Books and Movies: America and WW1: A Traveler’s Guide by Mark D. Van Ells

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In this work author Mark D. Van Ells accomplishes two sizeable feats: 1) First, he is able to synthesize reams of dates, facts and figures into an authoritative, readable travel guide that outlines U.S. involvement in the Great War.  Second, he covers areas that heretofore have largely been neglected, or at least not readily summarized.  Both of these accomplishments make this a book worth having in one’s collection—and having it handy whenever one travels—in the United States and in Europe.


The book is organized into chapters; each reflecting a different aspect of U.S. involvement in the war. A partial listing of chapters regarding 1917 include:  “The Road to War,” “John J. Pershing,” “Training Camps,” “Port of Embarkation,” “The Great War at Sea” and “Arrival in Europe.”  Later chapters cover the more usual combat / battlefield topics:  “Saint-Mihiel,” “Meuse-Argonne,” etc.  A final chapter, “Aftermath,” outlines American involvement in the post-war occupation of Germany.


It is clear that Mr. Van Ells did a substantial amount of research and that he has visited most every site described in the book. Furthermore, this research took the author to many “sidebars” of history that were not directly related to WW1 military action in France.  And yet he is able to present each of these concisely.  A few examples that stand out in the reviewer’s mind include the Punitive Expedition in Mexico, the pre-1917 German influence in Hoboken, New Jersey and the details surrounding two major shipwrecks.  He also describes most of the major U.S. training camps and many of the major airfields used by the U.S. Army Air Service.  (Each of these two topics includes a page of GPS coordinates.)


Because of its broad coverage, this book is not the final guidebook for any of the topics covered. For example, Mr. Van Ells does a good job listing key U.S. airfields and providing GPS coordinates for them.  However, he does not provide details regarding which squadrons used which airfields on which dates.  Thus, the traveler must still do a fair amount of research, if he / she wants to get to that level of detail when visiting a site.


The same is true when reading the chapters on the major land battles. The author does a good job in synthesizing large amounts of dates, facts and figures and in presenting a good overview of each action. However, battlefield visitors looking for more details still have to consult unit histories, biographies, and battle histories.


Also, the book is relatively skimpy on photographs and maps; relying more on verbal descriptions. (A major reason for this is the book’s length—about 400 pages.)  As a result, the author describes the location of each of the major training camps in the United States; but the (ever-changing) layout of the camps is left to the reader’s imagination and/or more research.  It would have been nice if he had included at least one or two photos / layout diagrams of each of the camps.  More maps showing the general area of operations in France would also have aided those who have less knowledge of U.S. military and supply operations in France in WW1.


In spite of the limitations outlined in the last few paragraphs, it is quite an accomplishment to clearly and concisely write on so many sites; especially considering the wide range of topics covered. The WW1 history buff will certainly want to keep this book handy when travelling in the U.S. and in Europe.  With it, one can find traces of the war in unexpected places; many of which have not been well-covered in battlefield guide books.


America and WW1: A Traveler’s Guide was published by Interlink Books in 2015.  ISBN 978-1-56656-975-0.  It is available through the traditional internet and retail sites.