News from 1917: General Pershing Crosses on Baltic

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Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
[MAB Note: On 28 May 1917, U.S. Army General John J. Pershing left New
York on Baltic II to assume command of the Allied armies fighting in
Europe.The following passage from his war memoirs describes that voyage.
In the original, the paragraph which begins "(Diary)" and the two that
follow it are in different type and block indented.]

From "My Experiences in the World War" by John J. Pershing

My party assembled at Governors Island on the date of sailing and we
left from there to go aboard the British steamship Baltic. Upon my
arrival at his headquarters, Major General J. Franklin Bell, then in
command of the Eastern Department, most warmly extended his greetings
and congratulations and presented the officers of his staff. After a
brief conversation, he drove with me to the pier and reminded me of his
letter in which he had asked for an active command. Knowing his
physical condition, I was forced to remain noncommittal to this very
dear friend. Though several years senior to me in rank and service, he
would have served loyally, and I should have been fortunate to have had
him, as his experience would have made him invaluable.

Despite persistent and powerful opposition in and out of the Army,
General Bell, while Chief of Staff, had succeeded in developing through
our service schools an effective system of training a limited number of
officers for command and staff duty, and for this contribution to our
success he deserves high praise. It was a source of keenest regret to me
later that his failing health made it impossible to permit him to
undertake arduous service in the field. His last days were filled with
sadness and disappointment at not being allowed again to lead American
soldiers in battle. It can be said of Franklin Bell that our army has
never produced a finer type of officer and gentleman.

All of my party had been directed to proceed with the utmost secrecy,
even to the extent of wearing civilian clothes until we reached the
ship. Although we stole silently aboard the tender that carried us out
through the fog and down the bay, the large number of quartermaster and
other officers stationed near New York dashing about in uniform rather
ostentatiously that day really gave notice that something out of the
ordinary was happening. As if this were not sufficient notice the large
number of boxes and crates piled up on the dock, addressed to various
chiefs of supply departments, A.E.F., in my care, and the artillery
salute fired from the batteries on Governors Island made the
announcement of our departure complete. It can be said to the credit of
the representatives of the press, however, that they were most discreet,
as the newspapers in general published nothing about us until after we
had landed in Europe.

It was the purpose of the British Admiralty, from which all their ships
received sailing orders, to transfer my party to another vessel at
Halifax, but after lying off that port in thick weather for about
forty-eight hours the Baltic was directed to steer her course to a
designated rendezvous.

Among the passengers were several British and Canadian officers with
distinguished service at the front to their credit. They kindly
consented to answer questions on the subjects of organization, training,
and fighting. The conferences thus held and a study of confidential
reports from the British and French helped to put us more closely in
touch with many details which could not have been learned otherwise
except through experience. The study of the French language was also
taken up by many of the officers and refresher classes were in session
at all hours under direction of those who had sufficient knowledge to
become teachers.

One evening was given over to the customary entertainment for the
benefit of British seamen's families, in which several of us took part
as speakers, including one of the British officers; Mr. Frederick
Palmer, the war correspondent; Mr. Charles H. Grasty, of the New York
Times; and myself. The national anthems of the Allies and our own Star
Spangled Banner were sung with enthusiasm, and on the whole the evening
was given a pronounced inter-allied flavor.

During the voyage most of my time was spent in discussion with the heads
of staff departments regarding their respective duties and plans. Major
Harbord and I considered an organization for the General Staff, and the
skeleton outline of principles then approved became the basis of the
larger organization later adopted after a study of French and British
general staff systems. Arrangements were made and officers designated to
initiate immediately upon arrival in England and later to carry on in
France the necessary investigations concerning ports, railways, and
possible lines of communications. It was on board the Baltic that I
tentatively decided that as a beginning we should plan for an army of at
least 1,000,000 men to reach France as early as possible. Preliminary
consideration was also given to such important subjects as the
composition and organization of our forces; where they could best
operate for decisive action; their relation to the Allied armies; and
the availability of shipping for the transportation and supply of our

The commander of the Baltic, Captain Finch, was a typical British
sea-dog, who inspired every one with confidence in his efficiency. He
very properly insisted that all should attend boat drills and each one
become familiar with his assignment in case it should be necessary to
abandon ship. In passing through the danger zone we all wore civilian
clothing as it was certain that in the event of a successful attack by a
German submarine its crew would fire upon any small boat carrying ,men
in uniform.

On June 5th the Baltic began to zigzag on her course and we then
realized that we were actually in the danger zone. The next morning the
sight of an escort of two American destroyers, the Tucker and the Rowan,
steaming well out on our flanks gave all on board somewhat of a thrill
and fully restored confidence. Although there were many rumors and
occasional alarms, no submarines were observed. The weather was perfect
throughout the voyage except for the fog about Halifax, and if we had
been going over for pleasure it would have been a delightful trip. But
we were all very busy and kept at work without interference except by
our medical officers, who, not to be remiss in their immediate
obligations, vaccinated us every day or so against all the diseases that
might be prevented by such measures.

(Diary) London, Sunday, June 10, 1917. Arrived at Liverpool on Friday
morning and London that afternoon. Attended dinner given by the
officials of the British War Office.

On Saturday paid a visit to Buckingham Palace, accompanied by my staff,
and went from there to our Embassy. Called on the Duke of Connaught.

