World War I occupies virtually no acreage in the mental landscape of most Americans, even those who think themselves well educated and informed. And yet, as we honor the sacrifices of those Americans who were sent into battle on our behalf almost 100 years ago, how much do we really know about the battles they fought, their commanders, and their sacrifices (117,000 Americans never returned, 204,000 came back wounded)?
H. W. Crocker III attempts to answer these questions and more in The Yanks Are Coming!, with varying degrees of success. His text is well structured and features a chronologically measured approach to both the war and the events leading up to it. He first presents a comprehensive background on the political situation in Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century, and continues with a summary of six of the key battles in which American forces were engaged. Profiles of the generals commanding these young men follow, along with portraits of the Young Lions, as Crocker calls them—Eddie Rickenbacker, Alvin York, and others. The narrative concludes with a summary of victory and its aftermath.
Crocker rightly claims that unrestricted submarine warfare was the principal cause of American entry into World War I. The infamous Zimmermann telegram, intercepted by the British and given to the Americans, did not by itself precipitate our entry into the European war, but it was a catalyst that spurred our entry. The body of the telegram from Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German minister in Mexico proposed that if the United States should enter the war on the side of the Allies, Mexico should, in alliance with Germany, “make war together.” Germany offered generous financial support and, if the venture were successful, the return of Mexico’s “lost territory of New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.”
The telegram was intercepted on January 17, 1917. President Woodrow Wilson was informed of it in February, and he went public with it in March. On April 2, he asked Congress for a declaration of war. On April 6, his wish was fulfilled.
Yet for all this book’s virtues, there are problems with errors and omissions. As early as page 39, the reader encounters run-on sentences with a distracting use of semicolons: “Allies had hoped to force the Dardanelles; bring relief to Russia; knock Turkey out of the war; and gain Greek and Bulgarian allies to advance through what would later be called the ‘soft underbelly of Europe.’ ” Equally distracting is Crocker’s reference to Turkey as the “soft underbelly of Europe” in World War I, when the Churchillian phrase originally referred to Italy in World War II. And while the personal profiles of both high-ranking American officers and dog-faced soldiers and Marines are enlightening and uplifting, they tend, especially in the case of the generals, to meander into postwar actions, and even into World War II and Korea. Yes, Douglas MacArthur, Harry Truman, and George Marshall went on to greater achievements, but their mention in this context makes the storyline uneven and unfocused.
Early on, we read that General Erich von Ludendorff had been awarded, among other honors, the “Blue Max.” What is a Blue Max? It is the nickname of the award known as the Pour Le Mérite, given for exceptional service in the Prussian Army. This “Blue Max” business is yet another distraction.
Perhaps the biggest defect, however, is the absence of maps by which a reader can follow the movements of armies in the field or individual battalions in battle areas. This lack of maps is accompanied by an absence of photographs of the various engagement areas along the Western Front. And why? Either Crocker or his publisher should have realized that such maps and photos are available in the public domain for a reasonable cost—or for free. How does the interested reader follow the action in the Meuse Argonne Offensive? Exactly where in France is the Meuse Argonne—and is it solely in France? How do you talk of battles without maps? Generals don’t, and readers shouldn’t have to.
Crocker has written a tale of fact spun like fiction, and his prose is easily accessible. The average reader can enjoy his text for entertainment, but serious scholars have other, more valuable, sources.
Christopher Timmers, a West Point graduate who served in both the 82nd Airborne and Third Infantry divisions in Germany, lives in South Carolina.