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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Them Soldier Boys: A Texas Infantry Regiment in World War I — Reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte


Them Soldier Boys: A Texas Infantry Regiment in World War I
by Gregory W. Ball
University of North Texas Press, 2013

In his new book, They Called Them Soldier Boys: A Texas Infantry Regiment in World War I, Gregory W. Ball, a U.S. Air Force Reserve officer working as a historian with the Air Force, combines social and military history to give an interesting perspective on the soldiers of the 7th Texas Infantry Regiment of the Texas National Guard. Ball is interested in determining if there was such a thing as "the Texas military experience" in World War I. By using such sources as census records, draft registration records, and local newspapers, Ball presents a picture of the demographics of the regiment that later became the 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division. Although the regiment started out as a combination of Texas and Oklahoma National Guardsmen, it ended the war with men from other parts of the country. Ball, however, concentrates on the original cadre that formed the 7th Texas Infantry. It is important to note that, although the book may be considered a regimental history, it really focuses on the achievements and activities of the Texas men.

In the first two chapters, Ball puts the regiment, recruited largely from north, west, and northwest Texas, in the context of its physical and cultural milieu. By looking at the men's civilian professions, income, dependency status, and age, among other things, Ball gives us a good picture of the typical soldier of this regiment. Officers made concerted efforts to recruit in their assigned locales, and this served to strengthen the local flavor of the regiment, typical of National Guard regiments throughout the country. Ball reports on the reaction of various communities to the recruitment and departure of their local boys. The details of these first two chapters will be of interest primarily to students of Texas history and to those interested in the social aspects of military history.

German Defenders Atop Blanc Mont

The next five chapters cover the regiment's stateside training and service in France. Arriving overseas at the end of July 1918, the regiment, along with the rest of the 36th Division, underwent still more training before heading to the front lines. At the end of September the 36th Division was assigned to the French Group of Armies of the Center (GAC) in the Champagne Sector. They, along with the veteran 2nd Division, were part of the effort to help the French take Blanc Mont Ridge. The French GAC was to advance and keep pace with the U.S. First Army's ongoing Meuse-Argonne Offensive to the east and with the British and Belgians to the northwest.


Order Now
On 8 October the regiment entered combat at St. Etienne, north of Blanc Mont from where the Germans mounted their series of counterattacks. Ball goes into significant detail in describing the regiment's three-day participation in this action. To begin with, the regiment received only belated notice of the particulars of the attack. Indeed, one battalion had only four minutes' notice of the attack time. The battalion commander did not even have maps to issue to his officers; rather, he pointed in the general direction of advance and advised them to keep St. Etienne on their left (p.106). The regiment suffered 32 percent casualties for only a mixed result.

Following this, the regiment moved north to the Aisne River in pursuit of the retreating Germans. On 27 October the 142nd and 141st Infantry Regiments successfully attacked and took Forest Farm. The assault battalion had ample time to observe and study the terrain and, with this adequate preparation, the attack went off "almost without a hitch" (p.134). This was the last major action of the war for the regiment.

Following his description of the regiment's time in France, Ball devotes the closing chapter to the 142nd's homecoming, including many descriptions of local picnics, parades, and parties held in the Doughboys' honor.

St. Etienne, Fortified by the German Defenders

The 142nd fought in two major battles during the action at Blanc Mont Ridge. In the first, Saint Etienne, they followed "the general doctrine of the AEF, and soldiers who advanced without support quickly bogged down" (p.186). The regiment achieved success in their next battle, Forest Farm, largely because, according to Ball, "they learned their lessons and adapted to conditions, using both rolling barrages and machine-gun barrages, tactics that had yet to receive full endorsement from AEF Headquarters" (p.186). In addition, regimental officers were able to use the time between the battles to more effectively train the men in the "new" tactics. Overall, the entire regiment was better prepared for the second attack.

In the end, Ball concludes, quite rightly, "Based on their experiences, it appears that those soldiers did not experience the war from a unique perspective because they were from Texas" (p. 187). What the author found, however, is the perception of a "Texas military experience" impacted the home front; the folks back home liked to think of their local boys as representing their communities and the state in the great world struggle for democracy.

Rear Area During Operation at Forest Farm

The book is an interesting contribution to the history of the AEF. Ball's use of sources designed to paint a picture of the civilian background of the soldiers, as well as their cultural and social groundings, reminds us that, after all, the war was fought by real, flesh-and-blood men who came from typical communities across the country.

Peter L. Belmonte

2 comments:

  1. I look forward to reading this book. Your review which contained the sources that the author used has piqued by curiosity as well as given me new things to consider when delving into the personal experiences of the combatants. Bravo

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  2. Thanks for the kind words Mike.

    ReplyDelete