Wednesday, October 12, 2016

I Will Hold: An Interview with James Carl Nelson

Greetings everyone and sorry for the dearth of posts as of late – as it turns out, helping to create a national museum dedicated to the U.S. Army is a very time consuming task!

Happily, I get to break my silence today with an interview I recently conducted with James Carl Nelson about his latest book I Will Hold: The Story of USMC Legend Clifton B. Cates, from Belleau Wood to Victory in the Great War.

I vividly remember when Mr. Nelson burst upon the scene of First World War literature back in 2009 with The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War, which was given an Editor’s Choice Award as one of 2009’s seven best history books by Booklist. I was working on what became the exhibit Ready To Do My Part: Henrico County & World War I and was voraciously consuming anything that had to do with the AEF and World War I. To say that The Remains of Company D stood out would be quite the understatement.

Nelson went on to publish Five Lieutenants: The Heartbreaking Story of Five Harvard Men Who Led America to Victory in World War I in 2012 and his latest book tells the story of Clifton B. “Lucky” Cates’ exploits with the United States Marine Corps during World War I.

I’d like to thank Mr. Nelson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with me and I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say!

JP: Please tell us a little bit about yourself – what is your background?

JCN: Even as a child I was interested in military history, and at age seven I even had a notion to try to get into West Point. The remainder of the 1960s and the early 1970s pretty much wiped that idea from my head – as did the fact that I’m terrible at math. I grew up in a Chicago suburb, and always having had some talent for and a strong interest in writing, I gravitated towards journalism while at the University of Minnesota, where I worked for the student paper, and then upon graduation headed off to a job in The Miami Herald’s Keys bureau. I’ve been in my present job as a journalist for 30 years.

JP: How did you come to be interested in the First World War?

JCN: I actually had a personal interest – my grandfather, a Swedish immigrant to Chicago, was drafted in 1917 and sent to France as a replacement soldier. He was assigned to Company D, 28th Regiment, US 1st Division after its assault on Cantigny in May, 1918 – and then he was shot through the abdomen by a German machine gunner on July 19, 1918 during the Soissons offensive while he and his battalion were assaulting the village of Ploisy. He laid on the field all night, then was rescued by a couple of French Colonial troops – he always said they were Algerians, but I think they were more likely from a West African nation – who brought him to an aid station. He spent nine months recovering, but he lived to be 101. After his death, I became consumed with trying to discover what had actually happened to him, and his small story, and the larger story of the men with whom he briefly served, became the basis for my first book The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War, which was published in 2009.

JP: The book opens, “He has already spent one night sleeping almost atop the bodies of dead men, French and German, dead for days and weeks and thankfully unseen now in the blackness, though there was no mistaking their odious, putrid smell.” Quite an introduction! Could you give us some insight on how you go about the process of crafting such evocative writing? How do you “get in the zone,” so to speak?

JCN: I believe in grabbing the reader right away, and that means jumping into the story at the greatest dramatic point. With I Will Hold, there were many such points, but I liked the imagery of the dead bodies – it just really evoked the brutality and the slaughters of the Great War and what Clifton Cates and the Marines experienced. I worked from several descriptions of that night that are out there, and then put my own imagination and words to the horrific scene. As for getting into the zone, it’s hard to describe. I usually don’t have to labor over such scenes because often the words just come to me, from where I don’t know for certain. It’s just the artistic process, I guess.

JP: What in particular drew you to the story of Clifton Cates?

JCN: I actually had a great interest in a stand-alone book about the battle of Soissons – which involved the 1st and 2nd Divisions, including the Marine Fourth Brigade -- and threw together a 50-page proposal over one weekend in 2012 and sent it to my literary agent, James D. Hornfischer. He had just published his third book Neptune’s Inferno, about the naval battle off of Guadalcanal in 1942, and the name Clifton Cates was familiar to him. He suggested I get away from the 1st Division – my second book Five Lieutenants focused on a small group of officers who also served in the division in WW1 – and he was the one who suggested a biography of Cates. A quick check revealed that Cates has a large collection of papers at the Marine archives in Quantico, and so off I went. I was very happy and enthused to tackle the Marine experience in WW1, though starting out I knew very little of it outside of Belleau Wood. Ironically, I actually stumbled across Belleau Wood in 2008 while in France researching my first book, but still had only a very sketchy idea of exactly what went on there.

JP: Readers of I Will Hold may be surprised to learn that that United States Marine Corps of 1917 didn’t have the same reputation as an elite fighting force that the modern Corps enjoys. Cates himself once recalled of his pre-war training, “Outside the rifle range part of it, there wasn't any of it any good." How was Cates able to have such marked success on the battlefield, given the steep learning curve that faced his Marines when they were deployed on the Western Front?

JCN: Yes, Cates was also somewhat derisive about the training, saying most of it wasn’t worth a “hoorah,” but the Marines AND the leaders of the American Expeditionary Forces were certain that once Americans got to France in large enough numbers the stalemate of the trenches would quickly be broken. The Marines in particular espoused the theory that massed rifle power would provide a breakthrough. But the reality was that the machine gun and powerful, massed artillery was king Over There. Cates and the Marines found that out at Belleau Wood, Soissons, and St. Mihiel, but by the battle of Blanc Mont in October, 1918 and then in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in November, the Marines had learned the value of employing a standing artillery preparation followed by a creeping barrage that was followed closely by the men. As for his personal success, he was known as “Lucky Cates” for the numerous bullets and shells that hit him but did not kill or severely wound him – this happened at least 10 times -- which wasn’t the case for many men in his company, the 96th, which took more casualties than any other American unit, or for the Marine Brigade in general, which lost 1,342 men killed in action and another 8,292 to wounds. But Cates’ success was due also to his smarts, his dash, his utter bravery and his frame of mind. One Marine called him “the most optimistic man I have ever met.” He was just a natural-born leader – he was one of those combat leaders who are most clear-headed in the thickest part of the action.

Cates in 1918
JP: Cates went from not even knowing what the Marine Corps was before joining to a lifer who was instrumental in World War II and rose to become the Corps’ 19th Commandant. He even took a reduction in rank to Lieutenant General when he could have retired. Was his love for the Corps cemented in his battlefield experiences in World War I?
JCN: Despite his wartime success, Cates actually was planning to leave the Corps after the First World War and had resigned in 1919. He probably would have become an attorney – he had a law degree from the University of Tennessee -- but the then-commandant of the Corps, George Barnett, convinced him to stay and made him his assistant. That shows how highly valued he was regarded in the Corps. But as I say several times in I Will Hold, I really believe Cates found himself, and his calling, on the battlefields of World War 1. He loved the action, he loved and cared for the men of his company, he loved the camaraderie, and he certainly loved the Marines – but as one Time magazine writer said simply when Cates finally retired from The Corps, “He liked the work.” 

JP: What are your thoughts on the centennial commemoration thus far?

JCN: I have to be honest, I’m not really that up on the plans for the commemoration. I guess I feel my three books are personally my own best commemoration of the American experience in World War 1. But I’m very happy that efforts are being made to note the centennial. World War 1 has in the U.S. always been something of an afterthought, and existed too long in the shadow of World War 2; when I was working on The Remains of Company D I can’t tell you how many people told me that people didn’t want to read about the Great War. That’s obviously not true, at least anymore, as we can see by the constant stream of excellent books that have come out in recent years, among them Mitch Yockelson’s Forty-Seven Days and Matthew Davenport’s First Over There. A new generation of writers is discovering the many terrific, untold stories from within that war and are now carrying them forward and, happily, publishers are showing more and more interest in their books.

JP: What are you working on now?

JCN: I have discussed an idea – also World War 1 – with my agent, and one of these days I’m going to get off my rear and write a proposal for it. It has something to do with an American division in the war that isn’t the 1st or 2nd, and that’s all I want to reveal right now.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

An Interview with Mitch Yockelson on Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I

If you’re a First World War enthusiast, chances are you’ve noticed a new title flying off the shelves of your local bookstore entitled Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I.

