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

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

World War I Army Training by San Francisco Bay
reviewed by James Thomas


World War I Army Training by San Francisco Bay: 
The Story of Camp Fremont
by Barbara Wilcox
The History Press, 2016


When the United States entered the Great War in the spring of 1917, the fighting had already been going on for two-and-a-half years. This meant that America's military and navy needed to jump in at full speed, without much time to mobilize. Across the nation, training centers popped up to train the millions of men the United States would send to the war zone. It is the story of one of those facilities that Barbara Wilcox describes in her excellent little book World War I Army Training by San Francisco Bay. In telling the story of Camp Fremont, though, Wilcox also tells the larger stories of the Bay Area and of the nation at war, of the men who fought it and the developing relationship between civilians and soldiers, of the American people and their government and even the place of America and Americans in a rapidly changing world.

Trainees at Camp Fremont with Their Mascot

That much seems quite a tall order for such a small book, but it tells those stories and more. Using a variety of primary and secondary sources, Wilcox brings to life the creation of Camp Fremont. As with any major enterprise, there were a multitude of steps necessary, agreements to be reached, and disputes settled to bring the base to the San Francisco Bay. City fathers and Stanford University administrators worked with the Army with impressive alacrity to create from bare land the facilities necessary to teach young men how to fight and stay alive. Nearly three years of slaughter in France taught lessons the Army would use to train the soldiers. The political and social struggles were learned on the fly as they all went along.

Parade Day in Nearby Palo Alto

Establishing a training base initially appeared to be a great economic boon and patriotic statement by the residents of the Bay Area, doing their part in the service of the nation in President Wilson's great crusade. Soon the great enterprise became a complex and often awkward relationship between soldiers — or the popular perception of young men in uniform — and a university and civilians in close proximity. As involvement in the war was itself controversial, the training of the men and the presence of the camp also became controversial.


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Finally, bringing a great sense of the humanity of the Camp Fremont experience, Wilcox follows the stories of the people involved. Accompanying these stories is an outstanding collection of photographs. In fact, the illustrations in the book are remarkable. Ms. Wilcox has assembled a collection of photographs, drawings, and maps that could stand alone; however, as accompaniment to her fine research and writing, the illustrations provide outstanding support.

On 12 March of this year, Barbara Wilcox told her story to modern residents of San Francisco as a presentation for the Bay Area Chapter of the World War One Historical Association. Perhaps hearing her in person would be the only way to top reading her book. Wilcox's story of Camp Fremont should most definitely be added to the bibliography of World War One for historians and anyone interested in learning the complexities of wartime mobilization, training, and military/civilian interaction.

James Thomas

1 comment:

  1. Now if someone would write a book on Camp Colt, Ike's first real command, in Gettysburg, PA. Camp Colt brought the "flu" to the citizens there. It also brought Ike and Mamie to return years later to there one and only real home.

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