An American Soldier in World War I is not a typical monograph about the horrors of the First World War. Snippets of George Browne’s preserved letters to his beloved, Martha, form the basis of the book and they’re connected by the editor, David Snead’s, overarching commentary. Together, they paint a picture of everyday life through the eyes of an American soldier in the European theater. While this perspective is not unique in and of itself – a great many Americans served in the First World War – the sheer volume information gleaned from Browne’s first person account is very valuable with regard to its contribution to the body of knowledge associated with the First World War. Snead’s primary purpose in this compilation is to remedy some of the glaring holes in World War I scholarship: he asserts that studies often lack the personal perspective of the soldiers involved and academics infrequently provide complete citations for the information they present. An American Soldier in World War I, therefore, intends to provide a useful primary resource with contextual commentary for students and researchers looking for a more complete account of the American soldier’s experience in the First World War.

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It is necessary to understand the deficiencies of secondary sources in order to fully grasp the value of An American Soldier. Secondary sources are the synthesis and interpretation of information gathered from primary sources (letters, government documents, maps, photographs, etc.). They are excellent resources which build bodies of knowledge. However, as Snead indicates, they may be devoid the personal experiences which are necessary to fully connect with figures of the past. Especially with regard to massive human conflict, first person accounts are incredibly important to the understanding of an event. As it stands, there are no longer any surviving veterans from the First World War. Therefore, surviving accounts, especially those from the war years, are extremely valuable. Though a collection of letters from France does not encompass every aspect of the war, they give one person’s unfettered view on things both monumental and mundane. Further, these perspectives are not clouded by the retrospection or nostalgia that comes with age. The immediacy and clarity in addition to the details presented within this collection endow it with great value.

Something one does not necessarily gain from a dry reading of battle formations or documents of declaration from the era is pure emotion. Snead implies that students and researchers yearn for the emotional and mental experiences of those doing the dirty work on the battlefield. Browne’s letters give us that element of personal experience in many ways. Three specific ideas Browne discusses and Snead emphasizes are the lack of preparation and severe underestimation of the nature of World War I, the ways in which soldiers pursued recreational opportunities, and the mental toll incurred by the threat of poisonous gas as a weapon of war. With regard to the first topic, World War I was the first fully mechanized war and unlike any other war in recent memory or the history of the world. This lack of preparation is summarized in the following sentiment expressed by Browne shortly before heading to France, “we can’t just shoot Germans from this island, can we?” Of course, this remark was probably made in jest but the nonchalance of that jest suggests the blasé ways in which soldiers approached the war.

Browne’s account of various modes of recreation are also a gold mine of information. He discusses the sexual liaisons pursued by his peers, a visit to New York while in training, entertainment provided to soldiers on base (films, books, newspapers, etc.), baseball games, and times of relaxation where soldiers decompressed doing nothing: “we had nothing to do tho [sic], so have all our time to wander around and think.” Snead reminds his audience that soldiers weren’t in a constant state of combat – that would wear them down into uselessness. One of the defining features of the First World War is the stalemate of trench warfare along the Western Front; there were long periods of time when soldiers had very little to do. Browne tells Martha (and, by extension, the audience) how he and his peers occupied their downtime.

The threat of noxious gas is one of the more frightening elements of the First World War which continues to capture the imagination. Browne writes that he and his fellows in arms were frequently awakened by gas alerts in the night – depriving them of much needed sleep and inducing fear and anxiety about gas attacks. This, along with other conditions of the First World War, took a massive toll on the soldiers’ mental health – a subject of which academics are still trying to fully comprehend the magnitude. This account provides insight into the process of the deteriorating mental health which many soldiers experienced.

Snead is, at once, able to provide the reader with much-needed personal perspective on the life-shattering event that is the First World War in concert with necessary commentary which establishes the historical framework upon which that perspective is based. Although Snead’s claim that the academic treatment of the lives of World War I soldiers are woefully devoid of personal perspective seems overexaggerated, this collection retains its value as a well-rounded, informative contribution to World War I historiography. It is not merely concerned with the big events of the war; the reader receives a full picture of Browne’s day to day activities, his love life, his opinions of his peers and superiors, his fears, his hopes, and his view of combat. With An American Soldier in World War I, Snead has achieved his goal of providing an excellent primary source for any student or scholar of the First World War.