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 3, 2017

Thunder and Flames
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander

Thunder and Flames: America in the Crucible

by Edward Lengel
University Press of Kansas, 2015

As we progress through 2017, American attention is starting to refocus on this nation's role in the First World War. This has proven a fruitful time for new scholarly work on the subject, and Edward Lengel's book is a fine addition to the literature. It is "a study of AEF operations under French command" (9), excluding campaigns where Americans fought on their own. This means Thunder and Flames covers November 1917 through August 1918, and the battles over Seicheprey, Cantigny, Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, the defense of the Marne river line, Soissons, and Fismette.

Marines Undergoing Gas Mask Inspection Before Seeing Action

One of Lengel's major concerns is to revise a popular view of Americans as heroic strivers who saved the Allies from dilatory and incompetent French forces. The text goes to great lengths to establish the French as very skilled and effective fighters, whose achievements and generosity key American players ignored, downplayed, or publicly slandered (87, 199–200, 300). Meanwhile, American units all too often failed to learn from the French or even from each other, "each green unit entering combat had to learn the principles its predecessors had imbibed in blood" (10). This appeared in a number of reversals, such as stark defeat at Seicheprey, a failed attack at Fismette, and brutal, potentially disastrous casualties in Belleau Wood (169). All too often American forces marched in the open, exposed to well-sited enemy fire (120). Coordination with artillery and air power was slack (284–5, 322). Americans didn't make enough use of infiltration tactics (333). The French, despite being very kind to their inexperienced allies, privately expressed fears that Yank units might not hold up under the Western Front's terrible stresses (65).

1st Division Troops Assemble Before Attacking South of Soissons

Thunder and Flames does a good job depicting those awful pressures and how American soldiers coped. The account is deeply sympathetic to the AEF's men. Doughboys sometimes turned to dirty tricks, such as shooting apparently surrendering Germans, pretending to surrender in order to cause enemy soldiers to lower their guards (190), or "us[ing] captured Germans as human shields to approach enemy machine gun nests, 'as they would not shoot on their own men'" (175). The Germans played similarly foul, occasionally dressing up in American uniforms (182).

Above all, Lengel is generous to the fighting spirit and learning curve of Americans but is also quite critical of their leaders and the effort's subsequent reputation. He argues that some of the battles were less important than many accounts have argued, such as legendary Belleau Wood where "it is clear that the Americans never stopped a German drive on Paris" (117, 202–3). A substantial number of units spent time in training or otherwise occupied in rear areas even when the titanic Ludendorff Offensive was under way (35). General James Harbord comes in for frequent criticism (101, 120, 183, 288). He and others often failed to coordinate with French commanders and internally had a difficult time making large units work together (214, 218, 298). To be fair, later in the war the French failed to coordinate effectively as well (229). American supplies frequently ran short, especially of food and water; the French were much better at this, due in part to the post-Nivelle reforms of 1917 (276, 366).

Meanwhile, when they finally got into battle, Doughboys and lower-level officers learned how to fight the hard way (151), including employing gas discipline and determining how best to use combined arms (196). American troops soon won the admiration of their adversaries. Lengel isn't convinced that German sources called the Marines teufelhunde ("devil dogs") but does show that the enemy grew impressed by the Americans' eventual fighting prowess (192). Some French took to calling them Soldats le Terrible. (331) Americans played a key role in the Marne river line defense. As one participant put it in almost Churchillian style,

We did not drive the Boche back; we killed him by the thousands and those that we did not kill we took prisoners. We killed them before they crossed the river; we killed them in the river and we killed them on the south bank as fast as the machine guns and rifles could pump lead into them (237).

Lengel sums up: "the doughboys performed extraordinarily well. They had nothing to hang their heads about" (374).

A Camouflaged 75 the 119th Field Artillery Before Fismes

Historiographically, Thunder and Flames is excellent. Lengel draws deeply on multiple primary sources, including—thankfully—those from German and French archives (viii). We read many assessments and accounts from participants, which gives us personal details, along with interesting observations from complementary allies or enemies in battle. Well-chosen personal accounts bring the war's horror vividly home:

We groped forward through the roaring, flashing thunder. Men stumbled over each other in the trench bottoms. The darkness was now violet and now splotched with green, yellow, and red flames of fire. Gravel rained on our helmets, trees fell, we choked in swirls of dust. We tripped over a figure, whose piercing screams sounded muffled in the terrifying din. Now shadowy, now vivid forms huddled against the walls of the fire trench. . .Flashing detonations filled the woods, the whine of shells half-obscured by the thundering noise. We staggered through stretches of trench and crawled around a series of erupting bayous (221–2).

[A]n old Frenchman (he looked at least 50) in a tattered blue uniform was walking slowly down the road carrying on his back, toward the dressing station, a wounded American Doughboy. Every time I have felt annoyed since then at France, this picture comes to my mind and my anger softens (277).

Physically, Thunder and Flames is fairly satisfying. It offers a short but good selection of historical photographs (156–162). Maps are interesting and sometimes useful, being drawn from a 1938 American Battle Monuments Commission work, as well as a more recent Center for Military History series. Lengel's narrative sometimes mentions details those maps do not present, which can be frustrating. Otherwise, they are well situated in the text and do a decent job of letting the reader follow the general flow of combat. Lengel also points us to a very rich University of Alabama archive of division history maps at:

Thunder and Flames is strongly recommended.

Bryan Alexander


  1. Good review Bryan, thanks. I read this book; it's good, but in my opinion Lengel gives too much credence to what the French and Germans had to say over what the Americans had to say. At Belleau Wood they were under French command; it was a French commander who ordered the attacks, I do believe. The actions around Fisme and Fismette were the same way. Certainly the Americans needed to pay more attention to what the French had learned as far as tactics, in particular the use of artillery and machine guns. Anyway, Lengel's conclusions are certainly debatable.
    Pete Belmonte

  2. I just finished this book and can only echo both the comments and review. I particular,I was most interested in the chapters on Soisson and the Meuse-Aisne operations. While perhaps a bit harsh on the Franco-American relationship, overall I found it a most useful read and certainly a great addition to the bookshelf.
    I'd be interested in recommendations on materials related to the US II Corps, which I believe operated under the BEF and those "interoperability challenges." I'd guess there were many similar issues.

    1. Try BORROWED SOLDIERS by Mitchell Yockelson for a full examination of the US II Corps.