Author: Andrew Carroll
Title: "My Fellow Soldiers – General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War"
Publisher: Penguin Press 2017, 353 pages of text
Andrew Carroll is a historian who specializes in American war letters. In this compact history of the Great War, he uses excerpts from letters of generals, common soldiers, reporters and a nurse to give more intimate glimpses of the war.
His main emphasis is on the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, Gen. John J. Pershing. Though the war in Europe started in 1914, and the American Congress did not declare war on Germany until April 6, 1917, America was already in a limited war on the Texas and Mexico border trying to capture the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa, who had raided several villages in Texas.
Several items caught my attention. Pershing’s aide in the Mexican campaign was Lt. George Patton, who was sent into Mexico to secure food. He encountered three Villistas (Villa’s men) and, in a confrontation, killed them. Patton “tied the bodies to … their cars like hunted deer” and drove them back to headquarters. At the start of his campaign in August 1915, Pershing’s wife and three daughters were killed in a fire at the Presidio, with only his 6-year-old son surviving.
Pershing, in command of 12,000 federal troops, did not succeed in capturing Villa, but with the addition of National Guard troops to secure the border things settled down. With war declared on Germany, Pershing led the AEF in France.
In making Pershing’s appointment to command the AEF, the egos of several generals who wanted the job are on display, but Pershing, with the backing of President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker, proved to be the right choice. When the U.S. declared war, the regular Army only had 127,500 soldiers, but, by the end of 1918, 2 million American soldiers were in France.
Throughout the EAF involvement in France, both the French and the British insisted on Pershing assigning all new arriving soldiers into French and British units as replacements, but Pershing steadfastly refused as he was only going to allow American troops to fight in an American Army in its own sector of front.
But even that steadfast commitment gave way to racial prejudice as four regiments of black soldiers were assigned to the French. Thus, the first Americans to be decorated for heroism were two black soldiers decorated by the French.
Carroll points out the prejudice in the South endured. In Houston in August 1917, police abuse of a black woman and several black soldiers caused a black Army unit to take up arms, resulting in 15 whites being killed. One hundred and fifty-six members of the black battalion were arrested with 29 sentenced to death and 50 sentenced to life in prison. It is a disturbing chapter in this book.
I thoroughly enjoyed the letters of Capt. Harry Truman, whose artillery was fully engaged in the Meuse Argonne offensive that ended the war. Truman “was extremely proud of his wartime experience and the fact he didn’t lose a single member of his Battery D soldiers in combat.” The letters of Army nurse Alta May Andrews are particularly poignant as she writes about the horrific wounds she treated.
The story of Capt. George Marshall talking back to Pershing after an inspection is amazing. Marshall “was so enraged by Pershing’s censure and the demeaning way it was conducted that he grabbed the AEF commander’s shoulder as he was walking away and blurted out, ‘General Pershing, there’s something to be said here, and I think I should say it because I’ve been here the longest.’ Before anyone could stop him, Marshall unleashed a torrent of grievances.” Pershing ultimately promoted Marshall to colonel and assigned him to his staff to work out the logistics of the Meuse Argonne offensive. Marshall was a five star general in World War II as Army Chief of Staff.
Pershing’s life and loves are covered to give a full picture of what he did not only as AEF commander, but before and after the Great War. My only complaint is Carroll is loose with numbers. For instance, on one early page he states Wilson called up 100,000 National Guard troops to protect the border with Mexico, but 16 pages later he states the National Guard only had 66,500 troops. But overall, this is an excellent book. I love to read history and biography as I learn something new every time, and I learned a lot of new information with this book.