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Remembered Today:

The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in WW I


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Reviewed in Parameters, U.S. Army War College Quarterly, Winter '07-'08

The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I. By Mark Ethan Grotelueschen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 388 pages. $75.00. Reviewed by Dr. Douglas V. Johnson II (LTC, USA Ret.), Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.

One prudent reviewer endorsed this book as “one of the most important works on the AEF, and indeed on the history of the modern US Army, to appear in the last twenty years.” There is considerable truth to that observation as the bulk of recent writings associated with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I have focused at the personal or tactical level of warfare. While many of these works have been well received and informative, they have offered little beyond reaffirming what was already known. As much as this reviewer despises reviewing doctrine—“that stuff that seeps out under the windows and kills the grass around Bell Hall,” as he was once told at the Command and General Staff College—doctrine does reflect what an organization thinks it ought to be doing. US Army doctrine, insofar as it existed before and during WW I, was incredibly dry and limited, but it did indeed set forth, in approved minimalist style, the


basics of the profession. That the profession did not, during this era, concern itself with strategic matters was a “correct” appreciation of the state of civil-military relationships.

Grotelueschen analyzes the state of doctrine at the beginning of the war and the underlying basis for its condition. He then leads the reader through the evolution of doctrine, finally contrasting it with the “ground-truth” of what was actually taking place in four representative divisions. This is, therefore, a doctrine-focused book. If the reader can put that fact aside, the extremely well-written narrative will provide a refreshing view of what is otherwise seen as an exercise in blood-letting.

In evaluating the evolution of the 1st Division’s combat experiences, a division led for the most part by Major General Charles P. Summerall, one may trace the fairly rapid shift from “approved doctrine” to something that particular officer knew or felt would be required. When Summerall arrived in France he was quick to note the extraordinary (by American standards) proportion of artillery support employed by both allies and adversaries alike. Summerall argued vigorously for equivalency, but was overruled by General John Pershing’s advisers and staff. Once in command, however, Summerall pursued methods that made up, in considerable degree, for the weakness of organic fire support. Grotelueschen describes Summerall’s methods as diverging markedly from established doctrine, but having salutary effects for the operations of the 1st Division.

The introduction to the 26th Division narrative touches on a sore subject demanding deeper investigation—the questionable performance of Regular officers, both within and at echelons above the division. This particular tale is muddied by the inherent Regular and National Guard prejudices recognized at every echelon. That aside, the picture the author paints of the 26th Division’s performance is not pretty, but Grotelueschen softens the depiction by noting that it had absolutely no “open warfare” training prior to being committed to battle. In evaluating the division’s performance, Grotelueschen relies upon the division commander’s observations more than recorded events or accomplishments. For example, while the commander saw a need for tank support and greater participation by the Air Service there is little to suggest he attempted to secure these tools, or, more importantly, to train soldiers for offensive maneuvers. This particular portion of the book is strengthened by materials indicating that the unit’s limited successes were not accomplished by the exercise of doctrine. Whether intended by the author or not, the division commander’s inability to keep his unit in hand, an impression shared by senior AEF staff members, comes through much more strongly than does his limited attempts to exercise his imagination. Grotelueschen also provides deserved swipes at higher headquarters, but the final impression that the reader is left with is that of a personally imaginative, perhaps cerebral, commander who wasn’t very good at the business of commanding. This account of the 26th Division is, therefore, less a tale of doctrine and more one of competency of command.

The section of the book on the 2d Division is replete with examples of successful nondoctrinal operations, adaptive leadership, and sound soldier skills. The initial stupidities of Belleau Wood quickly give way to the imperatives of reality and to the well-conducted attack on Vaux, demonstrating the division’s ability to learn and adapt by setting aside the impediment of official doctrine. The division’s participation in the Aisne-Marne operation was stylistically similar to the previous opera-


tions in the Belleau and Vaux battles, in that the unit was hurled into combat with minimal planning and only a portion of its equipment. The nature of the terrain, the strength and dispositions of the enemy, and the timing combined to create conditions of open warfare that AEF doctrine addressed, but the battle quickly stalled for lack of coordinated fire support. The division’s subsequent performance demonstrates that it had learned how to adapt, not just to do what was being presented in doctrinal sources. This is a solid chapter.

The 77th Division was a National Army division and trained almost exclusively in the United States. Draftees made up the bulk of its manpower, boasting some 43 languages. “Open warfare” training never appears on the unit’s training schedules. Upon arrival in France, the division came under British control, eventually shaking free only to fall under the tutelage of a French division. When it was finally assigned to an American organization, American III Corps, it immediately replaced the 4th Division and remained in combat or enroute from one combat zone to another until war’s end. As a consequence of these assignments, the division received no open warfare training, something that was reflected in its early actions. At this point it is worth noting that Grotelueschen concludes that General Summerall was right; the success of the infantry was directly proportional to the weight and skill of the artillery supporting it. Commanders quickly learned that any doctrine that did not rely on the employment of large quantities of indirect fire, properly directed and massed, was too costly in terms of lives lost to be valid.

The account of both the 26th and 77th Divisions’ experiences suffer from a problem of focus. The author spends too much ink on the division commanders. In both cases the commanders are difficult individuals; ironically, with totally opposite approaches to AEF doctrine. In both narratives, however, these two officers receive more attention than their units. In both cases the division commanders leave it to their subordinates to deal with the realities of combat, it is at this level of command and not at division that the deviation and innovation takes place. Because of the focus on the division commanders the reader is left with an odd sense of only half a picture.

There are, however, a number of lessons to be derived from this work: the ability of the American soldier and his leaders to adapt to the changing tactical situation; and the truism so deftly articulated by Sir Michael Howard, that it doesn’t matter what doctrine you begin with, it will most likely be wrong; what really matters is how long it will take you to get it right. The book dutifully raises the age-old question of how an army must go about evaluating and validating its doctrine.

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