In his superb account of the final, violent throes of World War I, military historian Gene Fax tells of an American lieutenant who watched as ambulances pulled to the side of the road to let the artillery, “which had priority,” pass.
“From time to time,” the lieutenant wrote, “our men would glance curiously into the ambulances, at the shattered and bleeding forms, many of them blackened, disfigured, and torn beyond recognition, as if trying to decide what they themselves would look like shortly.”
Next year will mark the centennial of the armistice that ended what was initially called the Great War in which industrial-strength weaponry — machine guns, poison gas, flamethrowers, long-range artillery and early model tanks, plus aerial bombing and target spotting — killed millions. America ventured into the slaughterhouse of Europe’s Western Front reluctantly, even grudgingly, in the fourth year of war.
Fax, a member of the Society for Military History, has written a compelling account of the hastily assembled, lightly trained American Expeditionary Forces: “With Their Bare Hands: General Pershing, the 79th Division, and the Battle for Montfaucon.”
Fax does not focus on how the war began. That subject area has been largely worked over: the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian archduke in June 1914, the interlocking alliances and hatreds of the European powers, the horrors of trench warfare.
For years, President Wilson was stubbornly determined that America would remain neutral. Only when German submarines began sinking U.S. ships did he relent. The United States declared war on Germany in spring 1917.
Cmdr. Gen. John Pershing announced that his troops, the American Expeditionary Forces, would fight as “an American army” and not as replacements for the depleted French and British forces. To the dismay of the Allies, he insisted that his troops needed more training. Not until the late summer of 1918 did the Americans join the battlefield en masse. The Germans were close to Paris and the French were near panic.
Fax closely examines the role of the AEF in the final 47-day battle in the Argonne Forest that preceded the Nov. 11 armistice. He makes copious yet judicious use of letters home by frontline soldiers, official “after-action” reports, studies by historians and the published memoirs of high-ranking officers on both sides.
At close to 500 pages, “With Their Bare Hands” is not a swift read. There are a lot of names, unit numbers and moving parts. Yet the effort is more than rewarded for anyone interested in how the United States, fitfully and on its own terms, was forced to assert itself as a world power.
Fax points out the American army’s many battlefield shortcomings: communication snafus, inability to get food and water to the troops, lack of coordination between infantry and artillery and transportation gridlock.
“With Their Bare Hands” supports a military truism that going into battle without allies can be difficult, but going into battle with allies can be even more difficult.
The U.S. military “learned to fight by fighting.”
Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing thought the British and French — particularly the French — had lost the will to fight and settled into a rank stalemate. For their part, British and French commanders thought the American soldiers were too undisciplined and soft.
Both sides were wrong, Fax writes. The Americans were green but gutsy. The allies, bloodied at the Somme and Verdun, hated trench warfare and desperately tried for a breakthrough.
Fax quotes historian Michael Howard that armies often find themselves with poor strategies “not necessarily through the stupidity of their leaders but because all other options seem to be foreclosed or appear demonstrably worse.”
The centerpiece of “With Their Bare Hands” is the struggle for Montfaucon in northeastern France, a ridge that gave the Germans an unobstructed view of the battlefield. The Americans’ failure to take it as quickly as planned has been widely criticized, particularly by the French.
(Two fine books in the last year have dealt with the same battle: William Walker’s “Betrayal at Little Gibraltar” and Mitchell Yockelson’s “Forty-Seven Days.”)
Fax does not support Pershing’s “triumphalism” that the AEF won the war. On the other hand, he says that by forcing the Germans to call for reinforcements, the Americans took pressure off the British and French in their section of the front.
Yet the Americans made a tactical error in maintaining a rigid sense of turf. Each unit had its own territory and was not to cross over into another’s sector even if the troops in the latter were pleading for help.
One U.S. artillery captain said to hell with the rules and ordered a strike into an off-limits zone, destroying several enemy artillery batteries. For his defiance, he was threatened with court martial, although the threat was never carried out.
Three decades later the upstart captain — one Harry Truman — was a candidate for president against long odds. Veterans of the division he had rescued “remembered the favor” and came to his aid.
Fax admires Pershing’s tenacity. Still, he criticizes Black Jack for refusing to grasp the need to coordinate artillery and infantry and to accept that the ultimate weapon of war was no longer the hard-charging infantry soldier with a rifle and bayonet.
The U.S. military “learned to fight by fighting.” Of 2 million Americans who went to France, “205,000 returned having been wounded; almost 72,000 (killed by combat or illness) returned not at all.”
The American public had learned a lesson that it still finds hard to accept: The cost of being a world power is high.
“The chief American contribution to victory was not its battlefield performance although that was far from negligible,” Fax concludes. “It was to make clear to the exhausted Germans that they could no longer hope to win a war of attrition.
“No matter how many Americans became casualties, there would always be millions more.”
Tony Perry covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. After leaving The Times in 2015, he is writing a book about the Marines in World War I.
By Gene Fax
Osprey Publishing: 496 pp., $30