Attended divine services to-day at Westminster Abbey with several
members of my staff. I accompanied Ambassador and Mrs. Walter Hines Page
to the country for luncheon with Major and Lady Astor, and returned
after dining with General Sir Arthur and Lady Paget.

We reached our anchorage in the Mersey River on the evening of June 7th
and steamed into Liverpool the next morning under a clear sky. I had
been in Europe twice before, my first visit being in September, 1899, en
route to the Philippine Islands, as a bachelor, and the next in the
autumn of 1908, on leave of absence, en route home from a second tour in
the Islands, accompanied by my wife and two small children. The sojourn
in France with my family had been filled with delightful visits to
friends and with motor trips to historic places. The recollection of
those happy days often came back to me very vividly in striking contrast
with the troublous days of the war.

The Baltic reached the dock at 9:30 A.M., and a cordial reception
awaited us. Rear Admiral Stileman, of the British Navy, and Sir
Pitcairne Campbell, K.C.B., commanding the Western District of Home
Defense, with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, came on board at once.
After formal introductions, I went ashore with our hosts, accompanied by
the principal members of my staff, to return the salute and walk through
the ranks of the guard of honor. As we stepped off the gangplank onto
British soil, the band struck up the Star Spangled Banner to welcome us,
this being the first time in history that an American Army contingent
was ever officially received in England.

The very smart-looking guard of honor was from the 3d Battalion, Royal
Welch Fusiliers, and most of the men in ranks had seen service in
France, many of them proudly wearing wound chevrons. Not the least
picturesque member of the detachment was the thoroughly groomed,
ribbon-bedecked goat, the regimental mascot, which strode up and down
with an air of considerable importance.

The selection of the Royal Welch Fusiliers as guard of honor had a
sentimental significance in that the regiment not only fought against us
at Bunker Hill but it fought beside us during the Boxer Rebellion in
China. An interesting feature of the uniform of the Royal Welch was a
black patch on the neck and upper part of the back of the tunic. During
our Revolutionary War they wore the periwig with its queue, and while
serving in Nova Scotia after having fought in the British Army from
Bunker Hill to Yorktown they learned that it had been discontinued. As
the last regiment to wear the queue, they took the ribbons with which it
had been tied and sewed them on their tunics. This "flash" was later
recognized officially as a distinctive mark of their uniform. The
preservation of this badge of former service struck all of us as a
characteristic example of the conservatism of the British that served so
well during the World War to hold the people to their traditional

Following the reception on the wharf, we returned on board and stood
along the rail at the salute while the band played God Save the King.
The formalities being over, about fifty British and American newspaper
men assembled in the lounging room for an interview. My natural aversion
to that sort of thing was strongly reënforced by the conviction that
this was not the time to do much talking. After evading several
questions, I finally yielded to their insistence and said:

"Speaking for myself personally, the officers of my staff, and the
members of my command, we are very glad indeed to be the standard
bearers of our country in this great war for civilization. To land on
British soil and to receive the welcome accorded us seems very
significant and is deeply appreciated. We expect in course of time
to be playing our part, and we hope it will be a very large part, on the
Western Front."

The royal coach was attached to a special train for our use and after
leave-taking we pulled out for London. En route Captain Charles de
Marenches, of the French Army, who had been sent by General Pétain,
reported for duty as a member of my personal staff, in which position he
rendered invaluable service throughout the war.

Timothy Trower


Thanks for posting this information. I'd not heard of this connection with the Baltic before. One more example of how valuable the web can be for researchers! and especially here on the ET boards.

Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
The New York Times, 26 May 1925

Former Captain of the Baltic to Attend Officers' Dinner In Washington
Among the passengers yesterday from Liverpool and Queenstown on the
White Star liner Cedric was Captain William Finch, who was in command
of the Baltic when that vessel left New York on May 28, 1917, with
General John J. Pershing and his staff on board, the vanguard of
America's expeditionary forces.

Captain Finch comes at the personal invitation of General Pershing to be
his guest at a dinner in the Metropolitan Club in Washington on May 28
when the late Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army will dine
with the officers who accompanied him on the memorable trip in the
Baltic. Captain Finch was met at the pier by Major S. T. Hubbard, one
of the United States army officers who sailed with General Pershing. He
will escort the retired ship captain to Washington tomorrow.

The Cedric has been out of the New York-Liverpool run for two months
during which the time her second and third class quarters were
reconditioned. The liner brought to New York 366 passengers, and left
215 at Boston.


Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
The New York Times, 7 June 1925

War Commander of the Baltic Goes Home After Visit to Pershing
Captain William Finch, who retired three years ago from the White Star
liner Baltic, sailed for Liverpool yesterday on his old ship after
spending an enjoyable week in Washington as the guest of General John J.
Pershing. He was escorted to the dining hall by the former Commander of
the A. E. F., when the first dinner was given in Washington by the
General to the staff officers who went to France with him on the Baltic
in April, 1917.

Captain Finch said he also went to Annapolis, where the Admiral in
charge had once been a passenger on the old Gaelic when Captain Finch
was in command of that vessel in the San Francisco and China trade. The
Admiral gave him the freedom of the port and the swimming pool. When
asked if he had found the heat in Washington rather trying, Captain
Finch replied that he had not noticed. In his early seafaring days, he
said, he traded up and down the Persian Gulf, where it never rained and
the temperature never went below 100 degrees in the shade in the depth
of Winter.


Mike Poirier

Dec 12, 1999
Hi Mark

That was a great story and good insight into Captain Finch, formerly of the Arabic.

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