Anglo-American Co-Belligerency, 1917-1918

The relationship between Britain and America during the final years of the First World War demonstrates that a common enemy does not necessarily ensure a seamless alliance. Wilson and Pershing were able to use the military tools of coalition warfare, in this case American manpower, to extract operational concessions and support for the notion of self-determination. The changing nature of Germany's global threat, however, ensured that this must be the most careful of balancing acts.

By Dr David R Woodward, for

The British government expected benevolent neutrality on the part of the United States when war erupted in Europe in 1914.  Although the United States had an ethnically diverse population, British leaders were inclined to view their fellow English speaking Atlantic power as a close cousin.  Relations between the two countries had indeed much improved since 1898.  The resulting Anglo-American rapprochement, however, was not a balanced relationship.  'In hard diplomatic coin', Bradford Perkins observed, 'the Americans took but they did not give'.

Opposite Views of Peace

Differing views on what constituted a good peace created a wide divide between Washington and London.  The British were committed to Germany's defeat and the destruction of German militarism, which in practical terms meant regime change, the elimination of Germany's autocratic military government.  Wilson wholeheartedly agreed with the latter point but insisted on 'peace without victory'.  This fundamental disagreement undermined Wilson's role as a mediator.  When the British in early 1916 discussed a proposal for general peace negotiations (the House-Grey Memorandum), it was noted within the War Committee that 'the Americans considered that the end of the war would be a draw'. This would be 'much the same as a defeat' was Prime Minister Asquith's response. 

Spurned by the British, Wilson used his country's greatest coercive power, its economic strength, to support his mediation efforts.  On 31 October 1916, Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the British War Committee, warned that his country's Achilles heel was its growing dependence upon American financial support. In a general review of the war, he stressed that Britain and her allies were becoming 'entirely dependent upon the goodwill of the President of the United States of America for their power to continue the war'.

Germany's resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare prevented an almost certain rupture brought on by American economic pressure.  British and American leaders, however, continued to be at odds once the United States became a belligerent.  Three areas in particular were largely responsible for this tension:  David Lloyd George's relationship with Wilson; differing views on the nature of Germany's threat, especially against the British Empire; and, finally, the role played by American forces in the European conflict.

Not a Special Relationship: Lloyd George and Wilson

The personal relationship that Churchill cultivated with Roosevelt played a critical role in Anglo-American cooperation during World War II.  No such relationship existed between Prime Minister David Lloyd George and President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson made it clear from the onset that the United States entered the war as an 'associated' power and not as an 'ally'.  The British ambassador in Washington emphasised to his government that 'it must not be forgotten that this country is under no obligation to continue the war beyond the moment when it is America's interest to continue it or to wage war in any way which will not further first of all American interests alone'.

Despite Washington's refusal to become a full fledged member of the anti-German coalition, the British sought and expected a special relationship. Following the Russian Army's collapse and the mutiny of the French Army during the summer of 1917, Lloyd George attempted to create a compact between the two English-speaking powers that would dominate the military and diplomatic efforts of the anti-German coalition.  After it was noted within the British War Cabinet on 31 July 1918 that Britain 'might have to contemplate a situation in which the burden of the war was sustained entirely by the British Empire and the United States of America', an agitated Lloyd George told some of his colleagues that he wanted Wilson to come to London and 'swear to support us'.  But Wilson could not be summoned to London as if he were a Dominion leader.  Recognising this, Lloyd George decided to visit Washington, something no head of the British government had ever done.  However, Wilson made it clear that he would not welcome a visit by the Prime Minister. 

Deeply suspicious of Lloyd George (who in 1916 had rebuked his mediation efforts and talked of a 'knock-out blow' against Germany) and his imperialist colleagues in the War Cabinet, Wilson was not about to have American participation in the war co-opted for British concerns and interests.  He took pains to keep the British at arm's length, greeting with scepticism Lloyd George's liberal statement on war aims on 5 January 1918, which mirrored many of his own ideals and spoke of a peace of 'reason' and 'justice'.  Wilson also feared that Lloyd George's statement might undermine his position as the world's spokesman for the new international order. 

During Germany's powerful Spring offensives in 1918, Lloyd George infuriated the American president when he implied that the United States would be responsible for any defeats inflicted upon Allied forces in France. 'We can do no more than we have done', he proclaimed,  'it rests with America to win or lose the decisive battle of the war'.  Wilson's private response to this was: '[I] fear I will come out of the war hating [the] English'.  

A Global Threat

Wilson and Lloyd George also differed on the nature of the German threat to world stability.  Wilson emphasised 'regime change', establishing a democratic government in Germany over an overwhelming defeat of the German Army. Forcing Germany to raise the white flag was to him just a preliminary for peace discussions; to the British the defeat of the German Army was the essential objective of their military effort. Wilson, however, perhaps began to understand that he needed his war partners as much as they needed him. In October 1917 he was informed of German peace feelers (quickly scuttled by German intransigence) that involved the sacrifice of Russian territory.  What if Britain and her allies made a separate peace with the enemy?  Wilson's influence over any peace settlement might depend upon the Allies fighting on, becoming more dependent on American resources in the process.   Yet Wilson clung to the hope that the peace factions in the Central Powers might triumph over the war elements.  When the Allies, who only sought a separate peace with Austria-Hungary to isolate Germany, firmly rejected general peace discussions that included a defiant Berlin in February 1918, Wilson privately accused the Allied leaders of ,making fools of themselves again and again,.  For their part, the British were not going to allow Wilson to define their interests in Europe or elsewhere.

