from ‘Collier's Magazine’ November 9, 1918
'The C. 0. Goes to School'
By Arthur Ruhl
Collier's Special Correspondent

Making Staff Officers for the American Expeditionary Force


Running an army is much like running a big business. Just as a corporation trains young men to be heads of departments, office managers, traffic managers, sales managers, and so on, so the Staff College trains men to do the thinking and planning upon which the officers in the field act. It is such a training school of American officers in France that Arthur Ruhl describes in this article.—The Editor.


There is one picturesque old town of which I said nothing in writing recently of American "islands in France." It is an ancient city on a hill, with walls mostly useful of late years as a place on which tourists might lean their elbows while they admired the view. But the walls and hill which once kept barbarians away also shut out railway trains and other distractions, and it is this cloistered spot which we have made the seat of our Staff College and School of the Line.

There are other schools round about, ranging from a big officers' training camp to schools for tanks and carrier pigeons, but the Staff College is the most novel and from a narrowly professional point of view, if from no other, the most significant. It is significant because here we are supplying our new army with what it lacks most— officers trained for staff duty. And it is novel because, having only a handful of such officers and needing hundreds, we had to improvise them, so to speak, overnight. Commanding officers themselves have had to go to school again, and colonels with eagles on their shoulders and young reserve officers just out of home training camps grind over the same problems and sit side by side, listening to lectures, on the same wooden benches.

Office Men

When, with great excitement and beating of drums, a division was mobilised at San Antonio a few years ago during the Madero revolution, it was the first time in our country that any such number of troops—that particular division, under strength, numbered about 20,000 men—had maneuvered together since the Civil War. Only a few regular-army officers, who had served abroad as military attaches, had even seen a division maneuver. Many were commanding units smaller than corresponded to their rank, and many of those who had their proper units were commanding them for the first time. There had been the little engagements of the Spanish War, the long-drawn-out work of making order in the Philippines, which continued largely, in a tropical setting, the traditions of Indian fighting. But warfare in which scores of thousands, let alone millions, of men, had to be moved quickly from this place to that, without colliding with similar masses engaged in the same operation— this was something of which few had theoretical and none practical knowledge.

Personal courage, patriotism, dash, initiative, and the ability to command men were only of secondary use for this particular task. What was needed was a large body of trained specialists, having all the details of army machinery at their finger tips—the enemy's as well as our own—-speaking the same technical language, and trained in the special technique of making the dispositions necessary to carry out in detail a general plan—traffic managers, statisticians, and strategists, in short, rather than fighters in the ordinary sense of the word. This lack was felt as soon as our troops went into the line in France. The men were superb—there was nothing they wouldn't do, however tactically unwise, from charging machine-gun positions, head on, like a bull charging an express train, up or down. The younger officers, as ready as their men, made up in keenness and the ability to "catch on" what they lacked in experience. It is not yet the time to measure the full significance of what they did in the Second Battle of the Marne, but it is scarcely too much to say that; one way or another, they saved' Paris. Their dash and enthusiasm, the new life they put into the tired troops on either side of them, went far to turn the tide and start it running the other way. But they were fighting, it must be remembered, not as a separate army, as we shall be fighting largely from now on, but as a part of the French army. The staff work down to the division—the army and corps staff work—was done by the French.

It might be well here to suggest what staff work is and is not. It does not consist, as the old-fashioned battle paintings might lead some still to think, of sitting a handsome horse in a brilliant uniform behind one's commanding officer, looking down from some convenient hilltop on the smoke of battle.

There is no smoke of battle nowadays, and no glittering staffs looking down from hilltops. Staff officers are office men, and most of them are likely to see even less fighting than newspaper correspondents. They are shut up in some more or less remote headquarters, with papers and figures without end, and it is their duty— decidedly unpicturesque—to reduce the live human units of the fighting force to their simplest abstract terms and clearly and coolly and with as nearly«perfect accuracy as possible to move these abstractions about so that none shall interfere with another and each shall arrive at the point at which it can be most useful at the appointed time.

