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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

42nd "Rainbow" Division


by David C. Homsher


Cover: 1927 Edition

Presented the Great War Society

American Armies and Battlefields in Europe, although still the admitted "Baedeker" of American World War I battlefield guide books, has very few errors of commission, but it has many errors of omission, plus some built in faults and prejudices. "American Armies..." is, in short, beginning to show its sixty-six years of age.

After the end of World War I, the lessons of battle were then, as now, of immediate interest. Therefore, at war's end, General John J. Pershing's headquarters began a series of battlefield tours for officers whose staff duties kept them from combat or who may have arrived in theater too late to participate. These tours acquainted them with the actual battlefields and became the basis for early pamphlets sponsored by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). In 1927 the commission published A Guide to the American Battle Fields in Europe to commemorate the tenth anniversary of America's entrance into the "war to end all wars." But research and writing on the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and its battlefields did not stop. One of the authors assigned to the commission to continue this work was Major Dwight D. Eisenhower.

By 1938 the American Battle Monuments Commission had expanded its guidebook, as a public document, both to provide visitors with a detailed, documented itinerary for visits and to serve as a history of the AEF's accomplishments. Although out of print during the period from World War II until 1992, this guidebook was avidly sought after by historians, students of the Great War, and veterans and their descendants wishing to find battle sites of long ago.

Typical Pages from the Earliest Editon

To commemorate the AEF's seventy-fifth birthday, American Armies and Battlefields in Europe, the ABMC battlefield guidebook, was republished in 1992, in its original format, by the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., and is currently available from the U.S. Government Printing Office. The price is $ 41.00 (check) payable to: Superintendent of Documents, USGPO. GPO S/N 008-029-00265-5. The price is still a bargain for a 547 page, hard-back book of this caliber, which includes all of the original illustrations, maps, charts and index. Order from: New Orders, Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. The Government Printing Office is online at: where a CD is also available that includes the guidebook plus the Official History, the Order of Battle and Selections of the official war artists of the AEF.

American Armies and Battlefields in Europe is not only in compact and convenient, one-volume format, but it is little less than indispensable in visiting the American battlefields of World War I in France. It can still be used easily today. Few road changes have occurred, and though new forests or farms may require minor modifications to the itineraries or viewpoints detailed in the book, the original work still remains the most authoritative source for visitors to the AEF's battlefields. By supplementing it with either a contemporary Michelin road map or one of the topographic maps published by France's Institut Géographique National (IGN), any visitor to America's Great War battlefields can easily navigate in France.

Although admittedly worth its weight in gold, American Armies and Battlefields in Europe , published in 1938 and again in 1992 by the American Battle Monuments Commission, Washington, DC, is beginning to show its age after sixty-six years, and is still sadly in need of updating. Understandable excellent for its time and audience, the book was written during and for an era when only a comparatively few wealthy Americans went to Europe, and those who did could well afford to tote this weighty tome with them in their steamer trunks.

The ABMC battlefield guidebook, although very comprehensive in its coverage, is generally lacking in detailed descriptions. Perhaps one could realistically expect no less, particularly when the entire subject of the AEF battles in all of Europe together with a wealth of statistics and other generalized information is compacted into a book of 517 pages. Many who have used it as a guide to the battlegrounds complain of its lack of description, that one constantly has the desire for more information on certain battles when reading the ABMC text. For example, the vicious seesaw battle for the town of Sergy is given only five lines! Coincidentally, perhaps, it was the U.S. 42nd Division of the National Guard that was involved in this battle. The hand-to-hand battle for the little suburb of Fismes called Fismette, surely the worst five days of AEF combat in the war, is given a total of three paragraphs, one of which is devoted entirely to describing a winner of the Medal of Honor. Again, it is worthwhile to mention that it was the U.S. 28th Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard that fought for Fismette. In short, with the ABMC guidebook one sees much of the forest but few of the trees, figuratively speaking. One returns from the battlefields feeling frustrated and knowing that much was missed.

One of Many Excellent and Helpful Maps in the Guidebooks

One of the greatest failings of this otherwise superlative guidebook is its decided prejudice. The ABMC official history, because of its very nature as the product of a democratic society, was influenced by politics. One must remember when reading it the fact that the writers were directed and edited by Regular Army personnel who had no use at all, before, during, or after the war, for the divisions of the National Guard. In the ABMC guidebook, the Regular Army officer/authors, tended to see only the Regular Army. Unfortunately, their bias was reflected in the writing of not only American Armies and Battlefields in Europe, but other books and unit histories as well. It is noticeable in the ABMC battlefield guidebook and many other writings about the American divisions in the AEF, that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions of Regulars received the lion's share of attention, particularly the 1st Division, which was the admitted pet of both General Pershing and the Regular Army. The National Guard and National Army divisions were usually given short shrift by the Regulars whenever and however the opportunity to do so presented itself. Possibly this occurred because in most cases the non-regular divisions equaled, and in some instances even excelled the general performance of the much touted Regulars.

A perhaps typical example of prejudicial writing is the fact that the fighting done by the U.S. 1st Division at Cantigny is given a total of three entire pages in the ABMC book. Compare this with the short shrift given therein concerning Sergy and Fismette, both battles fought by National Guard divisions.

Perhaps the Regular Army officers who wrote the text of the ABMC battlefield guidebook had good reason to be a bit miffed? The best tribute to Guardsmen came from their enemies. In a study made in post-war days, the German High Command considered eight American divisions especially effective; six of those were those of the much maligned "militia" or National Guard! When the German soldiers were asked which American combat division they most feared and respected, the reply was always, "the 42nd", and "the Rainbow." For some reason the Germans never made the distinction.

About the Author:

David C. Homsher, a veteran of U.S. Army service during the Korean War, and now retired, is a historian-writer of the American soldier and his battlefields. Dave has traveled extensively over many of the battlegrounds of both World Wars and he is currently writing a soon to be published series of guidebooks to the American battlefields of the World War I in France and Belgium.

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