Stephen H. Taber, ed. A Rainbow Division Lieutenant in France: The World War I Diary of John H. Taber. Jeffersonville: McFarland, 2015. 224 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9990-8.
Reviewed by Michael McGuire (Salem State University)
Published on H-War (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Lieutenant John Taber’s published personal World War I experiences come to us from his second cousin, Stephen H. Taber. The younger Taber became executor of his relation’s estate in 1986, and found the now-published material written “on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes” and in a diary maintained during hostilities and the Rhineland’s Allied occupation (p. 2). Before the publication of these privately held writings, Lt. John Taber’s participation in the Great War had been previously, though obliquely, referenced in his published history of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division's 168th Regiment, in which Taber served during the First World War. Save removing references to dates in his cousin's entries—discussed later in this review—Stephen Taber insists he represents his relation's writings as composed between 1917 and 1919.
John Taber’s recollections during and after hostilities are significant. He briefly narrates the transatlantic voyage, and describes his cohort’s brief moorings at Belfast, Ireland, and Liverpool, England, their railway travel to (and sightseeing around) Winchester, and their re-embarkation at Southampton. Taber also chronicles his diverse Army postings throughout France. Most his military training, defensive and offensive assignments were within the Aisne, Haute Marne, Marne, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Meuse, and Vosges départements. Lt. Taber also spent part of October 1918 convalescing in US Army Base Hospital 47 in France’s eastern Côte d’Or province. He subsequently enjoyed a week in Paris before returning to his unit. In the days before the Armistice halted American movements, Taber’s men participated in US northward advances through the Ardennes département. From his writings, one acquires a sense of an American much involved in a spectrum of Great War activity. Stephen Taber usefully pairs many of these excerpts with eighteen photographs of people and places intrinsic to Lt. Taber’s narrative. These images complement John Taber’s vivid description of locales and locals.
Thankfully, Stephen Taber continues presenting his ancestor’s narrative past the formal end of western European Great War-fighting. After spending part of November 1918 in the Meuse province, Taber journeyed through Belgium and Luxembourg before arriving in Germany as part of the US military’s occupation of defeated Germany. Twenty percent of Lt. Taber’s published entries chronicle his two-month-long Germany experiences (December 3, 1918-February 5, 1919) as part of the American force that General Pershing had reach and hold part of the Rhine’s western bank. Taber spent an additional six weeks (February 22-April 7, 1919) in Rhenish posts before preparing to embark homeward in mid-1919. While there are fewer photographs offered of the post-hostilities epoch, Stephen Taber does provide three visual vignettes into the world of his ancestor.
John Taber’s self-narration offers scholars a valuable, though not exceptional, opportunity for further development of an alltagsgeschichte of the Great War along social and cultural lines. As an officer, Taber often found himself billeted with French, German, and Luxembourgian families. His descriptions of Gallic civilians’ wartime diets and hygienic practices offer insights into how French noncombatants lived in and adapted to the war zone—not unlike recent works on this topic. His near non-mention of American women’s interaction with US servicemen makes one esteem the valued material and moral uplift provided by ARC and YMCA women—most recently parsed by Lynn Dumenil. Taber’s description of his experiences with Rhenish civility and hostility likewise complements the historically concurrent writings of Major General Johnson Hagood, who similarly assessed his participation in the Allied occupation of western Germany. It would also be worthwhile to consider how Lt. Taber’s episodic encounters with Belgian, Luxembourgian, and German civilians portended their nations’ and polities’ complicated “departure from the Great War,” as parsed a decade ago by Laurence Van Ypersele and Gerd Krumeich. These are just some of the areas of scholarly inquiry made possible by this work’s availability.
While John Taber’s transcribed, published diary will undoubtedly be useful to World War I scholars, its dearth of editorial context will prove troubling for many students reading and endeavoring to use it. Late in the text, Stephen Taber provides readers with a June 1918 map that identifies many of the sites where the US Army stationed Lt. Taber; while the map will help neophytes appreciate the elder Taber’s proximity to the fighting line, it might have been more practical to place it at the start of the narrative. Stephen Taber’s decision “to eliminate the daily entry of dates” and not to amend John Taber’s misspellings of French places will perhaps make it difficult to connect many entries with pertinent primary and secondary sources (p. 2). To be fair, chronological markers of some sort abound within each of John Taber’s writings, but much deduction is necessary to discern precisely or approximately when numerous events transpired; retaining the original temporal indicators in some form would aid the work’s use. Correcting Lt. Taber’s misspellings of French localities and regions appears a greater-warranted editorial task for posthumous publication, as it facilitates siting the junior officer’s experiences within the broader western front narrative. The editor’s most surprising non-situating pertains to battlefield events. Lt. Taber apparently participated in America’s defense of Château-Thierry in mid-1918 and in the American Expeditionary Force’s Saint Mihiel Offensive in September 1918. Yet his editorial descendent incorporates no information from available, salient monographs on these operations to indicate whether John Taber’s experiences were the rule or the exception. The preface equally could have benefited from specifying whether Taber’s narrative and/or happenings deviated from or paralleled experiences described in other published “Rainbow Division” diaries and in assessments of the Division as a whole. Such appraisals would have helped all audiences understand what makes Lieutenant John H. Taber’s narrative in and out of hostilities so significant for assessing a conflict that began a century ago.
. John H. Taber, The Story of the 168th Infantry (Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1925).
. For recent examples, see Alex Dowdell, “Civilians in the combat zone: Allied and German evacuation policies at the Western Front, 1914-1918,” First World War Studies (hereafter FWWS) 6, no. 3 (2015): 239-255; James E. Connolly, “Mauvaise conduit: complicity and respectability in the occupied Nord, 1914-1918,” FWWS 4, no. 1 (2013): 7-21; and Michael McGuire, “Cultures de Guerre in Picardy, 1917,” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 42, no. 3 (2016): 29-50.
. Lynn Dumenil, The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
. Maj. Gen. Johnson Hagood, Caissons Go Rolling Along: A Memoir of America in Post-World War I Germany, ed. Larry A. Grant (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), 35-82.
. Gerd Krumeich, “L’impossible sortie de guerre de l’Allemagne,” and Laurence Van Ypersele, “Héros, martyrs, et traîtres: les fractures de la Belgique libérée,” in Sortir de la Grande Guerre: le monde et l’après-1918, ed. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Christophe Porchasson (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2008), 145-164, 213-236.
. See, for example, David Bonk, Château-Thierry & Belleau Wood 1918: America’s Baptism of Fire on the Marne (London: Osprey Publishing , 2012); and James. H. Hallas, Squandered Victory: The American First Army at St. Mihiel (Westport: Praeger, 1995).
. Recent published accounts available before Taber’s work went to press include Vernon E. Kniptash, On The Western Front with the Rainbow Division, ed. E. Bruce Geehoed (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009); Hugh S. Thompson, Trench Knives and Mustard Gas: With the 42nd Rainbow Division in France, ed. Robert H. Ferrell (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004); and Elmer W. Sherwood, A Soldier in World War I: The Diary of Elmer Sherwood, ed. Robert H. Ferrell (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2004).
. See Henry J. Reilly, Americans All, The Rainbow at War: Official History of the 42nd Rainbow Division in the World War (Columbus: F. J. Herr, 1936); James J. Cooke, The Rainbow Division in the Great War, 1917-1919 (Westport: Praeger, 1994); and Nimrod T. Frazer, Send the Alabamian: World War I Fighters in the Rainbow Division (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014).
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Michael McGuire. Review of Taber, Stephen H., ed., A Rainbow Division Lieutenant in France: The World War I Diary of John H. Taber.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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