Monthly Archives: August 2011

My Favorite Civil War Books

Sam Watkins in 1861

Recently Ed Bears, a long-time stalwart of the National Park Service and former chief historian, was asked to identify his favorite Civil War books. Of course, the ones he mentioned were good ones, some of which also appear on my personal list.  I’ve been asked a few times to identify my favorites. It’s not easy.  Thousands of books have been published on the subject.  Hundreds of books, for example, have been published on the battle of Gettysburg alone. An average of one book a day comes off the press-so I’m told.  Well. you can’t read them all.  So one must pick and choose. Here are a few that I recommend, my short list, a few that have shaped my thoughts on the subject. Today I’ll  begin with my all time favorite: CO AYTCH:  SIDESHOW TO THE BIG SHOW

This is the memoir of Sam Watkins of Columbia, TN, a soldier in the Army of Tennessee, one who enlisted at the very beginning and served with his unit in the field to the very end. This was unusual. The average amount of time a CW soldier wore the uniform and served on active duty away from home was about a year. Unlike so many others, Sam was never captured and thus never spent time as a POW, an all too common occurrence. Nor was he ever seriously wounded or ill-again very unusual.   Sam stayed in the field with his original unit  the entire four years! It almost seems as if providence protected him so that he could tell his tale once he got home. Few veterans could boast of such a record. Few were so lucky.

And what a tale he tells.The sheer number of major battles and minor skirmishes, and the details of army life that Sam relates is simply stunning making his memoir stand head and shoulders above the others, considered by many historians to be one of, if not the finest by a private soldier of the War Between the States. Margaret Mitchell called his book “the best that ever was.” Sam was widely quoted in the Ken Burns CW series. I’ve often told friends who want to know more about the war (as it occurred in this part of the country) to start with this book. Don’t worry. Finding a copy is not difficult, it’s still in print, easily available,  and likely to remain so for a long time.

Sam’s book was not an immediate success. The first edition, published about twenty years after the war, now a real collectible, numbered but a thousand or so and, strange enough, wasn’t reprinted until the late nineteen forties perhaps due to the fact that the field was pretty crowded at the time the book first appeared, with many notables issuing their accounts of the late war. Shelves at the local booksellers were crowded with them. With all this competition Sam, who had been but a lowly private, had a hard time getting his sold. At the time the public, it seems, was more interested in hearing from the generals and the notables. Yet over time interest in Sam’s book grew steadily. These days, especially since the Ken Burns series, his book moves off the shelves at a steady pace. Most of the books by the “gods and generals” who commanded such attention in the immediate post-war years are long out of print and forgotten by all but serious historians. The cream finally rose to the top,

CO.AYTCH (an odd spelling of the letter “H”) is essentially a narrative of the war years.  Sam pulls us into his story as if the reader is a good friend relaxing with him on the front porch on a cool Summer evening, sipping from a good jug of Tennessee whiskey, and listening to old war tales. Our good-natured host, with a twinkle in his eye, makes us laugh one minute and weep the next. Unlike so many other accounts from his fellow war survivors, Sam has no bitter axe to grind, no lingering animosity toward his former enemies. He’s not an  “unreconstructed Rebel.” He’s gotten over it and is ready to move on. But first, he’s gonna tell his tale. Lean back in your rocking chair and pay attention to a master storyteller.

Does Sam stretch the truth a bit here and there? Probably. But he was there- again and again.  Marching, camping, living day after day out in the cruel elements with his comrades in the Maury County Grays of the First Tennessee Infantry Regiment, and watching them fall and disappear into memory at places like Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, Kennesaw Mountain, and Franklin-bloody Franklin. His account of those five tragic hours at that place on the afternoon of November 30, 1864 will make your blood run cold.

This is a CW history with red blood running through it, alive, pulsing, and jumping off the page. Be forewarned, you may not be able to put it down.

Some say that when they get to heaven and start looking up the old CW veterans they’ll start with  Lee or Grant, Lincoln or one of the big boys. Not me. When that time comes I’ll probably first look up old Sam Watkins and sit for a spell with him. He’s always seemed like good company.

