- The “Casualty Issue” in American Military Practice: The Impact of World War I
In The "Casualty Issue," Evan Andrew Huelfer adds a much-needed and unique element to the existing scholarship on American military history between the world wars. For Huelfer, the high casualty rate among American troops in the trenches in World War I left an indelible mark on the young officers who led those troops. For decades thereafter, the likes of George Marshall, George Patton, Omar Bradley, Mark Clark, and even Douglas MacArthur, searched for ways to limit similar casualty rates in future wars.
High ranking commanders in the American Expeditionary Forces believed they could win the war through open warfare, an operational concept which stressed the ability of masses of American riflemen to move quickly and fire frequently and accurately. The killing power of the machine gun, however, rudely awakened Americans on the battlefield to the realities of modern, industrialized warfare. Huelfer cites the heavy losses at the Battle of Soissons in July 1918 in which the 1st and 2nd Divisions suffered 12,000 casualties. He puts blame for these horrific losses on poor planning, inadequate education, and foolish tactics.
Younger officers in the AEF found the high casualty rates to be unacceptable. When rising in rank following the end of World War I, they sought to apply lessons from their experiences in trench warfare. The best parts of Heulfer's book cover the sweeping attempts to transform the Army into a force capable of winning wars with minimal loss of life. Although he does not see the "casualty issue" as the dominant factor, he does convincingly argue that conserving lives was a contributing factor to the Army's planning, doctrine, training, and procurement efforts during the 1920s and 1930s. American strategists planned for national wartime mobilization as well as for quick and decisive campaigns during a future conflict. Doctrinal development increasingly emphasized combined arms operations to overcome the defensive advantages in firepower during World War I. Training and educational programs inculcated Army officers at all levels with the desire to minimize casualties. Lastly, the American military sought new technological means to bypass, envelop, or annihilate enemy forces without subjecting its own ground forces to heavy losses in wars of attrition.
Huelfer makes good use of primary sources from the National Archives, Carlisle Barracks, and West Point. His argument, however, could have been strengthened with additional archival research. Collections at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, for example, include materials on logistics planning during the interwar years. Likewise, holdings at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, such as the papers of Eisenhower and of Henry Aurand, contain evidence about the Army's mobilization planning process before World War II. These omissions notwithstanding, Huelfer's book will prove [End Page 256] useful to anyone interested in American military history between the world wars.