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With Their Bare Hands: General Pershing, the 79th Division, and the battle for Montfaucon

by Gene Fax

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392646,571 (3.33)3
With Their Bare Hands traces the fate of the US 79th Division - men drafted off the streets of Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia - from boot camp in Maryland through the final years of World War I, focusing on their most famous engagement: the attack on Montfaucon, the most heavily fortified part of the German Line, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. Using the 79th as a window into the American Army as a whole, Gene Fax examines its mistakes and triumphs, the tactics of its commander General John J. Pershing, and how the lessons it learned during the Great War helped it to fight World War II. Fax makes some startling judgments, on the role of future Army Chief-of-Staff, Colonel George C. Marshall; whether the Montfaucon battle - had it followed the plan - could have shortened the war; and if Pershing was justified in ordering his troops to attack right up to the moment of the Armistice. Drawing upon original documents, including orders, field messages, and the letters and memoirs of the soldiers themselves, Fax tells the engrossing story of the 79th Division's bloody involvement in the final months of World War I.… (more)
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Over the years, I've read about 300-plus books relating to the Great War, and this is one of the better studies that I've encountered. Fax's goal is to take one typical division of the American Expeditionary Force, and see what its collective experience tells us about American military performance during the war. What might be unique about the 79th is that there has been some modern second-guessing about its performance during the opening days of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, with one William Walker, in "Betrayal at Little Gibraltar," claiming that professional jealousy led to a great opportunity being thrown away.

Before one gets to that point, Fax takes the reader from the start, as he makes no assumptions that his readership is particularly conversant with World War I and the United States. This means he leads the general reader through the political circumstances that finally forced Wilson to enter the war in 1917, after great exertions to avoid that decision, and inter-allied arguments over just what the American contribution was to be, and the conflicts over the creation of a great American field army. On the whole, the British and French leadership would have preferred to just have American manpower to reinforce their own units; which would have never flown with the American body politic.

It's at this point that the 79th enters the actual narrative, as Fax takes you from its creation as an organized entity, its deployment to France, and the thousand screaming agonies it took to get this half-baked formation onto the point of departure by September 26, 1918. A great question is why one of the rawest units in the American army was given a part in the hardest task of the day, the taking of the hill at Montfaucon, and there are no great answers; the extant documentation doesn't allow for that. What is known is that after four days of hell, the 79th took that position basically "with their bare hands," a commentary on the lack of artillery support they received in the effort, and did about as well as any participating division in the assault, before logistical collapse brought the whole operation to a standstill. The 79th's commander, Joseph E. Kuhn, expected to be sacked for non-performance; that he was not suggests that he was regarded as something of a miracle worker for what he did accomplish.

From there, Fax is mostly traces the accelerated evolution of the AEF, and how in two months it went from a half-baked organization to a fighting force with a respectable degree of efficiency; though every man who served in 1918 who went on to serve during the Second World War were determined to make at least new mistakes.

As for the argument that cooperation by the 4th Division on the 79th's flank on the first day of the operation could have led to a great breakthrough, but was foiled by professional jealousy displayed by Robert Bullard (commander of US III Corps), Fax finds little to justify William Walker's argument. Fax concludes that a poorly written operational plan, which did allow for cross-corps cooperation, was short circuited by the chief of staff of US III Corps, one Alfred Bjornstad, a man possessed of an authoritarian temperament who liked his battlefields tidy, and a man who was quietly sacked for being an embarrassment; the AEF liked to bury their mistakes rather than air out their dirty laundry. Again, there was never a great breakthrough victory to be had; all Great War offensives tended to collapse of their own weight due to logistical weaknesses.

In the end, I think this is a great book, but perhaps a little bit more than the general reader really wants to know. ( )
  Shrike58 | Dec 17, 2023 |
Book received from NetGalley.

I am really just starting to read more about World War I history and I have to admit I had never heard of this battle prior to receiving this book. The author does well at showing how things were for the first American forces to enter World War I. I thought it was a great book on a part of American history that I had not studied before. ( )
  Diana_Long_Thomas | May 21, 2017 |
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With Their Bare Hands traces the fate of the US 79th Division - men drafted off the streets of Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia - from boot camp in Maryland through the final years of World War I, focusing on their most famous engagement: the attack on Montfaucon, the most heavily fortified part of the German Line, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. Using the 79th as a window into the American Army as a whole, Gene Fax examines its mistakes and triumphs, the tactics of its commander General John J. Pershing, and how the lessons it learned during the Great War helped it to fight World War II. Fax makes some startling judgments, on the role of future Army Chief-of-Staff, Colonel George C. Marshall; whether the Montfaucon battle - had it followed the plan - could have shortened the war; and if Pershing was justified in ordering his troops to attack right up to the moment of the Armistice. Drawing upon original documents, including orders, field messages, and the letters and memoirs of the soldiers themselves, Fax tells the engrossing story of the 79th Division's bloody involvement in the final months of World War I.

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