Lieutenant General Robert Lee Bullard belonged to a small circle of U.S. Army officers, which also included Hunter Liggett and Joseph Dickman, who rose to field army command during or immediately after the Great War. Bullard established a reputation as one of the senior officers upon whom Pershing could rely to implement the standards the AEF’s commander-in-chief expected of American troops in France. A devotion to Pershing’s emphasis on discipline and offensive-mindedness helped propel Bullard through the AEF’s hierarchy at a rapid pace, elevating him to the command of a brigade, a division, a corps, and a field army in less than a year. He played a major role in some of the AEF’s pivotal engagements, including Cantigny, the Aisne–Marne offensive, and the climactic fighting in the Meuse–Argonne. Overshadowed by more flamboyant officers and largely forgotten today, Bullard nonetheless emerged as a mainstay of the AEF’s combat leadership structure, and typified both the strengths and weaknesses of the officers that dominated the AEF’s higher-echelon combat commands throughout the war.
Born on 15 January 1861 near Opelika, Alabama, into a struggling farming family, Bullard sought to overcome his circumstances through higher education. He attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (today Auburn University) for one year, but his family’s inability to pay for additional studies prompted him to seek and accept admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1881. Bullard graduated with a second lieutenant’s commission in 1885, placing 27th in a class of 39 graduating cadets. Assigned to the 10th Infantry Regiment in New Mexico, Bullard participated in the campaign to capture the Apache leader Geronimo. After this, Bullard’s career settled into the routine of peacetime garrison duties on the Western frontier. Desperate to escape the stasis into which his career appeared to be sinking by the mid-1890s, Bullard attempted to obtain a transfer from the line to one of the U.S. Army’s powerful staff bureaus, a move that promised faster promotion, an increase in pay, and proximity to the Army’s centers of institutional power and influence in Washington.
Bullard’s efforts paid off with his appointment to the Subsistence Bureau, but before he could take up his duties as a staff officer, the outbreak of the Spanish–American War dramatically altered the course of his career. Commissioned a major in the wartime U.S. Volunteers, Bullard organized and trained a battalion (subsequently expanded into a regiment) of African-American volunteers from Alabama. Although the regiment was disbanded without ever being deployed overseas, Bullard gained experience as a troop leader, sufficiently impressing his superiors to warrant further promotion and to gain command of another regiment of U.S. Volunteers that he led in the Philippine War in southern Luzon, and in the Moro Insurgency in Mindanao. Returning to the United States after an assignment as an administrator of a district in the Philippines, Bullard reverted to duty with the infantry. Over the next few years, he served in a variety of assignments that included temporary duty with the Provisional Government in Cuba, command of a Regular U.S. Army infantry regiment, and a year as a student at the Army War College (1911–12).
Over the next five years, Bullard’s military career was bound up with events on the Mexican border. The political instability during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) prompted the Wilson Administration to maintain a military presence in the Southeast for much of the decade. Bullard took command of one of the infantry regiments deployed to the Mexican border. By 1916, with the crisis in Mexico threatening to spill over into U.S. territory, Wilson ordered the mobilization of the National Guard for deployment to the southern border. As an officer with command experience, Bullard was a natural choice to lead one of the National Guard brigades.
While on the Mexican border, Bullard had given little thought to the possibility of the United States actively intervening in the war that had been ravaging Europe since 1914. All of that changed in April 1917, when the United States entered that war. Confronted with the need for a massive expansion of the peacetime U.S. Army into a force capable of making a meaningful impact on the course of the war, the War Department authorized the organization of several officer training camps to produce a cadre for the wartime army. Within a few days of America’s declaration of war against Imperial Germany, Bullard was assigned the task of organizing and commanding one such facility, at Little Rock, Arkansas. In May, he was promoted to brigadier general, and assigned to command the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, the formation that comprised the nucleus of what would become the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
Arriving in France in mid-June 1917, Bullard spent several months overseeing the establishment and operation of the AEF’s school system. That assignment reflected Pershing’s high estimate of Bullard as an officer capable of implementing what the AEF chief envisioned as a key element of his command’s future success on the Western Front. Pershing viewed AEF schools as crucial to imbue his subordinates with the offensive spirit he believed America’s European partners lacked. In spite of the AEF high command’s determination not to emulate French or British warfighting methods, Bullard took care to inspect and observe the French Army’s approach to organizing instructional facilities. His responsibilities were subsequently narrowed down to establishing four schools for training infantry platoon leaders. While willing to observe his hosts’ best practices, Bullard was careful not to imitate their tactical precepts, thus remaining well within the parameters of Pershing’s guidance concerning military instruction in the AEF.
