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 22, 2016

Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing's Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I
reviewed by Peter Belmonte

Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing's Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I
by Mitchell Yockelson
New American Library, 2016

To summarize a battle with the scope and complexity of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in a single volume is a tall order. Historian Mitchell Yockelson steps up to the plate and delivers a home run with Forty-Seven Days.

Troops of the Inexperienced 91st "Wild West" Division on Their Way to the Argonne

Yockelson first lays a foundation by covering the background of the formation and early days of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). The struggle to transport, equip, and train so many men in a distant foreign country was epic, with General John J. Pershing's fight to stop amalgamation culminating in the formation of the U.S. First Army. The St. Mihiel Offensive demonstrated that American soldiers, fighting under American commanders, would be effective and successful.

Yockelson's account of the well-known meeting between Marshal Ferdinand Foch and Gen. Pershing where Foch tried to persuade Pershing to give up his plans for St. Mihiel, split the First Army, and concentrate on the Meuse-Argonne area, reminds us of the pressures that were brought to bear on Gen. Pershing. He did, of course, withstand the pressure, and the result was the successful St. Mihiel campaign, followed by the mad dash to the Argonne area and the climactic battle that followed. The bulk of the book is, of course, about the 47-day battle known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

80th "Blue Mountain" Division Advancing in the Opening of the Battle

Yockelson covers the full scope of the battle chronologically. From east of the Meuse river to just west of the Argonne Forest, American soldiers, assisted by French artillery, fought a determined foe in difficult terrain that, in places, could be described as fortress-like. Although technically not a true part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the battle of Blanc Mont, with the U.S. 2nd and 36th Divisions fighting under French command to the west of the Argonne forest, and the actions of the U.S. 2nd Army to the southeast of Verdun, are integral to understanding the overall action and strategy of First Army. Yockelson wisely includes enough of these other campaigns to help the reader put the war's final month in perspective.

Some recent accounts of the AEF tend to focus on the shortcomings of General Pershing and other officers, down to, and including, platoon leaders. Yockelson takes a more balanced approach; he gives praise where it's due. For example, General Pershing, Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett (commander of the First Army for the second part of the offensive), Major General Charles Summerall (commander of the 1st Division and, later, V Corps), and Colonel Hugh Drum (First Army chief of staff) all receive positive remarks. But Yockelson doesn't withhold warranted criticism; in particular, Summerall and Drum are rightly blamed for the 1st Division's ill-advised, yet impressive, march on Sedan in early November.

Day 47: Moments Before the Armistice
Soldiers of the Midwest's 89th Division Awaiting the End at the Stenay Church

In addition to covering the combat, Yockelson provides insight into the human interest elements of the story. One tidbit that I'd never read before concerns the tragic story of the New York sisters, Gladys and Dorothea Cromwell. Volunteer nurses who tended the wounded during the Meuse-Argonne, the sisters must have been badly traumatized by their experience — on their return trip to the U.S. in early 1919 they committed double suicide by jumping over the side of their transport ship.

Another interesting aspect of Forty-Seven Days is the way in which Yockelson interweaves the stories of other service arms. For example, the activity of General Billy Mitchell's Army Air Service receives coverage, as does Lieutenant Colonel George Patton's Tank Corps. Combat support activity also receives its share of coverage. Readers will find interesting explanations of how German prisoners of war were handled and how the U.S. intelligence service used spies in Germany. Also of interest is the account of the "Hello-Girls," American women, fluent in French and experienced as telephone operators, who were recruited and sent to France to help facilitate telephonic communication on the Western Front. These worthy women were finally granted veteran status in 1978.

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Of course, the more well-known incidents are recounted, too. The exploits of Alvin York and those of Major Charles Whittlesey and his so-called Lost Battalion are in these pages, along with a brief account of Father Francis Duffy, chaplain of the 165th Infantry Regiment in the 42nd "Rainbow" Division. Other heroes, like Air Service aces Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and Lieutenant Frank Luke, and Medal of Honor recipient Lieutenant Sam Woodfill, are featured as well.

Forty-Seven Days is a perfect introduction to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a good one to read before tackling unit histories or other more specialized analyses. After reading this book, it's hard to disagree with one of Yockelson's concluding remarks:

Pershing's warriors fought tenaciously and bravely, although at times recklessly, against a far superior opponent...The battle of the Meuse-Argonne was not the sole reason the Allies won the war, but it was certainly the deciding factor. Pershing's forces broke the back of the mighty German Army in the most heavily defended section of the western front. Over forty-seven days of brutal combat, the Germans were forced to withdraw and give up the fight [pp. 319-320].

Peter Belmonte


  1. Can't wait to read this one.

  2. Excellent review, although I can't help wondering if the British and French would give the Americans this much credit?

  3. The British and French most emphatically would NOT agree with portions of Yockelson's statement that I quoted above. Ludendorff, however, might have viewed things more along the lines of Yockelson's statement. In any case, I think this kind of book is a necessary balance to some of the previous scholarship that tends to be overly critical of the American effort in general, and in the Meuse Argonne in particular.
    Pete Belmonte

    1. I don't know...the French I have met seem to give us a ton of credit. The British, not so much.

  4. Reading it now, just about up to the start of the battle. Good reading thus far. I did however catch one minor slip. The 82nd Division is at one point referred to as the 82nd Airborne Division. Which, of course, was still well in the future!
    Looking forward to seeing the author's overall take on the performance of the AEF. The pendulum has over the years swung from faultless, war winning machine, to hopelessly bumbling novices. By way of full disclosure, I call the AEF very much still a work in progress, akin to the US army in North Africa during WW2, still very much sorting out its doctrine, tactics, and leadership. With Pershing himself one of its biggest problems. It would have been better had he kicked himself upstairs sooner and let Hunter Liggett run the offensive from the start.
    Jim Cameron

    1. Jim, I agree with your overall general assessment of the AEF -- a work in progress. I think they had made at least as much progress as any of their allies for the time they were involved. The AEF should have learned some lessons from their allies, but don't lose sight of the fact that British and French armies were still making mistakes in 1918. I think General Pershing was the right man for the job of forming and organizing the 1st Army. As a commander during the Meuse-Argonne, he probably did as well as any other American general could have done -- hard to say because comparing commanding a division, corps, and army is apples and oranges of course. Hunter Liggett was a great choice as a successor to command 1st Army; Bullard as commander of 2nd Army was also a good choice.