Book Review: Thunder and Flames: Americans in the Crucible of Combat, 1917-1918


by Edward G. Lengel

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Pp. xii, 458. Illus., maps., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 0700620842

The Doughboys Learn Their Trade

The author of a number of notable works in military history, particularly To Conquer Hell, an excellent account of the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, Prof. Lengel (U. Va.) here gives us a ground-breaking study of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and their introduction to combat on the Western Front.

Lengel begins by discussing the lack of preparation that characterized America’s war effort, noting that the Regular Army and National Guard were too small to provide a cadre for organizing an army capable of fighting in the European war, so that a mass army had to be improvised quickly. His account cuts through the many legends and half-truths that have arisen about the AEF's performance during the Spring of 1918. While the troops were brave and willing to fight, but the Army’s early operations were typified by poor tactical command and control, and unnecessary loss of lives, even in such iconic actions a Belleau Wood. Even veteran “Old Army” and Marine officers and NCOs were ill-prepared for the logistical, administrative, tactical, and pretty much every other challenge of modern warfare.

The French and British helped by establishing training centers to prepare their new ally for the conditions at the Front, but many American officers, notably Pershing, were skeptical about the advice being given; Americans believed their allies were inept and war weary, a myth still circulating. Of course, the French and British had already made their mistakes, and in the process developed a better understanding of how to fight the Germans, a skilled opponent. As a result, many of the mistakes made by the Allies early in the war, were replicated by the Americans at Cantigny, Belleau Wood, and Soissons. American troops lacked coordination between the artillery and the infantry, and their tactics were primitive, right out of 1914 in many instance. In their first battles, the Doughboys showed little understanding of the effective use of the machinegun in offensive or defensive operations, leading to heavy losses.

The Doughboys learned quickly, however. By the Summer of 1918 experience and better training had led to many changes. Officers who were unable to adapt were dispatched to the rear. The divisions – 1st, 2nd, 26th, and 42nd – that had fought in the Spring of 1918 became better at small unit tactics and combined arms coordination. Although the divisions that entered combat later were still green and so poorly trained they had to learn on the job, gradually the AEF become a more capable force.

Lengel writes well, and mixes analysis of policy, tactics, and doctrine with battle narrative, often seasoned by first hand accounts, and reminds us that the failures in France led to intense study of tactics, logistics, and the mobilization of men and industry which stood the nation in good stead in a later war.

Thunder and Flames, a volume in the excellent UP Kansas “Modern War” series, is a very good read for anyone interested in the AEF or the Great War.

Our Reviewer: Independent scholar Dan David is the author of The 1914 Campaign: August-October, 1914 and numerous reviews and articles. Formerly the manager of Sky Books International, in New York, he is a member of the Board of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, and chairman of the NYMAS Book Awards Committee. His most recent reviews for StrategyPage include Monty's Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe, The Edwardian Army: Recruiting. Training. and Deploying the British Army, 1902-1914, The Indian Army on the Western Front, Gallipoli: Command Under Fire, and The Russian Army in the Great War


Reviewer: Dan David   

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