Afterward I’ll look up Mary Boykin Chestnut, the author of my next favorite CW book. More on her later.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Battle of the Tenaru River-Aug.21, 1942

Map of Tenaru RIver battlefield on Northern tip of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands

There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of this battle. It doesn’t have a familiar ring like Gettysburg, or Yorktown, or Shiloh, or the The Battle of the Bulge. This battle occurred on the island of Guadalcanal on August 21, in 1942 between American marines and the forces of Imperial Japan. Here’s why we might want to remember it. It is a first. The Battle of Tenaru was the first American victory on the ground in World War Two-our biggest war (in terms of participants).

For the United States in World War Two the first fighting between ground troops was at a place out in the Pacific, a tiny island, really an atoll (volcanic outcropping) called Wake Island occurring about two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Though our boys put up a heroic defense, they lost, and the survivors, many of whom were, interestingly enough, civilian contractors, were taken prisoner. And most of the fighting at Wake was between ground troops on the island manning coastal defense batteries and the invading ships aided by a few aircraft. After the aircraft were shot down and the shore guns put out of action the Japanese landed troops. The fighting between US and Japanese  troops lasted but an hour or two, the tiny overwhelmed US garrison capitulated soon after the Japanese landed. After being shipped to POW camps we didn’t hear from them again until the end of the war-at least from those who survived their imprisonment. Even during the battle we didn’t hear much from them. They were very much on their own.

In the Philippines there were multiple engagements on the ground between US army troops and those of Japan in the first months of 1942 and a few occasions when a Japanese attack was turned back, but the campaign was an unparalleled disaster ending in the surrender of all US and Filipino troops and the heartbreaking Bataan Death March.  The US lost,  and lost big,  it’s attempt to hang on to some key real estate.In the Philippines there were no real victories on the ground to speak of, nothing that caused the Japanese any  worry.

Ground battles in the European theater were still several months away. The German U-Boats delayed things for awhile. And we didn’t even start the European theater in Europe proper. The first landings were in North Africa. If Sicily is considered Europe, we didn’t land troops in Europe until July, 1943 when we had been, technically speaking, at war with Germany since December, 1941. The ground war in the Pacific got off to a much earlier start.

Battles tend to be about seizing and controlling real estate. Warring factions want to control dry land. That is where people live. For the most part, that is where the resources are. Navies on the high seas are designed to protect or control access to dry ground. When navies come to blows, it is usually about the control of land. The US won the battle of Midway in June, 1942. It was a naval engagement. But Midway was an island and the victor retained control of the island.

There is a indisputable truth about war, old school or modern. Regardless of what is done from the air or sea, eventually you have to put “boots on the ground.” The defenders of real estate can be weakened by attacks from land and air, but the land must be, at the end of the day, conquered and secured by land troops. This will probably never change. Nuclear weapons? Among other things, they’re far too hard on the real estate. They render the prize worthless.

During the first seven months of 1942 the Japanese, who had already taken Korea and large portions of China, ran wild, conquering huge portions of Asia and the Pacific, including the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, and Southeast Asia, even making the Australians mighty uneasy, though there is little evidence that they ever set foot on the main island/continent.

On August 7, 1942 the First Marine Division, in the first amphibious landing and the first real offensive of World War Two, was put ashore on the island of Guadalcanal. The Japanese had landed labor battalions there some weeks previous to construct an airfield.  It was the first attempt by anybody to take anything away from the Japanese. Prior to that the war effort had been simply attempts to defend and hold territory, most of which had been unsuccessful.

The battle of Midway a few weeks earlier, though very important, was, for the US, defensive in nature. It stopped the Japanese advance. They lost some aircraft carriers and navy pilots, a serious blow, but the Japanese lost no real estate. Furthermore, after Midway the Imperial Japanese Navy was still the biggest, most powerful Navy in the Pacific. At Midway the US, seriously outnumbered and outgunned, playing catch-up, got lucky. At Midway, the Japanese navy, under the command of the very sensible Admiral Yamamoto, had under-estimated the US. They wouldn’t do that again.

On land, it was a different matter. The Japanese generals were still pretty cocky, and had every reason to be. So far, no one had given them any serious trouble or setbacks, not the Chinese, not the Americans, or Fillipinos (in the Phillipines), not the British on the Malay Peninsula, not the Dutch, no, not anyone. So after receiving news of the US landings on Guadalcanal, they were mildly surprised but not particularly bothered. In short order they landed two thousand combat troops who would get the island back without any serious trouble. For them the outcome was easy to predict. American army troops had surrendered in the Philippines and at Wake Island. The Marines, they assumed, were no different. They would not prevail against the mighty Japanese army because the Japanese were spirit warriors, strengthened with with the spirit of bushido, descendants of the mighty samurai. Like cowards the spineless, half-hearted Americans had surrendered in the Phillipines. Japanese soldiers did not surrender. They fought to the death or they prevailed. Of course, two thousand mighty Japanese soldiers should have no serious trouble at Guadalcanal with the Americans. The island would be retuned to Japanese hands in short order.

