Dissonance arises when an author’s expectation and a reviewer’s expectation of a book differ; and that is the case with “Forty-seven Days: How Pershing’s Warrior Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War 1,” the latest book from well-known WW1 military historian Mitchell Yockelson.
Looking at the work from 30,000 feet, the book is a skillful re-telling of the Meuse-Argonne battle, focusing on the key American leaders and heroes and select events during the 47 days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This is followed with an “Aftermath” chapter that contains a concise post-WW1 biography of many of the main characters, including their WW2 experiences. The book is largely told from the point of view of General Pershing; it is chronologically based on Pershing’s discussions, travels and interactions with subordinates during those forty-seven days. (The author uses numerous sources for these interactions. He does not rely solely on Pershing’s diaries.) In these ways, the book differs from Lengel’s approach in To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne 1918, which was more of a day-to-day account of the battle and the divisions involved, often told using letters or diaries of the lesser known officers, NCOs and enlisted men.
The writing style flows very well; and it is hard put the book down once started. This reviewer knows how easy it is to get caught up on the “barbed-wire” of detail while writing about a simple combat event. Mr. Yockelson is able to weave his narrative of the entire campaign, without getting bogged down in detail.
The dissonance arises when this ardent WW1 historian and reviewer looks at the fourth word in the title: “How.” In the reviewer’s opinion, Mr. Yockelson’s work is a good narrative of events; but it falls short of what it could have been. There is little critique, assessment or analysis of General Pershing or of the AEF based on Mr. Yockelson’s years of researching WW1, which has been enriched by his employment at the National Archives. Was General Pershing the right man for the job? Were others better qualified? Should they have been in command? Over the last decade or so, a number of books have been published that offer greater analysis and insight into the Meuse-Argonne and the late 1918 battles. These include: Grotelueschen’s “The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War 1;” Watson’s “Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918;” and Zabecki’s “The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War.” The reviewer would like to see this trend toward more critique, assessment and analysis–and coverage of understudied topics–continue; especially as the Centennial leads to a sharp increase in new publications. That is his bias against the book.
Forty-Seven Days is published by New American Library, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. It is available in March 2016 through the traditional retail and online channels.