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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

America and World War I: A Traveler's Guide
reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

America and World War I: A Traveler's Guide
by Mark D. Van Ells
Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2015

In his introduction to this book, author Mark D. Van Ells, Professor of History at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York, rightly ponders the question of why Americans seem less interested in the history and memorials concerning World War I than in those of other wars. Van Ells's book goes a long way to encouraging such interest. Against the backdrop of America's war experience, this book surveys hundreds of relevant locations, memorials, and monuments ranging in size from small plaques to major battlefields and cemeteries, located in the United States, Canada, and Europe. To add a human element, the narrative is peppered with accounts from soldiers' letters and diaries and regimental histories.

Camp Dix Back Then (Now Fort Dix)

Much of the book covers the American military effort in Europe, but for those of us unable to travel overseas to view battlefields, Van Ells includes stateside locales that we might have a chance of visiting. Ports of Embarkation and training bases are covered in detail. The discussion of the fate of stateside training camps is particularly poignant. Many are still active military or National Guard bases (Fort Dix, New Jersey, and Fort Lewis, Washington, for example; there are lone monuments in busy business or residential areas to mark the locations of others. For some, all that remains to indicate that a military post once occupied the grounds are street names (Artillery Road and Warehouse Court at Camp Sevier, South Carolina, for example). Others, like Camp Cody, New Mexico, are gone forever, overtaken by desert and grassland, with not even a monument to commemorate its former existence.

The entire scope of America's military experience during the war is represented in the book. The sections on the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) touch on all the big battles and many minor ones. In addition, prominent U.S. military members like General Pershing, George Patton, and Alvin York receive special mention. Indeed, the breadth of coverage is so wide that mention will be made here of only some items that may be of special interest to the reader.

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One such topic is the coverage of the Army Air Service's Spruce Production Division, soldiers working in the Pacific Northwest to cut down, process, and ship the tons of spruce required for production of military airplanes. The author also devotes a chapter to the AEF's Services of Supply (SOS). These soldiers labored behind the lines in supply depots, rail yards, and lumber mills; victory was due just as much to them and their unglamorous work as to the brave Doughboys on the front lines. Of special note is the fact that Van Ells mentions the first U.S. military men killed in action during the war. Most histories, including this one, recount the episode on 3 November 1917, where three men of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, were killed in a trench raid. The author, however, also records an earlier, lesser-known incident where, on 4 September 1917, a German air raid on Base Hospital No. 5 in the Pas de Calais region killed Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimons and Privates Rudolph Rubino, Oscar Tugo, and Leslie Woods. Lieutenant Fitzsimons was the first American military man killed in action, and there is a memorial fountain in his honor in Kansas City, Missouri.

These are just a few of the items covered in the book; as stated above, all the major battles and campaigns receive their full share of coverage. The author also includes special chapters devoted to the Navy, the Army Air Service, and African American soldiers. Of course not every spot visited by a Doughboy is memorialized, and often the author notes, as he did at the end of a description of a French rest camp, that "No plaques, statues, or historic markers indicate the area's former use."

Your Editor with the
Cantigny Doughboy
The book is not footnoted, so it isn't a scholarly historical work, per se — and there is also a strong "then and now" cast to it. It's certainly useful as a travel guide, and for those who are interested in a nice summary of US participation in the Great War, it will prove to be pleasantly diverting. The photographs of monuments are reproduced in a small format but are sufficient to give an impression of what's there. Appendices list American Battle Monuments Commission sites in Europe, worldwide memorials, museums, historical sites and historical societies, all with website addresses and other contact information. As an aid to exploring, the book also includes GPS coordinates for some areas. Van Ells performed diligent work in researching and ferreting out all these monuments and points of interest, both great and small. He deserves commendation.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks it became de rigueur among some Americans to make fun of France, sometimes good-naturedly but usually with mean spirits, for her perceived lack of willingness to assist the United States in fighting terrorism. Those who still persist in this notion should do well to consider this: there are monuments to Doughboys in many small French villages and the only people who are taking care of them with reverence and respect are the French villagers who, unlike some Americans, still remember what the Doughboys did for France nearly 100 years ago.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. I did indepent study in military history asa college studen in the 70s. I wasn't really interested in WW I, especially the non-combat stuff. While preparing for my brother's funeral on Christmans Day 2007, I found a letter, dated Aug 31 1918, written by "Fredrick" a cook, to my paternal grandmother, who died in 1943. My dad and his cousin were the only living people who remembered her. Dad had no idea who Fredrick was, since his mother had never mentioned. Fredrick mentioned seeing Grandma's brother Paul recently; Paul was KIA 27 Sep 1918.

    A few years later, I found information about Frederick W. Schmelz, 29th Division cook who was KIA on 27 Oct 1918 while taking hot food to frontline soldiers. He was awarded the DSC for his bravery. Further research indicated that he was not the cook who wrote to my grandmother; he was probably assigned to the 27th Division where her brother was a mechanic.

    This has gotten me more interested in WW I, especially in the role of cooks, who are not recognized enough. I think the reason most Americans are disinterested in WW I is due to the fact that the US did not declare war until April 1917 and did not commit troops until the summer of 1918; active participation of US forces was less than six months.

  2. This is exactly the kind of review I need--of a book I'm going to buy now but wouldn't have if it weren't for this review. Thank you!

  3. I've been looking for a book like this for the last two years -- so happy to read your review!

  4. Thanks for the kind words about the review. I enjoyed the book, I think you won't be disappointed. And I agree with the idea that cooks were not very well recognized. In unit histories I've come across angry references, but usually it's at least one of appreciation for a difficult, often thankless job. Also, chow details, bringing the food forward under fire, was an exceedingly hazardous duty.

  5. I remember coming across this book in an amazon search, but now I definitely must get it.

  6. I too am shocked by those who would denigrate France while waving the American flag. We have too much shared blood upon battlefields, including our own independence... Yes, Vive la France!