To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918

Overview

The authoritative, dramatic, and previously untold story of the bloodiest battle in American history: the epic fight for the Meuse-Argonne in World War I

On September 26, 1918, more than one million American soldiers prepared to assault the German-held Meuse-Argonne region of France. Their commander, General John J. Pershing, believed in the superiority of American "guts" over barbed wire, machine guns, massed artillery, and poison gas. In thirty-six hours, he said, the ...

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Overview

The authoritative, dramatic, and previously untold story of the bloodiest battle in American history: the epic fight for the Meuse-Argonne in World War I

On September 26, 1918, more than one million American soldiers prepared to assault the German-held Meuse-Argonne region of France. Their commander, General John J. Pershing, believed in the superiority of American "guts" over barbed wire, machine guns, massed artillery, and poison gas. In thirty-six hours, he said, the Doughboys would crack the German defenses and open the road to Berlin. Six weeks later, after savage fighting across swamps, forests, towns, and rugged hills, the battle finally ended with the signing of the armistice that concluded the First World War. The Meuse-Argonne had fallen, at the cost of more than 120,000 American casualties, including 26,000 dead. In the bloodiest battle the country had ever seen, an entire generation of young Americans had been transformed forever. To Conquer Hell is gripping in its accounts of combat, studded with portraits of remarkable soldiers like Pershing, Harry Truman, George Patton, and Alvin York, and authoritative in presenting the big picture. It is military history of the first rank and, incredibly, the first in-depth account of this fascinating and important battle.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Coming at the very end of WWI, the six-week Meuse-Argonne offensive was the bloodiest single battle in American history, killing 26,000 doughboys and wounding another 95,000. In Lengel's gripping study, the struggle becomes a microcosm of the tragedy on the western front. New to the war and dismissive of the bitter lessons learned by the British and French, the inept and overconfident U.S. Army under the bullheaded John J. Pershing insisted that American fighting spirit, willpower and bayonets would carry the German lines. The results were predictable: badly trained and equipped U.S. soldiers mounting clumsy frontal assaults were massacred by German machine guns, artillery and gas. Historian Lengel (George Washington: A Military Life) delivers detailed accounts of the many separate engagements during the offensive, which coalesce into a grim panorama of highest-intensity conflict. Traumatized by the carnage, soldiers lapsed into despair and madness or murdered German prisoners. The author spotlights exemplars of individual prowess and heroism (including Corporal Alvin York, the erstwhile pacifist who killed 32 Germans and captured 132 more), but even they feel turned to "wood" by the brutal fighting. An evocative narrative grounded in copious research and judicious historical assessments, Lengel's book will probably become the standard work on this neglected epic. Photos. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

A number of books have been published lately concerning the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne (September 26-November 11, 1918), but they have been largely soldiers' memoirs (e.g., Horace Baker's Argonne Days in World War I) or broad overviews (e.g., Robert H. Ferrel's America's Deadliest Battle), leaving the epic without the full history it deserves as the final conflict of World War I. American Expeditionary Forces were fully operative in the battle and suffered immense losses. Lengel (history, Univ. of Virginia; General George Washington: A Military Life) delivers a compelling, lucid, and well-organized history juggling multiple narratives and much source material, as is evident from the extensive notes and bibliography. He skillfully keeps control of his subject, letting the momentum build of its own volition. The story of the young United States (compared with Europe) and its inexperienced army of "doughboys," driven by spirit but beleaguered by naïveté, is humbling and relevant-and told here with reverence. The important and bloody victory led to the Armistice but was not without great cost, showing the realities of modern war and transforming a generation of Americans in the process. Recommended for all World War I collections.
—Ben Malczewski

Kirkus Reviews
Lucid history of a military campaign so terrible that, writes Lengel (History/Univ. of Virginia; General George Washington: A Military Life, 2005, etc.), many of its survivors "swore that after the war ended they would never look at another tree in their lives."The Argonne, that dark forest in western France, had seen cruel battle in the years before the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force-one city alone, Verdun, had become a byword for bloodletting. The AEF was untested. Now, very late in the war, beginning in September 1918, it fought for 47 days in the forest and suffered terribly: By Lengel's count, nearly 1.2 million American soldiers went into action on the Meuse-Argonne front; 26,277 of them died, and 95,786 were wounded. The campaign saw storied engagements, such as that involving the so-called Lost Battalion and Sgt. Alvin York's one-man encounter with a German company in which he killed two dozen and captured 132 soldiers. It also necessitated attack after attack against heavily fortified defensive positions and entrenched heavy artillery, requiring exposure that the Allied and German armies had long ago learned to avoid. Lengel observes that the Meuse-Argonne campaign nearly bled the AEF to exhaustion. By the end of the campaign, replacements were coming to the line who had no idea what the command "fix bayonets" meant and no idea how to load a rifle. Late in the day, American commanders figured out how to use the tanks and airplanes driven by soon-iconic figures such as Billy Mitchell and George Patton, but the conclusion the reader will likely draw is that the campaign was sadly mismanaged at many points. Unsettling, too, is the fate of many veterans who figure inLengel's pages-among them York, who was haunted by the men he killed, and Lost Battalion commander Charles Whittlesey, who blamed himself for the loss of so many men and committed suicide soon after the war ended. A harrowing episode in American military history, expertly recounted. Agent: Peter Matson/Sterling Lord Literistic Inc.
From the Publisher
"Edward Lengel has filled an inexplicable gap in the American history of World War I with this vivid, deeply researched account of the Doughboys’ heroism – and agony – in the Argonne. Anyone interested in military history should have it on his bookshelf."—Thomas Fleming, author of The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I

