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Authors: III H. W. Crocker

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Sergeant Bernard Early led the doughboys
1
into the forest. Their first contact with the enemy was two Germans who wore Red Cross armbands and were shocked to see the Americans. One surrendered; the other plunged into the forest like a high-tailing deer, York and his comrades in pursuit.

The Americans weaved through the forest, finally stumbling on a detachment of tired German soldiers who had dropped their packs and were sitting down eating breakfast. Stunned at being flanked, the Germans surrendered. Except for one, who fired at York: the German missed; York didn't.

The Americans, having surprised the enemy, were now surprised in turn. German machine gunners, hidden on a covering hill, suddenly
opened fire, raking the Americans, hitting one poor corporal with, York estimated, a hundred bullets, practically shredding the uniform from his body. Nine of York's colleagues—more than half the unit's strength—fell dead or wounded. York was on the ground too—unhurt, though bullets had sliced the dirt in front of him and left a stray helmet “all sorter sieved, jes like the top of a pepper box.”
2
He guessed there were more than twenty machine guns ahead of him; occasionally he saw German heads over the barrels.

Lying prone, York treated the German heads popping over the parapets to old-fashioned target practice. Machine gun bullets whipped past him, the gunners apparently unable to depress the barrels far enough to nail him to the ground. York's relentlessly accurate shooting suppressed the German fire to the point he could stand up and advance. As he did so, a German officer and five soldiers with fixed bayonets charged from about twenty-five yards. The magazine in York's rifle was down to its final rounds, so he flipped out his pistol, a Colt .45 automatic, and shot his attackers as he would have shot wild turkeys—hitting the last one first and working his way up the line. It worked with turkeys because they didn't see their fellows getting blasted, and it worked with Germans on the same principle. He intuited—he didn't have time to think—that if he shot the lead man, the others would fall to the prone position and pick him off. But they didn't. He shot them each in succession. Then he advanced again with his rifle, shouting at the machine gunners to surrender. He figured he had them now—between foiling the bayonet charge and knocking bullets into German heads, York had killed about twenty men.

The German officer in command, Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer, emptied his pistol at the advancing Tennessean. Every shot missed; there was no getting at such an invulnerable foe.

“English?”

“No, not English.”

“What?”

“American.”

“Good Lord! If you won't shoot any more I will make them give up.”

York agreed; as he recounted later, “I didn't want to kill any more 'n I had to.”

He did have to kill one more. A surrendering German threw a grenade at him. Inevitably, it missed. York didn't. York and his comrades suddenly found themselves the captors of about fifty German soldiers. When Vollmer asked York how many men he had, York said, “A plenty.”
3
York's men weren't so sure. York was: he kept his pistol on Vollmer.

York's march back became a sort of forcible conga line of captured Germans as he rolled up one unit after another with minimal fuss, shooting only one recalcitrant German machine gunner. By this time York had gathered so many prisoners—4 German officers and 128 other ranks—that he was turned away from both the battalion and regimental headquarters as having too many for them to handle. At his third stop, division headquarters, York's brigade commander said, “Well, York, I hear you've captured the whole damn German army.”

“No,” replied York, saluting. “Only 132.”
4

THE WAR THAT MADE THE MODERN WORLD

Most Americans are probably equally humble when they think about their country's contribution to victory in World War I. They figure we entered the conflict too late to claim much credit, or maybe they think our intervention was discreditable. Some say we had no compelling national interest to enter the Great War; worse, our
intervention allowed Britain and France to force on Germany an unjust, punitive peace that made the rise of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers Party inevitable. Had we stayed out of the war, the argument goes, the Europeans would have been compelled to make a reasonable, negotiated peace, and postwar animosity would have been lessened.

Part of Americans' disillusionment with World War I can be blamed on Woodrow Wilson. After preaching strict neutrality and campaigning on how his deft diplomacy “kept us out of war,” Wilson changed his tune in April 1917 and said the United States had to enter the war because the “world must be made safe for democracy”
5
—though that was never really the issue. He embraced the idea, even if he did not invent it, that this was a war to end all war—an expectation sure to be disappointed. Some, no doubt, think of the war in terms of the cynical “lost generation”—men like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald—getting sozzled in postwar Europe, pickling their former ideals, thinking, perhaps, that abstract “words like glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.”
6

Americans are easily forgetful of history, but we should not forget the First World War or our far from discreditable role in it. American intervention was decisive in the Anglo-French victory, a victory that deserves celebrating. Even if, as is obviously the case, the Second Reich was not as evil as the Third, and Germany's initial decision to back its ally Austria-Hungary against Serbia was justified, its ambition to dominate the continent through force of arms—and its often brutal occupation of France and Belgium—was in no less need of rejection.

The war shaped the lives of some of America's greatest soldiers and statesmen—including George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, and Harry Truman—and was
hugely consequential. Without exaggeration one can say that it was the war that made the modern world. It was the war that set the boundaries of the modern Middle East out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. It was the war that saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had held together
Mitteleuropa
. It was a war that rewarded nationalism, which, perversely, had been the war's original cause. It was the war that ended the Second Reich in Germany and witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. It was a war that moved into the skies and under the seas. Men were set alight with flamethrowers and choked by poison gas. Infantry officers wore wristwatches to coordinate attacks. Trench coats became a military fashion accessory. And a Europe that could still see angels hovering over battlefields in 1914 was shell-shocked by 1919, full of doubts about the old chivalric ideals, prey to callow superstitions and pagan political movements.

