June 2016 Book Reviews
U.S. Troops in French Battle Get Respect
Rock of the Marne: The American Soldiers Who Turned the Tide Against the Kaiser in World War I. Stephen L. Harris. Berkley Caliber. 368 pages. $27.95
By Lt. Col. Timothy R. Stoy, U.S. Army retired
Stephen L. Harris, author of three nonfiction books about New York’s National Guard regiments in World War I, has produced a well-written, diligently researched and insightful book on an important chapter of the American Expeditionary Forces’ history in World War I.
The Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918 was a French battle, commanded by French generals, with American divisions interspersed among French units and taking their direction from French commanders. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Division occupied a critical sector on the Marne River between Chateau-Thierry and Dormans. This book tells the division’s story through the detailed account of the battle as it was fought by the 30th and 38th Infantry Regiments of the 3rd Division’s Sixth Brigade, which held decisive terrain in the 38th French Army Corps’ sector.
The greatest strength of this book is its focus on individual soldiers and leaders and how their actions made the critical difference between victory and defeat. Harris’s narrative transports the reader to the banks of the Marne in July 1918, with the thunder of artillery; the crack of snipers’ bullets; the chatter of machine guns; the screaming of wounded and frightened horses; the smell of explosives mixed with that of gas, blood, vomit, and the excrement and urine of dying men and animals; the whispered prayers and wild screams of men in the maelstrom of combat; the disorientation caused by hours of artillery, darkness, and the inability to see while wearing protective masks; and the loss of all communications when commanders had no idea what was happening in their units. These are all brought to life in this gripping, vivid and fast-paced narrative and increase our respect for the men who endured this.
Harris provides a detailed account of the division’s 7th Machine Gun Battalion’s fight in Chateau-Thierry at the end of May in support of French forces. He also discusses the 7th Infantry Regiment’s action in Belleau Wood while it was attached to the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division. He places each action in context and gives recognition to these units for actions incorrectly attributed to, or solely credited to, the U.S. Marine brigade serving with the 2nd Division.
Harris covers the French concept of elastic defense—the result of lessons learned in earlier fighting when the 6th French Army was routed on the Chemin des Dames in May 1918 because it had not conducted its defense in depth. Students of command will be mystified as they read how these two adjacent U.S. infantry regiments could have such varied plans for the conduct of the defense in this critical sector. What were the brigade and division commanders doing if not ensuring such plans were properly coordinated and following the commander’s intent?
Harris writes in detail of Col. Edmund L. Butts of the 30th Infantry and Col. Ulysses Grant McAlexander of the 38th Infantry, and explains how their different experiences and personalities impacted the conduct of the battle. Both commanders recognized the decisive terrain in their sectors—the 30th, the Bois d’Aigremont; the 38th, the Surmelin River valley. McAlexander believed the best place to stop the attack was on the river itself; Butts believed it could be defeated by massed machine gun, artillery and small-arms fires on the friendly side of the river, in accordance with the elastic defense of the French Corps commander.
I have walked the terrain in both sectors and viewed it from the German positions. Harris’s narrative takes me back to that terrain, which the reader must understand to appreciate the challenges presented to both regiments and why the commanders chose to defend as they did.
Harris writes of the battalion and company commanders and the challenges they faced in this confusing battle. In both regiments’ sectors, subordinate commanders followed their regimental commanders’ intents and achieved victory despite little to no contact with their higher headquarters for most of the battle.
Harris provides important insights on the German army, its plans for the battle, the backgrounds of its commanders, and its conduct of the fight. I was struck by the rigid timetable developed by German planners for the actual attack on July 15, and how it took absolutely no account of the enemy’s actions and resistance. They fully expected a total collapse of the defense within the first hours of the attack.
It is heartbreaking to learn that Maj. Gen. Joseph T. Dickman, the 3rd Division commander, was informed by the French of the exact time the German artillery bombardment was to commence hours beforehand but failed to inform his front-line commanders, resulting in hundreds of men being caught in the open by German artillery. This was a terrible failure of command.
Another command failure at the division level was a fires plan that envisioned massive artillery bombardment of the friendly bank of the Marne River once front-line units withdrew to their intermediate positions, as envisioned by an elastic defense. This resulted in fratricide as the 38th Infantry Regiment had no intention of abandoning its positions along the Marne, and the 30th Infantry front-line units had no opportunity to withdraw from the river.
Harris writes movingly of the fate of four companies of the 28th Division that were attached to the French 125th Division on the 3rd Division’s right flank. These soldiers displayed extreme heroism as they were left to fight alone on critical terrain when the 125th Division withdrew upon the initiation of the attack.
This book is an excellent examination of a U.S. Army still learning how to conduct war at the operational and tactical levels. More importantly, it is a worthy tribute to the men of the 3rd Division who earned it the immortal name of Rock of the Marne on July 15, 1918.
Lt. Col. Timothy R. Stoy, USA Ret., is the historian for the 15th Infantry Regiment Association and the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division.
