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

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Yanks Are Coming!
reviewed by Courtland Jindra

The Yanks Are Coming!

by William Slavens McNutt
P.F. Collier & Son, Inc., 1918

It's easy to become lost in a big city public library. There are so many books, most long forgotten, that are aching to be read again. Several book titles have had variations on George M. Cohan's classic song, so when I first saw William McNutt's The Yanks Are Coming! my eyes didn't immediately seize on it. However, it looked so old, I pulled it off the shelf and noticed it was written during the war itself. I knew this would no doubt be a propaganda book of the first order, but in a sense that made me even more curious to read it.

Original Illustration

McNutt at various times wrote for the newspapers and magazines. He authored short stories and after the war became a screenwriter until his untimely death in 1938 at the age of 52. Given all his writing gigs, he obviously could spin a good yarn, and this book is no different. McNutt opens the proceedings hilariously trying to capture the slang and accents of a young Jewish soldier telling his younger brother that being in the army isn't as bad as he thinks and not to worry about him. Unfortunately this type of writing, the approximation of how people sound, has largely fallen out of favor in the past century, but it provides much comedy in this book. A particular favorite was “If I go back, I'll just go to boozin' and fightin' for nothin' again, an' here I can't get booze an' I got a chance to fight for somethin' real. Here I stay.”

The book is mostly devoted to the author's visits to various National Army bases. In the course of the text he makes trips to Camps Upton, Devens, Funston, Lewis, and Lee as well as the Army Ambulance Camp in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He then ends the book with a call to arms against folks being negative about the war effort. McNutt gives us various anecdotes of scenes he witnessed with his own two eyes or heard secondhand. Likely at least half of them were fabricated, but it's still entertaining.

McNutt's aim in the book is obviously to drum up support for the war and assuage fears on the home front. He readily makes the case that many Americans do not like the idea of war, but he turns that around repeatedly and argues that is why they are fighting in the first place—to end war for good before it comes to our shores. So, in his view, the men in uniform are the truest pacifists. Kind of a Wilsonian sentiment. Whether he was paid to advocate this line of reasoning by the U.S. government or did so because he was a true believer in the Allied cause, I cannot say. However, he obviously can write with the best of them and tosses in plenty of hilarious phrases, which I have no idea if he made up or were popular at the time. Regardless, I want to throw a few of them out:

  • It is as German as sauerkraut.

  • There comes trooping forth a gang of young fellows who look about as much like soldiers as Von Hindenburg looks like a ribbon counter clerk!

  • A typical Yank hates a direct answer as a politician hates obscurity.

  • He was a little shy on articulation, that horse, but he was a regular four-legged Warfield when it came to expression.

  • So a cowboy in the infantry has this in common with a fish in the Sahara Desert: he's manifestly out of place.

  • When I visited the place it was colder than the north side of a pawnbroker's heart!

  • There are numerous other examples. This colloquial form is used throughout and makes for a very fast and enjoyable read even if some of the facts presented are of dubious quality.

    Original Illustration

    The end section, where the author rails against both the anti-war folks and, even more important, the loved ones of the fighting man who worry their soldiers sick with their sobbing concerns, is probably his second strongest point to get across. He spends the last 60 or so pages attacking those questioning the aims of the conflict and the “clackers”—the worriers who “clack” about every negative thing and repeat bad gossip even if they don't know it to be true. One can read between the lines and assume this was put there to appease the U.S. government. One last thing readily apparent when reading The Yanks Are Coming! is that McNutt was attempting to introduce the different regions of the country to each other. As he states in the text itself, “America is a cohesive whole only in geographical fact and ultimate intent.” In many ways the First World War is what made the United States truly united. That, as much as anything, is a great takeaway from this fun little diversion of a book.

    A free, fully illustrated version of the The Yanks Are Coming! Can Be Downloaded at the Internet Archive

    Courtland Jindra

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