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

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Rainbow Division Lieutenant in France
reviewed by Peter Belmonte

A Rainbow Division Lieutenant in France: 
The World War I Diary of John H. Taber
Edited by Stephen H. Taber.
McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015

John Taber was a 22-year-old graduate of Columbia (class of 1917) when he was assigned to Company K, 168th Infantry Regiment, 42nd Division, in the fall of 1917. A graduate of the first Plattsburg Officer's Training Camp, he served throughout the war with the 168th. Along the way he kept a diary on scraps of paper, and after the war he augmented and expanded his notes into a personal account of his war. Upon his death, his second cousin, editor Stephen H. Taber, inherited these papers; Stephen decided to transcribe and publish his cousin's account, and the result is this fine book.

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John Taber served as a platoon leader, and he was very candid, and sometimes humorous, in recording his actions and thoughts. Taber's regiment stopped in England on their way to France, which he succinctly summed up his view upon leaving after a brief stay: "I am glad to leave England. I feel as if I had been spending the past week in a morgue" [p. 9]. He is equally frank in his assessment of his fellow officers, both peers and superiors. While it's common knowledge that there was considerable friction between regular officers and National Guard officers, it's not as well known that the National Guard officers held some reserve officers in disdain. Taber describes his feelings in this regard. While in training, one battalion commander told the non-commissioned officers not to pay attention to the reserve officers. Taber, and his fellow reserve officers, felt that the regimental commander, Colonel Matthew A. Bennet, was "a martinet, and as cold and unapproachable as a fish" [p. 13]. His own battalion commander, Major Guy S. Brewer, was "hard and unreasonable with an obvious partiality for National Guard officers [p. 13]." His view of Brewer would change for the better once the regiment entered combat, however.

In addition to his comments about England, Taber wasn't shy about revealing his opinion of some of the places he visited. Of Luxembourg, through which his regiment passed on their way to Germany as part of the Army of Occupation, Taber said: "The dinky trains are in keeping with everything else in this comic opera country" [p. 143]. And he left no doubt as to his feelings about the village of Neunkirchen, Germany: "Surely there never was a dirtier, smellier, gloomier excuse for a village" [p. 147]. I highlight these comments because of their frankness and humor. But Taber wasn't just a literate crank; he was also very observant and did a wonderful job of describing the places he went and the people he met.

John H. Taber, Officer Candidate

Taber experienced the misery, boredom, and fear felt by all infantrymen in combat during that war. The value of this book lies in the fact that Taber recorded it all: training behind the lines, moving forward to the fray, gas attacks, bombardments, and details of his billeting arrangements and meals. The subject of replacements in combat units is of special interest to me, and Taber recorded his observation of some men who joined his company just before St. Mihiel: "… I took over my old platoon, to find out that a large part of the recently acquired replacements had had little or no training. Of course they were terribly frightened. It was a crime to send them into action" [p. 111]. Anyone who thinks that St. Mihiel was a cakewalk for the Americans should read Taber's account of the first few hours of that battle.

Taber went through all the battles and skirmishes that his regiment was involved in, except for the second phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, when he was sick with pneumonia in the hospital. He rejoined his regiment for the last part of the offensive, and, if you think the Germans were completely exhausted and unwilling to fight by then, Taber's account will change your mind. His description of his time in the Army of Occupation reads like a travelogue, culminating in Pershing's review of the 42nd Division (Taber heard every word of Pershing's speeches to the division and was completely unimpressed).

Raiding Party from the 168th Infantry

Stephen Taber has omitted editorial comments altogether, and the reader won't find accounts of the overall strategy or progress of the war, except as those things were perceived and recorded by his cousin. And that's actually refreshing, because we read about what a typical platoon leader did from day to day, how he personally experienced the war, and what he thought about the men with whom he served. How did such men fill their time? Taber played cards with fellow officers, looked after billeting for his men, practiced French with the locals, went on brief sightseeing expeditions. He even went AWOL in Paris for a few days after his discharge from the hospital following his bout with pneumonia after St. Mihiel. We can learn much from accounts such as these.

Stephen Taber is to be commended for preserving and publishing this book. As for me, I can't get enough of these first-person accounts.

Peter Belmonte