It was the apparent collapse of the old ideals that helps explain what has become the popular view of the First World War—that it was a senseless, stupid struggle, the ultimate charnel house, a watchword for the obscenity and absurdity of war. The casualty lists were indeed horribly long. The victory that was won was indeed horribly mismanaged. But such casualty lists were inevitable in a modern war of European empires; and the mismanagement of the peace was not the soldier's folly.

Part of the problem is a misguided, jejune nostalgia. Before the war, it is often said, was a graceful Edwardian summer absorbing the warmth of a Western civilization that had found—in its empires and global dominance, in its booming economies and steady social progress, in its stable institutions and its music, art, and literature—“its place in the sun,” to use Kaiser Wilhelm II's phrase about Germany's prewar empire. If the First World War had not happened, the
story goes, Europe would have carried on in some sort of blissful stasis, progressive yet stable and pacific, and no terrible calamities would have occurred. This theme, common among liberals even before the war, was most famously articulated by Norman Angell, who published
The Great Illusion
in 1910. Angell believed that Europe's international trade and its modern industrial economies meant the abolition of war, because conquest now brought no economic advantage—an argument that has been repeated many times over the decades, though reality never seems to cooperate.

THE REASONS WHY

Those who class every modern evil as a consequence of the First World War seem to forget that Marx, Nietzsche, “Dover Beach” with its receding sea of faith, social Darwinism, nationalism, racism in Eastern Europe (Slav versus Teuton), militarism, Slavic terrorism, the Franco-Prussian War, the Balkan Wars, a crumbling Ottoman Empire, Russian designs on Constantinople, and the German Schlieffen Plan that envisioned the violation of neutral Belgium and an aggressive war against France as a military necessity in case of war against Russia (with such a two-front war considered inevitable) all preceded the guns of August 1914.

It is true that National Socialists (eventually) and Communists came to power in the wake of the First World War. It is equally true that National Socialism and Communism were already seeded in Europe. Europe had been roiled by revolutions in 1848, of a mostly nationalist, liberal variety, though sometimes socialist in intent. Communards under the red flag had held Paris in 1871; the Russian government had squashed a socialist revolution (in which Leon Trotsky had a role) in 1905. Germany, France, and Russia all had
large socialist parties, and indeed much of the thrust of left-liberal thought on the Continent since the Reformation and the Enlightenment had been about rationalizing and centralizing power in the state. Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the German Reich, often regarded as a conservative, had shown this very same tendency when he waged a
Kulturkampf
against the Catholic Church (which, unlike the state Lutheran church, was an intolerably supranational institution). He dropped his culture war only after he belatedly realized that the Church was a useful ally against socialism, which he opposed but hoped to appease by reforms.

One of Bismarck's ardent political supporters was Heinrich von Treitschke, a German liberal nationalist (with an ever-increasing emphasis on the latter). Treitschke, who died in 1896, was one of the most influential German historians of the late nineteenth century. He was an anti-Semite and a social Darwinist (much quoted by the later National Socialists) who praised war for its “utter annihilation of puny man in the great conception of the State.”
7

Adolf Hitler himself avoided serving in the armed forces of conservative, reactionary Habsburg Austria in the First World War, preferring what he saw as nationalist, progressive Germany; and one of his early political patrons after the war was General Erich von Ludendorff, who, along with General Paul von Hindenburg, had practically led the Second Reich in its final two years, practiced “war socialism” during the war, believed in German colonization of Eastern Europe, and was a social Darwinist and pagan who blamed weak-kneed Christianity for much that was wrong with the world. In postwar, post-monarchical Germany, National Socialism was only the logical extension of what Ludendorff already believed; and, in due course, it was Hindenburg who reluctantly made Hitler chancellor of Germany.

WHAT THE WAR ACHIEVED

The evil that followed the war was no more inevitable than the good—and preventing the Second Reich's forcible subjugation of the Continent to the likes of Ludendorff was indeed a good thing. The First World War was not pointless. On the Western Front—that European scar that came to epitomize the war's futility—France, Britain, and the United States successfully repelled an aggressor who had violated Belgian neutrality and planned to impose a not so very gentle domination on the Continent. The generals who achieved this feat were not insensate brutes who callously ignored the hecatombs on the battlefield. Few people believe the Second World War was a senseless war or that it was fought by idiotic generals. Yet far more lives were lost in the Second World War than in the First (more than 60 million versus about 17 million). The First World War generals of the Western powers achieved their victory in four years; the Allied generals of the Second World War took six. And if the First World War witnessed the collapse of the monarchies of Central Europe and saw the Bolsheviks seize power in Russia, at least the Western powers kept the Bolsheviks, preachers of world revolution, penned up within Russia's borders. The Second World War ended with Eastern Europe in the hands of the Soviet Communists—Hitler's former allies and the West's adversaries in the subsequent decades-long Cold War. In other words, the imperfect outcome of the First World War was no worse than the imperfect outcome of the Second, and both were better than if the Central Powers or the Fascist powers had won.

The doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force helped win a great victory for the United States and, of course, for Britain and France. From his initial pacifism, Alvin York had convinced himself that the war was just—and it was. It was also, in its scope and in its consequences, no small war, and though the first Americans would
not arrive in France until 1917, they would play no small part in winning it.

In the pages that follow, we will see how the war began, how it was conducted, how the United States came to enter the war, and how it was won. We will look at some of the men who fought it, from the generals like “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, to young Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur. We will see the young lions who were finding their way, men like “Wild Bill” Donovan and George S. Patton. In the process, we will see in outline the arc of the American Century, which took American soldiers from fighting Indians to the Great War to World War II and made America the paramount superpower in an atomic age.

BOOK: The Yanks Are Coming!
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