McFarland & Company Inc, Publisher
United States Army Depot Brigades in World War 1 is an engaging, comprehensive analysis of how the American Army expanded from a pre-war formation of less than 250,000 active duty and National Guard soldiers to a 4-million-man force. Barnes and Belmonte examine the details behind the fact that no infrastructure existed to take on a task of this magnitude. The Army needed to design training programs, construct camps and stations, and acquire arms and equipment all while inducting a huge influx of new recruits. Additionally, over half of those who volunteered or received draft notices ultimately served overseas, creating an enormous transportation and logistics requirement, as well as establishing a distinction between troops who made it to ‘over there’, and those who remained in the United States. The resulting analysis is a deep dive into how to create an expeditionary combat force out whole cloth, deploy and sustain it, and ultimately demobilize it and return the troops to civilian life.
The book begins with an analysis of the pre-war army, its organization into the line (comprised of the combat arms of infantry, cavalry, field artillery, and coast artillery defense units) and staff elements responsible for planning & coordination, administration, equipping and technical functions such as engineers and signals. Barnes and Belmonte highlight the fact that this organization, while a functional structure, was rudimentary at best and lacked the depth and sophistication needed to plan for expansion and absorb new personnel. Over time, as the fighting elements of the army grew, the staff and support infrastructure adapted to ensure it could provide the oversight and resources needed to successfully send a force into combat overseas.
This book truly shines in its discussion of what comprised a Depot Brigade and descriptions of the various roles and functions the War Department expected these units to perform. A typical Depot Brigade had the responsibility to process new inductees into the army, provide physicals, test, and classify the recruits’ aptitude for service, assign and transport the new troops to combat units preparing for deployment, and provide some level of basic training in soldierly skills. This a tall order for a fully functioning system with adequate resources, and Barnes and Belmonte illustrate that the infrastructure initially available to the Depot Brigades was nowhere close to adequate. These units performed their missions literally while constructing their facilities, especially during the early days of mobilization. The fact that only 19 months elapsed between the United States entering World War 1 in April of 1917 and the signing of the armistice in November of 1918 highlights the enormous amount of effort expended in a relatively short time to build a national army and send it overseas.
As the authors discuss the number of Depot Brigades established by the army, sixteen for troops of the National Army, inducted directly from civilian life and sixteen for National Guard Divisions comprised of standing, part-time formations, the geographic scope of the mission becomes apparent. Depot Brigades supported camps and stations throughout the continental United States and processed volunteers and draftees from as far away the Hawaiian Islands. Each Depot Brigade ran what was in essence a small city with requirements for the care, safety, and well-being of its citizens. As such, and because the permanent personnel assigned to the Depot Brigades would not be expected to deploy, each Brigade consisted of a variety of skilled and unskilled laborers, medical staff, and guards. A significant number of women and African Americans found themselves assigned in these roles, primarily nursing for the women and labor battalion for African American troops, due to prejudices existing at the time. Barnes and Belmonte write that these patriots found themselves “lost in the shadows”, along with troops who, otherwise unfit for service, were deemed capable of serving in camp security forces, called guard battalions. The authors do a wonderful job of recognizing the service of these Americans, who tend to be overlooked in more general histories of the war.
A highlight of the book is a collection of short biographies from “the hilt of the sword” (in contrast to “the sharp end” fighting in France), which personalizes the contributions to the war effort of those assigned to the Depot Brigades. A young Dwight Eisenhower makes an appearance commanding a camp near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, along with a variety of more and lesser-known soldiers whose service enabled the American Expeditionary Force to fight and win overseas. It’s clear that these soldiers were proud to have played their part in winning the war, despite not performing in combat roles.
Barnes and Belmonte provide a balanced and valuable contribution to understanding the United States Army in the First World War. Highly recommended.
This book is available at McFarland Books.
Readability- four stars
Historical Accuracy- five
Historical Value- four
Details- five stars
Overall Rating – four and a half stars
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