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Search tags: FIRST-WORLD-WAR-non-fiction
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review 2017-03-20 02:29
ONE HUNDRED YEARS LATER: REFLECTIONS ON "THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE" IN WORLD WAR I
The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War - Richard Rubin

A few minutes ago (it's now 9:29 PM EST as I write this), I finished reading this book. I felt both grateful for the considerable work the author put into travelling across the country (starting in the summer of 2003) to interview personally as many of the surviving U.S. veterans (men and women alike) of the First World War as could be found --- and thankful to hear these veterans speak of their experiences. This has a special resonance to me because my maternal grandfather (who was born in 1895) had served in France as a corporal in the U.S. Army in 1918. He passed away in the early 1970s (when I was a 3rd grader) as I was beginning to come into an awareness of what war was, courtesy of Vietnam. So, it wasn't until many years later, that I came to have a special appreciation for those Americans who served in the First World War and for the changes that war wrought on this country.

Many of the persons Richard Rubin interviewed represented a broad cross-section of those Americans (both native born and immigrant) who served in uniform between 1917 and 1918. While most of the veterans he interviewed (Army, Navy, and Marine Corps) served overseas, there were at least a couple of them who remained in the United States. Indeed, one of them enlisted toward the end of the war and before he could become more fully integrated in "the Army way", the armistice was signed and he was told he could go home. He hadn't been issued a uniform and aside from receiving transit home, the Army gave him a certificate of service and a dollar.

The author also managed to interview a couple of African American veterans of the war. One of them, was George Johnson, a 111 year old living in Richmond, California in 2005. His Army experience was largely reflective of the disdain and indignities with which many African Americans who served in the U.S military during the First World War had to deal with from their white compatriots, and the general society. Mr. Johnson's case was somewhat unique in that, as a very light-skinned African American, he could have easily passed as white, had he so chose. When he speaks with the author about the experiences his brother had with the U.S. Navy (where he was thought to be white and treated as such, until in answer to a query one of his shipmates put to him, he admitted that he was 'Negro'), it was a very sad and tragic story. One that impacted on Mr. Johnson for the rest of his life and perhaps was the contributing factor that made Mr. Johnson later see himself as white and not black. The other African American veteran the author interviewed in 2006 was Moses Hardy at age 113 in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Mr. Hardy served in one of the U.S. Army "pioneer infantry" regiments in France which saw combat during the final stages of the war.
He was in one of the few African American combat units, for most African American soldiers, upon arrival in France, were placed into labor units. (According to the book: "...only 20 percent of all African American troops sent to France in World War I were used as fighting men.") This was reflective of the then widespread belief that African American soldiers were unfit for combat duties. (Never mind the distinguished service African Americans had provided the country as soldiers and sailors since the American Revolution.)

The book concludes with a series of interviews the author had with Frank Woodruff Beckles, who ended up as the last surviving U.S. First World War veteran. His story was richly fascinating, encompassing so much of the world in which he spent so much time between the wars, working on a variety of jobs.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the U.S. declaration of war against Germany (April 6, 1917), I would strongly urge any one reading this review to pick up a copy "THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS" and treat yourself to one of the most rewarding experiences you'll ever have.

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review 2016-12-09 04:26
ASSESSING A WORLD WAR'S IMPACT ON SOLDIERS & SOCIETIES
Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War - Richard van Emden

"MEETING THE ENEMY: The Human Face of the Great War" provides the reader with different perspectives of how the war --- on a uniquely human level --- impacted upon civilians and combatants alike in Britain and Germany between 1914 and 1918.

 

When Germany mobilized for war on August 1, 1914 (having already declared war on Russia; she would declare war on France 2 days later), many British residents and tourists in Germany began to sense that Britain many soon enter the conflict against Germany. And so, many of these residents and tourists began to leave the country by whatever means were near to hand.

 