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Anglo-American Alliance Proved Eminently Effective
Eisenhower’s Armies: The American-British Alliance During World War II. Niall Barr. Pegasus Books. 548 pages. $35
By Col. Cole C. Kingseed, U.S. Army retired
The Anglo-American military alliance during World War II proved to be perhaps the most effective military alliance in history. Born in tension yet united in common purpose, the unification of military effort between Great Britain and the U.S. resulted in military cooperation in an unprecedented way.
In Eisenhower’s Armies, British author Niall Barr explores the nature of the military alliance and traces the relationship between the British and American armies within the European Theater. Barr is a reader in military history—similar to associate professor—in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. He previously taught at the University of St. Andrews and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He has published numerous military histories including Yanks and Limeys: Alliance Warfare in the Second World War and Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein.
Why another book on the Anglo-American alliance in World War II? Barr contends that “the sheer depth, scale and scope of the alliance between Britain and the United States during the Second World War is hard to comprehend even now.”
Eisenhower’s Armies is not “an exhaustive history of the alliance or of the campaigns fought by either army. It is, rather, about two armies as they fought in the largest war in history, and an attempt to explain how they cooperated, learned from, and also, at times, ignored one another.”
Barr begins his narrative by reviewing the “family legacy” between the British and American soldiers dating to the French and Indian War. Over the next 150 years, however, culminating in World War I and its aftermath, there was virtually no meaningful contact between the soldiers of the British and American armies. One of the consequences of this estrangement was that when World War II erupted in 1939, “the two armies were strangers to one another just as they had been in 1917,” when the U.S. entered World War I.
In telling the story of the evolution of military cooperation between the West’s two principal allies, Barr relates not so much an untold story as he does a well-told story. British Maj. Gen. Hastings Ismay, then Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s chief of staff; and Sir John Dill, Churchill’s and the British Army’s representative in Washington, D.C.; played critical roles in fostering Anglo-American solidarity.
When Dill died, Field Marshal Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, said, “His loss is quite irreparable, and he is irreplaceable in Washington. Without him, I do not know how we should have got through the last three years.” On the American side, Barr introduces Brig. Gen. Raymond E. Lee, who served as the U.S. military attache in London from 1935 to 1939.
The culmination of British-American cooperation, of course, was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s creation of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, or SHAEF, that managed “the Great Crusade” of D-Day. Following the campaign in Sicily in which British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery had sought to relegate the U.S. Seventh Army to a supporting role, Eisenhower made it evident that the defeat of Nazi Germany would be the result of an Allied endeavor, not contingent on either American or British dominance.
Much of SHAEF’s groundwork had been laid with the creation of the chief of staff to the Supreme Allied Commander in 1943. The position was to establish “a combined American and British staff to work on the vast amount of detail required to mount” a cross-English Channel invasion in 1944.
What made Anglo-American cooperation a reality was Eisenhower, who clearly “understood that the role and effectiveness of a supreme commander rested almost entirely on trust and personal relationships.” In his own words, Eisenhower recognized “that the job of the supreme commander was to strive for ‘mutual respect and confidence among the group of seniors making up the allied command.’” Though Montgomery and Gen. George S. Patton Jr. were often contemptuous of Eisenhower’s “chairman of the board” approach, Eisenhower effectively directed SHAEF at war.
In the final analysis, Montgomery and Patton were far better national commanders than they were Allied commanders. Barr posits that Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden in September 1944 “also marked the last chance for a British-inspired victory that might have ended the war.” Henceforth, Eisenhower exerted his command influence over national commanders and their staffs.
Barr lauds Eisenhower’s management of Allied forces in the Battle of the Bulge. He argues that if Eisenhower “had been the weak-minded and poor commander of Montgomery’s accusations, he might well have listened to the repeated and strongly worded British advice, and the results could have been catastrophic.” And by V-E Day, it was the supreme commander who had done the “most to ensure that the Anglo-American armies worked together and finally achieved their objective.”
How, then, does one account for the effectiveness of the American-British alliance during World War II? Eisenhower, who launched D-Day with his simple “OK, let’s go” order, explained in a letter to Ismay how the Americans and British pulled it off:
“While it is true that during the war we had the compelling motive of a common fear to stick together, the fact is that we had present in early 1942 … all of the ingredients for a profound pessimism and for mutual recrimination. In spite of the black outlook, we buckled down and did the job. … The historical truth [is] that the United States and the British Empire, working together, did a job that looked almost impossible at the time it was undertaken.”
Col. Cole C. Kingseed, USA Ret., Ph.D., a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, is a writer and consultant.
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Entertaining Portrait of a Brief Time in Uniform
The General’s Briefer. Bob Woolsey. 278 pages. MindtheMargins LLC. $24.95
By Chuck Vinch
Senior Staff Writer
Even as it touches on a broad variety of national and world events, former Capt. Bob Woolsey’s The General’s Briefer stays within a relatively narrow context: the author’s two-year career as an Army officer in the momentous era of the late 1960s.