The men of the First Marine Division, under the command of A.A. Vandegrift, after their initial landing, were worried. Though the landing itself had been uncontested, to their great relief, the US supply ships, fearful of the approaching Japanese navy, had gotten “cold feet” and steamed away before all the supplies for the Marines had been put ashore leaving them with not nearly enough food and ammunition. Even if their supplies were adequate, there weren’t nearly enough of them to control any more than a small portion of the island.  The next evening they watched and heard a great naval battle in the nearby waters. A few days later, they learned that three American cruisers had been sunk, a disaster for the US navy.  American sailors, some dead, some injured, but all demoralized and weak, began washing up on the beaches near the Marine positions. Not long after this, the Japanese navy began shelling the island and Marines began dying. They felt like sitting ducks. And they knew that  Japanese troops, with guns blazing, were coming. It was just a matter of time.

They didn’t have long to wait. About a week and a half.  A crack outfit of Japanese soldiers, about a thousand strong under the command of Colonel Kiyono Ichiki landed on the other side of the island on August 18 and began working their way toward the Marines entrenched around the airfield along the North shore. Colonel Ichiki’s orders were wait for reinforcements before attacking the Americans but he got impatient. Author Winston Groom tells us what happened:

“  About 1:30 am August 21, a single green flare burst brightly over the coconut groves, signaling the beginning of the Japanese attack. It was a fiasco from the start….870 Japanese troops were trapped between the main Marine lines on the river and the new ambush force set up on their left flank and rear (Vandegrift had made careful preparations) . Ichiki’s not too imaginative plan had been to march straight alongside the beach using the long coconut grove as cover then rush the American lines and over power them by sheer force of will…with the sea on their right, the only thing to do now was fling themselves forward in a banzai charge, which they did. It was the perfect trap and they were mowed down by the hundreds their bodies piled up three and four deep in front of the marine machine-gun pits. American artillery and mortars crashed down on them in the coconut groves….in the morning the American tanks mopped up and eliminated the survivors, who refused to surrender….”  (P.285) 1942:The Year that Tried Men’s Souls.

The first real American victory over Axis forces on land in World World Two was the battle of the Tenaru River on Aug 21, 1942 and it was a fearful slaughter-seven to eight hundred Japanese lost their lives. The humiliated Colonel performed ritual suicide. “Pride goeth before a fall” says the book of Proverbs in the Bible. To the overconfident Japanese it was a painful lesson in the fighting abilities of the Americans. For the Americans it was a sober prediction of what was to come. When all was lost, when the Japanese didn’t seem to have the chance of a “snowball in hades” they kept fighting and wouldn’t surrender. They had to be killed or knocked out and then completely stripped of weapons and any means of resisting. On those rare occasions when they did put up their arms to surrender, Marines, with guns pointed at them from a safe distance, learned  to make the Japanese strip down to their underwear before allowing them to surrender. They were a fanatical enemy, unlike anything Americans had ever seen, and were not to be trusted.

On Guadalcanal, that odd-sounding island in the Solomon Islands, the Marines engaged the Imperial forces of Japan on this day 69 years ago and prevailed. The Guadalcanal campaign, land, sea, and air, went on for another five months before the Japanese finally abandoned the effort to retake the island and withdrew all troops from the island and naval vessels from the immediate area. Even then the war was far from over. The US had a long way to go.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Don’t know much about history? Take a quick quiz.

“There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color,religion or national origin.”

African-American GI's of the Red Ball Express make the great offensives possible late in1944

When did these words first appear in an official US document? Whose words are they?  What are their significance? Go to the bottom of the “1942: Book Review” (June 2) article for the answer.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Prohibition: The Noble Experiment

Law enforcement officials during Prohibition pour it out.