Lucky for you, the author of this excellent study just so happens to be my former graduate school advisor and a person I feel lucky to call friend.

Mitchell Yockelson, recipient of the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award, is an investigative archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, as well as a former professor of military history at the United States Naval Academy. He currently teaches at Norwich University. One of America’s foremost experts on the First World War, he holds a doctorate from the Royal Military College of Science, Cranfield University, in the United Kingdom.  He has written biographies of Douglas MacArthur and Ulysses S. Grant and his first book – Borrowed Soldiers: Americans under British Command, 1918 – belongs on the bookshelf of every serious student of the First World War.

I recently caught up with Mitch to see how he was doing and to interview him about his exceptional new study of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign.

JP: Please tell the readers a little bit about yourself – what makes you “tick”?

MY: I have a strong curiosity about the past and why events happened how they played out. As a young boy I developed a passion for history and devoured every book I could find on military history. As I grew older and entered college, it was clear that I was going to major in history and focus on topics related to the U.S. military. Although I never served in the armed forces, I have a great admiration for the men and women who wore a uniform during previous generations and those who currently protect our country and are often in harm’s way. I have had the privilege of meeting many veterans through my work at the National Archives, as well as teaching for several years at the Naval Academy and through the Norwich University Masters of Military History program where I still teach.

JP: What initially drew your interest to the First World War?

MY: As a young boy I sort of knew who Pershing was because of a street named for him near my home. Then I read a brief biography of Alvin York written for young adults, but it really wasn’t until I became the World War I records subject area specialist at the National Archives in 1962, a position I held for 16 years, that my interest in World War I really took off. At that point I commenced reading every book I could find about the role of the U.S. in the war and was especially taken by Edward M. Coffman’s The War to End All Wars, which after almost fifty years remains the single best volume on the subject.

JP: What inspired you to write Forty-Seven Days?

MY: I had visited the Meuse-Argonne battlefields on a few occasions and had read up on the various aspects about the battle, but couldn’t really get a grasp on what happened over the course of those forty-seven days. I especially wanted to understand the role of General Pershing in the battle and why he relinquished command of First Army to Hunter Liggett. So when I started to conduct preliminary research for the book it became even more confusing and I realized that I am having trouble understanding the battle, then perhaps the same can be said of others. Now it became a personal mission to write a narrative for the general public on General Pershing and how he led the Americans during the largest battle in U.S. history.

JP: Many prominent historians have viewed the American contribution as a mere footnote in the larger narrative of events, but you write that, “When the smoke cleared, and the battle and the war were declared over, the American soldiers had carried the Allies to victory.” Could the Allies have won without the contributions of the Doughboys?

MY: Absolutely not. The Allied ranks were depleted after almost four years of war. While the same could be said about the Germans, they showed no signs of giving up. Even after the Americans started coming over in droves, the Germans were still putting up a strong fight.  But when the Americans launched the Meuse-Argonne battle on September 26, the Germans knew the end was near. Even though the American doughboys were largely inexperienced, they had tenacity and a willingness to learn how to fight on the Western Front. With more than two million Americans in Europe by the autumn of 1918 and another two million ready for deployment overseas, the U.S. was becoming the bulk of the Allied forces and were overwhelming the enemy,

JP: How would you rate America’s preparation for the centennial of U.S. military participation in World War I? Do you think Americans in 2016 can relate to their forbears of 100 years ago?

MY: The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission is up and running with dedicated volunteers across the U.S. There are all kinds of programs in the works that are designed to teach Americans about what happened 100 years ago during a conflict that brought the country into the modern age, but is now mostly forgotten. Unfortunately, in 2016, I think most Americans cannot relate to what happened during World War I, but I believe this will change when numerous public programs, exhibits and books appear in 2017-2018.

JP: What are some subjects pertaining to American involvement in WWI that need to be written about?

MY: This is a tough question to answer. I am not sure if anything needs to be written. But there are certainly topics on battles like the Meuse-Argonne that received previous attention that could be re-interpreted like I did. I am sure there are hundreds of stories dealing with home front in every city and town that could be explored. Few books discuss the German-Americans living in the U.S. and how they felt and were treated by other Americans. As the cliché says, the sky’s the limit.

JP: What books and/or projects are you working on now?

MY: Right now I don’t have plans for another book, at least on World War I, but that could change. I am happy to sit back and rest on the heels of Forty-Seven Days and see how it does. 

I'd like to sincerely thank Mitch for taking the time out of his hectic schedule and encourage you again to go and get yourself a copy of Forty-Seven Days -- you won't be disappointed!

Friday, June 12, 2015

From Molleville Farm to Memorial Day

Being a Civil War historian who lives within a ten minutes’ drive of four major battlefields of that great conflict, I have grown accustomed to inadvertently stumbling upon historic markers or headstones that pertain to my line of work.

But this past Memorial Day, I had an unexpected encounter with the First World War right in my own back yard.

I had purchased some patriotic red, white, and blue flowers and took my two oldest children, ages 5 and 4, to Fredericksburg National Cemetery to decorate the grave of a fallen soldier. Determined to teach them to be good citizens, we tramped up the hill in the stifling heat, looking for a neglected grave to decorate.

When we had reached the opposite end of the cemetery and my children began to complain of the heat, I abandoned my search for the “perfect” unmarked grave and looked for the nearest headstone of someone - anyone - who had died in wartime.

After taking a few more steps, I was stunned when the grave in front of me bore the inscription “116 INF., 29 DIV.” and the date of death was October 15, 1918.

The grave belonged to Fredericksburg native Pvt. Robert L. Jenkins who served with Co. K of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division. Company K was one of two units recruited out of Fredericksburg (the other being the 10th Company, Coast Defenses of the Chesapeake Bay.)

The date that Jenkins was killed in action was significant to me as well.

One year prior to this family visit my essay "Storming the Heights of the Meuse: The 29th and 33d Divisions Fight for Control of the High Ground, 8–16 October" had been published in Edward G. Lengel's A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, so I knew exactly where this man had fallen – an awful death trap called Molleville Farm.

A key position east of the Meuse River, the 29th Division first encountered Molleville Farm on October 11, 1918. The Division had been in sustained combat for three days, so the division commander had to lean heavily on the 116th Infantry Regiment in order to gain this objective. One of the chief problems with attacking Molleville Farm was that it could not be flanked – the only way to take it would be a head-on frontal assault.

A modern view of Molleville Farm, courtesy of "Nunthatch" at
Pvt. Jenkins was killed on the day that the fight for Molleville Farm reached it brutal climax, with the 29ers finally taking the farm and enduring vicious German counterattacks for the rest of the day.

I had little trouble deciding that this would be the grave that we would decorate on Memorial Day. After spending a minute placing flowers on the grave, my daughter asked if she could say a prayer. I agreed, and after another brief moment, we began the long walk back to the car.

My oldest child, praying at the grave of Pvt. Jenkins

Pvt. Jenkins was one of five men from Fredericksburg who were killed in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, and I am extremely grateful to have had the chance to honor him with my children. For that brief moment the horrific hour of Jenkins’s sacrifice reached across the 96 year chasm that separates us and touched our lives.

With the 100th anniversary of American involvement in the First World War just around the corner, it is my hope that many families across the country will have at least one such interaction during the commemoration.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

“Everything has to start again:” Some Thoughts on the Centennial of the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

Today, as many of you know, marks 100 years since the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his maligned wife Sophie on the streets of Sarajevo.

While some marvel at the passage of 100 years, as I sit and reflect on the impact of what most historians say was the spark that ignited a global war, it may as well have been one thousand years ago…on another planet.

A lifelong fascination with the First World War has brought me no closer to understanding the plump Austro-Hungarian dupe whose very existence seemed offensive to people even within his own royal family. Similarly, the world which he inhabited seems made up – the past is indeed a foreign country when I place myself at the scene of the crime and look back at the “Proud Tower” of the preceding years.

