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Thunder and Flames
Americans in the Crucible of Combat, 1917–1918
By Edward G. Lengel, 457 pages.
University Press of Kansas, 2015. $39.95.

Reviewed by Dennis Showalter

In his classic study of the D-Day campaign, Russell Weigley constantly uses the phrase “well brought up” to describe divisions entering the theater of operations. By this Weigley means formations whose training, doctrine, leadership, equipment, and higher command structures were, if not optimal, at least as near state of the art as possible in the circumstances. Edward Lengel might well have chosen “stepchildren” as a catchword for the divisions of the American Expeditionary Force, whose painful introduction to the battlefields of World War I is the subject of this no less outstanding volume.

“Red-headed stepchildren” might have been an even better characterization. Lengel summarizes their familiar problems: ineffective equipment, inappropriate doctrine, inflexible organizations, inadequate officers and training, inexperienced men. He adds two factors overlooked in traditional AEF mythology. One was the strained relations—to put it mildly—between the Americans and their war-experienced mentors, the French in particular. Lengel highlights the Americans’ sense of saving the day at the last minute, their frequent dismissal of the poilus as burned-out, prone to panic, and reluctant to fight. But using French records, Lengel establishes the French as first-rate combatants, skilled alike in minor tactics and larger combined-arms operations. Their officers, moreover, were formidably willing—at least for public consumption—to embellish reality in praising the performance of American troops who had everything to learn.

The confidence of inexperience limited the Americans’ ability to benefit systematically by observing their veteran allies. And that inexperience was red meat to the Germans who faced them. Lengel makes effective use of German records to show that in the “little war” of patrols, raids, and small-scale attacks that characterized the Americans’ early tours in the front line, the Germans consistently set the pace in battlecraft, initiative, and effective courage. The Americans were more than willing to fight. They simply did not know how, even against the third- and fourth-rate German divisions holding down the relatively quiet sectors that were the AEF’s test beds.

The AEF’s higher command and staffs, right up to General John J. Pershing, were no less caught up in the mechanics of combat and in logistics on scales heretofore unimagined at West Point or Leavenworth. AEF divisions were on their own, and Lengel does a masterful job describing how, from Seicheprey and Château-Thierry through Belleau Wood to Soissons, Americans learned by experience, observation, and sometimes pure serendipity. But too often the lessons learned were on the basis of two steps forward, one back. Their tactical deficiencies remained: poor cohesion and worse liaison, ill-defined objectives, misplaced initiatives. Their casualty rates were severe—on the scale of 1914–1915. Too many officers in too many positions were still not up to their jobs. Tactical cooperation with the French was, if anything, growing worse. When the American First Army went into the line at St. Mihiel in September 1918, its doughboys had passed their initial tests with credit, given where they had begun 18 months earlier. They were ready—ready for a second course whose field-gray instructors charged high tuition.

Historian Dennis Showalter is a frequent contributor to MHQ and the author of “Bring In the Germans” in our Autumn 2015 issue.