Pershing’s Crusaders

Pershing’s Crusaders

The American Soldier in World War I

Richard S. Faulkner

University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2017, 784 pages

Book Review published on: June 30, 2017

Richard Faulkner’s incredible work on the doughboys of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) is imminently timely. One hundred years after the United States entered World War I, we have an extremely well researched and detailed account written by an Army veteran and World War I scholar about doughboys. For years I have considered Lawrence Stalling’s The Doughboys to be the “gold standard” for understanding the men of the AEF. However, Faulkner’s Pershing's Crusaders has exceeded Stalling’s superlative book. It is based on the models of Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank, which makes it very readable and interesting, and it is loaded with fascinating facts and figures.

The first thing I normally do with books is open to the bibliographies and endnotes. I like to know the amount and variety of research the author performed. Pershing’s Crusaders is replete with detailed notes and in-depth research. In fact, the author spent years doing research to prepare the book. Unfortunately, the last doughboy died while the book was in the final stages of preparation, but the book stands in testament to the service and sacrifices of the two million who served in the AEF.

Pershing’s Crusaders covers a wide gamut of topics related to World War I doughboys. Like Wiley’s books, this book delves into the social science aspects of soldiers’ lives in the military. Beginning with the accession into the Army, Faulkner traces the steps of soldiers from their basic training until their discharge from active service. What should be readily apparent is that two million men of the AEF had two million perspectives of their experiences. While there are commonalities, the reader finds that each doughboy experienced something different as units were formed, broken apart, reformed, deployed, retrained, committed to action, committed to occupation duty, and then redeployed in different situations. Amazingly, most of this happened in the span of just over two years.

The Herculean efforts to raise, train, deploy, operate, and redeploy a huge force on very short timelines is a tribute to American know-how and ingenuity. What is also apparent is the total unpreparedness of the U.S. Army to fight in a modern, industrialized war. Faulkner covers the “down-side” of the doughboys’ experiences as well. The lack of trained leaders, the reliance on British and French trainers, the use of British and French armaments, and the complete unpreparedness to deal with chemical warfare are but a few of the issues covered.

In fact, doughboys were initially issued French gas masks that were replaced by an American copy of the British mask, the small-box respirator. The doughboy’s iconic helmet was virtually an identical copy of the British forces’ Brodie helmet. U.S. artillery was largely French. The primary tank of the U.S. Army, the Renault, was French. Likely the worst automatic rifle ever, the M1915 Chauchat, was French and widely used until replaced by the U.S. Browning Automatic Rifle, which came too late and too few. And, the U.S. Army Air Service flew combat aircraft of either British or French manufacture. If there are no other lessons to be learned, they are the problems of equipping large forces quickly and the attendant problems of training them to have to use foreign materiel. Our unpreparedness and inability to manufacture the necessary implements of war quickly enough caused massive problems in Europe. The “come as you are” war might have been a disaster for the U.S. Army had it not been for the British and French Allies.

Although Faulkner covers the topic of leader selection and education in his other superlative book, The School of Hard Knocks, he reiterates it in Pershing’s Crusaders in a manner that meshes with the overall theme of the book very nicely. The bottom line is that until World War I, we had no standardized manner to acquire and educate leaders. “Leadership” was instilled by “doing,” leading the Army to mistakenly believe that technical competence and knowledge of military skills equated to leadership. This sadly cost the lives of numerous doughboys, and it was not until years later that leadership was even taught as a subject in service schools.

The book closes with the occupation of Germany and redeployment of the Army. Many doughboys who had never been off the farm were perturbed to find that the virulent anti-German propaganda they had been subjected to was largely false. As soldiers lived among the Germans, they found them to be not much unlike themselves, contradicting the information they had been force-fed about the “Hun monsters.” This led to cognitive dissonance for a number of doughboys who questioned why they had fought the Germans in the first place.

Pershing’s Crusaders superbly adds to the body of knowledge regarding American soldiers and marines in World War I. Faulkner’s analyses are based on years of his own Army service combined with a profound interest in World War I. I like military books written by veterans, and this book does not disappoint. Pershing’s Crusaders will make a classic addition to any professional’s bookcase, and it adds much to our understanding of our Army in its first industrial, overseas war. As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley stated, “We need to take time and reflect. … Even though none of them [WWI veterans] are alive today, we owe it to all of them to clearly and unambiguously understand what World War I was about.” Pershing’s Crusaders performs this function extremely well.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edwin L. Kennedy Jr., U.S. Army, Retired, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama