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

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The World War I Memoirs of Robert P. Patterson: A Captain in the Great War — Reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

The World War I Memoirs of Robert P. Patterson: 
A Captain in the Great War
edited by J. Garry Clifford
Published by University of Tennessee Press, 2012

Robert P. Patterson is best known as the Assistant, Undersecretary, and Secretary of War from 1940 to 1947, a turbulent time in U.S. history. As Under Secretary of War Patterson was instrumental in helping to form, train, and equip the U.S. Army that went on to victory in World War II. Patterson also was influential in the unification of the armed forces under the National Security Act of 1947. But prior to his public life in the War Department, and prior to his service as a federal judge, Patterson had been an infantry company commander during World War I. This book is his war memoir, written for the benefit of his family in 1933.

Written without the benefit of notes or other aides to his memory, Patterson's narrative centers around only what he saw or did. His memory must have been very good because he does a fine job of recording places, dates, and people. He first succinctly covers his prewar service as an enlisted man in the New York National Guard on the Mexican border. There he learned the rudiments of soldiering. After mobilization, Patterson applied for, was accepted to, and graduated from officers training camp at Plattsburgh, New York. Upon graduation and commissioning in August 1917, he was sent to Camp Upton, where he served in the Depot Brigade. In January he was assigned to the 306th Infantry Regiment in the 77th Division; that division was made up largely of New York City draftees. Patterson provides a nice description of the composition of squads and platoons, along with a fairly complete breakdown of just what constituted an infantry regiment headquarters company, very helpful for those who are unfamiliar with the organization of the U.S. Army at this time.

Order Now
Patterson recounts his service in a straightforward manner. When his company went into the front lines along the Vesle River in August 1918, Patterson took care to place his men carefully. At one point, he took two men on a patrol toward German lines; as a result of this harrowing adventure, which he nicely describes, all three men were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery. Patterson even includes two detailed hand-drawn maps that depict the area and the patrol's movements. Just after this, he was gassed and evacuated, but he returned to his company in time to move into the Argonne Forest prior to the start of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Patterson obviously had great affection for his fellow officers and men, and he sings the praises of many of them by name in these pages. His regiment received many replacements one day prior to entering combat in the Argonne Forest on 26 September 1918, and many of these men had been only minimally trained. At one point early in the battle Patterson found himself advancing through woods so thick that he could see only a few of his men to his left and right. Soon, however, the advancing line crossed a path, and this enabled him to see further to his right and left; the men were advancing in good order. Patterson's comment is a tribute to his soldiers and perhaps most of the young men in the American Expeditionary Forces: "The thought then came to me of how reliable the soldiers were. I was the only officer in the company that day, and the men were under the direct immediate orders of no one. Not even a corporal could see all his men. They all went because they knew that it was expected of them." (pp. 62-63)

Later, Patterson comments upon another Argonne incident that sheds light on the communication problems that beset commanders at every level. Ordered to support another battalion in an assault upon St. Juvin on the banks of the Aire River, Patterson could get no information about what was happening to the troops in his front. Upon being convinced that the battalion had crossed the river, Patterson's men found a river ford and crossed; it was only then that he could confirm the success of the attack. This is typical of what confronted Great War soldiers, and in most cases it had the potential to spell disaster. The days of tactical radio were still far in the future.

Patterson Visiting with Black Troops in Hawaii, 1943
As Secretary of War He Was Instrumental in Desegregating America's Armed Forces 

Editor J. Garry Clifford provides a helpful introduction; his notes supply appropriate context and explanation. Although the volume is comparatively slim--about 80 pages of Patterson's actual text--it is a fine and thoughtful exposition of what one man experienced as an infantry company commander during the Great War. According to Clifford, historian Robert H. Ferrell felt that Patterson's memoir "ranked among the best of the hundreds he had read in authoring his own several books on the First World War" (p. xii). I have not read hundreds of memoirs, but I would agree that Patterson's is among the best of the dozens I have read.

Peter L. Belmonte

1 comment:

  1. Our 'to read' list is becoming quite hefty. This is on mine. Thank you for the words.