“World War I marked the death of the old world and the emergence of the modern era.” A century later, a prolific military historian revives one of that cataclysm’s most iconic personal stories.
In 1921, one decorated World War I veteran chose the “Unknown Soldier,” and eight others solemnly bore his casket to its tomb in Arlington National Cemetery. Realizing that their remarkable stories would make a compelling background for a history of this monument, O’Donnell (Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution, 2016, etc.), in his first book about WWI, strikes gold with vivid accounts of nine often horrendous battlefield experiences. The American Army fought under Gen. John J. Pershing, whom the author admires but also takes to task for some of his flawed convictions that led to immense casualties. Seven of O’Donnell’s soldiers fought bravely, won medals, and often suffered grievous wounds in the iconic battles in Belleau Wood, Saint-Mihiel, and the final, brutal, perhaps unnecessary Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Of the two sailors, one sustained nearly fatal burns but saved his torpedoed ship; the other spent weeks as a prisoner aboard a U-boat and more than a year in a prison camp. The author is good at turning up “untold stories” from America’s wars—five of his previous books include those words in the subtitle—and he accompanies lively, well-researched accounts of these admirable, sometimes-heroic men with histories of our unknown soldiers (there are now three) and a fervent, American-oriented version of the final year of the war (arriving in the nick of time, Pershing’s forces saved the day) that even American scholars no longer hold.
Serious history buffs may roll their eyes, but if they concentrate on the lives of the main characters and less on the patriotic frills, they will not regret the reading experience.