I recently saw Edward Lendel speak on his book To Conquer Hell about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during World War I. He asked his audience why more Americans didn’t know about this battle involving nearly 1 million American soldiers or about the American participation in World War I at all.
I was thinking about this question as I read Professor Lendel’s well-written history. I thought back to my youth.
I recalled sitting at a dinner table with my dad, and my two grandfathers back 45 years ago. Dad was a World War II vet. His father, Edwin, had joined the American army when the country went to war, but had not completed his stateside training before the Armistice. My mom’s father, Joe, had not joined, and there were rumors that he had avoided the draft.
The Vietnam War was going on and the folks Tom Bokaw would call The Greatest Generation were showing themselves to be The Most Annoying Generation, something we don’t mention often these days. The victorious World War II vets would buttonhole devastated guys returning from Vietnam and mock their failure to “beat a bunch of gooks in the jungle”. And any time a World War I vet mentioned “his war”, the World War II guys would say something like “You didn’t finish the job, so we had to”.
My two grandpas were of the World War I generation. Edwin and his brother served. They were both born in the United States, but they had the German name “Jung”. While they were in the military, ready to die for America, their family was subjected to anti-German threats and harassment and changed the name to “Young”.
Grandpa Joe, born on the Lower East Side, didn’t see why he should “fight for freedom” when that meant he would be defending the British Empire which still held his cousins in Ireland in thrall. The fact that the British had violently suppressed a revolt in Dublin the year before the Americans joined the fight, shooting Irish prisoners, did not make World War I popular among Irish American New Yorkers.
Both grandfathers told me that they knew there was no glory in going to fight that war before the U.S. got in it. The war had already been dragging on for three years before the Americans entered, and everyone understood that the Western Front was a scene of industrialized butchery.
My family experience probably explains a lot about our failure of memory of the Great War. It was unpopular with many Americans, who saw it as a defense of French and British imperialism. The carnage was so horrific that Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war”. It led to outbreaks of prejudice against Americans of German descent, our largest ethnic group. And it seemed to settle nothing. It didn’t forestall the next war, it may have even caused it.
The brief American experience in the War also has something to do with its failure to imprint on our consciousnesses. Most American troops were fighting in Europe for less than two months when the war ended. Nearly all American casualties were sustained in the last six weeks of the war. For Americans, this was not an epic struggle, it was a short experience of brutality under inept leaders.
The fact that America was England’s and France’s junior partner did not help matters any.
Lengel’s book on the war is a nicely written, somewhat old-fashioned, military history.
You’ll learn that the French and British, in the first days of the War back in 1914, innocently believed that fighting spirit conquered all. They launched massed infantry attacks into the face of harrowing German machine gun fire over and over during the early days of the war only to see thousands of their soldiers killed in a matter of days. They adapted by turning to trench warfare, utilizing infiltration tactics on the offense rather than Napoleonic charges.
When the American commander Pershing led his army to France in 1918, he was sure his allies had it all wrong. As a modern American he advocated a return to the tactics that had failed so miserably in 1914, thereby insuring the needless deaths of thousands of his soldiers. He adopted the same approach to the battlefield as had been used so disastrously by Robert E. Lee on July 3, 1863!
Pershing had been a emotional shell since his wife and children had been burned to death in their army house in San Francisco. He became emotionally incapacitated and intellectually rigid. He came to be seen as an amateur by the other allied commanders and as a butcher by many of his men.
Pershing’s West Pointer underlings hurried the citizen soldiers under their command to their deaths. The men of the American Expeditionary Force may have fought out of patriotic devotion, but their leaders often utilized their men primarily to promote their own careers. Knowing that Pershing valued the commanders’ ability to order soldiers into suicidal charges, these general and colonels would not spare their men’s blood if it interfered with the chance for promotion.
Five decades after 1918, an oral historian interviewed aged veterans of the Great War. One, who soldiered throughout the Meuse-Argonne battle, was asked what he thought of the battle. “Well, I think it was a fucked-up mess”, he responded. The historian wrote that nearly all the other retired soldiers held the same view.
Most of the Americans killed in World War I were killed in the last weeks of the war. Many were killed or permanently maimed on the last day of the war by officers ordering charges even though they knew the war was within minutes of ending. Glory, even the glory of vain attacks, was the path to promotion and too many American officers placed their careers above the lives of their men.
Why don’t we remember the Great War? We Americans are not fond of our mistakes.
Note: I wrote a separate blog about Lengel’s treatment of immigrant soldiers during the war. Turns out the Army was a bi-lingual service in which about 15% of soldiers were foreign born, with many not speaking English.