Computations and Correlations

On a certain day, for instance, at a certain time, along a certain sector of the front, there is to be a general attack. At w-hour minus 15 minutes the artillery will open a violent and intensive bombardment. At w-hour plus 15 minutes the infantry will move forward to attack. But before this moment comes—a moment that has been whispered about and waited for for weeks—an incredible amount of work must be done. From prisoners captured in raids made for that purpose, and from other sources, the Intelligence Section—one branch of staff work— must have learned the strength and disposition of the enemy forces. Hundreds of airplane photographs have been studied, patched together, and their information transferred to military maps. Here are the trenches, the wire, the probable machine-gun nests, the battery positions; there the ammunition dumps, the roads, rail and otherwise, the various headquarters, the reserves. All this and much else comes under the head of Intelligence—what is called in army jargon "G2." "Gl" attends to supply; "G3" to operations.

All three sections must work out the endless details and correlate them, down to the" estimated number of shells of a certain caliber needed to take a certain position.

You read every day, for instance, of attacks in which twenty or thirty divisions take part. A division in this war is a mere card in a pack—it can be "used up" in a day. Yet just what does it mean to "fling" a division into an attack? Divisions vary in size in the different armies. An American division, larger than those in the other armies, numbers about 27,000 men—26,000 soldiers and 944 officers. There are four infantry regiments, of 3,700 men each— about 12,000 actual "bayonets." There is a machine-gun battalion, a brigade of field artillery, consisting of two regiments of light rapid-fire guns— "75's"—one regiment of heavy guns—six-inch howitzers or "155's"—and a trench-mortar battery. There arc the engineers and their train, a field- signal battalion, the headquarters and military police, the ammunition train, a supply train, with rolling kitchens and water wagons, a sanitary train with its trucks and ambulances. With the intervals required in France, this variegated procession would stretch along the road for a distance of twenty-seven miles.

Regular Grinds

In actual service a division does not, of course, move along one road like a gigantic circus procession. It does not assemble in one definite spot and move from there to some other definite spot. It is scattered, under cover, over a whole countryside. Passing through it along the main highway, you would see, here and there, only a few hundred troops, As it takes its place in the line, moving at night or under cover so far as possible, the infantry units go to positions farthest forward; the artillery to other positions farther back over a wide stretch of country.

The headquarters must be in a place reasonably undisturbed and yet within easy communication of the whole. The ammunition dumps must be near the various units drawing on them, the field dressing stations close up, the regimental hospitals farther back, the motor transport must keep its line of communication open and not only bring supplies up but have a safe way out if there is trouble. All these various places must be picked, and the necessary orders given, and men, guns, and supplies must be moved along roads, already more or less crowded with other trains, so that they will not collide or hold each other up. And they must do this, not on roads or through woods, open and quiet as they are on a map, but under fire, or at any moment likely to be, from the enemy artillery or airplane raiders, not to speak of the fact that an unexpected success may permit the enemy to break through the line and throw out calculations altogether.

Each of the divisions included in the attack must make these plans, they must be coordinated with those of the corps, the corps with those of the army. All this is, of course, the mere A, B, C of the problem, and leaves out of consideration the strategy— the why and wherefore—of the movement, and the tactics—the actual fighting itself—through which the strategical designs are carried out. It is work which doesn't show from the outside, which wins no medals for bravery, which is not reported in the papers, and yet work on which the efficiency of any army largely depends.

Officers who suggest fitness for staff work are recommended for the school—the class numbers about 150 after it has been shaken down—they are tried for a time, and if they do not seem likely to catch on are sent back to their units. First-class line officers might make poor staff men and vice versa. The sort of officer who can take his men "over the top," capture a machine-gun nest, mop up a captured village, might be wasted in staff work. There are ex-football men or baseball players who might make superlative infantry lieutenants who could not keep awake through a staff college lecture. There are ex-traffic managers or department-store buyers or college instructors, who, with a comparatively brief intensive military training, might be made very useful as staff men.