Germany's all-out effort to win a victor's peace in 1918 and its annexationist treaty with Soviet Russia, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, which gave Germany control of more of the former Tsarist Empire than Hitler's Wehrmacht ever achieved, brought Wilson more in line with British views of a predatory Germany.  In a speech on the first anniversary of America's entry into the war, Wilson talked of a German empire 'hostile to the Americas as to the Europe which it will overawe, - an empire which will ultimately master Persia, India, and the peoples of the far east'.  

Fearing that Germany might dominate the Continent many British and Dominion leaders emphasised that the rim powers (the United States, the British Commonwealth and Japan) must control the world's shipping lanes and the strategic overland lines of communication to prevent global domination by Germany and her allies.  Wilson now recognised that Germany posed a global threat to both British and American security, but he was not prepared to support British operations away from the western front to protect the British Empire in the Middle East and Asia.  When pressed by the British and French he provided some troops for intervention in Russia, but his motivation remains a subject of continued debate, and he and his military advisers never believed in the military feasibility of erecting a barrier to prevent German expansion in Asia.  To Wilson the defeat of Germany and the protection of the British Empire were two very different matters.  Many British leaders might sincerely believe that the British Empire was a great civilising force and a source of world stability, but Wilson made it abundantly clear that he was not expending the life of one American soldier to protect or expand Britain's imperial possessions.  Lloyd George believed a comment that Wilson allegedly made to foreign correspondents summed up America's position at any peace conference: 'Gentlemen of the conference, we come here asking for nothing ourselves, and we are here to see you get nothing'. 

Although Wilson had shown little interest in military or world affairs prior to becoming president, he appreciated that the success of his diplomacy might largely depend upon the role played by U. S. military power.  This led to a curious paradox.  The British wanted peace before Germany was beaten flat by the Americans; and Wilson wanted peace before Germany was defeated decisively in the belief that it would give him more leverage with his allies. A prostrate Germany, unable to offer any resistance, would encourage America's allies to seek a peace of revenge.

Marshalling the Tools of Coalition Warfare

Wilson chose John J. Pershing to command the American Expeditionary Force. The British historian B. H. Liddell Hart has characterised Pershing as '100-percent American' because he championed American interests that frequently conflicted with Allied objectives.  Even though he initially had no army to command; Pershing expected the United States to play a decisive role in the war.  He wanted an independent U. S. army in Europe with its own front and its own strategic objectives. Given the powers of a proconsul by Wilson, Pershing was soon at odds with Allied leaders who believed that their survival in 1918 depended upon American manpower.  The only realistic way of immediately employing American troops on the battlefield was through amalgamation, or the brigading of U.S. troops with existing French and British divisions.  Pershing, determined to form a U. S. Army in Europe, steadfastly opposed amalgamation even if it meant that the Germans might capture Paris and drive the French behind the Aisne. 

Pershing's determination to create an independent U. S. Army infuriated Lloyd George, who attempted unsuccessfully to use British shipping to blackmail Pershing into allocating U. S. forces to British trenches in France.  Wilson and Pershing had good reason to be suspicious of British motives.   Lloyd George had hoped to substitute American for British troops on the western front. British soldiers thus freed would be employed on peripheral fronts to protect the British Empire from the Turco-German threat. Although Pershing's stance put the Allied position on the western front at risk, his (and Wilson's) single-minded determination to come to grips with the German Army in France served to hold the alliance together.  Pershing sacrificed what he thought would be a war-winning American thrust into Lorraine when he reluctantly accepted Generalissimo Ferdinand Foch's plan to launch a series of converging attacks against the German front from the North Sea to the Meuse. A strategy that eventually forced Berlin to request an armistice. But Pershing remained disappointed that the abrupt ending of the war prevented U. S. forces from delivering a death blow to the Germany Army in 1919.

The prospect that Germany might triumph on the Continent in 1918 forced greater coordination between the United States and Great Britain.  But it only papered over underlying tensions which emerged in full force as the war came to an end.  Wilson's penchant for moral over traditional diplomacy and his self-appointed role as the people's spokesman made the British fear (in Jan Christian Smuts's words) that he wanted to be the 'diplomatic dictator of the world'.  Although American strategic and political interests continued to parallel Britain's more than any other world power, the wartime Anglo-American partnership proved too fragile to survive the war.  It took the common threat posed by Hitler's Third Reich and Japan's Asian ambitions to resurrect it.


Dr David R Woodward is Emeritus member of the Department of History, Marshall University, West Virginia.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

Further Reading

David R. Woodward, Trial by Friendship: Anglo-American Relations, 1917-1918. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1993)


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