Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
24 May 2019
Review by Douglas R. Cubbison, National Museum of Military Vehicles
Pershing's Tankers: Personal Accounts of the AEF Tank Corps in World War I
Ed. Lawrence M. Kaplan
Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2018. Pp. xi, 290. ISBN 978–0–8131–7604–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War I Print Version

At sunset on 8 March 1916, the US Army (hereafter "Army") was still for all practical purposes a nineteenth-century military, heavily dependent on animals for mobility, transportation, and logistics. It possessed a mere fifty-six automobiles and 105 trucks, of which only sixteen were in the Southern Department.[1]

At approximately 4:00 a.m. on 9 March, the Mexican guerrilla Pancho Villa led an attack on the small border community of Columbus, New Mexico, killing or wounding twelve civilians and fourteen soldiers from the 13th Cavalry Regiment. Villa's men partially burned and looted the town. In a swift response, Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing and nearly the whole Army were dispatched to secure the United States' southern border.

By 12 April 1916, the lead elements of Pershing's command had reached Paral, 513 miles into Mexico. Since the Mexican government prohibited the American force from using Mexican railroads and Pershing's supply lines far exceeded the capability of animal-drawn wagons, Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hugh L. Scott in desperation purchased $450,000-worth of trucks—practically every truck then available in the United States.[2] In this manner, the US Army belatedly entered the new, twentieth-century age of mechanized warfare.

Twenty months later, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) formed the 1st Tank Brigade for service in France. A critical component of the Tank Corps was the 1st Light Tank Center at Bourg, France, commanded by newly promoted Col. George S. Patton, the only American Army officer who had experience of mechanized combat, specifically, his deployment of three 1916 Dodge Touring Cars in combat against three of Pancho Villa's lieutenants at San Miguelito, Mexico (14 May 1916). Patton's Tank Center trained the 344th and 345th battalions of light Renault Tanks which comprised the 304th Tank Brigade under his direct command. The British Army trained and operated a third unit, the 301st Battalion of heavy tanks.

In Pershing's Tankers, military historian Lawrence Kaplan has carefully compiled a considerable number of primary sources for the initial combat actions of the fledgling Army Tank Corps. Chapter 1 of the book consists of a solid historical summary of the actions of that Corps. Chapter 2 provides three reports: one by Col. Ira C. Welborn, who commanded the entire Tank Corps in both the United States and Europe, and two by Brig. Gen. Samuel D. Rockenbach, who commanded the 1st Tank Brigade of the AEF. While these documents are available in public sources,[3] it is good to have them gathered in a single easily accessible source.

Courtesy Nat'l Museum
of Military Vehicles

The 144-page third chapter comprises the narratives General Rockenbach ordered his officers to prepare after the Armistice. He specifically instructed them to avoid the stilted prose of typical official reports and to write in the first person. The result is an unprecedented collection of vibrant personal reminiscences that evoke the thrill, terror, and frustration felt by America's first commanders of mechanized forces in combat. Kaplan has drawn here on an obscure postwar Tank School publication and two sets of personal papers, including George S. Patton's at the Library of Congress.

Chapter 4 brings together what Kaplan deems "Unofficial Personal Accounts." These were written not only by commissioned officers but also enlisted men, ensuring a (rare) place for the firsthand accounts of Doughboys. Kaplan uses personal letters and a myriad of hometown Great War newspapers. The chapter's sixty pages constitute the most historically significant and intimate portion of his book. A short fifth chapter provides two "Unofficial" Tank Corps Operational Summaries from the British 301st Tank Battalion that breached the Hindenburg Line in late September and October 1918.

Besides an index, notes, maps, and historic photographs, the book includes several appendixes filled with supporting and background information on Tank Corps operations, organization, equipment, and administration in 1918.

One might quibble with Kaplan's omission to furnish any analysis of actual operations of the Tank Corps or of the performance of its officers and men. But he has achieved in spades his express intent "to present the human side of Tank Corps operations, largely through personal accounts, to complement the operational histories that have been written about the Tank Corps" (2). In December 1918, General Rockenbach instructed his Tank Corps officers to prepare narratives rich in "all possible local color and human interest [in] a vivid, interesting" story of their service and sacrifices (1). Pershing's Tankers is a testament to how successfully the general's wishes were fulfilled.

Lawrence Kaplan's new book will engage and inform military officers, historians, museum professionals,[4] and history students and buffs interested in the US Army's use of emerging technologies on the battlefield and the role of its dynamic, aggressive leadership in overcoming a myriad of challenges in so doing.

[1] Julie Irene Prieto, The Mexican Expedition, 1916–1917 (Washington: Army Ctr. for Mil. Hist., 2016) 49.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Viz., War Department Annual Reports, Congressional testimony, or articles in the journal Infantry.

[4] As curator of the National Museum of Military Vehicles, which will open in May 2020 in Dubois, WY, I am personally grateful for Pershing's Tankers. The museum's holdings include Capt. Newell P. Weed's AEF uniform, complete with original Tank Corps insignia and distinctive patch: a triangle featuring the three branch colors—yellow for cavalry, red for artillery, and blue for infantry. Captain Weed commanded Company B, 344th Tank Battalion, at both St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in close combat on 26 Sept. 1918 (see Hall of Valor Project). Lawrence Kaplan has now made it possible to associate Weed's vivid and exciting testimony with the uniform he wore during his heroic exploits on the battlefields of the Western Front.

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