"Each First World War battle deserves a historian; not every battle finds one. Those who fought on the Meuse-Argonne in 1918, and all Americans interested in their national heritage, are fortunate that Edward G. Lengel has written this deeply researched book – bringing the strategy, the commanders, the officers and men, the tactics, the horror and the heroism together in a moving, dramatic, and intensely human account. One of the most powerful war books that I have read."—Martin Gilbert, author of The First World War and The Somme

“There have been several efforts by American authors since the Armistice of 1918 to retell the story of the American Army's engagement on the Western Front during the First World War. Ed Lengel's book is a superior achievement and will be greatly enjoyed both by experts and by the general reader.”—John Keegan

"Ed Lengel's account of how American doughboys died in their tens of thousands to end the First World War is one of the great war stories of all time. In Lengel's skilled hands, the last great battle of the Great War is both riveting and deeply affecting. Authoritative, vividly drawn, and packed with arresting anecdotes and new material, To Conquer Hell is destined to be a classic. I cannot recommend it highly enough."—Alex Kershaw, author of The Few and The Longest Winter

“An evocative narrative grounded in copious research and judicious historical assessments, Lengel’s book will probably become the standard work on this neglected epic.”—Publishers Weekly

“A harrowing episode in American military history, expertly recounted.”—Kirkus

"Exhaustively researched and elegantly written."—The Free Lance-Star

The Barnes & Noble Review
If World War I was "the war to end all wars," then the Meuse-Argonne offensive, fought in its waning days, should have been the "battle to end all battles." From our perspective, we know that Omaha Beach, Ia Drang, and Fallujah loom in the even more dreadful future; but for the doughboy crouched in the trenches 90 years ago, the carnage of the Meuse-Argonne must have looked like an inconceivable hell.

Intending to recapture the region in northeast France from dug-in German troops, U.S., French, British, and other Allied soldiers assaulted the forests and valleys from September 26 to November 11, 1918. The battle involved 1.2 million American soldiers, leaving 26,277 of them dead and 95,786 wounded -- about half the total American casualties for the entire war. The fighting was unrelentingly brutal -- German forces mowed down advancing Allies with a blizzard of bullets from machine-gun nests, artillery barrages churned up the battleground, deadly mustard gas seeped everywhere, and those who made it through that wall of German defense frequently resorted to stabbing the enemy with bayonets. In one day alone, the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division suffered 2,057 casualties.

Today, the Argonne Forest is a lush, green resort for nature lovers and hikers. Farmers cultivate the surrounding fields that were once soaked with the blood of combat. The significance of the battle seems to be evaporating from the consciousness of all but the most dedicated military historians.

The publication of Edward G. Lengel's account of the Meuse-Argonne, To Conquer Hell, will go a long way toward putting it back in the forefront of our attention. Compiled from primary source material -- including previously unpublished diaries and letters -- the book is by turns grim, inspiring, and shocking in its frank depictions of battle. To venture inside To Conquer Hell is akin to entering a charnel house --everywhere you step, the floor is slick with blood and viscera.

Lengel compacts the beginning history of the war neatly into the book's first 50 pages, making it clear, concise, and compulsively readable. By the autumn of 1918, he writes, the German army was weakened, "much of the muscle had been worn away, leaving a sickly frame of skin and bones with a fighting sparkle in its eyes." Many in its ranks were elderly, underage, or infirm.

Even so, they'd had four years to prepare their defenses. They were determined to hold the area like a wolverine backed into a corner. This is what faced Allied forces as they planned their surprise assault. Seeking to act as "an independent American Army" (much to the consternation of French commanders), U.S. forces would lead the attack with ten divisions of the First Army, initially commanded by General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing and then by Lt. General Hunter Liggett. Among the ranks of the American Expeditionary Force entering the Argonne Forest, you'll recognize several names: Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, George Patton, Harry Truman, mystery novelist James M. Cain, Damon Runyon (who spent the war as a newspaper correspondent), and, of course, Sgt. Alvin York, the aw-shucks farm boy whose heroism eventually mushroomed into legend and hyperbole, thanks in part to Gary Cooper.

However, it's the lesser-known doughboy who takes center stage in To Conquer Hell -- people like 13-year-old Ernest Wrentmore, the youngest soldier in the American Expeditionary Force, who saw things no child should ever have to see and who later recounted, "To become emotional over the loss of a friend, buddy, or comrade would be to lose complete control. You had to become a piece of wood, or you'd never make it."

