Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review: The School of Hard Knocks: Combat Leadership in the American Expeditionary Forces

The School of Hard Knocks: Combat Leadership in the American Expeditionary Forces

by Richard S. Faulkner, Texas A&M Press, 2012.

The C.A. Brannen Series of books on WW1 published by Texas A&M continues to be one of, if not the, best places to look for quality books on the A.E.F.  This work, The School of Hard Knocks deals with what some might find a boring subject: how the officers and NCO's of the AEF were trained.  If you passed it by because that is what you thought, look again.

The US army performed a miracle by growing its multi-million man army in record time. No one disputes that, especially the Germans who said it could not be done. In doig so, however, one of the corners cut was training. This resulted in an army that had the spirit, but poor preparation for the war. The result? A lot more casualties than might have been.  After reading this book you will see a few areas where the Americans could have improved their schools and classes, but also realize how hard it was to keep the formations together when everything kept expanding and you constantly needed men transferred to form new units. All of the different forms of officer schools are covered: Plattsburgh Camps OTS, COTS, and the rest. Also schools set up in Europe for continued training when the units arrived there. Examples of how the training impacted combat are given.

One of the more interesting concepts is that before the war company level officers spent so long in their low rank that they had a great deal of time to learn their trade, nto just in tactics but in how tom manage men, that the suddenly enlarged army no longer had time for the previous type of extended internship, and the lessons learned by senior officers at Leavenworth no longer had any time to trickle down.  

Great credit is given to the French Army officer's school, and the question why we did not adopt the same principle is raised. However the simple fact is the US Army was growing so fast there was little time to develop the types of instructors needed, the very men needed for these schools were the first ones to do anything to get transferred to the front, and the US was continually afraid its men would be little more than replacement bodies for the Allies. While this may seem silly today, Both England and France were constantly pressuring America to just stick out men into their armies and let them run the war. What I found quite interesting in this regard, was the American units that were trained by the British, and commanded in the British zone did not seem to fare any better than the ones kept under US training and command.

I do feel that, once again, Pershing's desire to stress the rifle and open warfare is misunderstood, and he has been wrongfully criticized for this.  In fact, there are places in this book where the author unknowingly refutes some of the commonly held theories by the anti-Pershing league.  It only makes sense that if you do not have any of the specialty weapons of war handy (grenades, automatic rifles, machine guns, trench mortars, etc.) you spent the time on getting the soldiers able to actually hit what they are aiming at with the rifles. There, however, a disconnect between what Pershing wanted and what was actually done in training, that distorted his plans, and left the soldiers spending ungodly hours doing drill, and digging textbook trenches, instead of becoming marksmen and learning about fire and movement.

In any event, this is a really good book on the AEF and goes a long way to understanding how and why the AEF operated. It's recommended for anyone that has a serious interest in the Americans in WW1, as it is not "just a book on training."  I found it fascinating.