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

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Pershing’s Lieutenants: American Military Leadership in World War I

Edited by David T. Zabecki and Douglas V. Mastriano
Osprey Publishing, 2023
John D Beatty, Reviewer

Panthéon de la Guerre, Detail
National WWI Museum, Kansas City, MO

(Click on Image to Enlarge)

In the pantheon of books on WWI, you can count the number of works on American leadership during the Great War on the fingers of one hand. There are many essays on the U.S. Army’s education system before 1920, but they are buried in dusty archives and specialist publications. Pershing’s Lieutenants is an effort to correct that with 26 essays of selected officers at all levels of command and as a bonus give some insight on just why the officer pool was so limited.

MG Zabecki is no stranger to many, having several military history works under his name or aegis; this reviewer wrote several essays for Garland's World War Two in Europe: An Encyclopedia that Zabecki edited. Douglas V. Mastriano is a Pennsylvania state senator who wrote a well-received biography of Alvin York. The two editors together wrote the introduction and wrote several essays.

Well-known scholars wrote all the essays that are grouped into classifications such as future chiefs of staff of the U.S. Army, future commandants of the U.S. Marine Corps, the senior staff officers, the army commanders, corps and division commanders, the specialist officers, and the regimental officers. The count of essays in each section is uneven, but that hardly matters.

The biggest section is the future chiefs of staff. All five officers are familiar—Hines, Summerall, MacArthur, Craig, Marshall—and appear in the order they served in the top spot. The same for the commandants—Lejeune and Neville. After those two, the order no longer matters. What matters is the quality of the essays and how they convey the message the editors want to pass on: America went into WWI in something of a muddle, but came out of it with a greater sense not just of leadership but also of organization. The army commanders and the corps and division commanders sections exemplify this sense. From the very highest echelons to the very lowest, not just organization but the fundamentals of Western Front warfare in 1917 had to be learned and developed in a hurry. It becomes painfully obvious, reading the essays, that Pershing’s draconian policy of removing officers who couldn’t measure up or were not physically fit was essential.

The specialist officers section has interesting vignettes of familiar names. While Billy Mitchell was indeed a specialist, George Patton was a cavalry officer assigned to the early tanks and nearly died in the Meuse-Argonne. The regimental officers section contains a future president of the United States (Harry Truman), a future head of the OSS (Bill Donovan), and the son of a president (Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.). The appendix, "U.S. Army Professional Military Education in the Early 20th Century," is essential to understanding why the leadership pickings were so slim. Pershing had a very shallow pool to select from, and the appendix shows why. Though they don’t mention it, the Navy/Marine Corps education system wasn’t a lot better.

The list of officers is hardly comprehensive, but all the essays are complete bios, some spending more space outside the 1917–18 time frame than in it. But the essays highlight the reasons behind the selection of these men over others, sometimes for negative reasons. The United States was still in its adolescence in 1917, though it grew up in an awful hurry. The leadership of the Army and Marine Corps was better than was to be expected in 1917, and Pershing’s Lieutenants reflects assessment. Well worth the time, if only for an appreciation of the interaction among leadership, experience, and education.

John D Beatty

1 comment:

  1. Thank You for this review of the book Pershing Lieutenants; these essays are where a person can appreciate the evolution and maturation of the American leadership concerning the military during WW1. It explores an underexplored aspect of American History where the development of American Leadership through the lack of resources helped win the war.