4 out of 4 stars
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Few people think about WWI the same way they think about WWII, the war which everyone believes to have had a stronger impact on our modern life. Yet, WWI has created the modern mechanical warfare. It also brought mass death on such a large scale. And it was the first war where PTSD became a thing (even though back in the day they called it “shell shock”).
In Good War, Great Men.: 313th Machine Gun Battalion of World War I, Andrew J. Capets wants us to remember the great American soldiers who fought away from their country. His own grandfather, Andy Capets, was part of it, even though once he went back home, he never talked about those times anymore. A proud War Veteran, Andy Capets experienced it all. But his name was often forgotten during Memorial Day observation events. In fact, his name was not even added on the bronze plaque until much later. Often, during the memorial service, the American Legion Commander would mention his name only as an afterthought. “Andy, we almost forgot you again,” he would say.
When Andrew J. Capets grew up, he wanted people to remember his grandfather and everyone else in his battalion during those trying times. As his grandfather never talked about the war and never left behind letters or journal entries, Andrew began his own in-depth research. All he knew was that his granddad was part of the 313 Machine Gun Battalion. So he met relatives of other soldiers from the same Battalion. He got journals, diaries and letters that they would send home to their loved ones. And he put together a fascinating story for posterity.
The letters are organized in chronological order, so you will find two, three or even four soldiers’ accounts of the same day. I found this system very effective because it gives a full narrative of the events from many points of view. While one person’s account could be anecdotal, several people’s almost identical experiences of the same event make it a fact.
I also appreciated that every new person introduced had their date of birth and death included next to their name. Some even died the year I was born, so while reading, I reflected on the weirdness of life. Here I was just one year old when unsung heroes were living their last days on Earth.
The book starts with a section called Glossary and Abbreviations. I already knew many of the terms included. As a European, WWI and WWII are subjects we extensively learned about in school. But for readers in America, this section will be very useful to make sense of the many different strange words that were mentioned in the entries.
The end of the book includes a Post War section, where the author details the lives of some of the soldiers that we got acquainted with throughout the story. Some died, while others returned home and could barely function thereafter. Yet, others managed to turn their lives into something meaningful. Those were the lucky ones who picked up the pieces and somehow moved forward.
In school, we’ve learned from history books about that horrible time every single year. I realize, however, that we were hardly aware of the US Army’s involvement in the Great War. For us, the war (although called “World” war) was strictly European. Our allies were fighting the Germans and their allies. As far as we knew, the Americans were fighting the Japanese somewhere very, very far away. The US entered the war in its last year and helped bring peace forward faster, especially in France, which is what the book focuses mostly on. Thus, while Good War, Great Men.: 313th Machine Gun Battalion of World War I is a way for the author to remember his grandfather and the Battalion that sacrificed so much in France, for the rest of us it is also a reminder that it was truly a “World” war, and many good American combatants served in the trenches and even died to bring us peace.
In the book, we see the war through the soldiers' eyes. At times, I was so enthralled by what was happening that I forgot this was a real-life tale and not a fictitious one. The letters often describe their ordinary lives: sometimes boring, and more often than not, uncomfortable; at times, downright dangerous. With every page, I would observe their moods slowly changing. Initially, before they felt the first bullets hit their trenches, they all had a sunny disposition. They were smiling, singing, eating and sleeping all day. This, however, would gradually change as the combatants would get shot, their mates would die, or they would witness carnage first hand.
The writing style in the book is very personal. The author lets the officers speak with their own voice. Thus, the letters have numerous grammatical and punctuation errors. Yet, I can’t blame anyone for a lack of editing. After all, these documents are now part of official archives; they are part of history.
I give the book 4 out of 4 stars, and I recommend it to any reader of serious military history who is interested to learn more about the First World War, including many little-known stories about the frontline experiences that American soldiers had in France.
Good War, Great Men.
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