The Great War and the American Experience Cover

The Great War and the American Experience

Bruno Cabanes

Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 2017, 160 pages

Book Review published on: May 29, 2020

Marking the centennial period of World War I, the French government, in commemoration of America's entry into the Great War in 1917, supported the project of bringing to publication The Great War and the American Experience, drawing on newly discovered photographs from the archives of the French Ministry of Defence. Author Bruno Cabanes tenderly narrates this collage of rare World War I photographs and offers reflections of the profound inspiration and hope the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) gave the war-weary citizens of France from the AEF’s historic deployment to its victory march down the Champs- Élysées. This book pictorially chronicles the call to service of draftees and volunteers, their journey from farmer’s field and city factories to well-trained and well-equipped battle formations across America, their celebrated arrival on the French shore, their victory, and their hero’s welcome when they returned.

The core of The Great War and the American Experience reveals the doughboys who captured the admiration of the French people. Generally, pictures of World War I show the stark devastation and suffering of trench warfare. Images of soldiers mired in the mud and stuck in surreal moonscapes of pocked earth churned up by constant shelling and with death all around dominate the collective memory of the war. Not the case here; many of the book’s pictures reveal life out of harm’s way in the countryside and the cities, giving evidence to Gen. John Pershing’s AEF preparations of an offensive force and the peaceful moments between battles like Belleau Wood and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Cabanes chooses the book’s topics to illustrate the historical context of the times and how their associated problems translate into today’s society, which I find a risky application of history. He describes the contents of the book as exploring the training camp experience at home, the journey overseas, the interaction between Allied soldiers and the local population, racial tensions, the horrors of total war, the experience of mass death, and the veterans' difficult reentry into civilian life.

The author does not bother with technical descriptions of places, things, or people for the scores of remarkably clear photographs in this book, but rather, he provides a poetic narration for each photo that describes the feelings of the souls captured on camera in those moments in time. Taken as a whole, this style of narration throughout The Great War and the American Experience ought to leave the reader with a greater appreciation of the viewpoint of the French people held of America’s late but coveted entry into the Great War, a topic long neglected.

Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas