Filling the Ranks

Building a military machine

By February 1917, the United States was on the verge of war, though the country was almost totally unprepared. The U.S. military had:

  • 133,000 men in the U.S. Army
  • Only 600 pieces of field artillery
  • Less than 500 machine guns
  • No tanks
  • No steel helmets
  • No gas protection equipment

With almost no heavy artillery pieces, a small air service, and only a handful of camps that could be used for training, the country quickly mobilized for the war effort. Congress appropriated money for military affairs and shouted down members who opposed the war. Newspapers were filled with stories of preparing for war, recruiting an army and converting industries to war production. It was a race against time; as one headline reported, Germany planned to “Whip Allies Before U.S. Is Ready.”

After entering World War I, The U.S. had to build training camps for millions of new recruits. One soldier described Fort Sheridan, Ill., as “somewhat like a college campus on the eve of a big game.” Training, however, was deadly serious. Eight hundred British and French combat veterans came to the U.S. to prepare troops for the Western Front.

The new recruits struggled to keep their heads down while crawling under barbed wire. They plunged bayonets into straw dummies with “Fritz” written on them. They learned they had seven seconds to put on a gas mask. The army also needed thousands of officers. Regular Army and National Guard officers were quickly promoted. The creation of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) converted college students with military aptitude into leaders.



Learn more about the Americans on the front lines and how they came to be known as "Doughboys."


On May 26, 1917, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker issued General Order No. 1, appointing Major General John J. Pershing as commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.). The order gave Pershing command over “all the land forces of the United States operating in Continental Europe and in the United Kingdom … including any parts of the Marine Corps which may be detached for service there with the Army.” The newly created A.E.F. would “cooperate with the forces of the other countries,” the order stated, but as “a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved.”

Within a year of declaring war, the U.S. had assembled a military force of nearly 4 million men and women. The American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) combined units from the regular Army, Marines, various state National Guards nationalized by the federal government, and the new National Army created from volunteers and draftees. The regular Army units and Marines had existed before the war but were now expanded with the influx of volunteers.

Two million troops were eventually at the Western Front, serving in the Army and the Marines, and another 200,000 naval personnel were in European waters.

All footage: U.S. Army Signal Corps films, from the collection of the National World War I Museum and Memorial