Joseph Theodore Dickman was a writer, thinker, chronicler, scholar, teacher, prophet, and soldier – the veteran of five American wars. He was born on 6 October 1857 in Dayton, Ohio to Theodore and Mary (née Weinmar) Dickman. The devout Catholic family moved to Minster, Ohio (near Wapakoneta, Ohio) when Joseph’s father left for service in the Civil War as a lieutenant in the 57th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, fighting in the western theater of the Civil War. He saw action principally at Shiloh and Vicksburg, and thus the Dickman military dynasty began, encompassing four generations of Army officers.
Joseph attended school in Wapakoneta, St. Mary’s Institute (now the University of Dayton), and the U.S. Military Academy. His education at West Point was interrupted by a suspension for involvement in a hazing incident. However, he was reinstated and graduated 27th of a class of 54 cadets in 1881. He was commissioned second lieutenant, 3rd Cavalry, and remained a cavalryman at heart throughout life. While training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he met Mary Rector and the two married on 26 September 1882.
Dickman was assigned to various posts with the 3rd Cavalry in Texas, Kansas, Arizona, and Illinois between 1883 and 1894. He participated in the capture of Geronimo and the suppression of public disorder during the Pullman Strike. After a stint at Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, Dickman was assigned to Fort Leavenworth in 1895 as head instructor at the Infantry and Cavalry School. Dickman had the opportunity to study military arts and impart this knowledge to other officers. He also found his voice through the pen, writing numerous articles for newspapers and military journals. He became a military scholar at precisely the time the U.S. Army was about to need thinkers and strategists.
When war erupted with Spain in April 1898, First Lieutenant Dickman reverted to a cavalryman and served as adjutant general under General Joseph Wheeler. This position recognized Dickman’s organizational capabilities. He later was promoted to captain and assigned as chief commissary, heading logistics and resupply for combat operations. Ever the cavalryman, however, Dickman participated in the Battle of San Juan Hill. He remained in Cuba until 1899 as part of the occupation force. Shortly after this, he was deployed to the Philippines, promoted to major in the 26th Volunteer Infantry in August 1899, then to lieutenant colonel in September, 1899. In 1900, he served in China as part of the American expedition to quell the Boxer Rebellion. He served on the staff of Major General Adna Chaffee.
In early 1901, Dickman was ordered back to the United States, mustered out of the volunteer infantry, and reverted to his Regular Army rank of captain. Nonetheless, during his brief time as a lieutenant colonel he had gained invaluable staff experience well beyond the level of his permanent rank of captain. He then returned to Fort Leavenworth as an instructor at the Infantry and Cavalry School, where he established a reputation as an accomplished writer and strategic thinker. His articles advocating a robust reserve component to augment the active component gained notoriety and he became a respected voice for the Army of the future.
Promoted to the permanent rank of major in March 1906, Dickman experienced a rapid succession of positions and promotions between 1906 and 1917, including commander of the 13th and 2nd Cavalry Regiments, inspector general of cavalry in the Philippines, and then for the entire U.S. Army. Dickman was promoted to lieutenant colonel in February 1912 and colonel in December 1914. While inspector general of cavalry, he made a grand tour of Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria, France, and Great Britain, observing their tactics. His experience with the future belligerents gave Dickman insights few American Army officers possessed.
Dickman waxed prophetic in an article for Free Press of Burlington, Vermont, exhibiting a strong grasp of European military affairs on the eve of the British declaration of war against Germany in August 1914:
In the general conflagration impending the nations concerned can place in the field no less than 15,000,000 trained soldiers of various arms. It is likely that on the open fields of eastern Prussia and the north of France there will be battles in which a million men will be engaged in mortal combat at the same time. There will be fierce fighting in the air, underground in sieges, and beneath the waters of the ocean. The cheapness of human life is likely to be illustrated on an enormous scale. Extensive use will be made of aviation, and the relative merits of the dirigible balloon and the aeroplane will be shown. The vast armaments of modern field artillery will have ample opportunity to establish its claim to preponderating influence on the field of battle.
