Four Questions for author Gene Fax
"The episodes of the war speak for themselves in all their tragedy, triumph, irony, and absurdity."
By Paul Burgholzer
Author Gene Fax spent seventeen years combing archives in Washington, Baltimore, Paris, West Point, and Carlisle, Pennsylvania. to research the story of the U.S. 79th Division in World War I. He specifically wanted to learn about their pivotal role during the Battle for Mountfaucon -- one of the most bloody and fiercely contested battles of the entire war. Part of his drive to learn this story was the fact that Gene Fax's grandfather, Corporal Oscar Lubchansky, served in that division, in that battle, as a member of the division's 313th Infantry Regiment. WW1CC's Paul Burgholzer heard about Gene Fax's remarkable book, and reached out to the author to hear more.
The book focuses around the 79th Division. What about the 79th division intrigued you the most?
The whole project began as an attempt to reconstruct my grandfather’s service history. He fought in the 313th Infantry Regiment, part of the 79th Division. I always remembered the stories he used to tell my brother and me when we were little, and when I was in my 40s I wanted to learn more about him. As you know, the Army Personnel Records Center in St. Louis had a fire in 1973 that destroyed almost all of their World War I files. So as a substitute I started reading about the 313th. I had read military history most of my life and was reasonably conversant with the American role in the war, but I had never heard of the major battle of the 313th, the fight for Montfaucon. When I looked for books on that battle, I found there were none. My wife said, “So you’ll write the book.” And that’s how it started.
As my research unfolded, it became clear that the 79th was of more than personal interest. Every problem that beset the AEF plagued the division, usually in exaggerated form--lack of training, unfamiliar equipment, inexperienced officers, faulty doctrine, miserable roads, poor combat supply, you name it. Their only asset was their incredible determination, and by the end of the war—in less than seven weeks of combat--they had transformed themselves into a competent fighting unit. I figured that was a story to which many people would respond.
General Pershing was an important figure in the war as well as your book. What is your overall opinion of General Pershing?
In the book I spent a lot of time criticizing Pershing’s open warfare doctrine, and I stand by that criticism. But in retrospect I should have given him more credit as a manager, leader, and diplomat. Getting two million men (and several thousand women) off the transports, across France, and into the front lines was a stunning accomplishment. It certainly stunned the Germans. Part of the AEF’s success was due to Pershing’s ability to appoint talented subordinates—Hugh Drum as First Army Chief of Staff, James Harbord as head of the Services of Supply, Charles Dawes as General Purchasing Agent, Dennis Nolan heading Intelligence, George Marshall in Operations, the list goes on and on. But he also knew how to supervise and motivate his subordinates, and his personality and iron will percolated down to the lowest private.
Pershing knew what kind of army he wanted and he stopped at nothing to get it. Others have observed that Pershing had to fight a three-front war: against the enemy, against his allies, and against the War Department. Germany had a continuous military tradition going back to Frederick the Great, while the United States had raised large armies only for immediate crises, and not since the Civil War; Pershing was unimpressed. The French and British wanted their own forces to absorb American battalions as they got off the boat; Pershing insisted on a unified, self-sufficient army of his own and by and large he got it. With the War Department he argued constantly over what training the men should receive, how many divisions to send to France, how to allocate shipping capacity between combat and support units, even what kind of airplane engines to manufacture. In these interchanges he was, as the saying goes, “often wrong but never in doubt.” He could be a pain in the neck, but he was a pain in the neck who got things done. As I did say in the book, it is hard to imagine an American officer of the time who could have been a more effective commander in chief.
In your introduction you write "The book treats World War I and the American participation in it neither as a tragedy or triumph." This is an interesting way to view this historical event. What did you mean when you wrote that?
As I hope I made clear, the war comprised many tragedies—one for every soldier and civilian killed or wounded, at the least—and, for many, triumphs. But all human activities contain elements of both, and it is a mistake for a historian to characterize a complex event as one or the other. To maintain that position, one must select the data to fit the hypothesis. For many years the American view was that we won the war by showing the Allies how to fight. That ignored the fact that the British and French (inspired, in part, by the Germans) developed effective combined-arms tactics long before the Americans did and, in the Hundred Days campaign which ended the war, captured fourteen times more territory than did the AEF.
On the other side, Paul Fussell, in his landmark book The Great War and Modern Memory, had to omit the Hundred Days campaign entirely in order to portray the Western Front as wholly a trench-bound, pointless stalemate. Similarly, it is fashionable to declare that the war had no victors. But what about the Central European states that were freed from the palsied hand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Arabs who escaped Ottoman rule, the Jews who saw the promise of a homeland? Not to mention Germany’s African colonies that had suffered even more brutal treatment than that offered by the more “enlightened” European states. In truth, no human event is wholly tragic or glorious, and if it looks that way for a while, it doesn’t for long. That is why I preferred to let the episodes of the war speak for themselves in all their tragedy, triumph, irony, and absurdity
What was the most fascinating story you came across while writing and doing research for this book?
No single episode stands out; virtually all of them were fascinating. But what I didn’t expect was the humanity that shone through the soldiers’ letters. When I read the correspondence of Civil War veterans, I feel distant from them. Their personal and social attitudes are different from mine, and their prose style is formal and often stilted (although highly literate, even among the enlisted men). The writers of World War I were witty, self-aware, and wholly modern. They are people we would feel comfortable having a conversation with today. They conveyed in their writings all of the frustration, loneliness, anxiety, boredom, and resignation that go with service in the field, as well as a sense of adventure and dedication to their job. They recounted with glee the bizarre sights, the far-fetched rumors, the antics of their comrades. (Rarely did they describe combat; the purpose in writing home was to assure the folks that you were all right.) Even the grizzled commander of the 313th took the time (or ordered an aide to take the time) to respond to a little boy in Philadelphia whose dog had gone missing after the regiment’s train had passed through the city. “If he came over to France you can rest assured he has been doing his duty as all other Americans have been over here, but you can take consolation in the fact that he got into the war in his old age which is old for a dog, and he was over the draft age if he was eleven years old,” Colonel Sweezey wrote, and you know that the little boy treasured that letter for many years.
Paul Burgholzer is a 2017 Summer Intern at the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission