An impressive historical debut that gazes behind time’s curtain at the startling, pivotal experiences of the American fighting men of WWI.
Financial Times journalist Mead swings for the fences in his self-proclaimed attempt to rescue the experience of the two million men who served in France and Russia in 1917–18 from an odd ahistorical perspective that undeniably awards more veneration to tales of more recent, resonant wars. It’s an extremely dense work, scrupulously researched, with efforts made to capture a vanished pre-1920s American idiom, which engrosses the reader despite some awkwardness of scale. Mead asserts that “without the Doughboys the Allies (Britain and France) would not have defeated the Central Powers”; yet he also explores the conflicts between the officers and aims of the American Expeditionary Force and those of their European allies, citing “tremendous antipathy” that resulted in privations for American soldiers, while their contributions were overlooked. Mead uses original sources, including doughboy journals, letters, and memoirs, which eloquently convey the unschooled early-century elegance of simple men hurled unsuspectingly into the abyss; although he evinces great respect for these men, a more acid tone creeps in when addressing the pompous founts of war fever among politicians, hack journalists, and munitions-makers holding Allied debts. Much narrative is devoted to crisp, hair-raising depictions of what awaited the American conscripts on the Western Front, seemingly with scrupulous attention to true military chronology. Yet Mead also evokes the major personalities behind the war, like General Pershing and his often irritating Allied counterparts, as well as the frosty, idealistic President Wilson. The author balances an essentially military history with perceptive portrayals of the war at home, examining the strangulation of civil liberties and the mob vengeance directed at naturalized Germans and war resisters; he also devotes sober discussion to the cruel lot of African-American doughboys, who found themselves excluded from the “freedom” they fought for, and whose valor was falsely impugned.
A fine account of the Great War that deserves consideration alongside recent, more acclaimed studies.