It seemed like a good idea at the time” “There is only only one thing in life worse than not getting what you want and that is getting it.” These clichés apply well to that fascinating, and somewhat romantic period in US history called “Prohibition.” which was, in short, a constitutional amendment, the 18th,  passed in 1919 that made illegal the manufacture, sale and distribution of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States. Now it seems foolish, hopelessly undoable, an exercise in utter futility. But at the time it seemed a good idea, the culmination of many years of “temperance” agitation, the fulfillment of a dream of many millions of Americans, mostly Protestant, who looked with dismay at the saloon culture and drunken behavior of so many of their fellow Americans. They saw families torn asunder and lives wrecked by “demon rum” and were determined to do something about it. Just make alcohol illegal, most drinkers will give it up, and the country will be a better place for it. That was the plan.

In the years preceding Prohibition, it is interesting to contrast the different views toward the use of alcoholic beverages of 18th and 19th century Americans. In the 18th century life was tough, so it was believed, and our founding fathers felt that adults, particularly free men, deserved their drink. In the great mercantile triangle of the colonial years, sugar cane came to the Eastern colonies from the West Indies to be converted into rum which was sold to the Indians for furs which were then shipped to England whose merchant marine supplied the slave ships that brought Africans to the West Indies. Soldiers and sailors on both sides in the Revolution received, when available, a rum ration. After the war, the first real crisis of the Washington administration was the “Whiskey Rebellion, a protest against the national taxation of spirits. Imagine that.  Later, on the Western frontier, it was discovered that corn could be converted to whiskey and whiskey was where the real money was made. Soon the great rivers of the interior were plied by flatboats and barges loaded with barrels full of whiskey headed to New Orleans and other key river towns. American Indians encountered along the way were good customers as well. Strong drink was, for all practical purposes, the currency of the age and it was traded like specie.  And on and on it went. Strong drink was considered a right and alcohol intake in moderation a positive good. The people of Washington’s time, with few exceptions, couldn’t have imagined life without good drinks and good times at the local tavern.

All this began to change in the early 19th century with the rise of the temperance movement, much of which was fueled by nativist Protestant reaction to the steady flow of Irish Catholic immigrants. It was a distinctly Protestant effort coinciding as well with the rise of the Methodist and Baptist churches. And, it must be admitted, the movement was a response to a real social problem. The United States had become, to a large extent, a nation of wife-beating, “deadbeat dad” drunkards, not exactly the image we may have of our hardworking, industrious, virtuous ancestors, an image largely absent from most history textbooks. Historian Richard Shenkman in his engaging little myth-exploding volume, I LOVE PAUL REVERE WHETHER HE RODE OR NOT wonders “why so little is made of our alcoholic past.   Slavery is more embarrassing than alcohol and we’ve had no trouble admitting Americans owned slaves. Most likely our alcoholic past goes unacknowledged because it remains at variance with the image we have of ourselves in the Age of the Pioneer(p.117).” It seems then that Americans in the days of Davy Crockett began to like their strong drink just a little too much and so the Temperance societies formed and agitated and didn’t go away until they finally, years later, got what they wanted: the 18th amendment.

Many states had already made strong drink illegal. But for the temperance people this was not enough. They wanted a national policy, a constitutional amendment, everyone on the same page throughout the United States. And they wouldn’t rest until this was accomplished.

And so it was. In the early 20th century the temperance crusaders got what they wanted because they won the argument. In the Constitution our founding fathers made sure that it took much more than a simple majority to accomplish a constitutional amendment; it takes universal and overwhelming support. To claim that Prohibition was a thing imposed upon the American people by a bunch of religious fundamentalist zealots, as many over the years have done, is a not only a gross oversimplification, but just plain wrong. Even most social progressives, liberals of their day, as most abolitionists had done years before, supported it.  Virtually everyone, from the political far left to the Klan on the far right, supported Prohibition. To oppose it was considered downright unpatriotic.

One of the most colorful temperance figures of the era was evangelist Billy Sunday, a baseball player turned preacher who filled auditoriums across the country again and again with enthusiastic crowds with his highly theatrical style running back and forth across the stage screaming against demon rum, breaking up chairs and furniture, railing against sin, mostly drunkenness and, of course, agitating for prohibition. His most famous sermon, preached time and again, was titled simply “Booze.” And he left his fans with no doubt as to how he felt on the subject.  Another was activist Carrie Nations, who led battalions of axe-wielding women, many of whom had been victims of domestic abuse, into saloons giving those places a dose of “hachetation”-all done to the utter delight of journalists and temperance supporters. And so it came to pass that after years of all this, they got what they wanted: Prohibition.

