Private Heller and the Bantam Boys
An American Medic in World War I
Lyons Press, Gilford, Connecticut, 2015, 320 pages
Book Review published on: March 12, 2021
Private Heller and the Bantam Boys: An American Medic in World War I presents a detailed account of an American ambulance unit in France attached to the French army during World War I. It is based on the personal diary of Pvt. Ralph Heller and his experiences while serving in the U.S. Army from May 1917 to April 1919. The book follows Heller, a Midwestern farm boy, and his snooty Princeton University fellow medics (aka the Bantam Boys) through ambulance training, crossing the Atlantic, and nearly a year in combat on the western front. The firsthand accounts of war are emotional and captivating and take a more personal narrative as Gregory Archer, who is also Heller’s grandson, brings them to life.
The book is well written and appeals to anyone who has an interest in the history of World War I. Archer supplements fiction with fact with actual excerpts taken from Heller’s diary. Original photos are also included to enhance the reader’s understanding and to accompany him or her throughout the Bantam Boys’ experiences. Although not specifically a military study, there are many examples of leadership and followership challenges, “shell shock” (now more commonly known as posttraumatic stress disorder), near-death experiences, and day-to-day life while serving under harsh wartime conditions—all of which are vital to understanding soldiers and enhancing military professional development. While the foreword proclaims, “Private Heller and the Bantam Boys will touch readers of all ages,” the profanity, minor adult content, and graphic details of battlefield devastation may not be age appropriate for many young readers.
Heller’s tale is not all death and destruction. The author does an excellent job of telling stories of Heller and his mates’ adventures away from the front. Typical of soldiers, they yearned for wine, companionship, and simply to find refuge away from the harsh conditions of war. They spent their free time having fun and fighting, touring the sites of Versailles and Paris, falling in love with red wine and French cuisine, finding their way to the Folies Bergère, and forgetting about the war, if only for a short time. As heroes, they were recognized for their gallantry and meritorious actions on the battlefield. The entire unit was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) from the French High Command for acts of bravery in the face of enemy actions. And all the Bantam Boys received medals for surviving the Somme and Marne campaigns.
Archer devotedly brings his grandfather’s story to life. He turns the diary into historical fragments of triumph and tragedy, each one worthy of analysis of the overall soldier. Fear, depression, stress, love, anger, hate, and other emotions are all represented and equally important, then and now, in understanding the significance of battle and its effects when dealing with soldiers. An exciting and vividly described story of life on the western front, Private Heller and the Bantam Boys is a fulfilling tale of wartime glory and sorrow and a worthwhile read for any military or history enthusiast.
Book Review written by: Kirby A. Hanson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas