William Walker. Betrayal at Little Gibraltar: A German Fortress, a Treacherous American General, and the Battle to End World War I. New York: Scribner, 2016. 464 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5011-1789-3.
Reviewed by Edmund Potter (Mary Baldwin College)
Published on H-War (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
At a time when there is increased interest in World War I, William Walker seeks to highlight one particular battle to illustrate how the actions or rather inactions of one man had disastrous consequences for thousands of soldiers. The “Little Gibraltar” in the title was the name Allied soldiers gave to the small town of Montfaucon, which operated as the key German observation post for their lines west of the Meuse River. Having seized this prominent peak in September 1914, the Germans had three years to make it a fortress before the US 79th Division was given the task of taking it on the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
Histories of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France highlight the fact that the 79th was a green division, which had not been fully trained and thus was not prepared to take such an obstacle. On September 26, 1918, the 79th Division commanded by Major General Kuhn failed to meet its objective and take Montfaucon, while the divisions on either side succeeded. Contemporary criticism was leveled at the officers of the 79th. Later critiques have questioned why overall commander, John J. Pershing, gave an inexperienced division such an important task. Walker, however, suggests a third option: the failure to take Montfaucon was due to the corps commander of the 4th Division, General Robert E. Lee Bullard, who failed to follow orders to break through the German line and then turn left to take Montfaucon from the flank.
Walker’s evidence begins with an affidavit written by Major Harry D. Parkin of the 316th Infantry of the 79th Division on September 14, 1936, which alleged Bullard’s guilt. The author then spends the next 280 pages outlining the events, which preceded the assault and its fateful consequences. Bullard’s well-known personality makes it easy to prove Parkin’s point, but Walker goes further. His background is in English, and therefore, he masterfully brings many of the officers and men of the 79th to life, using material he gleaned over twenty years of research. He clearly shows how Bullard made the calculated decision not to assist the corps commander of the 79th, Major General George H. Cameron, in order to further his own career. Walker then addresses the postwar cover-up and shows how despite the best efforts of individuals like Pershing to rewrite history, a young Dwight Eisenhower and even the AEF publicist, Frederick Palmer, left clues in their writings proving Bullard’s guilt.
Walker’s Betrayal at Little Gibraltar is a masterful history of a too long buried battle where ego was put ahead of soldiers’ lives and the success of the overall campaign. He successfully rehabilitates the reputation of the 79th Division while at the same time not overlooking the errors and weaknesses of its officers and men. If there is a fault in Walker’s narrative, it is that the interaction between German and American troops is told almost exclusively from doughboy sources. This does not, however, detract from the text, which is useful for both new readers interested in the war and scholars of the conflict.
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Edmund Potter. Review of Walker, William, Betrayal at Little Gibraltar: A German Fortress, a Treacherous American General, and the Battle to End World War I.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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