This month marks the 100th anniversary of the official entry of the United States into the First World War. The US had been fighting wars along the Mexico border and in Cuba before it entered the European conflict in 1917. But it took WWI to turn the United States into the global military power it has become.
General John “Black Jack” Pershing was a key figure in shaping our country's destiny. He was the Supreme Commander of US forces in Europe at the time, and to this day is the only general to receive six stars, rather than five. A new book, My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War, looks at the legacy of Pershing and other famous - and not-so-famous Americans who helped win the Great War.
The book's author Andrew Carroll, who is also the founding director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University, says that it wasn't until he read Pershing's correspondence that he became truly intrigued by the man.
"He wrote these incredible letters to his friends and to other relatives about his grief and the loss, and suddenly when I came across these, it really humanized him," explains Carroll. "And it made me want to learn more about who this individual was."
Outside of learning more about General Pershing, Carroll began to truly appreciate the unprecedented challenges each side faced in battle. World War I ushered in new ways to fight; submarines, tanks, gas, flame throwers, and the machine gun. "There was this novelty to all of it and there was kind of a improvisational aspect to it as well as troops were getting used to these new forms of warfare," he says.
The people experiencing these challenges wrote movingly about them. All of the documents in My Fellow Soldiers come from primary sources such as journals, letters, and diaries.
"Everything is true....and it really gave me a better sense of the sacrifices that these men and women made," says Carroll. "The thing that also really struck me is that they were fighting a war on principle. America was not attacked...they just truly felt that Germany was in the wrong and that someone needed to stop them."
Just as the letters written during their time subtly influenced the American public through personal connections or by being published in newspapers, Carroll hopes that these letters can once again serve that purpose for a new audience.
"I think one of the greatest things we should learn is how quickly events can spiral out of control....Nations are not these sort of grand entities that declare war - it's individual human beings who do this," he says. "And like human beings, nations feel pride and humiliation and they act rashly or soberly...it really does comes down to the human element."
Andrew Carroll will be in Wisconsin this weekend for a Saturday afternoon event at the American Legion Post 449 in Brookfield.