The book is filled with poignant, painful moments of soldiers huddled in foxholes, shivering with fear, cold, and exhaustion. So, we join people like Private Jack Barkley, of 4th Regiment, as he lies trapped in a shell hole after one battle:

The night all around was filled with cries, groans, curses. In English. In German. In languages I didn't know. Cries for water, for help, for death. Once I heard one boy ask another if he had any chewing gum. I wouldn't have minded having a little myself. Another boy babbled over and over for hours it seemed to me, "What is this war? What's this war for? What is this damned war?"
Barkley, by the way, is one of the standout heroes of the book, eclipsing even Sgt. York's bravery as he climbs into an abandoned French tank and, using a machine gun scavenged from the battlefield, single-handedly holds off an entire battalion of 600 German soldiers. Lengel's account of Barkley's bravery makes for lump-in-your-throat reading.

For every story of success, there are four of failure. Though the Meuse-Argonne ultimately helped bring about the deterioration of the German army and led to the signing of the Armistice on November 11th, it was not the swift, decisive victory Allied planners had initially predicted. From the outset, Lengel writes, "Speed, Pershing told his generals, was the thing. Each unit must attack, attack, attack, without wasting time worrying about casualties or its flanks."

Pershing's arrogance, stubbornness, and callous disregard for the enlisted men in the trenches led to several crucial mistakes. While Pershing and his generals come under critical scrutiny in the book, there were other factors that made the Meuse-Argonne a bloody hell: poor signal equipment, inadequate training, chaotic troop movements, officers who procrastinated in giving crucial orders, and transportation lines that became snarled with traffic jams when 600,000 men, 4,000 guns, 90,000 horses, and almost a ton of supplies all tried to converge on the region in the battle's first days.

For many of the troops, this would be their first taste of combat. "In the Meuse-Argonne, many doughboys died unnecessarily because of foolishly brave officers who led their men head-on against enemy machine guns," Lengel writes. It's not long before we start to see a pattern of battle: take ground...withdraw...retake ground...withdraw. Lengel graphically shows how this was a war whose victories were measured in inches.

The units are sometimes hard to keep straight, but just when it gets too confusing, the author brings it all home with a well-placed excerpt from a personal narrative, like this from Sergeant Edward Davies of the 315th Regiment, who wrote this in his diary while sitting in a shell hole up to his waist in mud:

Hungry and thirsty, I haven't eaten since yesterday morning. About 10 p.m. the Germans started to shell our position, God it was awful. Saw a man blown to pieces just below where Monty and I were lying.... I am sick and disgusted with this life. It seems to me that the men who are killed are better off. This is simply a living death. Hell can hold no terrors for me after this.
Or this more gruesome account from Lieutenant Maury Maverick, who was wounded by a shell burst, then picked up by a medic:
As he lifted me from the ground, I looked at my four runners, and I saw that the two in the middle had been cut down to a pile of horrid red guts and blood and meat, while the two men on the outside had been cut up somewhat less badly, but no less fatally. It reminded me of nothing I had ever seen before, except a Christmas hog butchering back on the Texas farm.
Lengel, unfortunately, is not above resorting to trite clichés like, "Midwestern farm boys had become men. Men had become soldiers. And soldiers had become comrades." He is also strangely single-minded in his telling of the tale. You won't find a German perspective, or even a French one, for that matter. This is almost wholly an American tale of guts and blood.

Still, it's a tale worth telling, and it's not hard to draw dotted lines from French forests to Baghdad streets. There are lessons to be absorbed from these pages, no matter what the reader's level of involvement in military matters may be. Lengel will satisfy the armchair historian looking for a playbook of battle strategy, as well as the more pedestrian reader who needs the human side of war to put it in perspective. It's in the latter where To Conquer Hell is most effective. We're reminded that war is always hell -- and soldiers are its brief, brave citizens. --David Abrams

David Abrams's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, and The Missouri Review. He's currently at work on a novel based in part on his experiences while deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805089158
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/6/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 428,110
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward G. Lengel is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books on military history, including General George Washington: A Military Life. A recipient, with the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project, of the National Humanities Medal, he has made frequent appearances on television documentaries and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.

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Read an Excerpt

To Conquer Hell

The Meuse-Argonne, 1918


By Lengel, Edward G. Henry Holt and Co.

Copyright © 2008 Lengel, Edward G.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780805079319


Excerpt
The sun rose on August 27, 1915, to a typical morning at Fort Bliss, Texas, from where Brigadier General John Joseph Pershing’s 8th Infantry Brigade kept the peace along the troubled U.S.-Mexican border. Clouds of dust swelled and drifted as infantry drilled and cavalry patrols came and went, and shouted orders echoed among the adobe walls. Through one dust cloud rode Lieutenant James L. Collins, the general’s aide, who had set out from headquarters for a routine two-hour horseback tour around the base. Pershing would normally have accompanied him, but this morning he had decided to stay behind and get some paperwork done, so Collins took the tour alone. The lieutenant had got only halfway through his tour when Pershing’s orderly galloped up and called him back to headquarters on urgent business.
Pershing had accompanied the 8th Brigade to Fort Bliss back in April, leaving behind his wife, Frankie, and their four children at the Presidio military base in San Francisco. The separation had been difficult, for John and Frankie loved each other dearly and also doted on their children—three girls and a boy. Now, after four long months, his wife and children were finally about to follow him to Texas. Their departure from California was scheduled for August 28, and for the pastseveral days the general had prepared eagerly for their arrival. “I’m tired of living alone,” he confided to a friend. “I’m having my quarters fixed so that my wife and children can join me.”1
When Collins arrived at headquarters, he found the usually confident, relaxed, and firmly in control general looking wide-eyed and desperate. “My God, Collins,” he gasped. “Something terrible has happened at the Presidio! There’s been a fire at the house!”2
It took time for Collins to get the general to explain: less than an hour before, Pershing had been working at his desk when the telephone rang. He picked it up without identifying himself. The caller, an Associated Press correspondent named Norman Walker, said, “Lieutenant Collins, I have some more news on the Presidio fire.”
“What fire?” the general snapped. “What has happened?” Only then did the reporter realize that he had Pershing rather than his aide on the line. Horrified, Walker falteringly repeated a dispatch reporting that early that morning a fire had gutted Pershing’s home at the Presidio. His wife and three of his children—Helen, aged eight; Anne, aged seven; and Mary Margaret, aged three—had perished of smoke inhalation. “My God! My God! Can it be true?” the general screamed. After a few moments in which the correspondent tried to offer his sympathy, Pershing’s voice came back on the line, once more under control. “Thank you, Walker,” he said. “It was very considerate of you to phone.” Then he hung up.3
Two days later, the general’s train pulled into the station at San Francisco. He had spent the last three hundred miles of the journey sobbing on a friend’s shoulder, while Collins took charge of all his personal and official affairs. Pershing went immediately to the funeral parlor where the four caskets lay. Collins retired behind some drapes, but he could see the general kneeling in turn before each member of his family. About an hour later, Pershing asked to be taken to the ruins of his house. From there he went to the hospital where his five-year-old son, Warren, had stayed since his rescue. Pershing held the boy on his knee as they drove away from the hospital. Soon they passed the Fair Grounds, where in happier times the family had spent many a sunny afternoon. “Have you been to the fair?” the father managed to ask. “Oh yes,” the son innocently replied. “Mama takes us a lot.”
For the next weeks and months Pershing struggled to recover his self-control. At the funeral he stood with dignified poise, but his grief remained visible. He read each of the hundreds of letters of condolence, including one from his future enemy, the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. He talked about the fire with friends, and tried to find some understanding and resignation. He sought solace in religion, and delved into staff paperwork with an intensity sometimes bordering on insanity. Occasionally, something made him break down, like an ill-timed comment, or the arrival of a trunk bearing his family’s personal effects. In response to these moments he progressively walled himself in, retreating from the world, including acquaintances, friends, and what remained of his family. With Warren he shared a distant, embarrassed kind of affection.4 For the Pershing family, a long and happy fairy tale had come to a tragic end.  Born in 1860 in Laclede, Missouri, one of nine children of a foreman on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, John J. Pershing had passed a happy but uneventful childhood. As a teenager he worked on his family’s modest farm while teaching children at local country schools, including one for African Americans. Meanwhile he took classes at the Kirksville Normal School in preparation for a career as a teacher. After graduating in 1880, more on a whim than from any desire for a military career, Pershing took the entrance examination for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He passed by a single point, and enrolled. He achieved middling grades at the academy, but his natural aptitude as a soldier—hitherto unguessed, for he did not come from a military family—earned him the rank of senior cadet captain before his graduation in 1886.
Commissioned a second lieutenant in the 6th Cavalry and sent to the frontier, Pershing participated in the army’s final campaign against Geronimo’s Apaches in Arizona, and witnessed the Sioux Ghost Dance rebellion in South Dakota in 1891. Taking time out to earn a law degree from the University of Nebraska in 1893, he returned to field service in 1895 as an officer with the 10th Cavalry, a unit of black “buffalo soldiers” stationed in Montana. He returned to West Point as a tactical instructor in 1897, earning the sobriquet “Black Jack” because of his command of black troops. When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, he rejoined the 10th Cavalry as a captain and fought at San Juan Hill in Cuba alongside Theodore Roosevelt. Pershing next went to the Philippines, where he helped to put down an insurrection by the Moro Indians in 1903 before returning to the United States. An experienced and highly respected field and staff officer, he had also earned a reputation as a rake. Rivals accused him—probably unjustly—of fathering several illegitimate children with Filipino women.
Pershing’s star continued to rise. Appointed to the army general staff in Washington, D.C., he befriended powerful men, including Senator Francis Emroy Warren of Wyoming, a snowy-haired Civil War veteran who had won the Medal of Honor in 1863. As chairman of the Senate’s Military Affairs Committee, Warren wielded much influence in Congress. He was also the father of Helen Warren, an athletic and intelligent if not pretty twenty-four-year-old girl known to family and friends as Frankie. John and Frankie met, and promptly fell in love despite the twenty-year difference in their ages. Senator Warren approved the match, and after a joyous one-year courtship the couple married on January 26, 1905, in a ceremony attended by President Theodore Roosevelt. Over the next six years Frankie bore four children, three daughters and a son.
Shortly after their wedding the Pershings went to Japan, where he served as a military attaché and observed the Russo-Japanese War. They were celebrating the birth of their daughter Helen in Tokyo in September 1906 when word arrived that President Roosevelt had promoted John from captain to brigadier general over the heads of 862 more senior officers. Critics spoke of nepotism and derided him as the president’s pet. The newly minted general silenced them quickly, justifying his promotion through first-rate administration and staff work.
In January 1914 Pershing took command of the 8th Infantry Brigade at the Presidio in San Francisco. There he and his family enjoyed an idyllic life, with Frankie active in the women’s suffrage movement while her husband managed the brigade. The couple spent all of their free time together, and with their active and happy young children. Far away to the southeast, however, Mexico had descended into a state of anarchy, with political and social unrest spreading across the countryside and even over the border into Texas. To quell that unrest, Pershing and the 8th Brigade were ordered to Fort Bliss, near El Paso. Then the Presidio fire of August 1915 wrecked his family and tore the joy from his life.
Pershing continued to advance his career after the fire, but without enthusiasm. “All the promotion in the world would make no difference now,” he remarked after his promotion to major general in September 1916.5 Yet duty continued to call. Six months before his promotion, Pershing took command of a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa. The campaign, which lasted until January 1917, failed to achieve its objective. Villa escaped, and Pershing’s force of twelve thousand troops returned to Texas empty-handed. But the expedition had seized the imagination of Americans, and for the first time in his life, “Black Jack” became a household name. Press correspondents trotted after him almost everywhere he went, shouting questions about politics and world affairs.
The reporters especially liked to quiz Pershing about the war in Europe. For the first two years after the war began in August 1914, it had been second- or third-page news. Firebrands like former president Theodore Roosevelt had exhorted the United States to intervene, and a few adventuresome volunteers—like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos—had gone to Europe as volunteer ambulance drivers, fliers, or soldiers. The vast majority of Americans, however, had no desire to become involved in another man’s war. This remained true even after a German submarine sunk the British liner Lusitania in May 1915, killing 1,119 people, including 114 Americans. The sinking created deep popular resentment against Germany, but it did not spur any move for intervention, and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson won reelection on a platform promising mothers that their children—in the parlance of a popular song—would not have to grow up to be soldiers.
In 1914–15, Pershing had closely followed the fighting in Europe. He even hinted to his superiors that he would like to observe some of the battles.6 In the wake of the Presidio fire, however, he lost interest in European affairs, and the Mexican assignment took him mentally even further away from the trenches of France. He sympathized generally with the British and French in their struggle against Germany, and thought that American intervention might afford him a prospect of relief from the dusty wastes of southern Texas, but that was all. He felt no passion for heroism or the fight for justice against Teutonic baby killers. Nothing—even the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in battles like Verdun or the Somme—moved him much anymore.
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany shocked Americans out of their indifference on February 1, 1917, announcing that unrestricted submarine warfare, which had ceased after the Lusitania affair, would resume. All merchant vessels entering European waters, he declared, might be torpedoed without warning, whether or not they belonged to one of the belligerent nations. Wilson’s government broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, but the submarines attacked anyway. Public outrage grew as ships sank and Americans died. The interception and publication of a telegram from Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, suggesting that Mexico might declare war on the United States in return for New Mexico, Arizona, and even Kansas, marked the last straw. With his entire cabinet and the American people outraged, the peace-loving Wilson reluctantly asked Congress for a declaration of war. The United States entered World War I on April 6.  Pershing’s call to duty came on May 3, in a telegram from Senator Warren in Washington, D.C. It read:
WIRE ME TODAY WHETHER AND HOW MUCH YOU SPEAK, READ AND WRITE FRENCH.
Pershing spoke French poorly, but he understood “the possibilities to be implied from Senator Warren’s telegram”—namely, military command. He replied:
SPENT SEVERAL MONTHS IN FRANCE 1908 STUDYING LANGUAGE. SPOKE QUITE FLUENTLY; COULD READ AND WRITE VERY WELL AT THAT TIME. CAN EASILY REACQUIRE SATISFACTORY WORKING KNOWLEDGE.
Soon another message arrived at Pershing’s Texas headquarters, this time from Major General Hugh Lenox Scott, the army chief of staff. In code and marked “for your eye alone,” it announced that the War Department intended to send a small force to France in advance of the still-forming national army. “If plans are carried out,” Scott informed Pershing, “you will be in command of the entire force.” Interpreting this to mean that he would command a division, Pershing prepared for a summons to Washington. It came in short order.7
Pershing’s train arrived in Washington on the bright and chilly morning of May 10. Newspaper reporters mobbed the general as he stepped onto the platform, asking whether his summons to the capital had anything to do “with the election of a commander for a military expedition to France.” Offering no comment, he stepped into a car that sped him to the War Department.8 Pershing first entered the army chief of staff’s office. General Scott, a sixty-three-year-old former Indian fighter, had entered the famous 7th Cavalry just after the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn. “He was deaf,” critics sneered, spoke in “grunts and the sign language,” and went to sleep in his chair while conducting official business.9 Pershing had little use for fossils and chafed at the chief of staff’s unwillingness to get to specifics. Scott said that the government was considering sending a division of about twelve thousand men to France under Pershing’s command. Later, a larger army would form. Just how large, nobody knew; nor did Scott explain where the soldiers would come from. Congress had just begun considering a military draft.
Leaving Scott’s office little wiser than before, Pershing walked to the office of the secretary of war, Newton D. Baker. He found a thin, bespectacled man sitting behind a massive desk in an overstuffed office chair, reclining with one leg bent under his body and the other just barely reaching the floor. Baker neither looked nor acted the part of a secretary of war. As a boy, he had preferred books to tin soldiers and toy guns. As an adult, after becoming a solicitor and then mayor of Cleveland, he had rejected the honorary post as leader of Ohio’s Boy Scouts because he considered the organization too militaristic. Woodrow Wilson named Baker secretary of war in 1916 because of his past political support for the Democratic Party, not because he had any qualifications for or particular interest in the office.10
Although they had little in common, Pershing liked the man. The secretary of war’s mild exterior, he decided, masked a cultured, well-educated, and exceptionally gifted mind. Perhaps most important from Pershing’s point of view, Baker believed in efficiency. “He was courteous and pleasant,” the general observed, “and impressed me as being frank, fair, and business-like. His conception of the problems seemed broad and comprehensive. From the start he did not hesitate to make definite decisions on the momentous questions involved.”11 As the war progressed the two would become unlikely, but firm, friends.
