As they entered the World War on April 6, 1917, the U.S. Army had something to prove. They succeeded with the help of great men, including Dayton-born Joseph T. Dickman, a former student at St. Mary’s Institute. He would become commanding general of the Army of Occupation under Gen. John J. Pershing.
The life story of Joseph Dickman lives on campus in a yellowed scrapbook in the archives on the second floor of Albert Emanuel Hall. Carefully turn back the pages and you’ll discover brittle newspaper clippings with headlines like “Dickman Leads Advancing Army.”
His sister kept the scrapbook; she signed the inside back cover, “Mrs. Chas. Frech, 16 1/2 Auglaize St., Wapakoneta, O.” As you unfold each story you reveal a new account of his life, from his many campaigns in Europe to his trip to Dayton in 1923 to receive from his former secondary school, now known as the University of Dayton, an honorary Doctor of Laws.
“It is a genuine pleasure … as this is the scene where the Brothers laid the foundation of my education more than half a century ago,” Dickman said in his address to the Class of 1923.
Dickman was born in Dayton Oct. 6, 1857. When his father went to fight in the Civil War, Dickman’s mother took the children to live in Minster, Ohio. There, he attended the village’s elementary school. In 1871, he returned to Dayton to attend St. Mary’s Institute. When his father was elected sheriff of Auglaize County, Ohio, the family moved to Wapakoneta, where Dickman graduated from high school before entering West Point.
In the army of the early 20th century, Dickman rode horseback to capture Mexican bandits, policed union strikes in Chicago, sailed to Cuba for occupation duty, fought insurgents in the Philippines and provided relief to China at the end of the Boxer Rebellion.
When war was declared in Europe on July 28, 1914, Dickman wrote that his cavalry unit was living a calm and peaceful existence. “Little did we dream that our cozy garrison of Fort Ethan Allen [Vermont] was soon to become one of the initial points in the hegira of a great American army to transatlantic fields of action,” he wrote in his memoir, The Great Crusade.
The United States had, as Dickman wrote, taken an “ultra-pacific” position on the war raging overseas. It was not until continued attacks by German submarines, and an intercepted correspondence showing Germany meant to ally with Mexico and threaten our southern border, that the U.S. intervened.
Dickman transferred to Camp Greene, North Carolina, where he assumed command of the 3rd Infantry Division and trained until they deployed to France in April 1919.
When the Americans arrived, they found the French influence on their activities stifling: Their units were distributed among the French, they took command instructions from the French, and they received little credit for victories they achieved. American officers began to question why the Americans could not lead independent operations, with Dickman particularly vocal about what he saw as the superior manners of his men. As Dickman wrote in his diary, “Colonel P. Brown C. of S. 2d says our secret service has written evidence that the reason English and French try to prevent us from having Corps and Army organization is that a victorious American Army would have too much influence in the peace negotiations. I asked Gen. [Hunter] Liggett whether the
time had come for us to speak out a little.”
The Americans began pushing their tactical suggestions, such as allowing the Germans to advance unmolested into the open before an attack. “[T]he principal object of the bit of bravado had only been to convince our Allies that the American rifleman was not under intimidation,” Dickman wrote in his memoir.
After a successful defense at Château-Thierry by the American Expeditionary Forces, Dickman noted a change in the French
attitude: “[I]t became apparent … that the days of tutelage, patronage and condescension had passed.”
Dickman wrote that he saw such respect intensify during battles, including the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient and at Meuse-Argonne. After the Armistice, Dickman was honored by an appointment as commanding general of the Third Army. Under Pershing, the Third Army became the Army of Occupation, with Dickman and his troops following the retreating Germans through France and back to the Rhine River.
As a forward to The Great Crusade, Pershing wrote of Dickman’s valor: “In July, 1918, the German advance against his front was halted by a regiment of his division in a most brilliant action. His Corps in the battle of Saint Mihiel and in the grilling struggle of Meuse-Argonne performed distinguished service. After the Armistice, under circumstances requiring tact and discretion, he commanded our Army of Occupation on the Rhine for several months with marked efficiency.”
“His services both in staff and line, whether in peace or war, have been marked by constant devotion to duty,” Pershing wrote.
For Dickman, the conclusion of his 45-year military career brought more travel, including an assignment to Texas. He attained the rank of major general, and he retired in 1921.
As an officer, Dickman held his men in high esteem. After the war, he wrote of their discipline and how it influenced the role America played in the World War. “Their conduct not only surprised the Europeans but exceeded the expectations of our best-informed officers,” he wrote. “From the moment of their enrollment they exhibited a degree of willingness, loyalty and devotion to duty that was beyond praise and was of inestimable value during the formative period of their careers.”
The admiration was returned. His men considered him a “soldier’s soldier” and endeared him with the nicknames “Uncle Joe” and “Daddy Dickman.” The evidence lies in the family scrapbook. Open it and unfold a tattered newspaper tucked lovingly inside. Upon his death, the newspaper of the 3rd (Marne) Division, The Watch on the Rhine, devoted its entire cover to the man the headline calls both a commander and a friend.
As it wrote, “His graciousness of spirit and nobility of character were symbolic of his life.”
To read an excerpt from Joseph T. Dickman’s memoir, please click here.