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

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Betrayal at Little Gibraltar
reviewed by Peter Belmonte


Betrayal at Little Gibraltar: A German Fortress, a Treacherous American General, and the Battle to End World War I
by William Walker
Scribner, 2016


Most students of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive know that General John Pershing's objective for the first day's advance, some nine miles in the case of the center V Corps commanded by General George H. Cameron, was wildly optimistic. Cameron's right flank division, the inexperienced and undertrained 79th Division, was slated to advance against the heavily fortified Montfaucon, the most difficult assignment given to any division for that day. In the event, the 79th could not take Montfaucon the first day, and it was terribly bloodied in the attempt. Most historians have attributed this failure to the division's lack of training, inexperienced officers and staff, and the American Expeditionary Forces' (AEF) faulty tactics. But perhaps more was at play.

Montfaucon – First Day Objective of the 79th Division

A chance discovery of marginalia and notes written long ago in an old book housed on a dusty library shelf propelled author William Walker on a two-decade quest to uncover the truth behind a shocking accusation. The notes, written in the 1930s by Major Harry Parkin, commander of the 1st Battalion, 316th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division, during the battle, blamed the 79th Division's failure on deliberate misinterpretation and disobedience of orders by III Corps commander, General Robert L. Bullard. The accusation, and Walker's thesis, is that Bullard ignored orders to have his left flank division, the veteran 4th, conduct a flanking movement to its left to assist the 79th Division in taking Montfaucon. This, according to Walker, amounted to nothing short of murder. This book seeks to prove his strong assertion.

General Robert Bullard
Walker's opening chapters summarize neatly the course of the war up to 1918 and the events that directly served to push the US into the war. Part I of the book, 126 pages, is devoted to setting the stage prior to the first shots of the battle. Part II is devoted to the action of the 79th Division from the start of the campaign until the end of the war. It is, basically, a combat history of the division. For this, Walker uses unit histories and memoirs, both published and unpublished, to paint a vivid picture of the 79th Division's struggle. I have studied and written about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive; the grueling ordeal and casualties recorded in Part II did not surprise me. What never ceases to surprise me, however, is that men were willing to carry on under such terrible conditions.

Central to Walker's claim is the First Army attack order, part of which is quoted in the book and is admittedly open to interpretation. The order directed III Corps to cooperate with V Corps to its left by "turn[ing] Montfaucon and the section of the hostile second position within the zone of action of the V Corps, thereby assisting in the capture of the hostile second position west of Montfaucon [p. 64]." In other words, III Corps was ordered to use its left flank division (the 4th) to attack Montfaucon from the flank and rear in V Corps zone. This would also allow an envelopment from the opposite flank by the V Corps center division (the 37th), and finally permit the taking of Montfaucon by the 79th Division. Bullard's final III Corps order, however, fails to mention or allow this flanking operation.

Part III is the meat of the book regarding the author's thesis. Here Walker discusses the evidence that shows Bullard's intentional disobedience of orders, despite the original First Army attack order, and despite a request from General John Hines, commander of the 4th Division, to go to the aid of the neighboring 79th Division late on 26 September. In Part III, the author presents and weighs the evidence, including Major Parkin's detailed memoir and an extensive postwar report written by General Ewing Booth. Booth, a brigade commander in the 4th Division, had proposed that during the first day of the attack he move upon Montfaucon from the flank, basically in accordance with original Army orders. Although his division commander, Hines, initially approved the action, the decision was countermanded before it could be put into effect.


Order Now
After the war, Booth spent twenty years researching the cause of this action, which he felt warranted censure on someone's part. In addition, Walker examines statements by General Alfred Bjornstad, 4th Division chief of staff. According to the author, Bullard intentionally disobeyed the original First Army order, and here Walker outlines his evidence and tells us much more about these men and their proclivities. In the end, the reader will decide for himself whether Walker's facts, as put forth here, justify his conclusions.

Bullard was abrasive and hard driving, and he held mid-19th-century racial views, but during the war and afterward his faults were overlooked in favor of his units' results. Walker's work, however, serves to place a blemish, at the very least, on Bullard's reputation. I am, by nature, skeptical of such sensational, if not revisionist, claims as Walker puts forth, and although there can be differing interpretations of the evidence that Walker has presented, I am convinced that he has come to the correct conclusions. This is one of the best new AEF books I've read. I highly recommend it.

Peter Belmonte

5 comments:

  1. I have my doubts. Corps boundaries were not crossed lightly, and while the orders quoted speak of "turning" enemy positions, they do no specifically call for the 4th Division to cross into 5th Corps territory to do so.
    Jim Cameron

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  2. Jim, I agree with you about corps boundaries. Walker implies (stress the word: implies) that boundaries routinely could be crossed, while I agree with you. There had to be pretty close coordination for such a thing to occur. See the 1st Division and the "race to Sedan" for what was almost a disaster.
    I also agree that the order was certainly open to interpretation. But the key officers involved seemed to think, at least as far as what I've read, that the order called for the 4th Division to take a rather more active role than simple support. Very interesting topic, though.
    Pete

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  3. I should clarify my comment: the key officers involved in the subsequent idea to support the 79th -- Generals Booth, Hines, and Bjornstead -- seemed to think that a move into the V Corps zone was appropriate. The order was given, probably without Bullard's knowledge, then rescinded. Of course, that doesn't speak to the actual initial intent of First Army's order, as Jim states above.
    Pete Belmonte

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  4. 79th Division History states/cites on page 479- Field Order #6 in detail. Issued Sept. 25th 1918 13h30. Explicit. 37th & 4th Div's to assist in turning/flanking. As we all know, these orders were not followed and orders obliviously were changed. However, what must have gone through Kuhn's mind- is one of sheer disappointment and outright neglect of his comrade in arms, while his division was chewed to pieces.

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  5. Very interesting -- can't say I've ever been a fan of Bullard, as after the war in his memoirs, he writes about the men of the 80th Division as being from North Carolina (they were from Virginia and Western PA). It'a small thing, but seems to perhaps indicate a carelessness about details and lack of regard for those under his command.

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