America entered the war in April 1917. It then had the 17th largest army in the world and it was unprepared to enter a technologically advanced war. Dickman’s military experience, coupled with his knowledge of the belligerents, made him an invaluable asset. He was promoted to brigadier general in May, 1917. The enormity of the task facing the United States daunted the Army as it was woefully short of leaders at all levels. Men were promoted at a dizzying and even alarming rate. Dickman was promoted to major general in August 1917 and given command of the 3rd Division. He, like his colleagues and superiors, operated in leadership roles at least two or three ranks in advance of their experience levels. The 3rd Division embarked for France in early March, 1918 and made first landfall in the United Kingdom. He held the naïve American belief that the battlefield problem and the war itself would be solved by the young and bold American soldier. Nonetheless, there was a sense of trepidation at the prospects of the situation that awaited the Americans. They also resented what they saw as a sense of arrogance among the Allies that viewed the Americans as backward upstarts. Writing after the war in his book, The Great Crusade, Dickman complained:
A general air of pessimism and lack of confidence in the outcome of the war seemed to pervade the country [England]… Friction was also reported between the Americans and the English, the latter stating that the Americans had delayed coming across for fear of being licked, to which the Americans retorted that the British were already whipped, and that they had hurried over to help them out.
The British army was… three hundred thousand men short and unable to obtain replacements, unless the home defense army of over one million men could be drawn upon. A plan advocated at this time was to utilize the American battalions immediately and, under pretext of necessity for training and experience, to incorporate them in the British divisions in order to bring them up to war strength. Our attaché reported that the French also were “all in.”
The 3rd Division arrived in France by the end of April 1918 and went into a two-month training phase: one month of training and one month in a quiet sector of the trenches. The 3rd Division’s quiet sector was slated to be in the Vosges; however, the German Spring Offensives of 1918 diverted the division into the line about 25 miles west of Reims, near Château-Thierry. The 3rd Division was attached to the French XXXVIII Corps. As Dickman later wrote, “When the 7th Machine Gun Battalion of the 3rd Division arrived at Conde-en-Brie, at noon of May 31, the confusion of the general retreat was so great that it was difficult to locate the front and to find the higher commanders.”
With the support of the U.S. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions, the French managed to bring to a halt Operation BLÜCHER, the fourth of the five great German Spring Offensives. Dickman, however, expressed frustration with the parceling out of his division’s units to plug gaps in the line. Although he disliked being the caretaker instead of the commander, Dickman supported the Allies. He later wrote, “In conformity with the French policy of giving the American divisions instruction and experience, our regiments and battalions were scattered, laterally, over a wide area… and they performed a variety of duties, such as occupying front line positions, guarding bridges and constructing trench systems and other defensive works.”
After the Allies halted Operation BLÜCHER, the French high command assigned the 3rd Division to a consolidated sector in the line centering on Château-Thierry. In a letter to his brother-in-law, Dickman described the 3rd Division’s role in halting the German Operation MARNESCHUTZ-REIMS on 15 July, and the subsequent Allied counteroffensive starting on 18 July:
The River Marne flows in a deep valley, the bluffs on each side being more than 300 feet high… In this deep valley there are two good roads and a railroad which would be indispensable to the enemy in an advance towards the south and eventually towards Pairs. This valley was held by the right of my division and became the principal objective for the great attack of the Crown Prince, which at midnight of July 14th and 15th at 12:10, he turned loose all the artillery he had within reach – calibers of 77[mm], 150[mm], 210[mm] and Minenwerfers, which, for two hours and forty minutes, bombarded the front-line of my position and chewed up the ground and the forest. At ten minutes of three in the morning of July 15th, he commenced crossing the Marne in boats and on foot-bridges. The attack extended from near the left on my position [Château-Thierry] nearly all the way east to Dormans.
The artillery of my division immediately began its fire of counter-preparation directed against the north bank of the Marne and then against the bridges which he was trying to throw across the river. His troops were under fire as they approached the crossing, while in the boats and when they landed. I had over 200 machine-guns in selected positions, carefully camouflaged and protected, which opened a very destructive fire on the enemy as he came across.
