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.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Robert E. Lee's Daughter Laments the Great War

When the maelstrom of war swept through Europe during the summer of 1914, many vacationing Americans were caught up the in tide of events and found themselves unwitting witnesses to the opening rounds of the First World War. One such Americans was none other than Mary Custis Lee – the oldest daughter of the famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Ms. Lee had been travelling abroad for nearly a decade by the time that war broke out and had resided in France, Germany, Italy, and even Egypt. She happened to find herself in Germany when that country violated Belgian neutrality and the dominoes began to fall, ensuring that what many thought would be a short European war would develop into a global conflict. Wisely deciding that she had better return to the United States, Ms. Lee managed to work her way through Holland to London, where she gave a fascinating interview to the New York Times as she awaited transport to the U.S.

Mary Custis Lee, 1914
The interview took place at Hyde Park Hotel on October 21, 1914. By this point in the early days of the war, the “Miracle of the Marne” had taken place and the race to the race to the sea had just finished. The horrors of large-scale trench warfare that would define the conflict had not begun, yet Ms. Lee speaks of the soldiers suffering in the trenches.
From the 22 October 1914 issue of The New York Times:

LONDON, Oct. 21.—Miss Mary Lee, the only surviving daughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee, has just reached London from Hamburg via Rotterdam, and to-day she gave the correspondent of THE NEW YORK TIMES a striking interview at Hyde Park Hotel, where she will stop until she sails for America.
I am a soldier's daughter," she said, "and descended from a long line of soldiers, but what I have seen of this war, and what I can foresee of the misery which must follow, have made me very nearly a peace-at-any-price woman."

A battalion of Lord Kitchener's new army was marching by directly beneath the room in which Miss Lee was speaking. They started to sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," and Miss Lee, who had never heard this now imperishable music hall ballad, went to the window and stood for some time silently looking at the column of khaki-clad men below her. When she turned to speak again there were tears in her eyes, and her voice broke.
"My father often used to say," she said, looking straight at a table on which was a picture of Lord Kitchener, autographed by "K. of K." himself no longer ago than last Christmas, "that war was a terrible alternative, and should be the very last. I have remembered those words in the last three months, and I often wonder and wonder with many misgivings if in this case war was the last alternative. As I say, I am a soldier's daughter, and got my first full view of life in the dark days of one of the world's great civil wars, but it has been an altering experience for me to watch, one week in Germany and the next week in England, the handsome, the strong, the brave of both countries marching away to kill or to get killed, perhaps to return no more, perhaps to return maimed and useless men. My father used to say it was not those who were killed in battle—often a quick and always a glorious death for a soldier—but those who, crippled and mangled and enfeebled, faced after the war a world that they could not understand and that had no place for them.

"I think of all of this and ask myself why must it be? What can be worth it? I feel close to the English people, and particularly close to the English Army. I have known many English officers and their wives and daughters. Last Winter, in Egypt, I had the privilege of seeing something of Lord Kitchener, and I have a high admiration for him. But much of what I see in the English press seems hysterical and without reason. The spy mania, for instance, and the senseless calling the Germans Huns and Vandals. I have known many German military men, and I cannot believe that these men are what the English imagination has painted them.
"From the beginning of the war I have been neutral. I have tried to follow President Wilson's advice in word and deed. My sympathy is with suffering wherever it exists—with the brave men who are fighting and suffering in the trenches and the brave women who, in practically all the homes of Europe, are waiting and suffering."

Mary Custis Lee, the last surviving child of Gen. Lee, would live to see the full realization of trench warfare and even lived to see the Armistice. She passed away on November 22, 1918.