Monumental History of the 'Fighting First'

Article excerpt

Monumental History of the 'Fighting First' The Big Red One: America's Legendary 1st Infantry Division from World War I to Desert Storm. James Scott Wheeler. University Press of Kansas. 594 pages; maps; charts; black and white photographs; index; $34.95.

No division in the U.S. Army has a more heralded past than the 1st Infantry Division. The oldest continuously serving division in the Army, the "Fighting First" has played a crucial role in every war in the 20th century with the exception of the Korean War.

The 1st Infantry Division also played a critical role in postwar Germany as the only combat division in Europe during the early Cold War. In The Big Red One, James Scott Wheeler has produced the most comprehensive history of the storied division.

Meticulously researched and artfully written in collaboration with the Cantigny First Division Foundation and the Cantigny Military History Series, The Big Red One is an essential volume in the University Press of Kansas' Modern War Studies series. A distinguished historian and author in his own right, Wheeler is uniquely qualified to narrate the story of the 1st Infantry Division. A former battalion commander and a 30-year Army veteran, Wheeler served as a senior miUtary analyst to the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe and as the chief of international history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Wheeler views the 1st Infantry Division as unique; it has been on continuous active duty since its assembly on the docks of Hoboken, N.J., in June 1917. What makes the division the standard bearer of the Army, according to Wheeler, is an ability to "learn systematically from experience and to distill this learning into techniques and methods to improve battlefield performance." Central to this learning is the framing of soldiers and the development of leaders of character and competence. Indeed, the ranks of the Big Red One have been filled with some of this nation's most distinguished warriors.

In narrating the history of America's first division, Wheeler plows familiar ground. From its origins as the 1st Expeditionary Division in World War I, the Fighting First launched the first offensive of the American Expeditionary Forces in 1918 at Cantigny and played a key role in all subsequent American offensives. After the war, the division remained in Europe as part of the occupation of the Koblenz bridgehead along the Rhine River. In 1919, it was the last American division to leave Germany.

Converting to the "Triangular Division" structure in World War II, the Big Red One spearheaded the invasion of North Africa at Oran, Algeria, in November 1942 and then led II Corps' assault in Sicily in July 1943. After taking Troina, in the mountains of central Sicily, the division's commander, Maj. Gen. Terry Allen, and assistant commander, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., were relieved by then-Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley because of what Wheeler describes as their exhaustion "after the stress of two campaigns and two amphibious invasions."

Left unsaid by Wheeler is Bradley's perceived lack of discipline in the division's senior leadership. Rick Atkinson is closer to the mark in The Day of Battle when he posits that "Bradley had long held Allen in his sights before squeezing the trigger." Bradley considered Allen "temperamental, disdainful" and "too full of self-pity and pride," and he greatly resented the cavalier attitude of the more flamboyant Allen. Regardless of the reason, Allen's and Roosevelt's relief came as a devastating blow to the rank and file of the Big Red One. …