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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The American Army in France, 1917–1919
Reviewed by Courtland Jindra

The American Army in France, 1917–1919

by James Harbord
Little, Brown, and Company 1936

Maj. General Harbord in France
Lieutenant General James Harbord was one of the first officers to arrive in France and one of the last to leave. As such, there are few who could give a more exhaustive account of what it was like to be with the American Expeditionary Forces for the entirety of its existence. From the Baltic bound for Europe as Pershing's chief of staff to the final round of backslapping before the Americans sailed away back home, Harbord was practically everywhere and met nearly every famous Allied name.

After a brief intro, including a letter sent by Philippe Pétain, Harboard gives a quick summary of the lead up of the United States into the war. He then gets to the meat of the book as he describes how Pershing was selected, how Harbord was chosen as his chief of staff, the various initial encounters in Europe, and more. Much of this is fascinating, though readers of multiple accounts of the AEF will be familiar with a lot of it. The author really delves into the difficulties that they all had while trying to get up and running with little to no guidance on how to proceed. I gained even more admiration for Pershing and his staff on how they practically invented everything.

The best snippets of the book are ones where Harbord lets his guard down. He's very diplomatic, but one can sense his distaste for certain figures from the war. For example, even if I had not read his other book (where he also makes it apparent) I would quickly realize how much he did not care for David Lloyd George. Lloyd George throwing Haig under the bus after the field marshal was dead and unable to defend himself really rankled Harbord. More generally, in many ways this book seems to be a retort to other memoirs that were probably coming out around the same time by many of the key players. References are made to books by several others, oftentimes arguing against ideas they apparently presented.

It seemed the time in France that Harbord enjoyed most was commanding the Marine brigade and later the entirety of the Second Division. He wears on his sleeve affection for the Marines and soldiers under his command. Though he obviously admires Pershing greatly and would do anything for him, he doesn't try to hide how upset he was to be taken out of field command to get the Services of Supply running more smoothly.

Harbord has a penchant for going on tangents about places he went or other military campaigns that were fought on the world war battlefields that, while adding color, sometimes are a bit far afield. He did much the same in his initial 1925 book, Leaves from a War Diary, consisting of letters to his wife. This book almost doubled as a travelogue, as he seemed to believe she'd want to hear details about every chateau in every village he went through. I believe it's just something he liked to do. Although I like to think I am an intelligent reader, I found Harbord has a tendency to write in a fashion that at times obfuscates more than enlightens. However, never think for a second James G. Harbord was not extremely intelligent—because he certainly was!

I read Harbord's Leaves from a War Diary some time ago, so I was eager to read this book when first I saw it in the library. Obviously much of the same ground is covered, but while the earlier book was more personal, this one was more of an academic exercise. Nevertheless, one thing I must say about Harbord is that he is thorough. He lists everyone who was at every meeting, prints letters in full as to what instructions were given when and by whom, as well as enumerating practically every expenditure and refund the Services of Supply had while he was their commanding officer. The book is also meticulously footnoted with appendices for all military personnel on the Baltic, within the Organization of the AEF, the Attack Order of the Second Division while he was its commanding officer, the Order of Battle of First Army in the Meuse-Argonne, plus a full list of the Fourteen Points by President Wilson, and the General Orders he gave to the SOS after the Armistice.

Harbord (Right of Pershing) on the Arrival Day in France, 14 June 1917

Again, Harbord seems to want to justify everything—so it makes one wonder at times what charges had been leveled against the senior staff in the nearly 20 years after the war. He also expresses a sadness that even then, before World War II, the Doughboys were starting to be forgotten. He makes a comment about nearly as many Americans dying every year in automobile accidents as died in combat to seemingly justify it in his own mind. Moreover, he was afraid the American people were believing the British views that we didn't contribute much to the end of the war and also that folks like Charles Lindbergh were being put on pedestals in a way that few, if any, American soldiers ever were.

A warning: parts of the book are very dry. The chapters where he breaks down train logistics, purchases for the Army, and organization and reimbursements of the overstock of supplies can be a chore. However, other sections make it worthwhile. It'll never be accused of being a "page turner" but I would definitely say that if you want a view of the war from someone near the top, this is a good book to read.

Courtland Jindra


  1. Thank you for this review.
    I'm especially curious to read either of Harbord's books, as he comes under serious criticism from Lengel.

  2. This became a "must read" as soon as I read the review. I, both as an ex soldier and an historian, share Harbord's utter detest of Lloyd George, LG cost the BEF a large number of casualties in late 1917 and early 1918 by starving the BEF of trained replacement.

  3. All in all, a far better book, and read, than Pershing's "My Experiences in the World War." And the nuts and bolts, political and logistical stuff can be very interesting.
    One particularly interesting part is Harbord's discussion of Pershing's stubbornly parsimonious attitude towards military decorations, which he considered on of the major failings of the AEF.

    Harbord was enormously proud of his time in command of the Marine brigade at Belleau Wood, and the 2nd Division at Soissons. But he was very much a devotee of Pershing's "cult of the rifleman", which downplayed artillery support, with resulting heavy casualties. All things considered, he was better employed in command of the SOS.

    Jim Cameron

  4. I'm glad to see the great detail here!. Militar