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 17, 2014

The School of Hard Knocks: Combat Leadership in the American Expeditionary Forces — reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

The School of Hard Knocks: Combat Leadership in the American Expeditionary Forces
by Richard S. Faulkner
Texas A&M University Press, 2012

When the United States Army expanded at the start of the Great War there was a desperate need for officers to fill the leadership positions at all levels, but especially in lower levels of command. How well the Army trained and developed officers would, in a large part, determine how well the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) would perform in combat. Richard S. Faulkner, in his book The School of Hard Knocks: Combat Leadership in the American Expeditionary Forces, claims that the AEF failed to develop into a highly effective fighting force largely because of a failure in leadership among its junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs).

Faulkner suggests three main reasons for this failure: a poor officer training system in the United States and later in the AEF, misguided personnel policies that resulted in large numbers of men moved from unit to unit or dispatched to schools, and an incorrect view of the tactics necessary for victory on the battlefield.

After reviewing the immediate prewar state of officer and NCO training and the sudden need for a greatly expanded cadre of junior leaders, Faulkner begins a discussion of the various methods of wartime officer training. Faulkner contends that the training of officer candidates in schools in the United States was, overall, unsatisfactory. According to Faulkner, the officers schools devoted too much time to such subjects as bayonet training and flag signaling to the detriment of such topics as the proper use of auxiliary weapons.

Order Now
Personnel policies both stateside and overseas tended to hamper officer development. While in training stateside, men were shunted from unit to unit in order to fill manpower deficiencies. These transfers, designed "to enhance the overall institutional efficiency" of the Army, had the effect of hindering training, hurting unit morale, and dampening the efforts of officers and NCOs to create unit cohesion. (p. 134) Often NCOs were tapped for officer training against their will; thus many men who were not mentally or emotionally qualified to be officers languished in training schools. Overseas, AEF policy resulted in officers and NCOs yanked from their men and sent to various schools in what seemed to be a random manner. This had the effect of disrupting unit cohesion and training.

Faulkner believes that the relentless push for success, driven from the highest levels of the AEF, fostered a climate of fear that crippled overall officer performance. An officer who failed would very likely be relieved and sent to Blois, the AEF reclassification center in France. This climate, argues Faulkner, had at least one desired effect — it "pushed commanders to accomplish their missions and demand results from their subordinates." But, he continues, "it also encouraged them to micromanage their units, reduce the initiative of their subordinates, stifle the development of their junior leaders, and heedlessly push attacks after it was clear that such efforts were not worth the cost of the gain." (p. 194)

Officers in the AEF were bound to rifleman-based tactics that harmed their performance in combat. Faulkner contends that the official Army reliance on infantrymen with rifles and bayonets making frontal assaults against fortified positions was a cause of high casualties and low success rates. Although many junior leaders, such as platoon and company commanders, eventually overcame this and adapted their tactics to the actual situation on the battlefield, they did so, claims Faulkner, without AEF headquarters encouragement or guidance.

American Trench Raiders in No-Man's-Land

Faulkner recounts numerous examples of the failure of AEF officers and NCOs, each of which, of course, could have been matched with many counterexamples of competence and bravery. The reader should understand that Faulkner's emphasis is on examples of AEF failure. Although Faulkner is unstinting in his criticism of AEF performance regarding junior leaders, he comes very near to the crux of the issue when he writes: "Some of these problems were the result of the inherent realities of the Great War's battlefields that all the major combatants had to contend with during the conflict." (p. 319) Faulkner concedes: "For all of its problems, in the end the AEF accomplished its strategic goal. … [T]he doughboys' rather unskillful and costly attacks still wore down the strength and willpower of their Teutonic foes." (p. 327)

The book is thoroughly researched and very well written; this brief review cannot possibly touch on all aspects of the subject covered in the book. Faulkner's chapter on combat physics is outstanding, and his notion of attritional warfare will resonate with students of the Great War. Although readers may disagree with some of the author's emphases, the book deserves to be on the shelf of anyone who wants to learn more about the AEF and how it fought.

Peter L. Belmonte

Photos: U.S. Army Military History Institute


  1. Sounds like a good book. The more I read, the more I am convinced that the AEF was poorly trained and completely unprepared in terms of tactics and skills when it came up against a well entrenced enemy in the Meuse Argonne.

  2. It seems that the AEF succeeded in the Meuse-Argonne by brute force and by adapting tactics "on the fly." The trench warfare vs. open warfare debate is, in my opinion, a bit overstated. Offensive action was needed, but a reliance on only rifle fire was dangerous. The AEF learned to integrate auxiliary and support weapons such as machine guns, Stokes mortars, and 37mm "one-pounder" guns. Artillery preparation was also key, although there were downsides such as losing the element of surprise and making the ground over which the attackers had to advance all but impassable. The book is quite good although I don't agree with all of Dr. Faulkner's conclusions. I'd be interested in hearing the opinions of others.