Everyone saw it coming. Managers of country clubs did what they could to prepare. They hoarded wine and spirits while the getting was good and during the whole thing, up until repeal in 1933, never missed a beat. They were clever. Since it was illegal to “sell” alcohol, country clubs simply raised membership fees and distributed free drinks as a “benefit” of membership. Interestingly enough, it was not illegal to consume alcohol or to give it away. I say they never missed a beat. This is not entirely true. Beer drinkers suffered, since beer needs to be fresh and cannot be stored successfully for very long. Country or yacht club members had to make do with the stronger stuff if they wanted to stay within the letter of the law. Of course they probably found ways of sneaking some beer onto those yachts from time to time.

But most Americans did not belong to country clubs or similar organizations. And those who had to have a drink, and all those who wanted a good fresh mug of beer, were forced to look elsewhere. Where there is demand, there will be supply. And in short order. And so the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages, an enormous industry once legally employing hundreds of thousands passed into the hands of lawbreakers and the criminal element. And the various myths and romance of Prohibition, the “rum runners” the “speak-easys” and the gangsters were born.

There were overnight millionaires:  the“Jay Gatsbys” and Al Capone and, sorry but I have to say it, Joseph Kennedy, father of a future president. And it seemed that the Feds, despite the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover and men like Eliot Ness, were able to do little about it. There just weren’t enough of them. Soon the economies of major cities like Chicago were controlled by organized crime. Graft, bribery, and corruption was rampant. Local judges were paid off, paid to either look the other way or to simply give the “rum-runners” a slap on the wrist when hauled into court. For many it seemed that chaos had overtaken the nation and, later, in the midst of the depression, it seemed that the only ones with money were lawbreakers in the whiskey trade. Furthermore, it did not escape the attention of government officials both at the state and federal level that an important source of government revenue had been lost with the passage of the 18th amendment. Instead, all that money was now going to the criminal element. Apparently, they hadn’t considered that beforehand. Sounds a little like the drug situation today, doesn’t it?

Myths about prohibition abound. The 18th amendment specifically outlawed “intoxicating liquors” which still allowed for the sale of low alcohol beers and some wines. It was, interestingly enough, the accompanying “Volstead Act” that outlawed even that mild stuff, not the 18th amendment itself. When repeal finally came in 1933, the Federal government simply threw the issue back to the states and let them decide, and importantly, fund and carry out enforcement. Many states were happy to carry on with Prohibition. The state of Mississippi did so until 1966! But, the Federal government, preoccupied with the depression, got out of enforcing “liquor laws” deciding it had more important things to do.

Another persistent myth, already mentioned  in the first paragraph, is the notion that Prohibition was forced upon the American people by Puritanical religious zealots and rural hayseeds. On the contrary, it is astonishing now to discover that many social progressives such as Eleanor Roosevelt, were fervently “dry” and supported Prohibition as a means of saving the American family. Other “dry” figures were Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. FDR was mostly silent on the issue, he liked his daily “highballs” a bit too much! When the vote was tallied in 1918, only three states had rejected the amendment. It passed in the other states by huge majorities. In short, the USA embraced the measure initially with an unprecedented enthusiasm.

Perhaps the greatest myth concerning Prohibition was that it was a colossal failure and that repeal was an acknowledgment of that “fact.” Maybe it depends on how one defines failure. If the stated goal of Prohibition was to cut down on the consumption of alcohol in the US, and to a large extent it was, it succeeded.  Between 1919 and 1933, per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages declined dramatically and for good reasons. Most Americans, it seems, did not want their drink bad enough to pay the high prices the criminal element demanded during those years. But, of course, many did.  And many “rum runners, “ became very wealthy. But this was not so much because people were drinking more but simply because they paid so much more than previously for the illicit product. To the whiskey dealers during Prohibition it was far better to make a hundred dollars from the sale of twenty bottles of illegal wine than the same amount from the sale of a hundred bottles of legal wine. During Prohibition a mug of beer or a glass of wine became too expensive for the average guy to consume on a regular or daily basis. Furthermore, the average guy didn’t like dealing with the criminal element, something that keeps a lot of people away from marijuana use nowadays. The average guy then as now, has a healthy respect for the law of the land. And it is this universal respect for the law that makes for a stable society.

