With their Bare Hands – General Pershing, the 79th Division and the battle for Montfaucon, Gene Fax

With their Bare Hands – General Pershing, the 79th Division and the battle for Montfaucon, Gene Fax

The Meuse-Argonne offensive was the largest American campaign of the First World War (and in terms of the numbers men involved probably the largest ever). As part of the victorious Hundred Days Offensive it was portrayed as playing a major part in the final Allied victory (especially in America), and although the Americans made less progress than they had hoped, they did make a significant advance, especially by Western Front standards. This book focuses on one part of that battle – the fight to capture the hilltop town of Montfaucon, a key position towards the centre of the start line for the American attack.

Pershing doesn’t emerge well from this book. I was aware of his desire to keep his men out of combat until they could operate under American command, and ideally as part of an all-American army, and that at least part of the reason for this was a mix of nationalism, and the desire not to have American troops fighting under foreign command. However I hadn’t realised that a second motive was that he simply believed the British and French were doing it wrong. An examination of the battles of 1916 and 1917 would certainly suggest that things weren’t going entirely well, but sadly Pershing’s conclusions appear to have been entirely erroneous. Instead of focusing on the problem of trench warfare, he seems to have concluded that a focus on trench warfare was in fact the main problem. As a result the American army was meant to train for a return to open warfare, with a focus on attacking open flanks, and manoeuvre warfare. The total lack of open flanks on the western front appears to have been ignored, and the resulting belief that the infantry rifle and bayonet were the key weapons meant that the American divisions underestimated the importance of artillery, tanks or air power. One of the most remarkable achievements of the AEF during 1918 was how quickly it adapted to the circumstances of the Western Front, and it’s a shame that Pershing was so determined to stick to his guns about his pre-combat tactics being correct that he seems to have been largely unwilling to acknowledge that.

On occasion I do feel that the author underplays the achievements of the American divisions. One of them is described as ‘only’ advancing four miles on the first day of the battle! By the standards of the Western Front that was a massive leap forward. However he does also make the point that at almost any other stage in the war their advances would have seen as very impressive, and it was only the more dramatic breakthroughs further north that distracted from them (in particular the famous pictures of British troops massed on the St. Quentin Canal after fighting their way through the Hindenburg Line.

The author does a good job of telling every level of the story, from Pershing’s overview of events to the struggles of individual infantrymen on the front line. The overall picture of the battle remains as clear as possible in the circumstances, and there are good discussions of the problems faced by the Americans at each stage. The text is supported by plenty of eyewitness accounts and contemporary reports, including a series from a French tank unit attached to the American army that provides a rather different viewpoint on events! The result is an excellent account of this key part of the American contribution to the fighting on the Western Front. 


1 - Setting the Stage
2 - War Comes to Baltimore
3 - Creating an Army
4 - What Pershing Should Have Known
5 - Training - The Army at War with Itself
6 - Americans Reach the Battlefield
7 - First Army Takes the Field
8 - Concentration
9 - The Germans
10 - Over the Top and Up the Hill, September 26
11 - Left, Right and Straight Ahead, September 26
12 - 'Montfaucon Taken' September 27
13 - Bois de Beuge and Nantillois, September 28
14 - Bois 250 and Madeleine Farm, September 29
15 - Interlude - Troyon Sector, October 1-28
16 - Borne de Cornouiller and the Heights of the Meuse, October 29-November 10
17 - Armistice to Home, November 11, 1918-June 4, 1919

Author: Gene Fax
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 496
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2017

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