Indeed, the whole assassination has a comedic flair to it:

- The half-witted coward Nedelijko Cabrinovic throwing a bomb that bounces off the hood of Ferdinand’s’ car and then yelling “I am a Serbian hero!” as he is tackled and led away – the Archduke and his wife looking on and seemingly shrugging their shoulders as they tell their driver to move along.

- Ferdinand’s driver, taking a wrong turn, informing the royal party that the car has no reverse gear and thus needs to be pushed back onto the correct street, where the wormy waif Gavrilo Princip is waiting.

- The sickly Princip managing to get off two shots, both of which strike and kill their targets.

Add the fact that nearly no one even liked Ferdinand to begin with – in a recent book on 1914, Max Hastings could only bring himself to say, “It is sometimes suggested that Franz Ferdinand was an intelligent man” – and it’s no wonder that students find themselves scratching their heads and asking, “now how did this lead to the deaths of 37 million people again?”

As I have grown older, the only chink in the armor that I have found to empathizing with this man comes from the knowledge that he was a loving father who doted on his children. His dying words, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die – stay alive for our children!” are especially potent for parents.

But other than this insight, Franz Ferdinand remains more caricature than character from history.
The only person who seemed to mourn his loss was Kaiser Wilhelm, who bellowed “Everything has to start again!” when he learned of the assassination – a particularly telling phrase, given the events that followed. Besides the Kaiser (another malcontent who is difficult to be partial to), Ferdinand’s death occasioned scoffs, gasps, and the rolling of many royal eyes – even in death, Franz Ferdinand had the capacity to annoy.

And so today, students of history pause and reflect on the events of a century ago and continue to ask – “could this really have happened?”

With the Centennial commemoration officially under way, one hopes that this questioning will cause curious people the world over to dig deeper into this time period and find their own answers.

And if you happen to find any, please do share them – I, for one, would be very grateful. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

An Interview with Edward G. Lengel

Edward G. Lengel is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books on military history, including To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 which the late John Keegan hailed as “a superior achievement.” A recipient of the National Humanities Medal, he has made frequent appearances on television documentaries and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize. His latest offering is A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, in which I was privileged to contribute an essay.

I recently caught up with him to ask a few questions about this new work and the state of First World War studies on the cusp of the Centennial Commemoration.

JP:   What initially drew your interest to the First World War?

EL: Back in the early 1990s I became interested in reading World War I memoirs. I started with the “big three” British memoirs cited extensively by Paul Fussell in his book The Great War and Modern Memory: namely, Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves; Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon; and Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden. I found them fascinating, but did not stop there. Digging deeper, I found and read hundreds of memoirs, diaries, and letters of male and female participants in the war from all of the belligerent nations. Many are obscure and largely forgotten today. Yet aside from being often great works of literature, these books provide tremendous insight into the human condition—put simply, how do people respond to conditions that try them to the core, and overturn their terms of reference to the world around them?

In the process, I discovered that Fussell and others who have generalized about the “war experience”—or who have created the now-clichéd narrative of naiveté, horror, and disillusion—have vastly oversimplified what World War I meant to the ordinary people who experienced it. In truth, each person reacted to the war as an individual, and sometimes men or women who experienced the same events interpreted them completely differently. For me, in reading how individuals lived through 1914-1918, World War I no longer became a gruesome tale of mud, blood, and despair; it became a compelling human story. I’ve been hooked ever since.

JP: What can readers expect to find in these essays that previous volumes on the Meuse-Argonne have neglected?

EL: These essays explore the campaign from every possible angle. Some narrate particularly dramatic and important moments from the soldiers’ point of view. Others discuss problems of supply, logistics, and military administration. There are essays on tanks, airpower, artillery, and communications. And—importantly, I think—there are essays exploring in depth French and German participation in the campaign. The essays are heavily based in archival research and thus scholarly; but nevertheless all are readable and accessible for educated laypersons.

