My Fellow Soldiers
General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War
Penguin Press, New York, 2017, 416 pages
Book Review published on: October 6, 2017
Andrew Carroll’s My Fellow Soldiers explores the impact of Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing’s leadership on the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) and the resulting shared experiences of noteworthy men that chose to serve in that unit. Structurally, the book is broken down into three parts: the early life and formative experiences of Pershing, the heroic actions of the American doughboys and officers led by Pershing during the Great War, and the roles played by some of those selfsame people who rose to become some of America’s most influential leaders. The book follows the exploits of famous American icons such as George Patton, Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight Eisenhower during their service with the AEF in the Great War. The manner in which the author weaves the actions of these notable figures within the context of the war and the command decisions made by Pershing adds context that further deepens the reader’s understanding of the conflict.
Initially, the author provides a very illuminating depiction of some of the pivotal experiences that shaped the man. The actions of Pershing, from his search for Pancho Villa in Mexico to the tragic death of his wife and daughters in a house fire, paint the picture of a quiet, disciplined leader.
As a favorite of then Col. Theodore Roosevelt, based on their shared service in the Spanish-American War, Pershing was promoted three ranks above his peers when “Teddy” became president. His career was further enhanced when President Woodrow Wilson chose Pershing to lead the expedition to kill or capture Villa and his cross-border raiders. The choice was made due in large part to his level-headed demeanor and his demonstrated diplomatic skills in dealing with Indians. However, tragedy struck Pershing while he was assigned to Fort Bliss, Texas. He received word of the fire at his residence at the Presidio, and that his son, William, was the only member of his family to survive. By burying himself in his work, he was able to carry on through an event that often destroys a parent.
Although he never captured Villa, his raid produced the desired results. His forces killed or captured hundreds of raiders and provided security along the southern U.S. border. It should be noted that the background information provided by the author is by no means a complete biography; it merely serves as stage setter for his rise to command of the AEF.
After his selection as the commander of the AEF over many other more senior officers, Pershing was immediately put to the test. He found himself under intense pressure from both the Allies and his fellow Americans to commit soldiers into the fight immediately, under foreign commanders. The first series of demands were for U.S. soldiers to serve as replacement soldiers to the French and British armies, which had suffered enormous casualties. However, Wilson directed Pershing to not deploy the American soldiers until they were ready. Wilson felt that if the Americans did poorly in the fight against the Germans, it would weaken the resolve of the populace to support the war effort. To that end, Pershing looked for a series of easy wins that would allow the AEF to manage the risk of failure. Success would build upon success, as the inexperienced troops gained warfighting proficiency and experience. Despite frequent pointed demands from the Allied commanders for the immediate deployment of the U.S. servicemen, Pershing bided his time with small commitments in quiet sectors of the front. He amassed his green American troops in France and provided tough, realistic, theater-specific training based on lessons learned from Allied failures. He knew that facing the battle-hardened Germans would be no easy task, and he took a calculated risk in withholding troops when the Germans appeared to be splitting the French and British armies near Cambrai, poised to threaten Paris. Unlike many books that focus on a specific level of war and describe the action at that level, My Fellow Soldiers includes a number of people’s viewpoints at various levels. The story recounts the overall success of the American effort at the tactical, operational, and the strategic levels of war. Ironically, Pershing was an effective leader, in this case, because he resisted the urge to “run to the sound of the guns” as many of his peers would have done.
The book concludes with short descriptions of the fortunes of the notable leaders that had served under Pershing and what roles they would go on to play after the war. The book does a fantastic job of pulling together the linkages between many of the famous military leaders of that time and what they did during World War I. In this way, you can see how these leaders interacted with each other and the events of the war within their various spheres of influence.
Many students of history know quite a bit about their favorite historical figures. This book provides context—in their relationships to one another and their activities—within a window of time. After reading this account, I have a much better understanding of those relationships and how their shared experiences shaped them. I highly recommend this book. It is a fast read, and the numerous anecdotal stories will prove entertaining to the military buff and casual reader alike.
Book Review written by: Eric McGraw, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas