The War to End All Wars: The American Experience in World War I by Edward M. Coffman

Edward M. Coffman’s main focus in The War to End All Wars was to showcase the American military experience during World War I. America was not prepared for the Great War. Over half the book deliberated the path of preparation. The administrative and logistical issues this type of affair entailed was almost incalculable, and unsurprisingly thought to be impossible. Coffman has broken down the process in which America’s small peacetime army of just over a 100,000 soldiers expanded to include over 3,000,000. The reader will be inundated with more detail than perhaps they ever wanted, but Coffman’s pièce de résistance is his ability to create a cohesive, vivid portrayal.

The reader will discover the challenges of supplying such a large army with weapons, food, and clothing, and given the war’s location, transportation. Found in the first few chapters are the political maneuvering, infighting, and the zealous devotion to one’s own specialty, whether it be land, air, or sea. Appreciation should be given to Coffman’s ability to incorporate a narrative treatment seamlessly into the affairs and controversies during the preparatory stages on through to the Western Front. The reader will enjoy the genesis of the air force, the intelligence of Admiral Sims, and the political jungle Pershing had to fight through.

Coffman received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky. As a military historian, Coffman’s expertise is not all learned through research. He served in the U.S. Army as an Infantry officer. Coffman has published several books on military history including The Hilt of the Sword: The Career of Peyton C. March, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, The Regulars: The American Army, 1898-1941, and The Embattled Past: Reflections on Military History.

Coffman begins with America’s decision to enter the war and the mass confusion that ensued. The author is right in his assessment that this war the Americans had found themselves entering “…was the disastrous culmination of a century of diplomatic maneuvering.” (p. 5) Coffman defines why the United States leaned toward being pro-Ally. The Germans disregarded an existing treaty with their invasion of Belgium. Americans also needed Britain to stay in control of the seas “…which funneled American trade to the Allies,” not to mention the large American loans floating about. (p. 6) Then there was Ludendorff’s push for increased U-boat attacks, which added fodder to the anti-German propaganda the Americans were reading. According to the author, Americans were entranced by Joffre, so the Marshall’s plea for men did not fall on deaf ears. From the outset, the need between an amalgamation of American troops into Allied forces versus keeping them a separate entity was a cause for disagreement. The U.S. did possess two great advantages in military. They had the manpower, and possibly even more important, the industrial might.

Secretary of War Newton D. Baker had to increase the army’s size and reorganize the structure. Not an easy task. Coffman’s quote from Baker accurately brings emphasis to the inevitable problems. “Our preparations here in the United States seem to be getting forward fairly well although, of course, the size of the task is stupendous. There are many who are criticizing, but most of them have…no real comprehension of how hard it is to expand industrially an unmilitary country into any sort of adequate response to such an emergency as we are now facing.” (p. 20)

Once the draft legislation was hammered out the issue of shelter had to be addressed. The new recruits had to have somewhere to stay and train before being shipped to France. Cantonments were contracted and built. The soldiers were now housed but some camps were more inadequate than others. Between a hard winter, lack of clothing and supplies, and a virulent outbreak of influenza, Coffman writes that between 1917 and 1918 “31 percent of the men who died in the army during the war died in the training camps.” (p. 84) Housing the troops was a herculean task, but arming the troops was far more difficult. Baker decided that the Enfield was the best weapon. The parts were not interchangeable so the people in Ordinance decided to take the tooling time needed to make the rifle’s parts standardized. Production was slow going at first, but by war’s end, the American industry reached its quota.

Compared to the army section, Coffman spends only a brief amount of time on the Navy and the Air Force. This is odd considering Coffman writes that “The extent of the American participation in World War I hinged on the control of the Atlantic Ocean.” (p. 86) Josephus Daniels was ultimately responsible for the Navy’s success or its failure. As Coffman reveals through various admirals’ journals, Daniels had a hard time relinquishing power to his men. He did make an exceptionally fine decision when he chose Rear Admiral William S. Sims to “determine how America could best cooperate with the Allies in the event of war.” (p. 93) Coffman aptly shows that the Americans were able to adapt to working with their allies. Most readers will agree with Coffman’s calculation that the achievements made in 1918 created a foundation that would later lead the Allies to victory in 1948.

