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The World War I Memoirs of Robert P. Patterson

A Captain in the Great War

Edited by J. Garry Clifford

Publication Year: 2012

A journalist once called Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson “the toughest man in Washington” for his fervid efforts in managing U.S. mobilization in World War II. The World War I Memoirs of Robert P. Patterson: A Captain in the Great War recounts Patterson’s own formative military experiences in the First World War. Written in the years following the conflict, this is a remarkable rendering of what it was like to be an infantry line officer during the so-called Great War. Patterson started his military career as a twenty-seven-year-old, barely-trained captain in the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.). He was part of the 306th Infantry Regiment of New York’s famous 77th “Statue of Liberty” Division from July to November 1918. In this detailed account, Patterson describes in understated yet vivid prose just how raw and unprepared American soldiers were for the titanic battles on the Western Front. Patterson downplays his near-death experience in a fierce firefight that earned him and several of his men from Company F the Distinguished Service Cross. His depiction of the brutal Meuse-Argonne battle is haunting—the drenching cold rains, the omnipresent barbed wire, deep fog-filled ravines, the sweet stench of mustard gas, chattering German machine-guns, crashing artillery shells, and even a rare hot meal to be savored. Dealing with more than just combat, Patterson writes of the friendships and camaraderie among the officers and soldiers of different ethnic and class backgrounds who made up the “melting pot division” of the 77th. He betrays little of the postwar disillusionment that afflicted some members of the “Lost Generation.” Editor J. Garry Clifford’s introduction places Patterson and his actions in historical context and illuminates how Patterson applied lessons learned from the Great War to his later service as assistant secretary, under secretary, and secretary of war from 1940 to 1947.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Front Cover

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Table of Contents

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List of Figures

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List of Maps

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pp. xi-xii

My scholarly interest in Robert P. Patterson dates back to the early 1970s when I first met his future biographer, Keith Eiler, in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. I was finishing my first book about the Plattsburg military training camp movement of 1913–20, and Keith, a retired army officer and Korean War...

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pp. xiii-xix

A journalist once called Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson “the toughest man in Washington” for his “all-out” efforts in managing U.S. mobilization in World War II.1 An informal poll conducted after the war ranked Patterson second only to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall as the person most responsible...

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The World War I Memoirs of Robert P. Patterson

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pp. 1-3

These reminiscences are written for my family. I have tried to tell about the places I covered in the war, the men I came into contact with, the campaigns I participated in. There is little in the narrative that would interest the general reader. Except in one or two instances, I had no adventures that were out of the ordinary. I lived the life of the average officer...

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pp. 5-9

When the United States entered the World War in April, 1917, I was working in the law office of Cravath & Henderson. I was then a private in the New York National Guard. When I had come to New York from law school in 1915, I had enlisted in Company I, 7th New York Infantry. There was drilling every Thursday night. In...

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Camp Upton

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pp. 11-15

Camp Upton was near Yaphank, Long Island, a little place about seventy miles east of New York City.1 When we reported for duty, the camp site was covered with pine woods, only a dozen or so wooden barracks having been built at that time. The camp was to be the training ground for the 77th Division, to be recruited from...

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The Ocean and England

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pp. 17-19

On board were the Headquarters Company, E Company, Supply Company and Machine Gun Company of our regiment, and also all four companies of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion. The Karoa was a small East Indian ship which ordinarily plied between India and Australia. The ship’s officers were British and the...

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With the British in Flanders

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pp. 21-27

When we landed at Calais, we marched out to a rest “camp” a mile or so from town, where we stayed for three days. Here we turned in our American rifles and received British Lee Enfield rifles, the plan then being that we would fight as part of the British army.1 We were also issued British helmets and British gas masks, which we kept...

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The Baccarat Sector

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pp. 29-34

On leaving the railroad at Charmes, we marched to a small place near Rambervillers and stayed there for three or four days. The name of the village I have forgotten. We then proceeded by night to Baccarat, passing in the dark the 165th Infantry (old 69th New York) which was being relieved. Many of our boys had friends...

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The Vesle Sector

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pp. 35-49

By early August the Germans had retreated from the Marne and had dug in along the Vesle between Soissons and Rheims. There the lines stayed during August. Our division and the 28th Division confronted them, and a good deal of fighting of a local character took place. For the most part this consisted of attacks by companies...

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The Aisne

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pp. 51-54

It was September 4th when we moved up from reserve. The Germans had just withdrawn from the Vesle and were dug in along the Aisne, a much larger river five or six miles north of the Vesle. Our 1st battalion followed them.1 It was in a local attack along the Aisne at this time that my old friend Jim Cleveland was wounded...

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The Argonne

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pp. 55-74

The front on which the attack was launched ran from the Meuse to the western edge of the Argonne. The movement that was commenced on September 26th was called the First Argonne-Meuse Offensive. There were six or seven divisions in the front, with others in reserve. The 77th Division was the left division in the attack. Its...

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After the Armistice

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pp. 75-80

At eight in the morning of the 11th, we were told that the Armistice would take effect at eleven.1 The relief was wonderful. Everyone relaxed. There were no demonstrations.2 At night camp fires made their appearance, a thing not to be thought of before. French Algerian troops marched through for Sedan, flags flying and...

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Infantry Equipment and Tactics

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pp. 81-85

The rifle of the Regular Army and of the National Guard was the Springfield. I was familiar with this weapon through my experience in Texas. Our regiment as part of the National Army was given the Enfield rifle, a new gun that could be manufactured faster than the Springfield. Like the Springfield, it had a magazine holding five...


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pp. 87-89


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pp. 91-104


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pp. 105-107


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pp. 109-113

E-ISBN-13: 9781572338821
E-ISBN-10: 1572338822
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572338470
Print-ISBN-10: 1572338474

Page Count: 136
Illustrations: 27 halftones, 9 maps
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Soldiers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Patterson, Robert Porter, 1891-1952.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Personal narratives, American.
  • United States. Army. American Expeditionary Forces -- Biography.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Campaigns -- France.
  • United States. Army. Infantry Division, 77th.
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