America in World War I–Two Great Reads

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I was recently attacked, beaten near senseless, and left bruised, bleeding, and humiliated.  I can identify the perpetrators.  One is Edward Lengel and the other is Geoffrey Wawro.  Both are historians.  Both have books on World War I that were published in the past year.  And I read both books and the results are described in my opening sentence.

When I think back on my stronger areas of history, I like to list such areas as American history, 20th Century history, and the World Wars.  There are a few other areas where I feel competent and many where I am better served by keeping my mouth shut.  But World War I?

Since the first of October I have been teaching on World War I in my Humanities classes.  I have taught from Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, which sunk my students, and I tried to bail them out, but was not overly successful.  We also read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.  We finished with World War One British Poets, a fine and short anthology of some of the vivid and powerful poems from the time.

I walked the students through the rival alliances, the strengths of the major powers, and the tensions that were threatening Europe.  I showed them the Schlieffen Plan as thought out and then poorly executed by the Germans.  I walked them through the succession of events from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the invasion of Belgium.  I went over a short list of why the United States entered the War.  I coached them through my “What Every Man or Woman Needs to Know About World War I” review sheets.

I felt pretty good about old Ben House as a history teacher.  Then along came Edward Lengel.  Many of his earlier books are on George Washington, but he has also written several on World War I.  His most recent book, even more recently reviewed in this blog, is Never in Finer Company.

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Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Lost Battalion and the Transformation of America by Edward G. Lengel is published by De Capo Press.

This book deals with an event within the greater actions of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.  A battalion pushing against the German lines advanced beyond their flank supports and got cut off from the rest of the army.  The logical thing to do would have been to have retreated back to the security of the rest of the army.  But the orders and commands had been to advance and not retreat.

Another alternative would have been to surrendered.   The men under siege endured more than enough hardships.  Not only were they surrounded and under constant attack, but they were low on food and water and the wounded were not being attended.  They had fought the good fight and were in a hopeless situation.

Yet, they fought on.  How they held out is beyond me.  On one occasion, they even got shelled by American artillery.  The story is one of exceptional gallantry and worthy leaders on the battalion level.  Even the carrier pigeons in the unit served with distinction.

One side story on this story was the actions of Tennessee rifleman Alvin York.  York was not part of the Lost Battalion, but was part of the advancing columns that helped liberate the battalion and continued the advance against the Germans.

Great book.  Left me dazed with awe for the men of the unit, saddened at the effects of this on even the survivors, and the sacrifices men at war make.

Feeling the need to read even more on World War I and America’s role, I picked up the book Sons of Freedom by Geoffrey Wawro.

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Sons of Freedom by Geoffrey Wawro is published by Basic Books.  Dr. Wawro is a professor of history at the University of North Texas and the author of six books (four of which I now own).

As the subtitle explains, this book is about “The Forgotten American Soldiers Who Defeated Germany in World War I.”  I noticed a review that called this book “the definitive history” regarding America’s role in the war.  I agree.

This book is a lengthy and powerful account of how America’s entry on the actual battlefields enabled the Allies to win the war.  By 1918, both sides in the war were exhausted, bled white, and worn down by the grueling multiple fronts.  Russia was finished by then.  Revolution ended what the war itself had started on the Eastern Front.  Italy was basically caput as well. How Austria-Hungary was hanging on is still beyond me.  But there was Germany, now reinforcing the Western Front (the border areas in northern France and Belgium where the war had been raging since August of 1914).  Freed from the Eastern Front, Germany was racing more and more divisions to the west.

Under the command of the talented, but sometimes unbalanced, Erich von Ludendorff, the German army began a series of offenses against the British and French lines.  Any one of the offensive actions could easily have translated into the needed breakthrough that would have divided the Allied forces, pushed the British back into a Dunkirk situation (years before Dunkirk), or captured Paris.

The spent forces of the British and French armies sustained the front lines, but barely.  The German forces erred most greatly in shifting from one offense to the next instead of maintaining pressure in just one area.  But also, and most important, the American forces began hitting the fields of battle.

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.  But it took a year before the United States was able to start massing still under-trained and unequipped soldiers on French soil.  Still, they were fresh troops, and so they began the process of filling in the gaps on the battlefields.  The American commander was General John J. Pershing.  Pershing’s greatest legacy in the war was his continual insistence on American troops being able to operate independently as American armies and not as replacements and gap fillers for the Allies.

In some cases, Americans got some useful baptism of fire by being used alongside of the British and French troops.  But the goal was always an independent field of action by the U. S. Army.  Pershing fought hard against his fellow Allied commanders to achieve this.  On the negative side, he was greatly underequipped as a commander to lead an army in this type of war.  He was somehow stuck in a time warp, not always realizing how the war had been fought for the past several years.

Americans focused on the offensive.  (So had every other major army for the previous years.)  In 1918, America had one resource that no other country had–a huge supply of troops.  The American muscle was just beginning to be flexed as the troops began pouring into France.  Sad to say, much of the story and much of the book is about the tremendous bloodbath Americans were thrown into in taking this war to the Germans.

Germany was a spent force, but far from a finished force by 1918.  They still had plenty of crack troops, plenty of machine gun and artillery emplacements, and an abundance of fighting experience.  Americans were the deciding factor in Germany’s defeat, but this was no cake-walk.

Even though Sons of Freedom is a lengthy and heavily detailed book, I found it engrossing.  Granted, there were flank attacks, repulses, commander changes (many, in fact), and other details that slipped right my mind.  Yet, the larger picture of this book was of the Americans pushing and hitting the German lines and, even with mounting casualties and increasing numbers of deserters, and winning the war.

For anyone else interested in World War I, these are two great reads.  Having read Lengel’s book first, I better understood some of what was happening in Wawro’s book.  But either book could be read first.  You might end these readings being a pacifist (which is what I would be if everyone else would sign on as well), or you might end with a greater appreciation for our soldiers from the past.

Both books call attention to men who were forgotten.  World War II so overshadows the Great War that we tend to see it as amateurish and poorly done by contrast.  Arguments can be made that the two wars were simple one long conflict with a twenty year gap in the fighting.  However the First War is viewed, Americans need to remember that–whether it was the best thing to do or not–our country won that war.

I love both books and highly revere the authors, even after they so brutally beat me up.

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