- Meuse-Argonne Diary: A Division Commander in World War I
Robert Ferrell, distinguished scholar and professor of American history, has recently written or edited a wave of books dealing with World War I. Having edited the diaries or memoirs of four young AEF soldiers and written a book on the collapse of the 35th Division in the Meuse-Argonne, he has now edited this volume, which presents and contextualizes the diary of Maj. Gen. William M. Wright, who commanded the 89th Division during the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives of 1918. [End Page 253]
Although many AEF generals, and quite a few division commanders, wrote memoirs after the war, most notably Robert L. Bullard, Joseph T. Dickman, and John A. Lejeune, Ferrell notes that no diary of a division commander has ever been published. Wright's diary is particularly special because it has the ring of authenticity. It lacks sensationalism and self-aggrandizement; includes doubts, regrets, and changes of mind; and is filled with the kind of professional details that, although seemingly mundane, open a window into the thoughts and concerns of a competent, conscientious, and thoroughly professional U.S. Army division commander. Wright spent his days, and often his nights, visiting superior and subordinate commanders; organizing his staff and command post; considering who to promote, retain, and relieve; checking on his men up front; inspecting their clothing, rations, weapons, and tactical positions; and generally doing all he could to ensure their success in battle.
The book opens with a brief introduction by Ferrell, who describes Wright, a number of key subordinate commanders, and the division as a whole, the latter called "a marvelous group of men." The diary begins on 6 September 1918, the day Wright took command and just a week before the battle of St. Mihiel. On that day Wright noted that he "found the division in very good shape," a testimony to the leadership it had received from its former commander, Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, who trained it in the U.S., and its then-acting commander, Brig. Gen. Frank L. Winn, the ranking brigadier. At St. Mihiel the division fought between the 2nd and 42nd Divisions, two of the AEF's best, and advanced creditably during its one long day of battle. Wright was generally pleased with his division's performance, as were his superiors (including Pershing), but he saw much needing improvement, too. After the battle, the 89th held the new line near St. Mihiel until mid-October, and Wright spent the time discussing lessons learned, inspecting his men, reorganizing, and retraining. When the division joined the Meuse-Argonne offensive, it was ready, and it did well as one of the spearhead units in the First Army's final push on 1 November. Eleven days later the war ended, and so does the diary. Throughout, Ferrell adds plenty of helpful explanation and contextualization.
Scholars of the AEF, and of military command in general, will be as interested in those subjects Wright addresses (the importance of logistics, ratings of senior AEF commanders and his own subordinates, his division's weaknesses), as in those he neglects (his own advancement; impressions of the French, British, and Germans; views on combat doctrine, tactics, and training; and his reaction to the death and maiming of thousands of his men). By exposing both, Professor Ferrell has added something significant to our knowledge of the AEF, and divisional command in the Great War.