JP:  Do you have high hopes for American participation in the worldwide centennial commemoration? Are there any events slated for the near future that you are particularly excited about?

EL: I will shortly be attending the inaugural reception for the American World War I Centennial Commission in Washington, D.C. I look forward to learning more about what is planned. I know that there are smart and enthusiastic people working on commemoration; but it remains an open question whether their good ideas will find an audience on Capitol Hill.

JP: If you had to pick two or three aspects of American involvement in WWI that most need further study, what would they be?

EL: First, American participants’ accounts—be they memoirs, diaries, or letters—need to be found, published, and made available to the public. The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress is doing a good job of digitizing collections in its care and putting them online, but much more needs to be done. Second, every major American engagement needs to be thoroughly studied on the tactical level, making full use of the vast official records available at the National Archives in College Park, Md. (I hope to have made some progress toward this in my next book). Finally, it is my dream that some individuals or organizations would sponsor the research and publication of something amounting to an “official” history of American participation in World War I. Such a work has never been written.

JP: Do you have any other volumes on the First World War planned?

EL: I just finished a book tentatively titled “These Terrible Days”: The A.E.F. at War under French Command, November 1917-September 1918. If all goes well, it should be published next year by the University Press of Kansas.

I’d like to thank Ed for taking the time to answer these questions and for the opportunity to contribute an essay to the Companion! If you would like more information on the book, visit Wiley-Blackwell’s website at:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Borrowed Soldiers by Mitch Yockelson

I had the distinct honor of having Dr. Mitchell Yockelson as my thesis adviser in graduate school. In addition to being a prominent member of the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration, Mitch is also a first rate First World War scholar. The following is a presentation he gave on his excellent book, Borrowed Soldiers: Americans Under British Command, 1918.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hello Again

Well, I think it’s safe to say that if this blog was a child I would be thrown into prison for criminal neglect. Nonetheless, I have been trying to keep up with events and the first big development to announce is that the United States has officially formed a World War I Centennial Commission. Here is their mission, as described on their website:
The Commission was established by the World War I Centennial Commission Act, part of Public Law 112-272 passed by the 112th Congress and signed by President Obama on January 16, 2013.  The Commission is responsible for planning, developing, and executing programs, projects, and activities to commemorate the centennial of World War I; encouraging private organizations and State and local governments to organize and participate in activities commemorating the centennial of World War I; facilitating and coordinating activities throughout the United States relating to the centennial of World War I; serving as a clearinghouse for the collection and dissemination of information about events and plans for the centennial of World War I; and developing recommendations for Congress and the President for commemorating the centennial of World War I.
The events and activities will last from 2017 through 2019.

The first meeting was this past Friday, September 13th and as you’ll see as you navigate through the site, they are still moving from the organizational phase into actual planning. 

Also, my first venture into publishing about the First World War is complete!

I’m happy to announce that “Storming the Heights of the Meuse: The 29th and 33rd Divisions Fight for Control of the High Ground, 8-16 October” will be included in A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, 1918. This volume will be released in January and is part of the Wiley-Blackwell “Companions to American History” series and has as its editor none other than Ed Lengel.

 Here is the abstract:
During the second phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the American 29th and 33rd Divisions were given the task of silencing German artillery along the heights of the Meuse River. This essay explores the service of these two American divisions, fighting under the command of the French XVII Corps, and their experiences east of the Meuse. From 8-16 October 1918 the American and French servicemen pushed into difficult terrain, having to overcome fierce resistance from the German Fifth Army. Their experiences serve as a unique window into the leadership of the American Expeditionary Forces and shed light on how the Meuse-Argonne Offensive as a whole was conducted.
It was truly an honor to get to work with Ed on this project and I am humbled that my work will be included alongside the outstanding First World War historians that he assembled for this volume.

Finally, the World War One Historical Association & National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial have combined to offer a symposium on November 8 & 9, 2013.  It is entitled “The Coming of the Great War” and will seek to shed light on “the political, social, economic, cultural, and military events between 1870 and 1913, leading to the Great War.”

Click here for more details.