Fought far from home, World War I was nonetheless a stirring American adventure. The achievements of the United States during that war, often underrated by military historians, were in fact remarkable, and they turned the tide of the conflict. So says John S. D. Eisenhower, one of today's most acclaimed military historians, in his sweeping history of the Great War and the men who won it: the Yanks of the American Expeditionary Force.
Their men dying in droves on the stalemated Western Front, British and French generals complained that America was giving too little, too late. John Eisenhower shows why they were wrong. The European Allies wished to plug the much-needed U.S. troops into their armies in order to fill the gaps in the line. But General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, the indomitable commander of the AEF, determined that its troops would fight together, as a whole, in a truly American army. Only this force, he argued -- not bolstered French or British units -- could convince Germany that it was hopeless to fight on.
Pershing's often-criticized decision led to the beginning of the end of World War I -- and the beginning of the U.S. Army as it is known today. The United States started the war with 200,000 troops, including the National Guard as well as regulars. They were men principally trained to fight Indians and Mexicans. Just nineteen months later the Army had mobilized, trained, and equipped four million men and shipped two million of them to France. It was the greatest mobilization of military forces the New World had yet seen.
For the men it was a baptism of fire. Throughout Yanks Eisenhower focuses on the small but expert cadre of officers who directed our effort: not only Pershing, but also the men who would win their lasting fame in a later war -- MacArthur, Patton, and Marshall. But the author has mined diaries, memoirs, and after-action reports to resurrect as well the doughboys in the trenches, the unknown soldiers who made every advance possible and suffered most for every defeat. He brings vividly to life those men who achieved prominence as the AEF and its allies drove the Germans back into their homeland -- the irreverent diarist Maury Maverick, Charles W. Whittlesey and his famous "lost battalion," the colorful Colonel Ulysses Grant McAlexander, and Sergeant Alvin C. York, who became an instant celebrity by singlehandedly taking 132 Germans as prisoners.
From outposts in dusty, inglorious American backwaters to the final bloody drive across Europe, Yanks illuminates America's Great War as though for the first time. In the AEF, General John J. Pershing created the Army that would make ours the American age; in Yanks that Army has at last found a storyteller worthy of its deeds.
Starting from near zero, the U.S. and Gen. John Pershing created a war-winning army in less than 18 months; veteran historian Eisenhower (Agent of Destiny, etc.) tells how they did it in this fast-paced narrative. A retired brigadier general in the army reserves, Eisenhower (writing here with spouse Joanne) presents the U.S. involvement in the war from the perspective of statesmen and generals. Even for combat color, he focuses primarily on senior officers: Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, with his insouciant courage under fire; George C. Marshall; and lesser-known figures like Charles Summerall, who threw a whole army's rear echelons into compound confusion in order to give the 1st Infantry Division a chance to capture Sedan in the war's final days. That kind of drive and energy was necessary given America's almost complete military unpreparedness. It took almost a year for the U.S. Army to put a single division of the American Expeditionary Force into battle. Without denying the administrative problems and the casualties caused by inexperience and improvisation, Eisenhower stresses the Americans' high learning curves at all levels. He argues as well that Pershing was an effective commander even in the Argonne campaign, the one most often cited as bringing the AEF nearly to gridlock, making a remarkably clear presentation of that confusing combat. Eisenhower sympathizes with Pershing's belief that the armistice was a mistake, that even a few days more might have convinced the Germans they had, in fact, been defeated in the field. It remains an arguable position, but the AEF emerges from these pages as the decisive instrument of an incomplete victory. (June 4)Forecast: The Eisenhower name, both presidential and military historical (John S.D. is the son of Dwight David), will draw readers to this title, which is suitable for generalists and buffs alike. The latter, however, will be more likely to take this blow-by-blow account all the way to the register.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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June 03, 2002
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Excerpt from Yanks by John Eisenhower
"The history of the Victorian Age," writes Lytton Strachey in his Preface to Eminent Victorians, "will never be written: we know too much about it." That paradoxical and somewhat arresting statement serves as Strachey's excuse for selecting four lives to depict an entire age of British history, but it applies to any subject on which mountains of material have been written.
The First World War, often referred to as the Great War, certainly falls into that category. Too much is known about that vast conflict to permit one book to cover the entire war in anything but a textbook fashion. The "explorer of the past," to continue with Strachey, "will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it...a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen."
With that idea in mind, I have not attempted to write a comprehensive story of the Great War. Instead I have focused on the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), commanded by General John J. Pershing. In describing the inception of the AEF in early 1917 and its subsequent development and employment until the war's end in late 1918, I have not attempted to give a rounded picture of the whole war, which includes the actions of many nations on many fronts. Nevertheless, the story of the AEF and how it fit into the general scheme of the war is worth a study in itself.
The saga of the AEF is not, on the whole, a cheery one. The overseas experiences of the American troops -- "doughboys" -- bore little relationship to the rousing patriotic songs such as George M. Cohan's "Over There," or to the parades and banners. It entailed arduous duties, performed in the wet, the cold, sometimes the heat, with death always lurking, mostly in the front line infantry battalions but elsewhere as well. There was heroism, but there was also cowardice. At first there was ignorance of the job to be done -- "innocence" might be a better word. Yet the end result was inspiring. A great many people pulled together to attain a great accomplishment.
In a way, the story of the AEF in the Great War is part of my background, perhaps something I needed to put on paper in order to work it out of my system. I was born in an Army family slightly less than four years after the last gun was fired in the Meuse-Argonne; my first vivid memories are those of trudging over the battlefields with my father, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, and my mother. During 1928 and 1929 my father was a member of General Pershing's American Battle Monuments Commission, with offices in Paris. One of his tasks was to draft the official Guide to the American Battlefields in France. The end result was a remarkable book; it remains today the best available guide for the student of the war to follow. The final edition was not published until 1938, and I have no idea what proportion of my father's original words survived. I also have no idea of how the study of the terrain in northern France helped him in later campaigns across the same territory fifteen years later. But I know that accompanying him on his many tours around the territory made a lasting impression on me. At age six, I was even privileged to shake the hand of the Great Man himself, John J. Pershing!
It is not surprising that, as a youngster, I viewed the Great War in a romantic fashion. Heroic charges, reduction of fearsome enemy machine gun nests, the roar of artillery, the exploits of the air aces -- those were my boyhood fantasies, based on true stories but far from the grim truth.
Others have viewed the AEF and its role in the Great War much differently. Some have thought it unnecessary; others have succumbed to excessive disillusionment over the disparity between the patriotic mouthings of our propagandists and the grisly facts of the Argonne or of Ch?teau Thierry. The latter views, when carried to the extreme, are no more right nor wrong than my childhood concepts. They are just viewed from different angles, both extreme.
The purpose of this book, therefore, is to strike a balance, to examine how the AEF came about, to describe the gargantuan efforts needed to create it, supply it, train it, and fight it, and in so doing to show how the modern American Army was born. Since many of my sources are personal memoirs written by survivors, I have not dwelt at length on the immense tragedies felt by so many families. Nevertheless, it is my hope that this single, modest volume will provide some perspective on one of the truly pivotal events in American history.