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 11, 2018

The AEF in Print
Reviewed by David F. Beer

The AEF in Print: An Anthology of American Journalism in World War I

Chris Dubbs and John-Daniel Kelley, Editors
University of North Texas Press, 2018

Arriving Over There

This is a fascinating collection of articles published in newspapers and magazines while America was involved in the Great War. Everyone wanted to know what it was like to be a Doughboy in the war, and the media was eager to tell them. Newspapers and magazines either sent their own correspondents to France or relied on larger papers or the news services such as the United Press and the Associated Press to supply material. Some magazines were able to send noted journalists or authors to the war zone and the experiences of some of these writers were often as interesting as the stories they sent home. Most reports had to be written with an eye to the censors, of course, but some writers seemed to skirt around them.

The AEF in Print's 11 chapters provide journalism in chronological order: Mobilization, Arrival in Europe, Learning to Fight, American Firsts, Battles, and the Armistice. Interspersed with these are chapters titled At Sea, In the Air, In the Trenches, Wounded Warriors, and Heroes. Some reports appeared either in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Herald or in widely read magazines like Collier's Weekly or the Saturday Evening Post, but many appeared in magazines and journals now unfamiliar to us as they have long been out of print. All articles tried to answer the readers' questions on how their boys were trained and turned into soldiers, how the troopships avoided U-boats, how our soldiers got along with the British and French, how bad life in the trenches was, how well did the AEF fight, and how the wounded and dead were taken care of. (xi-xii)

Many topics familiar to WWI students crop up in this material, but what makes the entries so interesting is their journalistic tone of the day. Some magazine articles such as those on Alvin York, the Lost Battalion, and Eddie Rickenbacker almost read like thrilling short stories. Others, such as the reports on the sinking of the Tuscania, fighting in no-man's-land, and the evacuation of wounded, are more somber. An article from the Salem, Oregon Daily Capital Journal on attempts to heal wounded faces has the byline "Hundred and thousands of fine men have been torn and mutilated until they scarce resemble human beings." (p. 262)

One striking article written by a famous war correspondent, Floyd Gibbons, for American Magazine, describes how he accompanied the Marines at Belleau Wood and was himself wounded. He actually received three wounds, including one that cost him his left eye. A full-page photo of the wounded Gibbons accompanies the article. An article by William Shepherd from Everybody's Magazine is equally riveting with his description of life on a navy destroyer trying to protect an Atlantic convoy from U-boats. Compare these stories for realism to one by William Stidger, presumably a chaplain, who writes of "Gas, Shell-Shock and Souls" for the October 1918 edition of The Outlook. He has visited a gas ward where he found patients such as a boy ". . . who could not speak above a whisper. He was gassed horribly, and, in addition to his lungs and his throat being burned out, his face and neck were scarred" (p. 249). Surprisingly the lad gives a lengthy and upbeat description of his earlier life as a choir boy. Stidger paints a rosy picture for his audience back home. The wounded always seem to be grinning and in good spirits, and he claims that ". . . no boy goes through the hell of fire and suffering and wounds that he does not come out new born. The old man is gone from him, and a new man is born" (p. 253). He prepares us for such sentiment earlier in his report: "And so it is with the whole American Army in France, it always has singing in its soul, and courage, and manliness, and daring, and hope. That kind of army can never be defeated." (p. 250)

Such rather jingoistic writing is not hard to find in these reports which, after all, are meant to buoy up the folks back home. It was so from the outset. Henri Bazin in the 6 July 1917 Philadelphia Evening Ledger writes on the French response to the arrival of our first troops:

No single event in the annals of the war was ever awaited with more intensity and ardor, with more earnest well-wishing, with so much desire, with so much pent-up enthusiasm that is straining at the leash, eager to make dents of joy in the atmosphere of Paris." (p. 50)

Nurses and Corpsmen at an American Base Hospital

In the same vein an American nurse, writing for the 19 October 1918 edition of The Bellman records a conversation with a French officer after Chateau-Thierry:

Mademoiselle…Ah! I must tell you. I must shake your hand. These are your soldiers who were at Chateau-Thierry. They were fighting beside my own regiment. How they get on together-the French and the Americans! And I tell you, mademoiselle, I do not say this because you are American-but they are magnificent. Nothing can stand against them. There is not one who is not the equal of our bravest French soldier! (p.262)

Yet we can forgive occasional impulses to stylistic exaggeration when we consider all the evocative and easily read material in this anthology. We find entertaining accounts of experiences and attitudes aimed at an audience we no longer have access to. These journalistic efforts take us back in a personal way to a time and society none of us were living in but that we can somehow link into. For a fascinating view of wartime America from a different perspective, I strongly recommend The AEF in Print.

David F. Beer


  1. Thnaks for your review - something I must clearly order. Appreciate it

  2. A very good review of a fascinating-sounding book. Thank you, David.

  3. Another great review. I have added the book to my reading list.