"One Englishman looking to leave Berlin as quickly as possible was a fifty-one-year-old language teacher ... Henry Hadley. A former army officer in the West India Regiment, he took his cue to go on the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Germany. Deciding to catch a train to Paris, he quickly sorted out his affairs in the German capital and then, the next day, returned to his rented apartment and packed his bags, leaving early the following morning." Hadley and his housekeeper, Elizabeth Pratley, travelled by train from Berlin to Cologne without incident. It was when their train approached Gelsenkirchen that matters began to get out of control. Service was slow. Hadley became upset with a waiter and a heated exchange took place in close proximity to a group of dining German Army officers. Hadley made his way back to Mrs. Pratley and asked her to keep watch over the luggage. He said he wouldn't be long in returning. Hadley went into an adjoining corridor on the train. Mrs. Pratley "heard loud noises followed by sounds of a scuffle. She rushed outside to find [Hadley] lying on the floor. 'They have shot me, Mrs. Pratley. I am a done man,' he gasped. A German officer, later identified as Lieutenant Nicolay, had fired his revolver at point-blank range, hitting [Hadley] in the stomach. The Germans then turned their attention on Mrs. Pratley." While Mrs. Pratley was taken away for questioning, Hadley was taken to a hospital in Gelsenkirchen. He died there a few hours later in the early morning of August 5, 1914, shortly after Britain had declared war on Germany. The British government soon learned of Hadley's death and made some inquiries with Berlin, none of which proved satisfactory. (Lieutenant Nicolay was exonerated.) Mrs. Pratley was later released and allowed to return to Britain soon thereafter.

 

The book goes on to considerable lengths to show how both Britain and Germany dealt with "enemy aliens" in their midst, both during the earliest days of the war and in subsequent years of the conflict. A lot of the stories involving many of the enemy aliens and their families were often tragic and sad, amid the rise and spread of war hysteria. This was especially true in Britain, which had far more naturalized Germans and German and Austrian internees than Germany had British and Empire internees.

 

"MEETING THE ENEMY" also examines the varied relationships the rival combatants (soldiers and airmen) had with each other throughout the war, both on the front lines (e.g. the Christmas Truce of 1914 and the more limited one that took place the following Christmas - a practice British higher military authorities ruthlessly discouraged) and at POW camps in Germany and Britain. There was an instance in which the Germans, in February 1917, moved a group of British POWs to the Eastern Front, where they were forced daily to work on digging German support trenches and made to sleep in appalling conditions in ragged tents on non-salubrious terrain in the bitter winter weather. This was done for several months as a sort of tit-for-tat because Britain had some German POWs engaged in labor activities at some of the French ports and in areas less than 20 miles from the front. Both countries failed to come to an agreement to resolve this matter of POW employment at the front til later in the year. By that time (November 1917), of the 500 British POWs sent to the Eastern Front to perform hard labor, only 72 returned to prisoner of war camp in Germany. I was both angered and shocked to learn about this incident on the part of the Germans in World War I. (Something of that magnitude I had expected of the Germans in World War II in certain instances. For example, their treatment of Soviet POWs and their murder of 50 captured Allied airmen as a result of the "Great Escape" in March 1944. But not in the earlier conflict in which both sides tended to observe some sort of chivalric code, which was a throwback to earlier norms of warfare in Europe.)

 

This was the second book related to World War I that I've read from Richard van Emden. And I learned so much from it, because "MEETING THE ENEMY" made me see more keenly than ever how that war impacted on both combatants and societies concurrently.  All in all, this is a very readable, well-written and scrupulously researched book that comes highly recommended. 

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review 2016-11-10 18:10
OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE (Reflections on World War I)
Old Soldiers Never Die. - Frank Richards

This book is a remarkable account of life in the trenches from a soldier (the author) who served in France from the beginning of the war in August 1914 to the Armistice. Never once was Richards wounded in all that time! He served with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, which also numbered among its ranks Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Unlike Graves and Sasson, Richards did not become an officer. Nor did he want to be one. He was a Private throughout his years of service in France.

Richards saw action from the earliest clashes between British and German forces at Mons (Belgium) in August 1914, to First Ypres, to Loos, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, and the decisive battles in the late summer and autumn of 1918.

For anyone with an interest in an engaging memoir about a man who managed to survive combat service throughout the First World War, "OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE" is a must-read.

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review 2016-06-27 02:27
A CRITICAL REAPPRAISAL OF THE MEUSE-ARGONNE BATTLE
Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing's Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I - Mitchell Yockelson

This book offers a good, comprehensive account of Battle of the Meuse-Argonne in which an independent American Army (under the overall command of General John J. Pershing) took part in a key campaign that helped to hasten the end of the First World War.  

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review 2016-04-17 23:32
Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics - Kathryn J. Atwood

This book is a collection of stories about some truly remarkable women who performed a variety of roles during the First World War - from nurses to spies/leaders of resistance networks behind enemy lines, doctors and surgeons, journalists, to soldiers on the battlefield (e.g., the Russian Army had within its ranks a Women's Battalion of Death during 1917 which saw considerable combat. One of its leaders, Maria Bockareva, had, after placing a request with the Tsar to serve in the Army shortly after the outbreak of war in August 1914, received official permission to serve in combat with a frontline unit, where she distinguished herself in battle).

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