Notwithstanding his contribution to setting the foundations of the AEF school system, Bullard’s work in that sphere soon came to an abrupt end. Determined to restrict the AEF’s higher command echelons to officers who conformed to the strictest standards of professional competence, mental agility, and physical fitness, Pershing proved uncompromising in culling the ranks of his divisional and corps commanders of officers he believed failed to measure up to those standards, and replacing them with men of greater promise. Among the first to fall short of the mark was Major General William Seibert, commander of the 1st Division, whose unsatisfactory performance resulted in his being sent back to the United States. Pershing designated Bullard as Seibert’s replacement.
Given the privileged place that the 1st Division – “Pershing’s Pets,” as its soldiers became known in the AEF – occupied in Pershing’s mind, Bullard’s assignment spoke volumes about the professional regard the AEF’s commander had for the erstwhile brigadier general. But it also placed on Bullard a considerable burden of responsibility. As commander of the 1st Division, Bullard became a key player in Pershing’s efforts to transform it into an organizational template for the AEF as a whole, a formation whose high standards of discipline, training, and combat effectiveness would serve as a benchmark for all American combat divisions. Bullard threw himself into the task of molding the 1st Division into an organization capable of operating effectively in the challenging combat environment of the Western Front. Toward that end, Bullard supervised the implementation of an AEF-prescribed training program designed to get his division ready to take its place in the front line.
By January 1918, Bullard’s division was proficient enough to enter the line in a “quiet” sector of the front located in the Saint-Mihiel salient. Here, the troops honed their tactical skills by conducting raids against German positions and learning infantry–artillery cooperation and aerial observation in support of ground operations. In addition, this helped Bullard address lingering deficiencies in staff work and communications with his command, while providing valuable experience in working with French commanders.
Although much work remained, events unfolding on the Western Front ensured that the 1st Division would never complete its training regimen. The onset of Operation MICHAEL, the first of the great offensives that the German high command launched in the spring of 1918, forced the AEF to commit its partially trained units to battle. Accordingly, Bullard received orders to proceed with his division from the Saint-Mihiel salient to Picardy, where it could assist the French in stopping the German advance. In late April, the 1st Division took up positions opposite the German-occupied village of Cantigny, northwest of the town of Montdidier. Although the expected German hammer blow against the sector did not materialize, Bullard’s troops remained in place. Both the American and French high command had something more ambitious in mind for the 1st Division, however. In early May, the division began preparations for the first major American offensive operation of the war: a well-rehearsed attack to capture and hold Cantigny to improve the Allies’ tactical position in the sector, but also to show to America’s French and British allies the AEF’s maturation as a military force.
Preceded by elaborate and carefully rehearsed preparations intended to minimize the possibility of failure, the attack consisted of a limited operation by a single regiment of the 1st Division heavily supported by French artillery and aerial reconnaissance assets. Determined that nothing be left to chance, Bullard delegated the burden of developing the plan to liberate Cantigny to his G-3 (operations chief), Lieutenant Colonel George Marshall. Marshall’s brilliance shone forth with his singular ability to develop complex plans and present them in a manner that subordinates could execute them. Such acumen caught the attention of not only Bullard, but General Pershing as well. Bullard’s trust in Marshall paid off, and on 28 May, the 28th Infantry Regiment captured Cantigny with only about a hundred casualties. Consolidating the gains and defending the village from German counterattacks proved significantly more problematic, however, with the 28th Infantry losing a third of its strength while fighting off repeated German counterattacks before being relieved by the 18th Infantry. A relatively minor engagement by the standards of the Western Front, Cantigny was the first American offensive victory of the war, and provided Pershing with the evidence he needed to demonstrate that his troops were capable of operating effectively on the Western Front.
In early July Bullard was elevated to command the AEF’s newly established III Corps. Bullard was tasked with coordinating the preparations of the 1st and 2nd Divisions for the Franco–American counterattack at Soissons, but critical shortages of staff meant that Bullard had to delegate effective tactical control of the two AEF divisions to the French XX Corps, while Bullard and his staff observed the attack from the sidelines. Only a few days later, however, III Corps received control of three AEF divisions (3rd, 28th, and 32nd) operating in the Aisne–Marne sector as part of the French Sixth Army.
Bullard’s experiences in July and August 1918 proved among the most challenging and frustrating of his time in command. For several weeks, his divisions were bogged down in the vicious fighting focused on the valley of the Vesle River, where they fought to dislodge the retreating Germans from their defensive positions along the northern bank. In addition to the tenacity of the German opposition, Bullard had to contend with an array of problems that constrained his ability to exercise effective command. Serious friction characterized Bullard’s relationship with General Jean Degoutte, commander of the French Sixth Army, with the latter professing impatience with what he saw as his American divisions’ deficient aggressiveness. Bullard also clashed with Colonel Alfred W. Bjornstad, his abrasive and at times insubordinate chief of staff. Poor staff work, compounded by logistical and communications problems, exacerbated Bullard’s frustrations. These issues culminated in the painful episode at Fismette, a small hamlet on the north bank of the Vesle that became the focal point of some of the bitterest fighting that American troops endured that summer. Convinced that retaining the small bridgehead his troops held in Fismette in the face of fierce German counterattacks was futile, Bullard ordered the bridgehead evacuated, only to have his orders countermanded by Bjornstad and Degoutte, resulting in the killing, wounding, or capture of the better part of a company of the 28th Division clinging to Fismette.
The impasse along the Vesle came to an end in early September, when the Germans abandoned their positions because French successes further to the northwest had made their positions untenable. Bullard’s troops followed the retreating defenders for a few days, but on 8 September, III Corps turned its sector over to a French headquarters and proceeded east to join the U.S. First Army. Bullard’s men did not participate in the reduction of the Saint-Mihiel salient (12–15 September), but would play a key role in the great offensive that Pershing intended to launch between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River later that month. The plan for what would become the Meuse–Argonne offensive envisioned III Corps operating on the right of the line, its eastern boundary along the Meuse itself. Bullard’s task was to advance alongside and protect the eastern flank of General George Cameron’s V Corps. The latter, positioned in the center of the U.S. First Army’s three-corps front, had the decisive task of capturing the dominant German defensive position at Montfaucon. Bullard’s orders lacked clarity. While they required III Corps to advance against and capture German defensive positions east of Montfaucon and subsequently take the latter terrain feature under enfilade fire, they provided little indication about whether Bullard’s units were expected to turn Montfaucon from the east by crossing into the V Corps zone of advance. In the absence of explicitly articulated guidance, Bullard and his staff elected to treat divisional and corps boundaries as binding, a decision that would have profound implications for the attack’s execution.
When the Meuse–Argonne offensive began on the morning of 26 September, Bullard’s attack initially went well. All three of his frontline divisions (from west to east the 4th, 80th, and 33rd) moved forward despite suffering from enfilading artillery fire directed at them from the German batteries on the east bank of the Meuse. Problems soon developed on Bullard’s left, where the 4th Division’s initial rapid advance to the corps objective soon slowed down when it became clear that the German defenders of Montfaucon were holding out against the attacks of V Corps’ 79th Division, while pouring enfilading fire into the 4th Division’s left flank. General John L. Hines, commander of the 4th Division, sought permission from Bjornstad to swing his division west, into the V Corps sector, to link with the 37th Division north of Montfaucon, thus enveloping the troublesome strongpoint and severing its defenders from sources of supply and reinforcements. Bjornstad balked at the audacity of Hines’ proposal, but in Bullard’s temporary absence from headquarters, authorized the 4th Division commander to make a limited advance into the V Corps zone beyond Montfaucon. Before the movement could begin in earnest, however, Hines received orders from III Corps headquarters countermanding this limited attack.
The cancelation of the order remains one of the most controversial episodes of the Meuse–Argonne offensive, not in the least because the person on whose authority it was issued has never been conclusively identified. Historians have variously singled out both Bullard and Bjornstad as responsible for the revocation of the order. Regardless of who bore the blame, III Corps continued to attack straight ahead toward the First Army’s objective line, instead of maneuvering to support the 79th Division. The strongpoint did not fall until the following day, slowing down the First Army’s advance and contributing to its loss of momentum, while allowing the Germans to bring up reinforcements that further slowed the tempo of the offensive as a whole.
Over the next few days, III Corps continued to push against rapidly hardening German defenses. Typical of the conditions all along the American line, Bullard’s troops found their progress hampered not only by the enemy but also by deteriorating weather and the logistical gridlock that threatened to overwhelm the sparse road network upon which the entire First Army depended for its sustainment. Even so, Bullard’s command advanced farther than either V Corps or I Corps (the latter on the extreme left of the line), reaching the second German defensive line by the time Pershing called an operational pause on 30 September. When the offensive resumed on 4 October, III Corps focused its efforts on capturing German positions between Cunel and Romagne, sustaining 8,000 casualties in two days of fighting in exchange for relatively limited gains. For nearly a week thereafter, Bullard’s attacks conformed to a similar trend. By 12 October, III Corps had pushed through the Kriemhilde Stellung, the mainstay of the German defensive network in the Meuse–Argonne sector, but at the cost of mounting casualties, with Bullard and Pershing increasingly compelled to goad unit commanders into action they perceived as inadequately aggressive.
