The Great War was one of the most important events of modern world history. It led directly to World War II, crushed Great Britain and France from a monetary and morale level, led to the Soviet Union, unleashed the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson fully on American society, and had many other second and third-order effects. But, do you know what it was like for the men on the ground?
Perhaps you’ve listened to Dan Carlin’s excellent “Blueprint for Armageddon” podcast series on WWI or have read a book or two about it. Maybe you’ve read a memoir of a general there, such as MacArthur’s Reminiscences, or know about politicians involved with the war from a strategic and political level, such as Winston Churchill. But, if you’re anything like me, you probably know little about the actual conditions on the ground, especially for the “doughboys” of the American Expeditionary Force- what the mud-soaked trenches were like, the chaos of combat, the experience of living under constant heavy artillery bombardment, and the culture shock of being deposited in rural France.
Well, if that does describe you, then Private Compton: My Experience in the World War is a book that you must read. It’s not political; it doesn’t once touch on the politics behind the war or the consequences of the US’s involvement. Nor is it about grand strategy, how warfare changed, or the lessons learned. Also, unlike many other soldiers’ memoirs, Compton doesn’t reflect on whether the war was a “good” or “bad” one. Rather, it’s the history of the third battalion, 111th Infantry of the 28th Division of the AEF. It’s about what the division did, on a practically daily basis, from the time it began training in Augusta, GA, to the day Private Compton himself was honorably discharged. It’ll teach you about what WWI was like for the average doughboy.
Summary of Private Compton
Private Compton is a quite encompassing tale of life during World War I for a private in the AEF. As a bit of background, it was compiled first by Compton himself and later by Wendy Yessler, who added poems and reflections Compton wrote to the end of it.
The book itself can be thought of as three parts. The first is what you’d expect; it covers what Compton’s infantry battalion did from the time it began training to when the November 11th Armistice was signed. The second part was entirely unexpected to me; beginning with the peace brought about by the armistice, it covers what life was like for the battalion from the time of the armistice to when the troops were finally drummed out of the army in the late spring of 1919. Finally, the third part is a collection of poems and reflections that Compton wrote over his life; they cover everything from politics to daily life.
Part 1 of Private Compton: Training and Combat
The first section, the most traditional for a soldier’s memoir, is based on the notes that an officer in Compton’s unit took during the war. Compton had taken them down shorthand at his request and, after the war ended, Compton set to work turning them into a short report for the men of the unit. That report, reminded them as it did of their exploits and the hardships they suffered, was immensely popular with the men so he then turned it into a book, which is what Private Compton is based on.
That section, which I came to think of as the “wartime” section, is amazing in both its detail and content. Almost every day is accounted for, from the days spent on trains and ships traveling to the front to the dreary days spent behind the lines to the smoke and suffering-filled battlefields. Compton’s unit, the third battalion, 111th Infantry of the 28th Division of the AEF, was involved in a number of intense engagements, the most important of which was the Argonne Offensive, where it pushed the Germans back but suffered horrific casualties. In addition to the large-scale combat, it frequently suffered under heavy German bombardment and occasional skirmishes.
Furthermore, in the combat section of Private Compton, Compton relates what daily life was like for the “doughboys” in his unit. He discusses how they interacted with the French, especially the French kids that begged for candy, the constant affliction of lice with which they had to contend, daily privations from sparse rations to Spartan accommodations, and the general morale of the troops at the front and how they viewed their officers (generally quite good and quite positively, respectively).
This section shows just how impressive the average American in World War I was. Compton, despite being only a private, is an excellent writer and poet. He and the men with him were brave patriots that sacrificed much for their beloved nation and overcame tremendous difficulties and casualties to end the job and finish off the Germans.
Part 2: Returning Home
Although the book is not split into different sections but is rather just organized into chapters, there is a noticeable shift between the pre-armistice section of the book and post-armistice section.
For one, the combat is over so less of note happens. Instead of relating combat stories and telling the reader about life at the front, Compton instead discusses the parades the troops were featured in, what leave was like, and the return journey home.
Like the first part of Private Compton, it’s incredibly detailed and well-written, going day by day without feeling at all like a daily journal. However, from a content perspective, it is different. It did not appear to be based on the officer’s notes but is instead mostly composed of excerpts from or full newspaper articles that discussed the parades the troops were in or what it was like to see them arrive home. It’s good, but far different from the first section.
Part 3: Poems and Reflections
Part 3 is a wild departure from the rest of Private Compton. Although one poem mentions the WWI memorial in D.C. and another is about the Bonus Army issue after the war, most are not at all about WWI. Instead, they are reflections on other landmarks and monuments in the D.C. area and poems about everything from forgetting to file taxes to the elitist nature of the justice system.
My Take on Private Compton by Paul Compton and Wendy Yessler
Overall, I thought Private Compton was excellent. Compton’s writing style, which is directly to the point and, at times, hilariously understated, is brilliant and held my attention quite well. When he reflects on the trials and tribulations of his unit, from the rats they dealt with to running out of food and water to fighting for days over a single hilltop, he rarely includes more than a light and short complaint. Instead of complaining or reflecting on the horrors of war, he states the difficulties and disagreeable aspects of total war as matter of factly as possible, and makes sure to keep and earnest voice when describing exciting moments and cheerful, lighthearted voice when describing the happy moments from France.
That manner of writing makes the first part of the book beyond excellent. I felt like I was there with him, from the nighttime marches in the rain while under artillery bombardment to the boring and smoke-filled quarters on board the Olympia over to Europe. His detailed but somewhat jovial depiction of riding in packed train cars and trucks, living in barns behind the line, or living in the trenches under the nose of the Hun are brilliant and transported me back in time to the AEF sector of the Western Front. I learned quite a bit about daily life during the war, especially because of the day-to-day nature of Private Compton.
The second part, while not bad, wasn’t quite what I wanted from Private Compton. The sections that he wrote were great and I loved reading about his perception of arriving back in New York or marching in parades. However, the newspaper excerpts, while relevant, well-written, witty, and informative, were a bit overused. Many chapters in this section contained little more than excerpt after except and while I enjoyed reading them and learning about the patriotism of the American public at the time, I would have preferred to have read Private Compton’s view on those events.
The third part was interesting, but I was glad that Yessler ensured it was kept separate from the rest of Private Compton. Had the poems and reflections been included as just another chapter I would have been somewhat confused as to why there were there but, because their inclusion was explained as a way to “illustrate the man Paul Compton was,” I greatly enjoyed reading them, not least of all because they show how well-read and well-educated Americans of days past were. How many privates in the Army today are spending their time writing poems?
Generally, the book is great. I was less enthusiastic about the parade-focused part of the book that the parts about combat and the AEF in France but, overall, it’s excellent and quite informative. While it doesn’t cover tactics or strategy, it does inform the reader of what life was like for the doughboys and that is commendable.
If you want to learn more about World War I, Private Compton is a book you should read. It’s interesting, informative, fun to read, and full of little historical tidbits about life in the trenches that you won’t get anywhere else. Furthermore, because it was written by a man who was there, by reading it you can learn about the American mindset of that era and reconnect with your ancestors. I can’t recommend it highly enough.