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

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Over There: America in the Great War
Reviewed by David F. Beer

Over There: America in the Great War

by Robert J. Dalessandro and Rebecca S. Dalessandro
Stackpole Books (Stackpole Military Photo Series), 2016

Author Robert Dalessandro Discussing Over There on CSpan2's "Book Notes"

Plenty of books have titles beginning with "Over There", but this one is different. Having read many books (some too long) on the Great War, I found it relaxing yet engaging to look through the Dalessandros' collection of some 360 black and white photos plus a few maps and war art. Although I was already familiar with a handful of the photos, most were new to me, and despite a few captions being not quite accurate, the book as a whole is enjoyable and informative.

Nine chapters visually take us in chronological order through the American experience of WWI from conscription to eventual homecoming. Introductions to each chapter are concise yet detailed enough to refresh our memory of the course of events covered by the photos. Most pages contain two or three photos, but the book's first photo is a moving full-page one of the poet Joyce Kilmer's grave accompanied by his apt words:

At present I am a poet trying to be a soldier. To tell the truth, I am not interested in writing nowadays, except in so far as writing is the expression of something beautiful…. The only sort of book I care to write about the war is the sort people will read after the war is over-a century after it is over (iv).

From Chapter 1, "Doughboys, Gobs, and Devil Dogs," to Chapter 9, "Hello Miss Liberty," we follow a visual history of American recruits, Doughboys, Marines, airmen, sailors, medical workers, and a few German prisoners. Some photos I found fascinating included a group of Naval Reserve "Yeomanettes," a Doughboy peeling onions—gas mask on, a treatment room for gassed patients, a desperate attempt to escape a torpedoed vessel, and a rather tense American major high up in an observation balloon. One depicts a soldier perilously carried aloft by the giant Perkins man-carrying kite, while another shows an aerial observer trying his best to slide down a rope from his blimp. There are several scenes of roads hopelessly congested by men, munitions, horses, wagons, and artillery, including a painting by war artist George Matthews Harding.

Many portraits of soldiers, some known, some unknown, are included in this book. Several are of family groups or of husband (in uniform) and wife. Some are interesting "buddy" gatherings in different locations and involved in various activities or stances. Also, the authors are quite open about the discrimination practiced by American society and the military at this time, and present several photos of African-American soldiers in action or posing for portraits. The last two pages of the book give striking photos of smart, handsome African-Americans in uniform, the final being of Captain Elijah Reynolds of the 368th Infantry Regiment, who served 30 years in the regular army before he was finally commissioned.

One of the highlights of this book is an insert of several pages in color which allow some optic contrast from the abundance of black-and-white photos. Here we find informative captions and pictures of war posters, uniforms, insignia, and weapons, plus some excellent reproductions of war art. Notable among these are samples of the work of Samuel Johnson Woolf, who served as an artist-correspondent during both World Wars I and II. His paintings reproduced here are among the most effective examples of war art I have seen.

It's fitting that this collection was put together by the former chairman of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, Col. Robert J. Dalessandro, USA (Ret.), with the help of Rebecca S. Dalessandro. Colonel Dalessandro has an impressive background in military studies, having been director of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center and chief of military history at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. At the time of the book's publication he was also deputy secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Their presentation of Over There: America in the Great War is a fine example of how a photograph can be worth a thousand words. It is a worthy tribute to the men and women who in one way or another played their part in the First World War.

David F. Beer


  1. Great review David, thanks. Sounds like a book I "must have"!

  2. You have added another perspective to this book through your review. A re-read is in order. Cheers

  3. A picture says a thousand words.