However, on the right of my position, which was held by the 125th French Division and other divisions of the French Army, and towards Dormans, the enemy was more successful. The whole thing gave way and by early morning the German troops had gained the high ground five miles south of the river, and my division was fighting the enemy’s force five miles in the rear of its right flank. We lost a battery, which could not be carried off, as the French support disappeared early in the game. It was necessary to refuse the right flank a little to meet this attack, but the whole line held firmly and effectively stopped the invasion of the German forces, and as he was unable to gain possession of the Sumerlin Valley, he could make no headway.
Dickman was kind in his description of the French units on his right flank. The French 125th Division unceremoniously pulled back, leaving the 3rd Division’s flank completely exposed at the point of German penetration across the Marne. Swiftly, the 3rd Division “refused their right” by essentially forming a right angle, fighting along the Marne and on their right in the Surmelin River Valley. Tenacity more than expert execution enabled the 3rd Division to thwart the German advance. The attacks were disjointed and unsupported, resulting in high casualties. But the American propensity to fight tenaciously, almost to the last man, masked operational shortcomings. The 3rd Division held, and in the process earned the nickname it still bears, “Rock of the Marne.” During the battle Dickman famously said, “Nous resterons là” (“We shall remain here”). In August 1918 Dickman was given command of the U.S. IV Corps, which included the 1st, 3rd, 42nd, and 89th Divisions – all battle-tested and experienced units. After a reprieve, IV Corps deployed in early September to participate in the Saint-Mihiel offensive. The German-occupied Saint-Mihiel salient protruded into the Allied line and threatened the French ability to support Verdun. The salient also represented a threat to the American right flank and rear for the planned Meuse–Argonne offensive. AEF General John Pershing therefore insisted on eliminating the Saint-Mihiel salient before launching the Meuse–Argonne attack.
Writing his brother-in-law on 11 September, Dickman described the plans and preparations for the Saint-Mihiel offensive:
The command of a corps of over 100,000 men now under my control is a serious business. When orders are prepared the operation is prescribed for D day and H hour. These are kept secret as long as possible. It is just not D-1 and H-10hr. The artillery bombardment of 800 guns from my corps alone begins at H-4 and lasts until H hour at which time the infantry leaves the jumping off trench and starts for the enemy. In this case H hour is 5 in the morning of Sep. 12th. My corps, as you will have seen in the papers, is the 4th and consists of the 1st, 3rd, 42nd and 89th divisions. I also have several hundred tanks, 5 balloons, and it is reported that 1,700 airplanes are to take part in the show. All the preparations are made, the die is cast, I am waiting for the few remaining hours for the beginning of an affair, the effect of which will be felt around the world. If it succeeds, it must convince the German people that they cannot win this war.
Dickman also described the uncomfortable situation a senior commander finds himself in just before the start of a battle: the plan is set, the orders are issued, and the corps commander can only wait. Dickman spent the hours prior to the attack playing the card game solitaire. Once the attack started, the combined American and French forces reduced the salient in just two days. At the time, it appeared to be a stunning feat of arms, but the Germans were already in the process of withdrawing from the Saint-Mihiel salient, and the attack caught them just as they were starting their retrograde action.
The Meuse–Argonne offensive kicked off on 26 September 1918. Most of the units that had fought in the Saint-Mihiel offensive were still in the process of redeploying, and were not available for the first phase of the Meuse–Argonne operation. Thus, mostly new, untested American divisions were committed, and the initial results were not good. The French had not been able to pierce the German first-line Kriemhilde Stellung in three years, yet Pershing required almost impossible objectives and accepted nothing less than success. But the Meuse–Argonne offensive stalled quickly and the casualties were exceedingly high. Pershing’s determination to fight a maneuver battle of “open warfare” and reliance on the verve of the untested American soldier risked catastrophic failure. Pershing sacked officers who failed to meet their objectives, no matter the casualty rate or the impossibility of their missions. In a letter to his wife, Dickman expressed his concern: “So many generals are being reduced in rank or sent home that I sometimes wonder when my turn is coming… As somebody says, all this may build up a back-fire and if anything should go wrong, somebody else’s head might go into the basket.”