Now “semi-retired” from a subsequent 38-year career as a trusts and estates attorney in New York and New Jersey, Woolsey has written a book recounting his entry into the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps in 1968.
The book consists of 61 economical chapters, with the shortest covering just two pages and the longest 13, in which Woolsey describes a military wedding dripping with Irish nuance and copious amounts of alcohol, right down to the band playing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling as the groom and his mother take to the dance floor at the reception.
Woolsey’s memoir is a true fish-out-of-water story. He received no less than five draft deferments while attending law school, which he admits he hated but said was better than “slogging through some Southeast Asian jungle swatting away mosquitos … so, like any self-respecting coward of the ’60s, I stayed in school. … I loved my country. I just hated the jerks that got us bogged down over in Southeast Asia.”
But he is eventually inducted, writing, “The first few weeks of training were brutal. … All my years of smoking, guzzling beer, and avoiding physical activity had turned my 26-year-old body into one more akin to that of a puffy, out-of-shape, 50-year-old man.”
He survives, then feels as if he won the lottery when he opens his first assignment orders and, rather than a ticket to Southeast Asia, finds himself assigned to the Army’s Intelligence Support Branch in the Pentagon, specifically to the team charged with summarizing field reports from the war zone and elsewhere around the world and providing oral briefings early each morning to top Army intelligence officers.
Woolsey doesn’t actually report to the Pentagon until Chapter 23, more than one-third of the way in. But when he does, he hits his stride with his assumption of his book’s title role. In breezy, fast-paced prose spiced with a dash of absurdity that brings to mind your best buddy waxing nostalgic over a few beers at the local pub, he takes readers deep inside the surrealistic bowels of the five-sided behemoth in an era when the Cold War in Europe mixed uneasily with the hot war in Vietnam.
He serves up anecdotes that touch on a diverse range of subjects both global and personal: the antics of his initial immediate supervisor, a hapless major who seems to be in way over his head at the Pentagon; the emergence of Saddam Hussein to a position of authority in Iraq; Soviet forces leading a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia; and his attendance at one of newly elected President Richard Nixon’s inaugural balls, to name but a few.
For good measure, he describes meeting another Army captain named Robert J. Woolsey, the only difference being their middle names—John for the author, James for his new acquaintance. That would be the same Robert J. Woolsey who, a quarter-century later, would become head of the CIA.
The General’s Briefer never gets too deep and offers no truly profound insights. But it does serve up a consistently entertaining portrait both of the momentous events in its specific late-1960s time frame as well as a variety of military archetypes and scenarios that remain timeless.
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New Look at Shooting Not for Casual Reader
Death on Base: The Fort Hood Massacre. Anita Belles Porterfield and John Porterfield. University of North Texas Press. 384 pages. $29.95
By Col. Kevin C.M. Benson, U.S. Army retired
The dust jacket comments on this book call it “expertly told” and “a reliable case study [that] fills a gap in the research literature on violence, terrorism, mass murder, military justice, and so-called workplace violence.” I offer a different view. I found this book hard to follow because it appears to me the authors tried to write a book that is an exposé, a history and a psychology text.
The book begins with a compelling description of the attack at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2009. It ends with a lengthy recount of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s court-martial, including the continuing trials and tribulations of Hasan’s 43 wounded victims and the relatives of the 12 soldiers and one civilian he killed. (Hasan was found guilty and sentenced to death.)
The opening of the book is gripping. The conclusion is just that: The book ends, although the details of the military trial itself are of interest, even more so for a law school class I offer.
Interspersed with the tale of the radicalization of Hasan are stories of famous or infamous mass murderers, because this book is part of a series about North Texas crime and criminal justice. I inferred the authors’ intent was to highlight the clues of radicalization on the part of Hasan by comparing his act of terror to other mass shooting events, ranging from the University of Texas clock tower killings to the Virginia Tech mass murder. The links may be there, but I did not see them.
Another somewhat compelling but underdeveloped series of vignettes are the continuing troubles of the wounded survivors and families of the victims. Hasan’s attack was initially classified as workplace violence as opposed to a terrorist attack. This cold-blooded decision, the authors imply, was based solely on fiscal considerations as the benefits are greater for victims of terrorism. The authors build this point by cataloging the struggles of survivors and their families, and then in an understated way letting the reader know Congress passed a law reconciling this injustice.
This is a minor point but after praising their editor for correcting spelling and grammar errors, the text includes reference to the “calvary” when, of course, it should be “cavalry.”
This should be a compelling story but as written, I found it tough to get through. Perhaps the utility of the book, as one dust jacket comment cited, is as a case study for use in the psychology department of a university.
Col. Kevin C.M. Benson, USA Ret., Ph.D., served in armor and cavalry assignments in Europe and the U.S. He also served as the C/J-5 for Combined Forces Land Component Command during the initial invasion of Iraq and as director, School of Advanced Military Studies. He has a doctorate in history from the University of Kansas.