Baker confirmed that Pershing would command a division. A day later, however, he called the general back to his office and dropped the proverbial bombshell. Not one, but several divisions would go to France, and Pershing would command all of them as commander in chief. “My feelings may well be imagined,” Pershing later wrote. “Here in the face of a great war I had been placed in command of a theoretical army which had yet to be constituted, equipped, trained, and sent abroad. Still, there was no doubt in my mind then, or at any other time, of my ability to do my part, provided the Government would furnish men, equipment and supplies.”12 He buried his fears, just as he had done with the memories of that night in August 1915. Now, as then, he lived on willpower.  Pershing and Baker both believed in efficiency and organization. Unfortunately, others in the U.S. government did not. For years German satirists had mocked Americans as soft, corrupt, and lazy—good at making money but alien to war—and the accusation had some merit. As they attempted to prepare the army, the government, and the general population for war, Pershing and Baker found everywhere the same insularity and blithe carelessness. It would all work out right, people told them. Millions of American soldiers would go to Europe, swat the Germans aside, smite the kaiser, and return home in time for Christmas. Guns, uniforms, equipment—not to worry, they would come from somewhere.
The habits of years could not be broken in a day, but Baker had one important success early on: the institution of a military draft. In February 1917, six weeks before the declaration of war, the War College Division of the army general staff had submitted to General Scott a plan for creating a national army of four million men based on nationwide conscription. Scott endorsed the plan and passed it on to Baker, who in turn presented it to the president, urging his assent. Wilson complied, and Baker then assembled his War Department staff, telling them to draft a bill that the president could present immediately to Congress in case of war. They did so—though some of them reluctantly—and when the United States declared war on Germany in April the president secured speedy if not unopposed passage through Congress of the draft legislation, which became law on May 18.13
Organizing the draftees and volunteers into a national army presented a more daunting task. In April 1917 the U.S. regular army consisted of only about 137,000 men, with 181,000 more in the National Guard—the seventeenth largest army in the world, just behind Portugal’s. Only a tiny fraction of its men had seen combat, and they had done so in places like Mexico, Cuba, or the Philippines. Few had any understanding of modern war. The army’s officers were elderly, inexperienced, or both. Its soldiers, equipped with guns and accoutrements that dated back to the nineteenth century, knew next to nothing about modern tactics or weaponry. At least they could follow orders and fire rifles, however; the same could not be said for the hundreds of thousands of draftees and recruits who now poured into the army from every corner of America.
The Europeans had been able to call up millions of trained reservists in 1914. By contrast, the U.S. Army Reserve existed only after 1912, and the Officers’ Reserve Corps, Enlisted Reserve Corps, and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps had only appeared with the passage of the National Defense Act of June 1916. That same act belatedly established the National Guard—which in some states had not progressed in training or organization far beyond the Revolutionary War–era militia—as the army’s primary reserve force, regularizing its training and organization. The National Defense Act was less than a year old in May 1917, and its implementation had been rudimentary at best. The recruits now joining the army were the rawest, greenest imaginable.
As Pershing and the War Department pondered how to transform this paper army into reality, orders came for the general’s departure for France. Shortly afterward, on May 24, he and Baker met with President Wilson at the White House. Pershing looked forward to the meeting with the president as an opportunity to gain some specifics about the nature of his mission. Conversation between these two stiff and serious men failed, however, to transcend the standard formalities. Wilson at first avoided speaking with his general, preferring to discuss shipping with the amiable Baker. Finally the president turned to Pershing and abruptly blurted, “General, we are giving you some very difficult tasks these days.” “Perhaps so, Mr. President,” Pershing blandly replied, “but that is what we are trained to expect.” He and Wilson exchanged a few words on the Mexican expedition and the general’s 1908 visit to France before Pershing tried to steer the conversation back to the war.
“Mr. President,” the general declared, “I appreciate the honor you have conferred upon me by the assignment you have given me and realize the responsibilities it entails, but you can count upon the best that is in me.” Wilson evaded Pershing’s attempt to open a substantive military discussion. “General,” he replied quickly, “you were chosen entirely upon your record and I have every confidence that you will succeed; you shall have my full support.” He then declared the conference concluded. No further meetings between the president and his top general would take place until after the end of the war.
Pershing admired the president’s simplicity and “air of determination,” but regretted Wilson’s failure to discuss important matters, such as military cooperation with the Allies, supplies, munitions, recruiting, strategy, or—most important of all—war aims. Was he supposed to be fighting for a compromise peace, or unconditional surrender? While Pershing had no desire for civilian interference in military matters, at least a display of interest in them would have been nice. Wilson’s aloofness had its positive side, as the general realized. “In the actual conduct of operations,” he would recall, “I was given entire freedom and in this respect was to enjoy an experience unique in our history.”14 Yet it also left the army entirely bereft of guidance from its civilian commander in chief: the president of the United States.15 The country had never fought a war that way before, and never would again.  Four days after meeting the president, Pershing assembled an ad hoc staff of 191 men and traveled to Governors Island, New York, where the liner SS Baltic waited to carry the first American military contingent to Europe. Elizabeth Marshall, wife of Captain George C. Marshall of the 1st Division, watched the general and his officers as they shuffled past her in the rain, “dressed in antiquated civilian clothes, coat collars turned up in the absence of umbrellas or raincoats.” They didn’t look like much. “Such a dreadful-looking lot of men,” she told her husband, could not possibly “do any good in France.”16
The staff’s departure was supposed to be a secret, but every journalist in the country knew when and where it would take place. Ordered to appear at the dock in civilian clothes, many officers nevertheless wore military uniforms, and several sported army shoes or swords in scabbards dangling conspicuously from their civvies. The expedition’s supplies had sat at the pier for two days, labeled “S.S. Baltic, General Pershing’s Headquarters”; and the commander’s orderly had prominently marked his handbags “General Pershing, Paris, France.” And when the Baltic sailed just after 5:00 p.m., the signal guns on Governors Island fired a farewell salute reserved only for personages of note. The guns’ boom could be heard all the way across the harbor.17
As the ship left shore, some of Pershing’s aides had second thoughts. Perhaps they had not been careful enough, despite all their scrupulous attention to secrecy? What if a German U-boat somehow received word of the departure and surfaced to capture the general and his staff? What a coup that would be for the kaiser! After several minutes of terror and confusion, one aide had an idea: someone must act as Pershing’s double in order to confound any inquisitive German submarine captains. Somehow the aides convinced the general to lend them a full-dress uniform, in which a hapless major spent the rest of the ten-day voyage strutting around the deck. The real Pershing stayed belowdecks, pondering the army’s organization, command, transport, training, ordnance, equipment, and ultimate employment at the front. His officers helped him by preparing reports, and in their free time took French lessons and attended lectures on venereal disease. A standard of discipline and efficiency, Pershing knew, had to be set early on; but the real work would not begin until they reached Paris. 
Copyright © 2008 by Edward G. Lengel. All rights reserved.


