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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

My Fellow Soldiers
Reviewed by Clark Shilling


My Fellow Soldiers: 
General John Pershing and the Americans 
Who Helped Win the Great War

by Andrew Carroll
Penguin Press, April, 2017

The title of this book comes from the opening line of a letter written by General John J. Pershing at the end of World War I to his troops congratulating them and thanking them for their service. A copy of the letter was given to each soldier serving with the American Expeditionary Forces.

Your Editor Speaking About General Pershing, San Francisco Presidio, August 2015

Before discussing this book, we should spend a minute on the author. Mr. Carroll is not a historian of World War I, nor is he a specialist on military history. He is a writer who has a passion for collecting war correspondence. In 1998 he started the Legacy Project, to collect and preserve wartime correspondence to and from American servicemen. Within two years, he had gathered over 70,000 letters from many of America's wars, going all the way back to the Revolution. In addition to My Fellow Soldiers, he has edited and written several best-selling books and worked on video projects all based on the wartime correspondence he had collected. In 2013 he donated the archives of the Legacy Project to Chapman University, and he helped create the Center for American War Letters at that institution. He is the director of the Center.

His latest effort, My Fellow Soldiers, focuses on the Great War and was published this past April on the hundredth anniversary of America's entry into the war. The author was also featured prominently in the recent PBS American Experience documentary on the Great War which premiered a few days after his book was released. I first read his book just prior to watching the PBS documentary, and several times I had a feeling of deja vu, as the documentary included some of the material from his book

As the full title implies, the central character of the book is General John Pershing. He is an iconic figure of America's participation in the war; six foot tall, ramrod straight,  of jutting jaw, barrel chest, and stern visage, he is the epitome of what a World War I general should look like. Of all the pictures I have seen of World War I generals, none compare in martial appearance to Pershing, whether he was photographed standing, marching, or riding a horse. Haig was always slouching, Pétain was too casual, and Foch, too diminutive and bowlegged.

Perhaps no army in American history other than the Continental Army of George Washington was left so much to the devices of its commanding general. The AEF was Pershing's army, and he took full ownership, protecting it not only from the designs of his French and British colleagues who wanted to appropriate it but also pushing back against his fellow American generals such as Peyton March, who felt the high command in Washington should also have a say in how the AEF was run.

While Pershing was known as a stern and sometimes brutal taskmaster, the author is able to show a different side of Pershing from his letters to family and loved ones. Pershing was a tender and caring father to his son, Warren, a sometimes thoughtful and caring man to his friends, and a passionate suitor to his longtime mistress, Micheline Resco. Above all, this correspondence shows that Pershing struggled with the central tragic event of his life, the house fire that killed his wife and three young daughters before the war that left him with a grief that sometimes nearly overwhelmed him in times of stress.

In addition to Pershing, the author includes the experiences of numerous other Americans, many famous and well known such as Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, George Patton, Eddie Rickenbacker, Quentin Roosevelt, and Alvin York, to name a few. My favorite of these is narrative from Eddie Rickenbacker, who witnessed the end of the war at 11 A.M. on 11 November from the cockpit of his airplane, as he flew high above the trenches at that remarkable moment.

Some of Pershing's Fellow Soldiers

Stories of the not so famous are included in this book as well. Many Americans began fighting for the French long before the U.S. joined the war, and their experiences are included. Kiffin Rockwell, an American who volunteered for the French Foreign Legion in 1914, later became the first U.S. pilot in the Layfette Escadrille  to shoot down a German plane. His friend Victor Chapman became the first American pilot to die in the war. Eugene Bullard was the son of a slave and traveled to Europe to escape the Jim Crow world of his native Georgia. He became a solider in the French Army and was seriously wounded at Verdun. From there he became one of the few black combat pilots of the war. We [also] meet organizers and directors of American volunteer ambulance services and some of the female drivers. We meet nurses and doctors and war correspondents through the impressions they sent home in their letters, diaries, and other writings.

My Fellow Soldiers, [though,] is definitely an instance of looking at the trees instead of the forest. While I found it a very good read, as I said earlier, the author is not a specialist on World War I or on military history in general. His focus is mainly on individuals and their experiences, and this means that sometimes his explanations of the larger flow of events come off as a little brief, simplistic, and sometimes dated. He is not an expert on equipment used in the war or the tactics followed by the troops. This has led to some errors such as talking about a model M-1917 Enfield machine gun and a Browning rifle. He obviously got the two mixed up. In one instance, he confuses the magazine of a rifle with the cartridges that go into it. You need to understand this and overlook it as you savor the experiences of the participants in the Great War in their own words.

Clark Shilling

6 comments:

  1. I think Clark's comments are right on point. I read the book as well and noticed a few inaccuracy around details as he notes. But I did consider it a worthwhile read.

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  2. The "correspondence" approach to WWI studies is always interesting and worthwhile. Well done, Clark--thank you!

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  3. I thought the book was pretty brilliant, even though I also had issues with it. Carroll is a very good writer. The book really reads fast.

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    1. Yes to all of the above. I have a batch of letters from a WWI doughboy written from France, and I have wondered what to do with them. I am going to send them to Mr. Carroll and the Center for War Correspondence at Chapman U.

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