Justin’s #34 – An American Soldier in World War I, George Browne edited by David Snead, 214 pages

I had to read this book for my US History class this semester. The book is compiled of quotes from George Browne as he wrote letters back to his bride-to-be in the United States. David Snead then fills in the gaps by adding commentary about the situation and history behind what Browne wrote. I had to write a book review about this book as part of my class, so I thought I would just post what I submitted to my professor for a grade. Understanding that this is an online class and others might stumble upon it, please don’t steal my review. Enjoy!

 

George Browne (“Brownie) was an American soldier (commonly referred to as a “doughboy”) during World War I. During his time before, in, and after theater, he wrote a plethora of letters to the love of his life he had left behind, Martha. These letters represent an intriguing first person look at the life of an American soldier during World War I.

David L. Snead compiled and edited these letters and strung them between commentary on the overarching situation to place them in their proper context. He argues that this method is superior to the studies of American soldiers that have gone before his compilation. He says,

While the soldier’s story has been told on occasion, most such studies fall short in several key areas. First, they often do not provide the soldier’s personal view. Second, they provide few, if any citations for their examples and factual information. Students wanting to do more detailed research using primary sources would be hard pressed to find references in these works. This book overcomes some of these shortcomings…[1]

This writer will attempt to examine these claims and demonstrate how the intertwining of a first person account with underlying context provides the reader with greater clarity of the situation and more fully documents the events during World War I.

Of first importance in the story of George Brownie and the greater context of World War I is the first person account of intangibles that can only fully be appreciated within the realm of experience. Using secondary sources to glean information about World War I can only go as far as ideology and will never give a full picture of the actual conditions of the soldier. For example, one can read about trench warfare, but it is entirely different to experience trench warfare written with vivid imagery of a primary source. Brownie offers a picture of the conditions, saying “The worst part of it is that you can hear [the shells] coming but don’t know where they will strike. It always seems to me as if they had me picked out.”[2] Readers can intellectually comprehend this in a textbook, but in order to feel it one must read from a primary source who experienced it

The American experience in World War I has often been critiqued because the military at the time was vastly unprepared for what lie ahead of them in France. Dr. Snead weaves a phrase from Brownie and his own commentary to demonstrate this when he said, “… all recognized the challenge and probably shared a similar belief to Brownie’s that ‘we can’t shoot Germans from this island, can we?’ However, little did they understand how ill prepared they were for the ferocity of the fighting on the western front.”[3] This is more evident based on a French Officer’s comments on the American soldiers, saying “The American soldiers, like all troops who make their debuts in war, show themselves much too much.”[4] This is not necessarily saying that the Americans were not good at war (as many had just fought in the Spanish-American War and the hunt for Pacho Villa some years earlier), but that the war that had been commencing for some time was so drastically different from others that the Americans could not be used to this mechanized form of killing that was presently at hand. The French Officer’s comments show that a new era had dawned on the world that did not play nearly as neat as the “gentlemen’s war” of the Napoleonic era.

Two aspects of the Great War that are severely downplayed that Brownie gives details of would be the recreation of the soldiers. The soldiers caught up in World War I were given generously activities of leisure throughout the war. During the immobilization phase, soldiers were given passes to go into town. In Brownie’s case, he visited New York City during his training.[5] While in theater, it happens that many men were lead to be sexually promiscuous, at the chagrin of their superiors.[6] Lastly, during long periods of fighting in the trenches, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) high command gave soldiers a “break” from the front lines to a type of R&R. Brownie says of this, “There are entertainments and moving pictures for us nearly every night but I haven’t attended… We aren’t doing anything, tho so have all our time to wander around and sleep. We have baseball games all the while, too.”[7] In addition, AEF soldiers apparently had access to the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper throughout the war.[8] These details are important to fully immerse oneself in the life of the of a soldier in the First World War. By simply reading secondary sources, these things escape the ordinary reader.

The soldiers of the AEF were greatly affected by the threat of gas throughout the war. According to Dr. Snead, the Germans utilized gases such as “… chlorine, chloropicrin, phosgene, tear, and mustard.”[9] The real nuisance of these threats were not that they caused millions of deaths, but that they produced a fear in troops that caused paranoia, creating a psychological rather than real threat. Brownie speaks of numerous times that he was awoken in the middle of the night because of a gas alarm.[10] While a historian can intellectually understand the presence of gas, he cannot experience the internal horrors that must have kept many soldiers awake at night in fear.

It is evident that the fact that Dr. Snead incorporates Brownie’s letters with fact greatly enhances the experience of what the experience of World War I might have actually been like. Not only is there first hand accounts of what the soldiers might have faced, the commentary that runs behind this is fascinating and puts into context the real horrors of the Great War.

Bibliography

Browne, George. An American Soldier in World War I (Studies in War, Society, and the Military). Edited by David L. Snead. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

[1] George E. Browne, An American Soldier in World War I, ed. David L. Snead (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 9.

 

[2] Ibid, 76.

[3] Ibid, 35.

[4] Ibid, 73.

[5] Ibid, 33.

[6] Ibid, 45.

[7] Ibid, 112.

[8] Ibid, 1-6.

[9] Ibid, 74.

[10] Ibid, 78.

1 Comment on Justin’s #34 – An American Soldier in World War I, George Browne edited by David Snead, 214 pages

  1. An American Soldier in WWI – thank you for the book review. Engaging. Painted a picture of WWI … simply with quotes… that I had not yet constructed.

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