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 27, 2018

Thunder in the Argonne
Reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

Thunder in the Argonne: 
A New History of America's Greatest Battle

by Douglas V. Mastriano
University Press of Kentucky, 2018

Soldiers of the 89th Division at Stenay Moments Before the Armistice

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the largest "battle" in American history. With its centennial upon us (September 2018), it is fitting that a book be published covering this offensive, part of the Allied push that ended the war. Douglas V. Mastriano has added to our understanding of the events of that offensive in this book. Colonel Mastriano is Director of Theater Intelligence, Department of Military Strategy, Planning and Operation, at the U.S. Army War College. Among his previous works is an award-winning book about Sergeant Alvin York, Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne (Lexington, 2014). Mastriano covers each section of the battle line chronologically, and almost all of the American divisions are mentioned, some in more depth than others. The 35th and 79th Divisions are singled out because of their failure in the first part of the battle, although the 79th, a green unit that was given the hardest assignment on the first day, rebounded somewhat. Mastriano mentions the 33rd Division, on the American right flank, as an example of the proper execution of tactics early in the battle. In addition, and what sets this book apart from others on the topic, the author includes much on the German side of the battle.

The Author on a 2006 Visit to the Argonne
Mastriano expertly weaves into his narrative the stories of individuals who made a difference. Of course, there were thousands of instances of valor, witnessed and otherwise, and it's impossible to capture them all. But Mastriano has done a good job of selecting a representation of the grit and determination of the Americans who fought in the offensive. Some of the men and incidents in the book are well known. For example, most readers are familiar with Sergeant Alvin York, Lieutenant Sam Woodfill, and Major Charles Whittlesey and the "Lost Battalion." But the exploits of men like Major James E. Rieger and Captain Charles Harris are less well known. Mastriano emphasizes that these men, and others like them, persevered through strength of character. These men made an impact that "echoes across the generations inch into eternity" (p. 353).

The author is firmly of the opinion that the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) triumphed despite General John J. Pershing, whom he portrays as distracted, petty, and tactically inept. This is debatable; Pershing was put into an almost impossible position. The pressures he faced should not be discounted; he had to balance calls for action with his desire to continue to adequately train his men prior to committing them to battle. Certainly his leadership style, with his penchant for relieving subordinate commanders who failed to perform adequately, fostered mistrust and stifled initiative.

But there is evidence that Pershing was not as tactically bankrupt as is usually portrayed. Despite his emphasis on "musketry," he advocated the use of combined arms even though training and execution often fell behind the ideal. His insistence on the superiority of the rifle surely needed to be tempered by the reality of modern war. In the end, as shown by Mastriano, the AEF learned in the field under fire. In any event, this review is not the appropriate venue for a debate about the state and evolution of American tactics during the war; suffice it to say that neither the Americans, the British, nor the French had a monopoly on tactical mistakes and occasional ineptitude, even as late as the summer of 1918. Likewise, many historians would do well to at least acknowledge the fact that the AEF faced a steep learning curve; they learned perhaps even quicker than their allies.

The author's method of referring to U.S. units is inconsistent and somewhat annoying. In a single paragraph we find: "35th Division," "35th," "U.S. 92nd Division," "U.S. 1st Infantry Division," and "1st Division." He consistently, and erroneously, refers to the 1st Division as the 1st Infantry Division, a name that became standard in later years when the creation of armored and cavalry divisions made the insertion of the modified "Infantry" necessary. But this can be considered a pet peeve, and it doesn't detract from the historical value of the work. He also refers to the 77th Division as a New York National Guard division when, in fact, it was a National Army division composed initially of draftees from the New York metropolitan area. Again, this is a minor concern that doesn't affect the overall work.

There are many photographs of the men who fought and numerous helpful maps of the battle. Mastriano used a wide variety of primary and secondary sources; his research in German archives has borne fruit in showing their side of the story. Mastriano's bibliography contains more than 450 resources, ample fodder for further reading. There are at least two other recent books covering the Meuse-Argonne Offensive: Edward Lengel's To Conquer Hell (New York, 2008) and Mitch Yockleson's Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing's Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army (New York, 2016). Mastriano's work complements, rather than replaces them. This book is recommended to those who want to read a fine account of this offensive and to those who would like to learn about the German side of the fighting.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. An excellent review! And thank you also for mentioning the description of the German side of the event. That's unusual.

    Robert Warwick

  2. This was really helpful, Pete. Several points I was unaware of--and now I have to get the book and read it!

  3. Thanks gentlemen, it's a very good book. I don't mean to be so "nit-picky" with the unit designations, but it's a pet peeve. Mastriano's book about Sgt. York is worth reading, too.
    Pete Belmonte

  4. I think just about all WWI generals have both advocates and detractors (probably all generals period really). Pershing has many of both. He'll be debated forever.