Despite the good behavior of most citizens, things only got worse and eventually it was just too much for the Feds. Repeal in 1933 occurred because the cost of enforcement was simply too high. The federal government was not the behemoth that it is now. And enforcement now would be about as effective as the enforcement of our current drug laws. Or immigration laws. We might compare the efforts of the “Untouchables” and “G-men” then to that of agents on the Mexican border now: there just aren’t enough of them to get the job done. This exercise in futility will probably continue because nowadays the Federal government seems reluctant to grant any meaningful enforcement role to the states on illegal immigration. But this was not the case in 1933, when Washington DC was happy to finally wash its hands of the Prohibition business and turn alcohol issues  back over to the states as before.  They could chase the rum runners and distillers themselves if that was what they wanted. It had become painfully clear during Prohibition that many state governments, even many of those who had voted unanimously for the 18th amendment, either refused to help with enforcement or offered only token support. They turned out to be all talk and no do making Prohibition, in all honesty, a mission impossible.

Should we now consider Prohibition an embarrassment? No, it was simply a mistake. To err is human. We should look on the bright side and remember that this is the ONLY time in US history that a constitutional amendment has been repealed, only once in over 235 years. Not bad. This demonstrates a stability that few nations can boast of.

How many times have nations enthusiastically embarked upon some “noble experiment” or great cause only to abandon it after discovering certain hard unanticipated developments, the unintended consequences, that the cost was simply too high? Too many times to count.  Consider the Vietnam war in a similar light. With it, the US wanted to contain the spread of communism in SE Asia, a noble goal for sure.  But, after a few years of trying to do so, the US decided that it wasn’t worth it, that the cost was simply too high and, like the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, finally abandoned the effort.

Did preacher Billy Sunday, the great promoter of prohibition, forget to read his Bible? Jesus said: “What man, wanting to build a house does not first consider the cost?” It seems that very few prior to the passage of prohibition, not the religious zealots or the social progressives, had really “ counted the cost” or considered the possibility of unintended consequences. And yet,… there are always unintended consequences, hidden costs, and big surprises when new policies and rules are imposed upon large groups of human beings. Always. They never considered the real possibility that many of those who supported prohibition were hypocrites and never had the slightest intention of abandoning their drinking habits. No doubt many of these “supporters”, people who gave Rev. Sunday and the other temperance crusaders lip service, were alcoholics. And the drunk is going to have his drink. The temperance crusaders forged ahead ignoring this hard fact.  They wanted “demon rum” outlawed no matter what and …they got what they wanted. Moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it…. Plus some.

Jim Hardaway 8/8/11


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Doughboys Turn the Tide

US soldier receives award from British officer in 1918. They were grateful for the help.

The great war in Europe had been dragging on mercilessly for nearly three years when the United States, due largely to the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, finally decided to jump into the fray in April, 1917. Of course the US wasn’t ready. A nation cannot fight today’s war with yesterday’s weapons or with the usual peacetime army. Men have to be gathered up, trained, equipped and sent overseas to the front. This takes time. While the war-weary British and French waited and waited, suffering even more casualties due to new German offensives, the US made ready. Finally, by late Spring 1918, nearly a half-million US servicemen, affectionately called “Doughboys”, under the command of General John Pershing were on European soil headed for the front lines with the cry “Lafayette, we have returned!” on their lips. By war’s end a few months later in early November, nearly two million Americans were “over there.”

The Great War, now called World War One, was the bloodiest in history up to that time. Nowadays most educated Americans know something about the terrible carnage of the Western Front in Northern France and Belgium and have heard of places like the Marne, Verdun, and the Somme, places where casualties due to modern weaponry such as new and improved field artillery and the machine gun, had sent casualties into the millions. What is not often known is that the carnage extended far beyond the Western Front. There was an almost equally bloody Eastern Front in Poland and Russia. Then there were other battlegrounds  like Gallipolli in Turkey, and even the mountains of Northern Italy, making the conflict a truly world affair raising the butcher’s bill to amounts never imagined or thought possible. By early 1918 a terrible stalemate had developed making the end of the terrible business seem no closer than it had been three years previous. All the slaughter seemed for nought except for one thing. The allies, the British, French, and Italians could breathe a little easier. For them there was hope: The Yanks were coming. That would be the difference. Reinforcements from “the new world” would turn the tide or so they hoped.