On 10 October 1918 Pershing activated the U.S. Second Army, with Bullard in command as a lieutenant general. Once the new formation was ready for combat, its mission would be to advance up the eastern bank of the Meuse, screening the right flank of the U.S. First Army. Arriving at his new headquarters at Toul in mid-October, Bullard threw himself into the task of preparing his new, and still largely notional command for a major attack. With the Meuse–Argonne offensive in full swing, Bullard did not have much to work with. The Second Army’s order of battle never exceeded six divisions, including units that had suffered heavy losses in the Meuse–Argonne or, conversely, had little to no combat experience. Bullard’s army also lacked a sufficient number of specialized combat support and transport units, though in contrast to his previous experience as a corps commander, it did have an efficient staff, including a chief of staff, Colonel Stuart Heintzelman, whose professionalism offered a refreshing contrast to Bjornstad’s controlling tendencies.
Apart from organizational and logistical considerations, Bullard’s tenure as Second Army commander embroiled him in the controversy surrounding the treatment of the 92nd Division, an African-American formation assigned to his sector. Like many other detractors of black troops, Bullard exaggerated the substandard performance of one of the division’s four infantry regiments in the Meuse–Argonne, while overlooking the impressive combat records of its other elements. He also ignored the role that the racist mindsets of the division’s white officers played in hampering the unit’s ability to function effectively in combat. Bullard’s own racial outlook may also have contributed to the jaundiced view he expressed on the division’s combat effectiveness in particular, and African-Americans’ soldierly qualities in general.
The Second Army finally went on the offensive on the morning of 10 November, when Bullard ordered his divisions to make limited attacks against German positions in preparation for a general offensive that Pershing directed Bullard to commence the following day. The Armistice put an end to that operation before the Second Army had had a chance to make more than limited advances along its front, although Bullard insisted that his troops press on with their attacks even after he had learned, early on the morning of 11 November, that a ceasefire would take effect later in the day. The decision reinforced Bullard’s reputation, in the eyes of contemporaries and future historians alike, as a commander whose dedication to Pershing’s insistence on aggressiveness in battle bordered on a callous disregard for his soldiers’ lives.
The anticlimactic conclusion of Bullard’s Great War experience foreshadowed the remainder of his long life. Returning to the United States in March 1919, he was attached to the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Peyton March, and participated in discussions about the postwar structure of America’s defense establishment. In October 1919, he received command of the Eastern Department (designated the II Corps area in 1920) with headquarters on Governors Island in New York harbor. Rapid demobilization soon stripped Bullard’s command of troops and units to a point where his duties became largely ceremonial. Though he continued to influence debates related to national defense policy and advocated universal military training, the decline of popular interest in such matters rendered his proposals moot. Following his retirement from the Army at the mandatory age of 64 in January 1924, Bullard struggled to find a useful role. The following year he became president of the National Defense League, a civic organization dedicated to the promotion of causes close to his heart, including higher defense budgets, universal military service, and patriotic instruction in the nation’s schools. A prolific writer, he authored three books, including his own wartime memoir, intended to highlight the American contribution to the Allied victory in 1918, as well as newspaper articles on military subjects. In spite of his knack for publicity and tireless involvement in veterans’ organizations, Bullard slipped out of public consciousness within a few years of his retirement. He died on 11 September 1947 in New York City, World War II having erased from popular memory what little recognition he may have once had.
A century after the Great War, historians remain ambivalent about Bullard’s legacy. His biographer Allan R. Millett views Bullard’s significance largely in terms of his stature as the archetype of a senior U.S. Army officer whose career reflected in microcosm that institution’s transition from a “frontier constabulary” to a professional military serving an industrialized world power. A more recent historiographical strain emphasizes Bullard’s willingness to conform to Pershing’s injunctions about leadership, organization, and operational and tactical doctrine as the key to his dazzling career trajectory during the war. Whatever the verdict, there is no doubt that Bullard’s consistent, and at times ruthless, commitment to acculturating his various commands to the spirit of Regular Army discipline and aggressiveness in battle was instrumental in shaping the AEF as a whole in the mold Pershing continually sought to impress upon it.