Because of this fact, and because of our lack of staff officers, the personnel of the Staff College is unexpected enough. I happened into the lecture hall just as the class was coming out. The first man I ran into was a young reserve captain who, when I had last seen him in Vera Cruz in 1914, was a correspondent for one of the New York papers. Right behind him were two regular-army colonels. One I had last seen in Paris in the autumn of 1914, with the other I had spent several days on the Russian front in 1917, when he was serving as one of our military observers. The young ex-reporter invited me to dinner, and at his mess—the student officers are billeted generally in private houses—there were two more regular-army colonels, a Plattsburg captain who had been a State senator two years ago, and another young reserve officer whose previous condition of servitude, while not described, was suggested by his easy talk on the upkeep of touring cars and the advantage of having one's horses looked after by British grooms. In another house I found a former Harvard crew captain and another Staff College man who had formerly been one of the younger associates in a great dry-goods business. At breakfast in my hotel a former Republican State chairman sat opposite me, taciturn as ever, and alongside him two young reserve men, cheerfully asking the world in general what the French might mean by "Comme-ci-comme-ca!"

The lecture room where the staff students spend a good deal of their time is like any college lecture room at home, though a bit plainer—a blackboard, a lecturer, rows of wooden desks. But in the bearing of the students themselves during a lecture there was a noticeable difference. That lofty tolerance varied by amused disdain with which the free-born American undergraduate is wont to receive the outpourings of the race of professors had undergone a remarkable change. They were actually concentrating on what he was saying, they were going to talk it over afterward, and if their own opinions were wrong to find out why. They had been studying ever since breakfast and they were going home to study more that night. In short, they were what any spirited American undergraduate would promptly dismiss as "grinds."

The most important part of their work, which includes various sorts of talks and conferences, is the "map problems." A situation is given exactly as it would come in actual battle. An attack, for .instance, like that already mentioned, is to be made. Here is the map, with the disposition of forces, this the general plan, such and such the objectives. As corps or division commander, what action would you take and what would be the necessary orders? The students, working sometimes alone, sometimes in groups duplicating as near as possible an actual staff, with representatives of the three sections of Intelligence, Supply, and Operations, work out the whole scheme, including the necessary maps.

The solutions are criticized, not only by the instructors, but, after being exchanged, by the students themselves, so that a regular-army man may have his plan picked to pieces by some young reserve officer, and vice versa. These criticisms cover such questions as: Are all units accounted for and properly employed? Are all orders, diagrams, tables, etc., in such form and so expressed as to make a good working solution? Is there any collision of troops or trains, or undue congestion? Is cover properly used? Are staff arrangements complete and workable? In general, is the solution workable and sound?

Staff Material

With the younger men it is, at first, a case of learning to swim by being thrown into the water, but on the whole they seem to hold their own. There are things which regular-army men do instinctively, in which reserve officers are likely to go astray. They have had their years of discipline, and think naturally in terms of the system according to which any order proceeds down the line from the general to the particular. They know how general and how particular to be, and do not, for instance, give a theoretical order for a battery of seventy-fives when, in actual practice, the order for the battery would come from the regimental commander, who, in turn, would be fitting his own dispositions with the more general ones of the commander next higher up.

On the other hand, there are occasional older men who are still thinking of war in terms of General Custer, and the flexibility of their minds has not been improved by years at drowsy army posts "counting beans." The young men have nothing to unlearn, they are thoroughly aware of their shortcomings, intensely serious in correcting them, and they bring to the job all the quickness and ability to concentrate which they have needed in the rough-and-tumble competition of civil life.

Toward the end of their course some of the staff students go out to divisions engaged in maneuvers, and act as umpires in problems in the solution of which they have already been coached. Others are attached for a time to various staffs, where they help in the work that comes up from day to day. The instruction is largely given by American officers who have previously completed the course, assisted by French and English staff officers and other American officers detached from active duty for the moment and sent back to give the benefit of their recent experiences at the front. Those who successfully finish the course are assigned generally to the staffs of various units.

War's Curriculum

The School of the Line, which helps to give this ancient city the air of a college town, is, of course, for training, not in the abstractions of staff work, but in tactics and the details of actual fighting. It is an officers' training camp d'elite, a kind of graduate Plattsburg, while the Staff College is a sort of enlarged and vitalized Leavenworth.

Young officers who have seen service at the front are sent back here to correlate their scraps of experience and brush up on the new ideas in the various phases of their work. Here, taken at random, were some of the things they were studying:

German methods of attack; defense of a village; tactical use of tanks; sanitation; trench mortars; small cavalry patrols; gas instruction; flank patrols; defense of a convoy; "cleaning up"; camping a division; regiment in attack and in defense; liaison in the attack; halt and camp for the night; consolidation of a position; reconnaissance patrols; regiment as part of a larger force in attack on consolidated position; attack on machine-gun nests, followed by demonstration of same problem at Infantry Specialists' School, and so on.

