Len Fairfield served with the American Expeditionary Force of the First World War, ending up as an Artillery Scout (better known as Forward Observers now). His role was to spot for his artillery battery, looking for suitable targets and trying to location German artillery. Like the vast majority of US soldiers of the First World War Fairfield was a conscript, and we follow his experiences from childhood, into the Army, across the Atlantic and into combat. We reach the front line about half way through the book, when Fairfield's unit
Fairfield fought in the two major US battles of the First World War, the comparatively easy victory at St. Mihiel, where the Germans were caught in the middle of a withdrawal, and the Argonne offensive, by some standards the most costly battle in US military history, with over 26,000 killed between the start of the offensive on 26 September and the Armistice (Normandy was more costly, with over 29,000 dead between D-Day and the end of August, but is normally seen as a campaign rather than a single battle). The final Allied offensives of the '100 Days' were amongst the most costly battles of the entire war (the British Army suffered 300,000 casualties during the campaign, more than twice the US total, but the British campaigns are split into a large number of individual battles, so the losses don't stand out as much).
I don't think I've read any other accounts written by artillery scouts from the First World War, and what immediately stood out was how difficult their task was compared to their Second World War successors. The largely static warfare and solid front lines of the First World War meant that the scouts really couldn't get that far ahead of their guns (hence the extensive use of observation balloons). Those few good viewpoints that did exist were well known to the Germans and came under heavy bombardment. Even when the Scout could get some way from their battery, communications were poor, with field telephones the best option. This required a fixed line between the battery and observer, and greatly limited the observer's options. Worse, the wire was very vulnerable to enemy artillery, so the lines of communication could often be cut.
This book provides a rather different view of the Western Front, at least for the British audience, both because of the nationality of its subject, and because of his role. As a result it adds to our understanding of the fighting, and helps bring the costly Argonne offensive to the fore.
1 - Neutral Land, a Common Man, the Makings of Love and War
2 - Arriving, Training and Departing Camps Grant and Logan
3 - The Yanks are Coming to Be Buried Over Here
4 - Camp Le Valdahon: Getting a French Education in Survival
5 - Baptism by Fire
6 - St. Mihiel: The Americans Enter the War in Ernest
7 - The Lull Before the Storm
8 - The Argonne: Let the Slaughter Commence
9 - Bearding the Lion in His Den
10 - In the Death Throes of the Great War
11 - Occupation, Recuperation and Demobilization
Author: James G. Bilder