Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne — Reviewed by Clark Shilling

Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne
by Douglas V. Mastriano
University of Kentucky Press, 2014


Alvin C. York was perhaps the best known American soldier from World War I. A backwoods farmer, York attempted to avoid serving in the army as a conscientious objector. Finally convinced to serve by his commanding officer, on 8 October 1918, he was part of a small squad tasked with outflanking German positions in the Argonne Forest that were holding up a major American attack. The squad successfully worked behind the German positions and surprised a number of German soldiers who were eating breakfast. The American squad took the Germans prisoner, and included in the catch was the officer in command of that sector of the line. Other German troops saw what was happening and opened fire, killing and wounding over two-thirds of the American soldiers. York, then a corporal, was the senior non-commissioned officer left, and he took charge of the squad.

Sgt. York Returned to the Site of His Deed After the Armistice

An expert marksman, York then shot so many of the Germans firing at him that the captured German officer finally ordered his men to lay down their guns and surrender. York also repulsed a bayonet charge by a dozen Germans. He and the handful of American survivors led the prisoners back toward the American lines. On their way, York coerced the officer into ordering another German unit to surrender, so that when they finally reached the American lines, the small squad had in its possession 132 German prisoners.

Word of York's action spread when a reporter for the Saturday Evening Post publicized his exploit. York received the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Croix de Guerre from France. He was greeted as a hero upon his return to the United States. After many years of refusing to profit from his war service, in 1940 he was convinced to allow a motion picture about his life, which became the movie Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper. It was a hit, the top grossing movie of 1941, and earned nine Academy Award nominations. The movie brought the details of York's life to a new generation of Americans. Subsequent generations were then exposed to York's story when the movie was re-run on television over the years.

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About a decade ago, two competing teams entered the Argonne Forest hoping to locate the exact site of York's heroic exploits. One team, taking the name "The Sergeant York Project", was led by two American professors from universities in Tennessee and a British historian and tour guide. The other team, calling itself "The Sergeant York Discovery Expedition", was led by a U.S. Army officer stationed in Europe. Both teams combed through source information for details of the York action. Both employed metal detectors to excavate their chosen sites and to recover artifacts from the 1918 fighting. Both found items that they say support their choice for the site of York's fight. Unfortunately, the two sites are about a half mile apart on the southeast edge of the Argonne Forrest. Both teams are 100 percent sure they have found the right location, and both are equally adamant that the other team's choice is erroneous. At times the discussions between the two groups have become acrimonious, as one group maintains the other conducted its archeological search without authorization or without following proper standards.

Eventually, French authorities accepted the findings of the "Sergeant York Discovery Expedition" and authorized placement of historical markers at their site. Since then a Sergeant York Trail has been constructed. The U.S. Army Center for Military History has endorsed this team's work and is in the process of displaying some of the artifacts recovered from the site.


Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne was written by Col. Douglas V. Mastriano, the leader of the "Sergeant York Discovery Expedition". Col. Mastriano has given us a very coherent and readable account of the life of Alvin Cullum York from his hell-raising days of drinking and fighting in bars on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, to his life-changing conversion to Christianity in 1915, his experience in the army, his return home, his efforts to bring education to his isolated home in Tennessee, his agreement to allow a movie to be made of his life, and then, finally, his sad twilight years when the old hero was beset with health and financial problems that plagued him until his death in 1964. Much of this is told in York's own words, as Colonel Mastriano borrows heavily from York's autobiography and diary. What is new and most interesting is the comprehensive treatment given to York's part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and in particular, his exploit on 8 October 1918. Using the archeological evidence uncovered, Colonel Mastriano gives the most detailed and complete description of York's action I have ever encountered. In addition to the archeology, the author has done extensive research in German Army archives to help flesh out many new details. New information includes the fact that York had help from the remaining American soldiers in his squad, as fired American rounds were found among the gear dropped by the German prisoners. Indeed, it appears one of the other American survivors helped York repulse the bayonet attack with his Colt .45 pistol. Another new item is a picture, long mislabeled, which the author claims is a photo of York leading his line of prisoners past a group of Doughboys.

Colonel Mastriano deftly puts York's action in a larger historical perspective. The Germans York captured were part of a planned German counterattack aimed at driving American units back out of the Argonne Forest. York dislocated that plan. In addition, by clearing out a large portion of the German defenses, he paved the way for the successful capture the next day of the German supply road that had been the original objective of the American attack. With their supply route threatened, the German command gave the order to pull back from this sector of the Argonne Forrest.

Author Doug Mastriano at an Event at the Sgt. York Site

In the last part of the book, Colonel Mastriano recaps his team's efforts to find the York site, and he describes the methodologies used to validate their location as the correct site of York's battle. The Colonel includes a detailed description of the artifacts recovered by his team, which is particularly fascinating. For example, in York's account of his action, he said he fired all of the rifle ammunition carried in the front part of his ammo belt. This would have been 50 rounds. Col Mastriano found 46 fired rifle cartridges in an area five feet in diameter adjacent to the site of a German machine gun emplacement. A forensic expert identified these cartridges as having come from the type of weapon York used, and all were identified as having been fired from the same rifle. In addition, a grouping of 24 spent .45 caliber cartridges were recovered from an area near an ancient boundary trench. In York's account of the battle he said a group of about a dozen German soldiers emerged from a trench, made a bayonet charge toward him, and York dispatched about half of them with his .45 Colt pistol. Again, a forensic expert has identified that the 24 rounds were fired from two different Colt pistols. One of the surviving American soldiers was armed with a Colt pistol and claimed to have helped York repulse the Germans' attack. Gear from some of the Germans killed in the attack was also found in this area. And, finally, a German I.D. tag of a specific soldier was found, and research proved the soldier was on the rolls of one of the German units that York engaged on 8 October. This German soldier was not part of the prisoners taken by York but was killed in action later that day.

For further reading, both teams have websites: and Both have videos on YouTube (search for Sgt. York), and both have made their case in the pages of Battle Guide, Issue 10, November 2011, a publication of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. It can be accessed on line at The Sergeant York Project has also published Sergeant York of the Argonne Tour Guide, which includes their argument for their site and which can also be found in their guide to the Meuse-Argonne Battlefield.

Clark Shilling


  1. Having been at this site on a Valor Tour, this story never gets old. There is some evidence that Sgt York's outfit was also trying to locate and relieve pressure on the "Lost Battalion". Jack Kavanagh