Coffman nails the dynamics of the sky-high daredevils in the chapter entitled The Romance and Reality of the Air War. He covers the inadequate air force of 1917, which began inauspiciously under the Signal Corps, through to the vast improvements by the end of the war with a standing equal to other branches. The character study of Billy Mitchell and Eddie Rickenbacker are written so well the reader gets a fine sense of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. The advances made by wars end were astonishing and it was no wonder that Mitchell was disappointed with the Armistice before the full potential of air war was recognized.

Once Coffman moved his study toward the Western Front the pace of the book picks up. The difference between Coffman’s writing style goes from a humdrum, fact monologue to action, explosions, and camaraderie. Coffman shows the American’s involvement during several engagements, Belleau Wood, Château-Thierry, the 2nd Marne, Soissons, and St. Mihiel are all well-written accounts. This book also provides great insight into the African-American experience, from the training camps to the continued racism and segregation on the Western Front. The author should have seriously considered revising the use of Negro in this edition, the term has a negative connotation, and what was, unfortunately, acceptable in 1968 is certainly no longer acceptable in 1998.

Coffman thoroughly commits to presenting a detailed accounting of The American Military Experience in World War I. The question many readers would like answered is exactly how much difference the Americans made in the war. Were they simply morale boosters for the Allies and a scare tactic for the Germans? Or did their numbers tip the scale toward victory? Coffman makes sweeping statements about the importance of the American troops in winning the war, for example, “…in July 1918 the flood of American reinforcements made the crucial difference, ” and “The Allies could not have won without their help.” (p. 247, 364) Neither of these declarations is backed up, and the author should have used more care in editing out such capacious declarations. After all, he only meant to write about “The American Military Experience’ not argue battle tactics on the Western Front.

Perhaps Coffman’s gravest mistake in the revised 1998 edition was its lack of any real revision. The original 1968 Essay on Sources was well thought out, and the author obviously took great care in its writing. The essay could also have the prerogative of the publisher. However, a work of this caliber is deserving, as are the readers, a full and complete bibliography. This should have been remedied in the revision. It should also be mentioned that Coffman’s credentials in the military history field do negate some of the publishing decisions here as he is a vetted historian and his knowledge is documented.

Even more disturbing is the author’s attitude toward correction. Thirty years of new research had been unearthed between the books’ release dates. A plethora of material that Coffman did not have at the time of his initial study was available, yet he writes that “While this more recent scholarship would certainly change some minor points, I do not believe that major alterations are necessary. Aside from correcting some typographical errors, I have therefore made no revisions.” (p. viii) One then wonders why the “revised” edition exists. Coffman goes on to list seventeen new works on this very subject that he wishes would have been available to reference during the time of writing this book. Coffman is showing some unappreciated flippancy. I did give this book only 3.5 stars. Had I read the 1968 original I imagine it would have gotten a solid 4 stars, but alas, I did buy the revised (but really unrevised version) and I stand by the 3.5 rating.

If one dismisses any misgivings over the lack of revisions in this edition, and if the reader recognizes that Coffman’s focus is the “experience” not “battle tactics,” then satisfaction can be found. He uses a wonderful array of soldier and commander diaries and letters to their best advantage. The reader is able to understand the particulars presented by Coffman but also hear directly from the men involved in the war and the effects and consequences. After reading this book, one cannot walk away without appreciating the preparations and military overhaul that America went through to be able to help their Allies, as well as the troop’s experiences on the Western Front. This, I believe was Coffman’s intent, and with a few sidestepping exceptions, he succeeded.

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