Fighting Soldier – The AEF in 1918,
by Joseph D. Lawrence; edited by Robert H. Ferrell. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1987.
In the United States, World War I is an inadequately understood and even less studied historical event. Most Americans know that Pershing led his doughboys of the AEF to the trenches “over there,” but they seem to know little else. Even though the United States did not enter the war until April 1917 and did not suffer the massive casualties that the United Kingdom did, this lack of interest and knowledge is especially ironic since, by the time the Armistice was signed, the Americans had 1,950,100 men in 42 divisions covering 134 kilometers of the Western Front. Thus, the war had a significant impact upon the lives of many Americans.
One of these Americans upon whom World War I had a profound impact was Joseph Douglas Lawrence, twenty-two years old when he enlisted in a local South Carolina National Guard company in June 1917. His unit was one element later formed into the 30th Division. After being trained through the rainy and cold winter months of 1917-1918, it was probably considered a relief when the division finally received orders to France in May 1918. In July Lawrence’s division entered the trenches in the Ypres salient, under the command of the 2nd British Corps, for orientation and training in the front line. In his introduction to the trenches, Lawrence became acquainted with the British Army and met “a British Sergeant-Major [who is] a high-ranking individual, chiefly in his own estimation and to a somewhat lesser degree to the men under him,” and he “always found the English big-hearted and generous with what little they had.” His other experiences included numerous patrols through “No Man’s Land” before being sent to the officers school at Langres.
As a newly-commissioned Second Lieutenant, Lawrence was assigned to the 29th Division at Verdun. He had served as a platoon leader for less than a week when his battalion was ordered to participate in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and his unit spearheaded the attack through rugged terrain and dense vegetation. It was a vicious battle (indeed, the 29th Division alone suffered 5,006 casualties in the Meuse-Argonne campaign), and at one time Lawrence commanded a composite force of over 120 men. As a result of his indefatigable leadership and intrepidity in combat, Lawrence was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor) and the French Croix de Guerre. Lawrence also spent another rather “tedious” six months after the Armistice as a member of the Army of Occupation.
This lucidly-written and extremely interesting, informative, and anecdotal account of his life as a private soldier and second lieutenant in the American Expeditionary Forces of World War I was originally written by Lawrence in the 1920s and 1930s for the enjoyment of his family. His account remained in his possession until the 1970s, when the U.S. Army Military History Institute made an appeal to the rapidly-diminishing number of World War I veterans for their recollections and other memorabilia. Lawrence sent them a copy of his reminiscences, and Robert H. Ferrell, a history professor at Indiana University, found Lawrence’s typescript in the Military History Institute’s collection. His correspondence with Lawrence resulted in this superb collaboration, adroitly and insightfully edited by Ferrell with an abundance of background information and by placing Lawrence’s experiences into a much larger historical context. It is also well illustrated with numerous photographs and maps.
This book cannot be recommended too highly, to readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans will gain a much greater awareness of their heritage and the European experiences of a citizen-soldier, and British readers will be able to see, among other things, how their forbears – or comrades – were perceived through the keen eyes of a “Sammy.”
Lawrence’s reason for chronicling his Great War experiences, as stated in his 1985 Foreword, was to “pass on, to another generation, an account of patriotism and courage by Americans of long ago.” There can be no doubt that this old soldier once again accomplished his mission.
Book Review, Fighting Soldier – The AEF in 1918, by Joseph D. Lawrence, Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association (England) 22 (Spring 1988): 35.