Historian David R. Woodward observes that for many Americans, World War I remains a forgotten war, but on this the 100th anniversary of what was once called the Great War, Americans have an opportunity to reexamine America's role in that great turning point of the 20th century. In many ways, the author has spent a lifetime preparing to write this the most comprehensive one-volume study on American army's role in World War I. Author of highly acclaimed studies of World War I, Woodward's mastery of the subject is based on thorough research in the archives, and a wide reading of the secondary sources. In twenty chapters, that range from "Birth of a modern army," "You're in the army now," "Over where?" to "American soldiers in north Russia and Siberia," the author offers a fresh insights and a captivating read. He joins an illustrious company of American military historians who have become synonymous with the history of World War I, including Edward Coffman, Allan Millett, Donald Smythe, Russell Weigley, and those earlier pioneers, Frederick Palmer and David Trask.
Woodward describes the enormous difficulties that confronted America's political and military leaders as they sought to create a modern army, which at the time was largely a frontier army, no army corps, army divisions or army brigades, and ranked 17th in the world. What the nation achieved, from its intervention in 1917 until the end of the war in November 1918, was phenomenal. By war's end, the United States had mobilized some 4 million men, of whom some 2 million were in Europe. Both on and off the battlefield, the consequences of an American army were immense. The presence of American soldiers (called doughboys in World War I) rejuvenated the Allies: the British writer Vera Brittain wrote, "Look! Look! Here are the Americans." The 2 million-man American Expeditionary Force (the AEF) made a crucial difference on the Allied side. The author reminds the reader, however, that the French and British helped train and transport the American soldiers, and supplied much of their artillery, tanks, airplanes, and other needs. To make sure that the voice of the doughboy is not overlooked, Woodward make good use of the first-hand war diaries, letters, and memoirs that are located in the World War I Survey Collection at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Pennsylvania. If due credit is given to President Woodrow Wilson for his decision to adopt a selective national draft (conscription) instead of the traditional volunteer system, the author (who is not alone in his criticism) is highly critical of Wilson's decision to give General John J. Pershing almost absolute control over the Army in France.
In the author's opinion, this led to a dysfunctional chain of command between the War Department in Washington, and General Headquarters in France, which hampered the war effort. Both Wilson and his Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, encouraged Pershing to develop what was virtually a separate war department in France, which greatly complicated orderly planning. The seriousness of their failure, states Woodward, would have been obvious if the war had lasted another year. In 1919 the supply system would have collapsed.
Woodward reminds us that Pershing was a confident advocate of American exceptionalism who preached a doctrine of a uniquely American independent American force with its own front, supply lines, strategic objectives, and its own combat doctrine. Intense debate surrounds all of these points, but perhaps most controversial has been Pershing's stubborn adherence to prewar Army doctrine, which emphasized the superiority of the aggressive American infantryman armed with rifle and bayonet. However, on the Western Front, against the power of the German army and its sophisticated defenses, heavy artillery, machine guns, mortars, grenades, tanks, and aircraft, were the primary weapons. One result of adhering to outdated doctrine was that it often led to inadequate training, and heavy losses on the battlefield.
On September 26, 1918, only two weeks after the Battle of St. Mihiel, the AEF launched the Meuse-Argonne offensive. When it ended, 47 days later, the American army had fought its greatest battle in history. The author is scathing in his criticism, writing that it was an "extraordinary timetable, especially for a neophyte force with inadequate logistics." Over 25,000 Americans were killed in the Meuse-Argonne campaign, twice as many soldiers killed than at Okinawa in World War II. From the World War I Survey at Carlisle, Woodward cites from the diary of a soldier assigned to one of the grisly burial details: "In the Argonne they [bodies] were not hard to find. We carried the bodies to the grave, laid them side by side, removed the flag, covered them with GI blankets. After the grave was full the chaplain invoked a prayer and made a short sermon." When the war ended on November 11, 1918, over 1 million doughboys in 29 divisions had seen active operations. In 200 days of combat, the AEF suffered 320,000 casualties, of which 50,280 were killed in action.
On the centennial of World War I, Professor David Woodward's book is a "must read" for any American who curious about the Great War and how the American army fought that war. As we discuss and debate past, recent, and future military action in the Middle East and elsewhere that might be undertaken, it is of the utmost importance that we study the war in which our Army played a pivotal role on the global scene.