There are map problems here, as in the Staff College, but of a tactical rather than strategical nature. You are, for instance, marching along a certain road—actual roads in the neighborhood are sometimes used—when shells begin to fall in the road two hundred meters ahead. At the same time, from the wood, three hundred meters ahead and to the left—all such points are accurately shown on the map, of course — machine guns open fire.

The "Quick and the Dead"

What do you do, and what orders do you give? Similar problems are given in officers' training camps at home, but they have a different sort of bite here, where both pupils and instructors may both have just come from the front and when every student officer knows that everything he can learn today may mean saving the lives of his men and himself to-morrow.

In one of the classes into which I looked they were working over airplane photographs and transferring the information they revealed to military maps.

Some of the photographs are plain enough—a railway and station, for instance. Wire entanglements, on the other hand, show only as bands of light shadow, sometimes hard to recognize. Well-concealed battery positions may scarcely show at all. The photographs have been taken at different heights and angles, moreover, and rather tricky problems of foreshortening must be worked out before the positions shown can be accurately spotted on a military map.

On the experimental gas chamber, about which floated the rather pleasant, fruity odor of chlorine, was a sign in big letters: "Hold Your Breath Means Hold What You've Got." That is to say, when a gas alarm comes, don't try to take a long breath before putting cm your mask and be half gassed in doing it. Hold what you have and wait for the rest until you can pull it through the mask. And there was the further reminder that in gas attacks there were only two kinds of people, the "quick and the dead."

Sorting Prisoners

In the courtyard student intelligence officers were questioning real German prisoners. A squad of bored Germans. who had to line up and answer the same questions twenty or thirty times over, was kept for that special purpose.

"Mr. Jones!" called out the instructor, and out of the schoolroom, pencil and notebook in hand, came a young second lieutenant.

He stepped in front of the squad of prisoners, looked as knowing as possible, and gave an order in German.

Instantly the prisoners, who had done the same thing a dozen times already that afternoon, scrambled this way and that, their heavy boots scratching the gravel as they snapped to "Attention!" hands at their sides. The time was limited, and when it was up the student was cut off whether he had finished or not. His general bearing, promptness, and resource were "points" in this test rather than the quality of information obtained. Each had his own method, and the results were as different as different turns in a music hall.

One, picked out a prisoner at random, asked him his unit, told him to stand aside, and then ordered all the others of the same unit to line up with him. He was nowhere near done when time was called.

Another, more workmanlike, spotted a German noncommissioned officer in the group, gave him the order, and the Feldwebel promptly had his comrades going through their paces like a house afire. [The nearest American rank to Feldwebel is sergeant major. Actually, however, the Feldwebel is an officer who is of a grade between the commissioned and noncommissioned ranks, and performs special duties.] "There's something doing when those fellows get an order!" remarked the captain-instructor.

One of the prisoners, oddly enough, had been among a group I recalled seeing the day he was captured outside a division headquarters east of Fere-en-Tardenois, a domesticated-looking man of middle age, who spoke a little English, which he said he had not studied in nineteen years and had almost forgotten, and in peace times kept an electrical supply shop.

When each student had finished his turn the prisoners were mixed up again, another candidate called, and the performance repeated. The questioning for military information—a task requiring more deftness and detailed knowledge than this mere preliminary sorting of the prisoners—was to come another day.

The Power Behind

The Staff College, with the Line School, the Officers' Training Camp, and the various specialists' schools in the neighborhood, make up the most important of the American school centers in Prance.

Many of those sent to the Staff College itself would doubtless prefer to return, after finishing the course, to the combat units from which they were recommended.

As staff officers they will become office men of a sort, instead of soldiers in the field, and deal with abstractions instead of actual men and horses and planes and guns.

But it is harder to get good men for that kind of duty than for everyday work in the line, and while the chance of promotion is less, the work, if done as it ought to be done, is honor enough in itself.

And it will be staff work on which the real effective strength of our army of to-morrow, of the actual men and horses and planes and guns, will largely depend.


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