,000 men.


When Woodrow Wilson left the White House, the great military force raised to fight World War I had been demobilized. The readjustment of the troops to civilian life, the dismantling of war industries, the return of property (such as the railroads) to private industry, and countless other adjustments that U.S. society had to make after the war all created enormous difficulties, many of which were felt for another generation. By comparison, the mustering out of hundreds of thousands of service personnel was a relatively easy task. In its broader meaning, the demobilization after World War I and the consequent societal adjustment from war to peace shaped the history of the United States for the next two decades, until another world war brought on an even greater mobilization. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period
Demobilization of American Expeditionary Forces
American Expeditionary Forces;demobilization

Further Reading

  • Cooke, James J. The Rainbow Division in the Great War, 1917-1919. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994. An account of one of the AEF’s oldest combat divisions. Includes extensive information on the occupation of Germany and demobilization.
  • Crowell, Benedict, and Robert F. Wilson. Demobilization. Vol. 6 in How America Went to War: An Account from Official Sources of the Nation’s War Activities, 1917-1920. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1921. An invaluable work, written by persons who were involved with demobilization.
  • Hagood, Johnson. The Services of Supply: A Memoir of the Great War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927. Written by a general in the Service of Supply who had intimate knowledge of the many problems caused by demobilization.
  • Palmer, Frederick. Newton D. Baker: America at War. 2 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1931. Includes a solid chapter on postwar activities.

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