November, 1918: Postwar Demobilization Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

At 11:00 a.m. Paris time, Thursday, November 11, 1918, World War I, the Great War, ended. News of the German surrender reached the United States at 3:00 a.m. via Associated Press. From the White House that same day, President Woodrow Wilson announced the armistice:

At 11:00 a.m. Paris time, Thursday, November 11, 1918, World War I, the Great War, ended. News of the German surrender reached the United States at 3:00 a.m. via Associated Press. From the White House that same day, President Woodrow Wilson announced the armistice:

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.

Events of the next two years indicate that Wilson was thinking primarily of his plans for the peace conference soon to open in Paris. The more immediate problems of demobilizing the U.S. armed forces and managing U.S. society itself seems not to have concerned him. 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 provided no program of his own and encouraged none from his administration.

Even the Army seemed surprised when it suddenly faced the problem of disbanding the American Expeditionary Forces. 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 take the soldiers home before releasing them from service, or would 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 a day; every day’s delay in demobilization added to the burden of taxation required to finance the army’s upkeep.

Unfortunate Timing

One great problem faced by General John Pershing was timing. Pershing had planned for a massive U.S. offensive in the spring of 1919. Plans had been made for a huge buildup of AEF forces, including 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 would end in the United States. It was clear to Pershing that economy was now all-important. Working with Major General James Harbord, his chief of supply, Pershing quickly identified a large number of contracts with the British and French that would have to be canceled immediately. There were loud protests 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 in schools and halfway through their course of study would be allowed to complete the training. The massive Air Service training center at Issoudun, 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, the process was repeated, despite the hardships caused to local concerns and protests from the French government.

Troops and Materials

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. 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, on November 16, issued orders for mustering out the first two hundred thousand troops. March expected to release thirty thousand soldiers per day when the process was in full operation. In the months to come, the War Department occasionally tried to demobilize according to a soldier’s occupational skill, 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 forty thousand U.S. troops remained in Europe, all of them either logistical units or part of the U.S. occupation force in Germany.

The Home Front

At home, demobilization went even more rapidly. In December, 1918, the Army discharged more than 600,000 of those then stationed in the United States. By April 1, 1920, the U.S. Army contained fewer than one-eighth of 1 percent of those who had 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 suffered 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. Paris and the French embarkation ports began to collect soldiers who were absent without leave. 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 U.S. 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, nine out of ten U.S. service personnel brought with them the infamous louse, or “cootie,” parasite of the trenches.

Returning Home

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 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. The soldiers’ duffle bags often bulged with souvenirs. Their eagerness for German Iron Crosses had become so great during and after the war that, according to one report, the Germans began to manufacture the item for the overseas trade.

Once back in the United States, soldiers were rushed through processing stations. Many were told to take all of their military equipment home; the government would send for it later. 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 the soldiers did not receive their Victory Medals. When soldiers arrived back home, they found they had no job protection, and many remained unemployed for some time after the war. Recordkeeping tended to be sloppy, given the emphasis on a speedy demobilization, and a large number of soldiers never had wounds or disabilities recorded properly.

Occupation of Germany

While 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. The forces sent were the oldest, most experienced combat divisions Pershing 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 U.S. Army headquarters in Coblenz, Germany. By the spring of 1919, Pershing had begun to send those divisions back to the United States. Many of those troops returning from the occupation suffered the most from the lack of employment.

Until the army of occupation had come home and until the U.S. Army had disposed of its huge properties in Europe, demobilization did not officially end. Portions of the occupation army remained on the Rhine until January, 1923.

War Surplus

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 U.S. Army sold its holdings in Europe or simply allowed them to disintegrate or disappear. The French government agreed to pay four hundred million dollars for some of it. The Czechs bought overcoats; Estonia bought army bacon; 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 U.S. Army property diminished, so did its regular workforce. As soon as the war ended, debate over the size and function of the peacetime military force began. In June, 1920, through the new National Defense Act, Congress cut 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 the war had been demobilized. Readjustment of those forces to civilian life, the dismantling of war industries, the return of people and of property (such as the railroads) to private industry, and countless other adjustments in United States society after war, all created enormous difficulties, many of which would be felt for another generation. Mustering out its service personnel was, by comparison, a matter of relative ease to the nation. In its broader meaning, demobilization and the consequent adjustment from war to peace would influence the history of the next two decades, until another war brought on an even greater mobilization.

Categories: History