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

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A "Delicate Affair" on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the Woëvre Trenches
Reviewed by Editor Mike Hanlon

A "Delicate Affair" on the Western Front: America Learns How to Fight a Modern War in the Woëvre Trenches 
by Terrence J. Finnegan
The History Press, 2015

American Troops Deployed in the Woëvre Trenches, Montsec in Distance

Colonel Terry Finnegan's A Delicate Affair on the Western Front is an exciting and innovative examination of the American experience in the Great War. It focuses on the strategically important, but often neglected, Woëvre sector (known to American readers as the St. Mihiel Salient). After introducing the reader to the especially murderous attritional warfare of the war's first three years nearby, the author moves to the arrival of American troops in January 1918. From that time, the region became the battlefield classroom for the American Expeditionary Force. Of particular focus are two of Pershing's most active divisions, his pride and joy, the First Division (not yet "The Big Red One") and the 26th National Guard "Yankee" Division from New England. These two formations provide case studies, to showing how lessons learned by these inexperienced units and their commanders were absorbed and transmitted throughout the entire AEF.

Pre-Raid German Aerial Photo of Trenches Occupied by the Yankee Division

The highlight of the work, for me, is the most thorough and fascinating analysis of a small action from the war that I've ever encountered. By April 1918, after studying the Yanks for several months, the local German staff had spotted some weaknesses in their defensive positioning, communications, signal security and inter-unit coordination. They developed a plan to exploit these deficiencies and mounted a raid around the village of Seicheprey — then defended by a regiment of the 26th Division — intended to gain a propaganda victory over the Americans.

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Finnegan did a tremendous job of archival research that allows him to present both sides of this raid — mounted on 20 April 1918 — in extraordinary detail. Overall it's like viewing a huge mosaic of battle as the author move from spot to spot along the trenches and alternately back and forth up the chain of command as various headquarters try to come to grips with the confusion of battle. Whoever said that combat is a confused mess had it right and Terry Finnegan captures this perfectly. He also does justice to the men who fought at Seicheprey — again looking at both sides — the reader is left admiring both the smooth professionalism of the German assault troops and the shear gutsiness of the Doughboys, who refused to back down with the enemy coming at them from every direction.

Mike Hanlon


  1. Thanks for the review, this book is now next on my list to buy!

  2. A very important contribution--especially since so much of what we read on the Great War seems to be Brit-centric. COL Finnegan is to be congratulated on a fine book.
    David Beer--who sadly must remain 'anonymous' due to something to do with my university's server.