Continues...

Excerpted from To Conquer Hell by Lengel, Edward G. Copyright © 2008 by Lengel, Edward G.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Maps     xv
Preface     1
Part I
"All the Promotion in the World Would Make No Difference Now"   John J. Pershing     11
The Cult of the Attack     21
"Right or Wrong, My Country"     30
"Retreat, Hell. We Just Got Here"     40
"An Independent American Army"     47
Part II
"Here Is the Golden Dream": The Meuse-Argonne     57
"The Only Way to Begin Is to Commence"     66
Part III
September 26-30
"You Boys Are My Kind. Now Let's Go In!" September 26     85
"We Began to Realize What Artillery Really Meant." September 27     125
"Words Can Never Describe It, Nor Is the Mind Imaginative Enough to Conceive It." September 28     147
"There Were Very Few Heroes That Morning." September 29     161
Relief. September 30     186
October 4-6
"God Damn It, Don't You Know We're Going Over the Top." October 4     194
The Lost Battalion: "Our Mission Is to Hold This Position at All Costs"     221
"Just Plain Murder." October 5     235
"It Is Not a Dishonorable Deed to Give Up." October 6     247
October 7-11
"Their Faces Told the Whole Story of Their Fight." October 7     255
"York, I Hear You Have Captured the Whole Damned German Army."October 8     275
"We Are Going to Have a Very Hard Day." October 9     283
Beyond the Argonne. October 10     298
Last Gasp. October 11     305
October 12-15
"Like the Heat from a Blast-Furnace Door." October 12-13     317
"The Best Day's Work." October 14     331
"There Are Times When Even General Officers Have to Be Expendable." October 15     346
October 16-31
"Large Bodies Move Slowly, Though with Great Momentum When They Start"     359
Victory: November 1-11
Conclusion: "When I Get Back, You Can Wager I Will Be a Home Loving Man"     413
Notes     437
Selected Bibliography     459
Acknowledgments     473
Index     475
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Significant and appalling

    This dense book focuses on the American role in The Great War- specifically in the Meuse-Argonne region of France. To be sure, the book does require focus and attention. Names and division numbers are tossed around with great abandon. But I feel that actually helps to give a bigger picture of what was going on. It was chaos. People found themselves in desperate situations and unlikely heroes arose daily. Some you have heard of- like Sgt. York or Harry Truman. Most, you have never heard of- and that's a shame. These green troops were thrown into bleak situation after bleak situation by commanders who routinely did not understand or know what was really going on at the front. But Lengel does not turn it into a diatribe against all the leaders. There are many fine examples of men who did "get" what they were doing, who knew they were committing ment to die in horrible numbers and in terrifying ways that most of us can't begin to understand, but they did so in an effort to win a greater goal. I have read other books about the First World War, but this is one of the few that I found to be gripping and give a straight forward account- not promote a political agenda (usually that Woodrow Wilson was an clueless idiot or that the US should have never entered the war- both very comfortable ideas when you look back over a distance of almost 100 years). You may not agree with everything Lengel talks about, but you can't ignore the sheer brutality of the war because you don't like it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2008

    Well written, excelllent original research, I read it in 3 days.

    Per my fellow reviewer, this book is an excellent recount of the American participation in WWI. It is a story that needs to be remembered - men being thrown into battle who had never been trained in how to load their Springfields let alone shoot them. But, Pershing believed in the doctrine of the attack. All that was required for success was the will to achieve success on the part of each individual soldier - never mind that the Germans had years of practice in the proper use of combined arms of artillery, air cover, machine gun infalides and indirect fire. So when attacks failed it was all the fault of the men - and the solution was to throw in more men. The author also rights historic wrongs, such as the shabby treatment of colored units. This was not some Alice in Wonderland fantasy - it was real men - really losing their lives.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2008

    Honest Account

    I've seen military history books slammed for many reasons, but never--until now--for being too honest. That said, the previous reviewer's account is grossly exaggerated. Many American generals and other officers--including Hunter Liggett, George C. Marshall, Truman, Whittlesey, and others--come out extremely well and there are numerous tales of bravery and heroism. The author goes out of his way to recount the exploits of dozens of Medal of Honor winners. In fact, the author ultimately decides that the battle was a victory for the United States. Yet the book remains an honest account of what was America's bloodiest battle. War--especially World War I--was no picnic. If you prefer to imagine otherwise, you'd best stick to comic books and toy soldiers.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2008

    A reviewer

    After 300 pages I could not go on. The most brutally honest war book ever written. Every paragraph of every page is dripping with blood, guts and gore, death and destruction. On and on it goes page after page with no let up ever. We, the US, could do no right, but our brave soldiers carried on anyway. Our generals were all complete idiots who sent our men to their deaths every day all day long in suicide charges. The US soldiers were armed with only rifles and pistols while the Germans had machine guns and artillery, which was perfectly ranged. Whenever our artillery did fire, it fell on our own men. Our soldiers quickly ran out of food and ammunition in no-man's land and were reduced to drinking rain water or water from a bloody pond, ala Shiloh. The Germans repeatedly attacked us with poison gas. On and on it goes. We lost every charge, each time losing more men. Nothing was gained in the first 300 pages that I could tell. Thousands of individual deaths and horrific woundings are described in great detail. On and on it goes. Our tanks were useless, our airplanes were nowhere to be seen while the German airplanes strafed and bombed our troops constantly. Just a complete horror show. I became so sad, depressed, angry, horrified, depressed, disillusioned and fatigued reading this book. I would not recommend it to anybody except the most staunch, brave souls. I have read hundreds of war books from WWII, the Civil War, Korea, Vietman, and many others. But this one takes the cake. It is wall to wall death and gore. I could not finish it. If you can you are a better man than I.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2008

    Falls a bit short...

    I had rather mixed emotions about this book. It is obviously a very well-researched work, and the author strives mightily to give the reader a sense of what war was like on the western front. For me, the best part of the book, by far, was the ending in which he describes the final days of the war and, more importantly, the emotional trials experienced by the veterans. All too often, conflicts like WWI and WWII are described in glorious terms, neglecting the terrible suffering (both during and after) of the common soldier. This book does a wonderful job of relating that. Furthermore, the authorâ¿¿s points at the beginning of the book wherein he notes that most Americans have little to no knowledge about the so-called Great War are well founded. Where the book fell short for me was in the descriptions of the attacks during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. They werenâ¿¿t bad by any means, but did get to be quite repetitive. A typical passage would go along the lines of â¿¿Division X , regiments Y and Z attacked some-French-name . They were immediately slaughtered by German machine-guns/artillery/aircraft and their ranks were decimatedâ¿ and so on. I have no doubt that every description was correct, and the author was at a disadvantage because a good deal of the fighting on the Western Front did result from Generals who lacked imagination, and therefore consistently ordered frontal assaults. Itâ¿¿s just that it doesnâ¿¿t necessarily make for good reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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