Sadly, John Eisenhower died only weeks ago, a fact I was unaware of when I picked up this book from my local library. Yanks was the first book written by Eisenhower that I’ve read, and one of the few books I’ve read about the Great War. At 352 pages, including the index and bibliography, the book is a quick read. Perhaps a little too quick, as it tries to synthesize a great deal of information between the covers with a varying degree of success.
Yanks is limited in scope to the experience of the American Expeditionary Force, a subject dear to John Eisenhower’s heart. Eisenhower was the son of former President Dwight Eisenhower, who first cut his teeth in World War I, along with other World War II luminaries Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall and George Patton. That means the brunt of the subject falls between the years 1917 and 1918, the months of American involvement in World War I.
The challenge of supplying and moving the American Expeditionary Force takes up a decent chunk of the book, but the fact that this challenge was overcome was a testament to General “Blackjack” Pershing’s determination and Major General James Harbord, who succeeded Pershing as head of the Services of Supply. The creation of an American Expeditionary Force out of nothing, and its supply and growth along congested French roads and rail tracks was something of a miracle. In this area Eisenhower excels at showing just how important this feat was in growing the strength of the A.E.F. and posing a threat to future German operations.
Eisenhower seems most critical of the American military leadership, especially among the older division commanders like Omar Bundy. Unfortunately, the short length of the book prevents Eisenhower from going into great detail about exactly why he and their contemporaries deemed these officers unfit. When he does deal with these issues, they are usually dealt with in a cursory manner which leaves the reader wanting more.
His portrayal of the American Expeditionary Force in battle leaves something to be desired as well. I’ve read a great deal of military history, and Eisenhower falls prey to inundating the reader with unit designations over narrative. By this I mean that he will describe a series of events in a battle, but sometimes forget to mention why a unit was in a particular location to begin with. His description of the Sedan Affair falls prey to this, where some details are introduced but others left other which leaves an incomplete picture of how things unfolded.
On this last point I will reveal a little of my ignorance toward World War I. I know what happened in most places, but am not familiar with the “cast of characters” like I am with the American Civil War’s Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and so on. But it seems to me that Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.’s experiences could have made an interest subplot in the narrative, yet he garners only a small handful of mentions, usually with no context. Like his father, Ted Roosevelt, Jr. was an interesting man, and I assume his regiment would have had some interesting experiences as well.
Undoubtedly Eisenhower has a soft spot for the American Expeditionary Force, but he does lay a few criticisms at the feet of General John J. Pershing. His criticisms never run too deeply, however. Eisenhower accused Pershing of being too insistent upon maintaining an independent American command, even while admitting it was integral to American preparations for World War I continuing into 1919. During his treatment of the final Meuse-Argonne offensive he blames Pershing’s stubbornness for unnecessary bloodshed, but Eisenhower never takes an overly critical view. Clearly he was deeply impressed by the accomplishments of Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force in the face of stiff German opposition and logistical nightmares.
Despite Eisenhower’s fairly loving treatment of the A.E.F., in the end he doesn’t convince the reader that the Americans really had much impact on the war. He doesn’t settle the ongoing debate over how important the American army was to turning the tide of war against Germany. He admits in his epilogue that Pershing’s armies fought well, but doesn’t argue that they were in pivotal battles that destroyed the ability for Germany to resist. In fact, the reader gets the impression that the American soldiers’ biggest contribution was the number of soldiers. Britain and France wanted American soldiers to fill their depleted ranks, and while the Americans remained mostly in independent units, their numbers probably helped spread the burden of defense against German offensives nonetheless. Their biggest contribution, Eisenhower argues, was that the A.E.F. grew stronger every day, unlike the British, French and German armies. The threat of new offensives in 1919, backed by a muscular American fighting force under Pershing’s aggressive leadership, must have played a role in Germany’s call for an armistice in October of 1918. Germany could have gone on fighting into 1919, but could not have won against an even stronger American force.
In the end, Yanks is a good read, but leaves something to be desired. The details of the battles are not always clear-cut, and sometimes context is missing in discussions about operations. Yanks doesn’t always succeed as an introductory read to World War I, despite its small size, and this can be disappointing, but at the same time it’s not overly complicated and the reader will finish the book with a better understanding of how American mobilized a large Army, sent it overseas and helped defeat one of the strongest militaries the world had ever seen to that point.
Further Reading about Yanks by John Eisenhower:
Review of Yanks by John Eisenhower at the New York Times.