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Posted on Feb 4, 2013 in Books and Movies

Five Lieutenants – Book Review

By Tim Tow

Five Lieutenants: The Heartbreaking Story of Five Harvard Men Who Led America to Victory in World War I.  James Carl Nelson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012, 366 pages, 34 photos. Hardback. $27.99

Five Lieutenants focuses on the stories of five junior officers who volunteered to fight in World War I. The strong participation of the college educated, as typified by the students at Harvard, was a key factor in preparedness at the time of America’s entry into the war. Summer camps to train the large pool of officers needed for a wartime army had started in earlier years, reaching the climax during the summer of 1917.  Drawing on letters, diaries, contemporary accounts, and the memoirs of the participants, James Carl Nelson focuses on five men linked by the common thread of attending school at Harvard University who made the sacrifices to lead men in wartime.   Following up on his earlier WWI book, The Remains of Company D, Nelson has created a companion piece centered on the officers who led the soldiers of the 28th Regiment of the 1st Infantry division of the United States Army during World War I.


We are gradually introduced to the characters of Five Lieutenants and learn much of their background, motivation, doubts, ambitions, and ultimate fates. The story centers on Minnesota-born Richard Alger Newhall, who at 29 was finishing up his PhD thesis and his teaching duties in 1917 when he enrolled for the second consecutive year at the summer Army reserve officer training camp in Plattsburg, New York. Harvard, as with many other schools, had ended the spring semester early. after the American declaration of war on April 6, 1917, in order to allow graduates to sign up for military service. Although some embraced pacifism, many like Richard Newhall realized that dreams of peace would need to be won through arms.

“[Newhall[ would enter Plattsburg not with blind patriotism but with high ideals and the hope that America’s part in the war would help unite the different classes of American and European society, level the playing field, and bring social and economic justice to all.”

Idealism was perhaps also a motivating factor for George Guest Haydock, a 22-year-old champion pole-vaulter born of parents of deep Quaker background from Pennsylvania, who joined up despite the peaceful tenets of his family’s faith.   William Otho Potwin Morgan, a star ice hockey player, and scion of one of Chicago’s leading industrialist families was deeply enthusiastic about war, writing to a friend.

“You could scarcely believe me when I should tell you how much I should like to stick one of the [Germans] with my bayonet.”

 From an even more privileged background was George Alexander McKinlock, Jr., 24, heir to the Central Electric Company in Lake Forest, Illinois, an only child and Varsity football player. Upon arrival in France, George was placed on a fast track by the Army, going to a corps level school, and then landing a plum assignment as a General’s aide.  The last of the five is George Buchanan Redwood, 29, who had a childhood interest in things military. He would end up winning the Distinguished Service Cross and French Croix de Guerre for daring intelligence-scouting forays into the no-man’s lands between the German and American lines.

Upon their first arrival in France, the men had to learn the basics of trench warfare, with which the French, British, and German troops had already had four years of bloody experience. Their training had not prepared them for the harsh and dangerous conditions of the front. As they learn and re-learn lessons of war, these ex-civilians must prepare for the first American-led offensive of the war, at Cantigny.  The titular five lieutenants struggle with learning how to be leaders, finding the right examples to follow in an American army that had grown so large so quickly, and showing their British and French allies that the Americans were worthy to take their place in the line against the German enemy.

Five Lieutenants shines in showing the thoughts of men who are preparing to fight and participating in a cause larger than themselves. This book is a personal story about the American experience of going to war at the junior officer level. The participants were 1st and 2nd Lieutenants who were platoon and small-unit leaders fighting in mass-army war; thus their understanding of the overall strategy of the larger American Expeditionary Force (AEF) is limited. If you are looking to understand the personal leadership experiences and motivations of the first American soldiers to fight in the European theater during World War I, this is a good book to provide that perspective.

What is not in Five Lieutenants is detailed battle reports or explanations of American doctrine and strategy or any great discussion on tactics. There is passing reference to the US Army’s leadership’s offensive-minded spirit, which did not differ much from the early Allied and Central Powers strategies, and General Pershing’s desire for open maneuver warfare. The pictures in the book show the exuberance of the young lieutenants and their families and are poignant reminders of how war can use up youth and impact not just the participants but their loved ones as well. The multiple storylines of each of the five lieutenants ultimately converge at Cantigny and then diverge rapidly in the battle’s aftermath to each one’s post-battle fates. Five Lieutenants shows how war is an experience where strong emotional bonds are forged that last beyond the lives of the participants.

Tim Tow has studied the history of military intelligence and writes on technology and military affairs.