Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I, John S.D. Eisenhower with Joanne T. Eisenhower
Yanks is an excellent beginning to any study of World War I, and a useful supplement for those with more advanced knowledge. Eisenhower is a well-known military historian who has written books on the Mexican-American War and on the Battle of the Bulge. He was aided by his wife, Joanne Eisenhower, on this book.
As the title suggests, the book is a chronological portrait of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) which sailed overseas in 1917 and returned, for the most part, after the Armistice in 1918. Eisenhower considers the AEF to be the origin of the modern U.S. Army, and provides evidence supporting this idea throughout. He adds an epilogue linking the AEF to the American army of World War II; in parallel, he gives an overview of how the Second World War was consequent to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
A prologue outlines the factors that propelled the United States into the War, including events in both Europe and in Mexico. The book then moves on to explain how an alliance was negotiated with the British and French. The rivalry between those two countries is shown to have an indirect effect on how the AEF was formed and structured.
A brief chapter on the home front, as the U.S. prepared for war, portrays propaganda master George Creel and Secretary of War Newton Baker, both of whom are interesting enough to be the subjects of biographies, particularly Creel. The chapters that follow a central figure or figures were, to this reader, the most engrossing. However, Eisenhower's comprehensible descriptions of strategy and major battles are another selling point, tying in with his desire to show the birth of the modern army.
Yanks is clearly written and richly detailed. Eisenhower cogently depicts major figures such as Marshal Joffre and General Pershing. He supplements the text with maps showing troop movements, each provided with explanatory captions, and attention-grabbing photographs. Particularly moving was a hospital housed in a church, after one of its walls had been shivered to nothing by artillery fire. A dead German soldier looks eerily alive in a foxhole photo that brings home the waste of the trenches as words cannot. These are scattered among numerous portraits of the primary actors in the War.
Eisenhower enriches his recounting of historical events by narrating extracts from letters and diaries. These extracts elevate the book above standard surveys. The personal anecdotes reveal intimate poignancies and horrors, from a young soldier’s naïve desire for his ship to be attacked by a U-Boat on the way to France to a tale of an old man killed by mistake in the heat of battle. A collection of these diaries would make absorbing reading; I regretted there were not more first-person accounts in this book, but the focus was too tight for that. Eisenhower did not allow himself to stray too far from his main purpose. Overall, it’s a gripping read.