When he took ship for France in the spring of 1918, Horace Baker was ill prepared for war. A private in the American Expeditionary Forces, the unassuming Mississippi schoolteacher joined the renowned Thirty-second Division and learned his soldiering skills from men who’d already fought in the Aisne-Marne offensive. Before long, he was to put those skills to use in the largest and most costly battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.
This poignant memoir recalls the great battle of the Meuse-Argonne, an epic conflict waged by well over a million men that saw casualties of 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded. Many books have been written about General Pershing’s planning of the offensive; this one tells what happened to the soldiers who had to carry out his orders.
The Thirty-second was a shock division made up largely of National Guard units—farm boys from the Upper Midwest. But as casualties mounted, replacements were rushed into battle with little training—and devastating results. Baker knew friends and tent mates who were alive one day, dead the next, and he kept track of the battle in diary entries tucked into his Bible—and made evasively short in case of capture.
He shares his and his comrades’ thoughts about fighting in a harsh climate and terrain, relates their ongoing problems with short supplies, and tells how they managed to overcome their fears. It is a straightforward narrative that doesn’t glorify battle or appeal to patriotism yet conveys the horrors of warfare with striking accuracy. Historian Robert Ferrell’s new introduction puts Baker’s recollections in the context of the larger theater of war.
Baker fleshed out his diary in a book that saw limited publication in 1927 but has remained essentially unknown. Argonne Days in World War I is a masterpiece brimming with insight about the ordinary doughboys who fought in the European trenches. It conveys the spirit of a man who did his duty in a time of trouble—and is a testament to the spirit shared by thousands like him.