As we approach the 100th anniversary of America’s first big battles, I’d like to offer the titles below as a starting point for a conversation on the American Expeditionary Forces that fought against Germany during World War I, not a definitive list. My summaries are based on readings that may be 10 or more years old, so if your memories of a particular work are fresher, please feel free to share them in the comments, plus any other titles you believe worthy of addition or substitution.
For many readers, even career military ones, the experience of the First World War seems far less relatable than the wars and conflicts that came after it. It is useful to consider that how people in the United States conceived of and lived their personal narratives changed distinctly after 1918 with the introduction of radio drama, movies, and ultimately television. World War I was perhaps the last war to be fought under the old consciousness of self. Maybe it is more difficult to relate to the Great War because the men who fought it really were markedly different from us today than were those from the World War II and Cold War generations. Books that help us bridge that gap even in the smallest of ways are truly valuable.
- Yanks (John Eisenhower, 2001). If you are hazy on the battles, personalities, and themes that surround America’s combat experience in the First World War, this book is a solid one for quickly gaining an understanding and appreciation of the U.S. Army’s challenges and accomplishments during that conflict. Written by Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son, John (a brigadier general himself), it is a worthy successor to the 1963 book, The Doughboys, by Laurence Stallings and Henry Scott.
- Make the Kaiser Dance (Henry Berry, 1978). This oral history was the first book I ever read about the American combat experience in the Great War. Its first-hand accounts across the spectrum of AEF experience engaged me like few history books had up to that time. In my village library, it occupied a place of pride near John William Thomason’s 1926 Fix Bayonets!, a Kiplingesque account of his time with the 5th Marines. Thomason’s extensive line drawings and affection for the Old Breed (a phrase borrowed by Eugene Sledge for his memoirs fifty years later), kindled my imagination and inspired me to learn more about the War to End All Wars.
- First Over There (Matthew Davenport, 2015). I found this history of the 1st Infantry Division’s attack on Cantigny, the AEF’s first big battle of the war, to be a riveting description of what combat was like as experienced by an American infantry regiment. From the interesting vignette about an address by Pershing to the assembled officers of the division that opens the story to the harrowing accounts of shellfire that decimated the forward battalions at the end of the battle, it is a book that makes a major contribution to our historical understanding of the AEF. For additional deep dives into specific battles, try Soissons, 1918 (Douglas Johnson, 1999) or The Question of MacArthur’s Reputation: Cote De Chatillon, October 14-16, 1918 (Robert Ferrell, 2008). There are also two recent, well-regarded books about the Battle for Mountfaucon that I have not yet read: With Their Bare Hands (Gene Fax, 2017) and Betrayal at Little Gibraltar (William Walker, 2016).
- Memoirs of My Services in the World War (George Marshall, 1976). This book is a classic and should be mandatory reading for captains and above as a reference for what staff officers can and should be expected to contribute at whatever level they serve. Written and edited as Marshall decompressed in the years immediately following the Armistice, its author believed that the observations he had set to paper were so candid and critical that they might reflect poorly on him; he left instructions that the manuscript be destroyed after his death. Fortunately, his wife demurred, and it was published in 1976. The journal follows Marshall’s departure from Governor’s Island for France in 1917 and through every major battle, closing with his participation in a victory parade in London in 1919. To understand George C. Marshall’s performance in World War II it is vital to read his contemporary observations and insights regarding the AEF in World War I.
- The AEF Way of War (Mark Grotelueschen, 2010). This interesting study follows the training, command climate, learning, and performance of four AEF divisions on the Western Front: the 1st, the 2nd, the 26th, and the 77th. Although the case studies can be somewhat repetitive as the divisions fought in many of the same battles, this bug is more than made up for by the author’s detailed examination of what led to success or failure at the division level.
- To the Limit of Endurance (Peter Owen, 2007). To some extent, this book is an antidote to the rabble-rousing ardor of Thomason’s Fix Bayonets! It is a combat history of one battalion of the 6th Marines and describes in vivid detail the horrific casualties the battalion suffered in the early battles of the war, followed by how they reorganized and trained for subsequent battles. It is not just an interesting study of learning during war, it is a memorial of sorts to the heroism and sacrifice within one infantry formation, and by extension, others like it.
- Meuse-Argonne Diary (William Wright, 2004). Was generalship during World War I really just a case of lions being led by donkeys? The journal of the 89th Infantry Division’s commanding general, William Wright, suggests otherwise, providing modern readers with a window into the problems of division-level command on the Western Front in 1918. Published long after his death, the diary is of interest for its treatment of the enduring challenges of effective command: battlefield circulation, issuing guidance and assessing and relieving subordinates.
- In the Company of Generals (Robert Ferrell, 2009). If you thought that bureaucratic politics and military gossip are a mostly modern phenomenon, this book will disabuse you of that notion. It is the edited diary of Pierpont L. Stackpole, a lawyer turned aide to General Hunter Liggett, one of the most underappreciated generals in U.S. Army history. Although short on combat action, it provides an interesting window into the organizational challenges faced by the fledgling AEF, the frequent clash of personalities (the Air Service’s Billy Mitchell is a recurring character), and how the quiet leadership of Hunter Liggett guided the AEF through its greatest challenge in the meat grinder of the Meuse-Argonne.
- Through the Wheat (Thomas Alexander Boyd, 1923). It is surprising that this novel about a young Marine’s survival amidst the brutality of Belleau Wood, Soissons, and the Meuse-Argonne, is not better known; it is perhaps the best novel of the American combat experience to come out of the war. Boyd’s book is a gripping read that gives one a front-row seat to the slow unraveling of a young man as he sees all his original comrades killed or wounded, and becomes numb to everything, even his own survival.
- Enduring the Great War (Alexander Watson, 2009). This book is an outstanding examination of group and individual soldier endurance in extended combat. The author explores how individual risk assessments, soldier coping mechanisms, small group cohesion and socialization, and command leadership at battalion and below all combined to affect unit morale and motivation within the British and German armies. It should be required reading for officers and NCOs as many of its insights apply to small unit performance today.
- The Pity of War (Niall Ferguson, 1999). Although controversial in its conclusions (i.e. that Britain bore more responsibility for the war than it is usually assigned), this door-stopper of a book is worth it to gain a better appreciation of the economic aspects that factor into strategic decisions and the conduct of war.
- Mud, Blood, and Poppycock (Gordon Corrigan, 2003). The author takes on many of the myths that sprung up soon after the close of the Great War and are now etched into most people’s opinions of the conflict. As you might expect from the title, he does this is a way that is somewhat light-hearted, a bit provocative, but also well-argued in most cases.
- No reading list is ever final. A copy of Doughboys on the Great War (Edward Guttierez, 2014) arrived in my mailbox last week. Professor Gutierrez read through thousands of questionnaires administered to returning doughboys from Connecticut, Virginia, Minnesota, and Utah, and in his book shares their answers to probing questions about their experiences in France. Having seen the author’s presentation on YouTube, I am looking forward to diving into this new perspective on America’s participation in the First World War.
John Throckmorton is a business executive who lives with his family north of Atlanta. He served as an infantry officer from 1992-2013, with duty in South Korea, Panama, and Iraq.