The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World by Richard Rubin is a history of World War I with an interesting feature. He interviewed all the living World War I veterans could find which was quite a limited set of people; all over one hundred years old. The interviews took place in 2003 and since then the last remaining veteran has passed on. In between the interviews Rubin gives the reader a history lesson. Although most readers familiar with World War I will know most of the information, there are a few items that might be new or obscure.
The book opens with France’s Jacques Chirac awarding all the World War I American veterans who served in France the Légion d’honneur in 1998. The French did the research and that research gave Rubin his start in the project. The interviews cover the branches of services and jobs from infantry, artillery, messengers, drivers, and engineers. What is is surprising is the reasons people joined. Reasons from patriotism, adventure, no jobs, and an immigrant who was drafted. Except for being drafted, I remember hearing the same reasons back when I was in Marine Corps boot camp. Somethings do not change.
France was the major battle field of the war and although not militarily superior to German won the war, with help. French and German animosity has a long history which the United States and England did not share. At times during the war, especially the beginning, German and British troops fraternized. The most most famous incident was the 1914 Christmas truce. British and German troops had an unofficial “Live and let live” policy which included such things as firing over the trenches and not shelling food or supply trucks.
African American service in the war is covered. The navy had African-Americans serving for the most part because the navy was chronically short of personnel, although most served in the galley. The Marines had no racial integration. The army had separate units. African Americans could not be put in positions over whites so were usually put in separate units and many did not see combat. Army leadership preferred to use black units as work parties. The British declined to take black units, but the French gladly accepted them because the Germans feared the Senegalese soldiers and France figured a black American soldier might be as feared as a Senegalese soldier.
Other perhaps lesser known realities of the war are covered such as executions, the Sedition Act of 1918, the stupidity of frontal attacks against machine guns, Archangel, and Germany’s concrete trenches and bunkers. France did not build permanent fortifications they believed and wanted to believe they would push the Germans out of France; permanent structures would have been a psychological defeat. Perhaps the most interesting piece of information for me concerns Belleau Woods. In Marine Corps history, this is probably only second in importance to the flag raising in Iwo Jima. It was where the Marines made their stand against the Germans and pushed them back. The French were so impressed with the actions of the Marines, Belleau Wood was renamed the Bois de la Brigade de Marine . American commander General Pershing said of the battle “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.” Rubin writes something that Marine Corps history does not teach, that the army was also present at Belleau Wood. That bit of information was not made public until 1939.
Rubin presents an excellent history of World War I. It is not a complete history by any means but does something for the last time. It presents a first hand, personal accounts of several veterans that served in that war. That opportunity is now gone forever. World War I is indeed an interesting period and the voices of those who served only add to the effect. There is nothing quite like listening to an old veteran reminisce about his service and hat takes this book beyond being a very good history to being an excellent one.