Robert H. Ferrell. Collapse in the Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. 184 pp. No price listed (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8262-1532-1.
Reviewed by Douglas Johnson (Army War College)
Published on H-War (December, 2005)
Command Failure in an AEF Division
I wanted to write this book myself the moment I happened upon the 35th Division files in the U.S. Army Military History Institute's World War I Survey collection. The Inspector General Reports of the division's combat performance piqued my interest even more, but Robert Ferrell beat me to the punch.
Ferrell has done a superb job in taking memoirs and transforming them into first-class works of history. Continuing his excellent research, he has brought together many unique materials to shed light on the still quite sensitive history of this division. Ferrell identifies the low view of Army National Guard units held by Regular officers as a contributing cause of the 35th's failure, the reason for the seemingly hypercritical critiques of the Inspectors General and the acid tone that permeated the postwar Congressional inquiries. This is still a sore subject, given the ambivalence between Active and National Guard officers on issues of readiness and professionalism, but the deep involvement in current combat operations and the demonstrated need for seamless cooperation is healing that lesion.
This work is different from Ferrell's earlier memoir work and suffers from a change of material and of task. The Inspector General Reports that form the core of this book are not as coherent as memoirs tend to be. They touch upon a host of matters that require a good deal of investigation, comparison, and synthesis. The competing prejudices of the Inspector General Reports and the records of the Congressional Inquiry must be resolved. It would seem that the only way to do this is on the basis of some comparative analyses. The postwar report on the performance of the 35th Division is roughly similar in that it is a record of highly emotion-laden proceedings that must likewise be read with care. This is a difficult task and, while Ferrell does a good job, there is much more to be said and some of what was said needs to be augmented with pertinent comparisons.
Ferrell's characterization of the animosities between Regulars and National Guard officers is probably right, and even may be too gentle. His brief discussion of training problems echoes criticisms found in James Rainey's work cited by Ferrell, and my own dissertation. Ferrell is likewise correct in laying much of the blame for the Division's collapse to failures of liaison at and between all levels in the chain of command. He correctly identifies the changes in the chain of command just before the battle as contributing factors, but focuses largely on the division and brigade commanders (the new people), tending to pass over the captains and lieutenants upon whom the essential task of maintaining cohesion rests. Here the story is approximately the same throughout the AEF. Most of these youngsters were inexperienced and relatively high numbers of them were killed, but that is true across the force. For example, the 28th Infantry is led into its final assault on the town of Berzy-le-Sec (July 22, 1918) by a second lieutenant, the only junior officer left standing, who joined the regiment the day of the attack (July 18, 1918).
How many men of the 35th were actually casualties? Where were the missing? Ferrell does a good job of explaining most of that, but without any comparisons, the reader is left to guess whether or not this situation is unique to the 35th. The 28th Infantry that attacked Berzy-le-Sec numbered fewer than three hundred men, yet the post-combat roster shows a fair number of officers and men present and uninjured, and this with a change in the chain of command mere hours before the battle--just like the 35th.
Similar issues beg comparisons, particularly the employment and handling of the artillery. Mark Groteluschen use Conrad Lanza's 1936 work and together they paint a picture of an army struggling to find its way in the effective employment of artillery. Again this reflects a condition not at all unique to the 35th. It was particularly poor for the opening phases of this campaign--pretty much across the board. That the 35th Division Artillery commander failed in the management of his force was not as unique as Ferrell noted in his previous book on the 89th, where the Division Artillery Commander was replaced in the midst of combat for weak performance.
Ferrell's dislike for General John J. Pershing is manifest almost immediately and unfortunately it is too intense. In this campaign, Pershing was not his own master. Foch was calling the shots and had been doing so particularly in connection with his approval of the St. Mihiel operation. Vital French support to that operation was made contingent upon the AEF undertaking the Meuse-Argonne operation. Lanza provides a particularly cogent operational analysis of the Metz problem in his 1936 article. The American command was seemingly infatuated with the idea that Metz was the key to the German Western Front defense. Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch, however, had more immediate and pressing problems to deal with. An operation focused on Metz would likely compromise the defense against another German attack, which was clearly forming. Further, he sensed that the time for a coordinated attack by all the allies and associated powers (Americans) had arrived. Once the Aisne-Marne Campaign had closed, Foch allowed the AEF to execute the St. Mihiel operation to prove it could manage such an undertaking, but made it clear that this operation was to be followed by a general offensive while the Germans were attempting to catch their breath.
Donald Smythe, in Pershing: General of the Armies (1986), was the first major writer to take Pershing to task for his management of the AEF. He noted that Pershing had been attempting to run all facets of the huge operation with limited delegation of authority. Once AEF forces entered combat, he attempted to run them in that activity, as well, and reluctantly came to recognize his limitations. It is fair to criticize him, but only with the understanding that the number of reliable men with experience sufficient to manage tasks (including a number that even he could not handle) was very thin.
Finally, there is the larger strategic appreciation to which Ferrell pays no attention. Pershing was directed to form an American Army and to lead it successfully in combat, if the United States were to be represented properly at the peace table. If not, all of the President's goals would be compromised. The utopian promise of "the war to end all wars" must be fertilized with American blood or wicked old Europe would simply set the terms for another punitive peace that would inevitably lead to another, even worse war. Whatever Pershing's failings, he did understand the strategic implications very clearly. The consequence of this strategic imperative, and the observed performance of units in combat up to this point, produced a harsh requirement for leaders who would drive their subordinates. That these men knew little about what that meant was not something Pershing could afford to care about--they must lead forcefully or die in the attempt.
I agree with Ferrell's assessment that the frequent relief of commanding officers, often upon the eve of battle, seriously harmed unit cohesion. Also, I do not like John J. Pershing much more than the author. Nevertheless, the element of critical analysis and objectivity in this book is weak. Comparisons would have made this a longer work, but they are necessary to provide some basis for dealing with the strong prejudices of the two principal documents upon which this study is based.
. Of his many works see, for example, Monterrey is Ours! The Mexican War Letters of Lieutenant Dana, 1945-1947 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990); and A Youth in the Meusse-Argonne: A Memoir, 1917-1918 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000).
. Mark Groteluschen, Doctrine under Trial: American Artillery Employment in World War I (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001); and Conrad H. Lanza, "The Turn of the Worm: The Allies in the Second Marne Campaign," Field Artillery Journal 26, no. 4 (July-August, 1936): pp. 380-400.
. James W. Rainey, "Ambivalent Warfare: The Tactical Doctrine of the AEF in World War I," Parameters 13 (1985): pp. 34-46; and James W. Rainey, "The Questionable Training of the AEF in World War I," Parameters 22 (1993): pp. 89-103.
. Ferrell, Meuse-Argonne Diary: A Division Commander in World War I (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004).
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Douglas Johnson. Review of Ferrell, Robert H., Collapse in the Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division.
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