Book Review: The Last of the Doughboys

It’s pretty fascinating what the human mind decides to remember. For these men, all over the age of 100 when interviewed, forgetting what they had for breakfast or their birthday was common. However, they could often recall events that occurred eight decades earlier, when they were just young men. The memories of war were firmly imprinted in their memory. For many, it was a source of pride. For some, it was maybe the best times of their lives.

Their experiences are varied. The author interviews characters who got into the war even before America was officially involved, often done by convincing the British army to let an American join their ranks. Some never saw the battlefield, arriving shortly before or just after the armistice was signed; one man interviewed arrived on November 11th, 1918. They were still soldiers, they still had a duty, and they still traveled and worked throughout war-torn Western Europe, often in the Army of Occupation.

Rubin’s motivation behind writing the book seemed to be based in a simple premise: Americans have forgotten about this war. This might be due to the following war, where America played a bigger role. It might be because most of the writing post-war that influenced American opinion was British, and with the British having been involved since the onset, a natural tendency to undercount American contributions. To combat the notion of Americans arriving too lately, without much of an impact, Rubin notes many of the monuments in France, specifically in the Lorraine region, that honor French and American troops on equal footing. He also shares the stories of the heavy and intense fighting in battles with major American participation, such as the breaking of the Saint-Mihiel salient that had been held by the Germans since late 1914 and the battles near the Argonne forest.

Rubin piles onto what seems to be a growing re-evaluation of President Wilson more than a century later. He describes the wartime president as “remarkably thin-skinned” (well, he’s actually quoting from a source of his), linking that personality trait to the conception and enactment of the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 which dissolved the free speech for those opposed to the war.

There is also a long and eye-opening chapter on a topic I haven’t yet come across elsewhere: African-American troops in the war. By all accounts, the troops were unappreciated, mistreated, scorned by white officers, and overwhelmingly assigned to non-combat positions or manual labor. The institutionalized forces of the military separated troops into black regiments and isolated them from white troops. Even General Pershing, who in his previous roles in the Army had commanded black troops on the American continent and had staked his reputation in the war by refusing to cede American troops to French or British use, moved one of two black divisions in France to be under French control.

Even in the face of explicit racism, the effort of black troops in WW1 did not go unnoticed. The Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment in the 93rd division, fought on the western front and earned high praise. Two soldiers from the regiment were the first to receive the French Croix de Guerre. Black leaders at the tine, such as W.E.B. DuBois, thought that black participation in the war would help the cause of race equality by providing an image of pride, courage, and patriotism for both blacks and whites to see. Unfortunately, many of the progressive changes in regard to black soldiers made during war times were rolled back after the war. For example, the Navy dismissed all black seamen who enlisted during the war and barred any African Americans from enlisting until 1932.

The book is long, nearly 500 pages. In it are some fantastic tales, not only of the war but of life both before and after. Pre-war life for every man interviewed has some sense of hardship, with siblings or parents dying young, hard farm work or labor in lieu of school, and a future seemingly without mobility and one of further hard work and tough times. Some men share similar stories, which is powerful in its own right; a shared American experience of the “forgotten” war, taking young boys and throwing them into the giant machinery of war. There are quite a few peculiar, fascinating stories that only seem possible in that young America, newly engaged in world affairs and energized by its military participation and dominance.

A few bites on specific chapters:

  • Cheer and Laughter and Joyous Shout spotlighted the American music produced shortly before and during the war. They are those classic, sing-song, cheesy, clever (or not-so-clever) songs that one thinks of when you think of early 20th century music. In that era, the song writers were part-journalists and part-entertainers, molding the reality of the war for those at home.
  • Chapter 14, A Wicked Gun, That Machine Gun, was one of my favorites, mostly due to Richard Lake’s story. His involvement in offensives bear the end of the war are detailed with maps and military action descriptions. His brushes with death underscore the randomness of war. He loses friends both before they get to Europe and while on the battlefield. His life both before the war and on his return are quite interesting stories themselves, with heartbreak and the Depression and everything life has to offer. The stories he doesn’t tell may be the most revealing. He shares his fathers name with Rubin during an interview, a name his own daughter hadn’t even know. He only mentions that his two brothers were turned down from join the war by the recruitment office; Rubin later learns that one of his brothers killed himself afterward.
  • Wasn’t A Lot Of Help links three discrete stories together due to their peculiarity. One is a veteran of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (who never actually made it to France) who enlisted at 15. Another is a veteran of the AEF Siberia, which was sent to protect American war materiel after Russia bowed out of the war upon the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Russia was a chaotic melting pot of troops from various countries, marauding Gangs of Cossacks, and the opposing White and Red Army’s fighting the Russian civil war. The third was a New York woman called to DC for clerical work, in a draftee-like fashion. But the most interesting part was the embarrassing treatment of the Bonus Army by the US government. A decade after the war, the US Army was called in to evict WWI veterans who had been left to fend for themselves financially by the US government. Wilson, Coolidge and Hoover didn’t do much for them, and frankly failed the men who fought for this country and democracy everywhere.