The Germans under Kaiser Wilhem were well aware of this. If his armies could push the allies back and weaken them sufficiently before the Americans arrived then maybe, just maybe, the allies would sue for peace on his terms and he could declare victory in the nick of time. It seemed worth a try. And so in the Spring of 1918 the last great German offensives of that war occurred. Over the course of a few weeks they made great progress, gaining a great deal of territory and taking many prisoners but by the early weeks of Summer it had all ground to a halt and nothing more was to be gained for the Germans without suffering an unacceptable level of casualties. So they could do nothing but wait for the inevitable onslaught and hope that somehow they could produce another stalemate that could possibly produce a negotiated peace. That was their only hope.

The allied counteroffensive was not long in coming. In early August of 1918, fresh American troops joined forces with freshly energized British and French all along the long Western Front going “over the top” for a great push that never lost momentum.

For the Germans it was the beginning of the end. Their leaders wisely saw what lay down the road if they continued the fight. By early Fall, all along the front their line was collapsing. Weary, demoralized German soldiers were surrendering in droves. It was just a matter of time before they would be forced into an unconditional surrender. It was time to cut their losses and make the best of a bad situation. And any fool could see that it was only going to get worse. By early November they had had enough. With real disaster just around the corner, they called for a ceasefire and  it was all quiet on the Western Front.  Soon after there was an armistice and the long terrible war was over.

One of those who managed to get to the front just in time was Tennessee’s own Alvin C. York. In early October Cpl. York pulled off his now legendary feat. With the assistance of his infantry squad, he killed  twenty-eight Germans and captured one-hundred and thirty-two-a feat nearly unparalleled in modern warfare winning him the Congressional Medal of Honor and national fame. Not to depreciate his great skill and bravery it must be said that he was in the right place at the right time. More about “Sergeant York” later.

For many thousands of just arrived American troops it was a big disappointment: the thing was over before they saw an enemy soldier or fired a shot. For them it was much ado about nothing!

The war was won but not the peace. The Versailles Treaty of 1919 was supposed to be a negotiation, but instead the German representatives found themselves outmaneuvered and diplomatically outgunned by the French and British who imposed terrible terms: heavy reparations, loss of colonial possessions and territory, the disbanding of the German military except for a token national force and the seizure or destruction of nearly all their heavy military equipment. For the Germans it was an unforgettable, unforgivable humiliation.

In time ultra-right wing groups rose to prominence in post-war Germany assuring the down-trodden, bitter German people that they had not really lost the war but had been sold-out and tricked. One group, the National Socialists, went even further saying that they had been “stabbed in the back” at Versailles by the “Jews”, ignoring the fact that thousands of German Jews had done their duty for the Fatherland in the armed forces during the long, terrible war. Unfortunately theirs was a message that finally found millions of eager ears in the early nineteen-thirties. And the party leader Adolf Hitler was elected Germany’s chancellor.  We know the rest of this story. In a sense, Hitler was determined to finish what Germany had started in 1914, to pick up where they had left off in 1918 and see it through to a German victory. Many historians have viewed the second world war as a mere continuation of the first world war.

This is precisely the problem of a negotiated peace where a parley occurs and terms are agreed upon. It is always possible afterward that one side will get the idea that they got the “short end of the stick”, the worse end of the deal, and will later claim that they were “sold out” or “cheated” rather than really defeated on the field. This is precisely why Roosevelt began to talk of an unconditional surrender for Germany quite early in the US involvement in World War Two, long before the end was in sight. He wanted to make sure that Germany would fully understand this time that she was really and truly defeated, that there would never be any doubt of who the real victor was in World War Two as had occurred in the aftermath of World War One. In an unconditional surrender no one of a sound mind can question who really won.

So it was about this time in the summer of 1918, that newly arrived American doughboys of the AEF, the American Expeditionary Force, were changing the course of the war on the Western Front and breaking the terrible, bloody stalemate putting the “Hun” on the run. They got the job done, returning home in early 1919 with a great sense of accomplishment, believing that they had fought in the war to end all wars and “saved the world for democracy.” Few of them could have guessed that only a generation later their sons would have to come back to Europe and do it all over again. And on that next trip “over there” many more American lives would be expended-several times more.   Perhaps it was best that they didn’t know.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized