This book was a delight to pick up and read; even though only the near-to-last chapters cover the American Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Most of the book focuses on telling the stories of Americans who got involved in the war months and years before the United States was officially at war. This includes famous writers such as Edith Wharton, who made numerous aid trips to France. It also includes volunteers of the American Field Service and the Lafayette Flying Corps; and it includes American reporters who covered the war from the point of view of both sides. The book is not an exhaustive study of every individual involved in those efforts; but it is a representative sampling. Only the later chapters tell the story of Doughboys during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive; and the last chapter outlines post-war rebuilding efforts by various prominent Americans, universities and charity organizations as well as the beginnings of battlefield tourism. In this regard, it would be incorrect to characterize the book as a must-read account of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive; but that was never the authors’ intention.
The joy of the book comes from the combination of thorough research and the authors’ knowledge of the local terrain and culture. It is clear that the authors have done considerable archival research for each story told; and this allows them to bring out details that otherwise would have been lost in history. On top of that, the authors have the benefit of having lived and travelled a considerable amount of time in Lorraine. (Their daughter and son-in-law own a vacation house in the region.) Because of that, they can put the locations and events described into a geographical and cultural context that distant writers cannot provide.
As I read the book, I found myself dog-earing numerous pages where I would love to have had the description on a prior battlefield trip. One example of this is the juxtaposition of Petain’s HQ in the Village Hall (Mairie) of Souilly with General Pershing’s 10-car luxury train parked on a siding in a grove of trees near the village. Another example is the description given for various American Field Service sites during the 1915 battles in the St. Mihiel Salient and the 1916 battles in the Verdun Sector.
All in all, Eyewitnesses to the Great War is a fine sampling of American participation in the great war from 1914 – 1918. It is especially recommended for those battlefield tourists who want to focus more on the cultural and personal side of the war than the on military dates, facts and figures.
Eyewitnesses to the Great War was published by McFarland & Company, Inc. of North Carolina in 2012. It is available through the usual retail and internet distribution channels.