- Collapse at Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division
Recent scholarship demonstrates that the American Expeditionary Forces was a largely ineffective army in 1918. It was impossible to field a force capable of independent engagements with European antagonists in eighteen months. The only independent campaign of any length, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, proved desperately difficult. Only after 1 November 1918, when the German army collapsed and began a general retreat, did the AEF achieve important gains. Most of the divisions were poorly trained and equipped. They lacked experienced commands and staffs, qualified junior and field-grade officers, and competent NCOs. They went into combat without sound operational plans.
Professor Ferrell's book lends significant support to this view. He chronicles the disastrous experience of the Missouri-Kansas National Guard Thirty-fifth Division, thoroughly describing its poor training, tensions with the regular army, logistical errors, and particularly its operational failure. In only four days of fighting on the left flank of the Meuse-Argonne sector (26-29 September 1918) the division suffered terrible casualties and after advancing about nine kilometers withdrew to a defensive line near its starting position. The next day the First Division relieved the Thirty-fifth. It was soon assigned to a quiet sector and saw no more action.
A notable part of the book is the account of the controversy that took place after the war between the critics and defenders of the Thirty-fifth Division. One of the latter was Captain Harry S.Truman, an artillery officer, who ever after blamed the regulars for the debacle in the Meuse-Argonne and even thought of abolishing West Point. Ferrell carefully documents the bravery of the men who fought. They deserved much better training than they received; their vicissitudes derived from the many difficulties that beset the entire army in the hasty mobilization of 1917-1918. Unpreparedness was the villain. All too many American servicemen and women, before and after the Thirty-fifth Division, fought courageously without the training they needed to fight well. Ferrell notes mordantly: "If the United States in 1917 had had a large, well-equipped, and tactically efficient army it is entirely possible that President Wilson's diplomacy could have brought peace without victory, which is what he and the nation desired" (pp. 128-29).
This excellent book is what one expects from its author, unsurpassed for his industry, competence, and honesty. It is most unusual that a scholar of his eminence would devote himself to such a valuable "small" history. His father, a veteran of the AEF, would have been proud.
Ft. McNair, District of Columbia