The Americans who fought and died for freedom and democracy

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The Americans who fought and died for freedom and democracy

Sons of Freedom: The Forgotten American Soldiers Who Defeated Germany in World War I by Geoffrey Wawro, Basic Books, US $35.00, Pp 596, September 2018, ISBN 978-0465093915

Most historians dismiss the American intervention in the World War I and the consequent German defeat as largely economic and symbolic. In Sons of Freedom, Geoffrey Wawro challenges this popular view and shows that America joined the World War I at a time when Allies were on the verge of collapse and Germans had nearly won it. Commander of the British Expeditionary Force Field Marshal Douglas Haig called the Allied victory no less than a miracle — but the miracle happened only because of the American intervention in favor of the Allies. Wawro retells and reinterprets the story of World War I and how it ended. Wawro says that Americans were too eager to fight in the World War I and some of the great Americans went to fight in Europe. Sons of Freedom is the story of those Americans who fought and died to save freedom and democracy in Europe and beyond.

There was a rising sentiment in America in favor of intervening in World War I among the people. Many Americans went to fight on the side of the Allies in the last couple of years of the war. Wawro says that the sheer variety of Americans who went to war in France in 1917-1918 to defeat the Germans and “make the world safe for democracy” was striking. The shortlist includes professional athletes at the peak of their careers. With twenty-six kills, race car driver Eddie Rickenbacker was a great American ace of the war, while baseball players included Christy “Matty” Mathewson of the New York Giants while President of the St. Louis Cardinals Branch Rickey commanded the chemical warfare unit. Politicians and their sons also went to Europe to fight. All four of the former President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons also went to fight while Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen flew observation balloons over the Western Front. Wealthy executives and entrepreneurs who went to fight included men like Robert Lowell Moore who later founded Sheraton Hotel chain after the war and Howard Johnson who franchised the HoJo chain with its twenty-eight flavors of ice cream. Although most Americans served in relatively safe jobs behind the lines, 117,000 Americans lost their lives.

Wawro says that the war had nearly ended in German victory by the spring of 1918 when the Germans had shattered both the British and French armies. American troops, entering battle in large numbers for the first time at Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry, stopped the German advance on Paris and commenced the long counterattack that pushed the Germans back to the Meuse. The British, commanded by Field Martial Douglas Haig, spent much of their dwindling manpower breaching the Hindenburg Line in the late summer of 1018. The French, who had generally renounced the offensive after their army mutinies of 1917, followed the British advance cautiously, in many cases “conquering” ground that the Germans were abandoning to shorten their lines.

Wawro argues that even after the monstrous casualties the Germans suffered in their 1918 offensives, they would, in all likelihood, have stemmed the Allied counteroffensive if the Americans hadn’t outflanked the Germans at Sedan and severed their line of retreat. American histories have tended to focus on the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) — as the army sent to France was known — and its campaign in the Meuse-Argonne. British and French histories have tended to focus on their national armies. What’s been lost is the critical synergy that existed between the surging US army and the crumbling British and French armies.

Wawro says that it was generally acknowledged in 1918 that Haig was battling toward the Meuse with “Britain’s last army.” London either lacked or would not give the manpower to replace Haig’s casualties. The French, with the higher per capita casualties among the great powers and a modest population, had already scrapped the bottom of their demographic barrel. The French soldier, or ‘poilu,’ had become defeatist and demoralized by 1918. Wawro argues that the synergy the British and French offensives allied to the American offensive in the Meuse-Argonne ended the war, but not until the Americans surrounded Germans at Sedan and delivered what British war correspondent Charles Repington called “the matador’s thrust.” Without that thrust, the German army would have stopped the British and French at the Meuse, or even south and west of it. This interpretation may surprise some historians as much as it surprised me.

Sons of Freedom is a valuable addition to the existing scholarship on the World War I. It is packed with new knowledge and provides fresh perspectives on how the World War I was fought. With his unmatchable academic credentials, Geoffrey Wawro shows that American intervention at the end of the World War I was decisive in favor of the Allies. Like his other works of military history, Sons of Freedom is the newest scholarly masterpiece of military history. Geoffrey Wawro knows the art of writing history for lay people. It shows that Geoffrey Wawro is one of the most distinguished living military historians. Sons of Freedom will change the way you look at how the World War was won.

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