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Portrait of a Soldier

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

The Motion at War. By General Peyton C. March. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.00.

Mr. Dooley once said of Theodore Roosevelt’s account of the exploits of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War that the true title of the work should be “Alone in Cubia.” By the same token General March’s interesting and vigorously Written reminiscences of the World War might more appropriately have been entitled “General March at War.” For while it contains much information of a general character, most of this is not novel, and its real interest, perhaps its real significance, lies in the picture which it paints of one of the foremost American soldiers of the war period, of a man of high capacity, unlimited energy, genuine courage, moral as well as physical, but of a man who united with all these high qualities very human weaknesses which are revealed again and again as he tells his story.

General March’s limitations come out most clearly in the treatment which he accords in his book to General Pershing. It is not surprising, perhaps, that a man who made so important a contribution to the winning of the war at home should look with a little, yes, more than a little, envy upon the commander of the American forces in the field. General Pershing in his “Experiences” had some unduly harsh things to say of the staff work on this side of the Atlantic, and the former Chief of Staff is entitled to redress the balance. But the tone in which he does so is not a happy one. The allegations which he brings against the American commander have, in most instances, some basis in fact. But, taken as a whole, they give an utterly false picture. And they do not enlist the sympathy of the reader with General March’s account of his own achievements.

These achievements were, beyond all question, very considerable. There can be no doubt whatever that when the Chief of Staff took control of affairs at Washington on March 4,1918, he infused a new energy and vitality into the conduct of military affairs. The offices of the War Department blazed with light night after night where hitherto they had been dark; inefficiency was ruthlessly eliminated; a shipping program which was lagging badly was pushed forward with unprecedented vigor; and the Chief of Staff himself set an example of unflagging industry and determination that must have been a stimulus to all of his subordinates. And with all this driving power and executive capacity March often united both courage and a sense of proportion. He may have gone further than the circumstances warranted when he took advantage of the absence of the Secretary of War, and of his own position as Acting Secretary, to remove General Hugh Scott, serving by personal appointment from the President, as Commanding Officer of Camp Dix; but his purpose was to set the highest standard of capacity and efficiency. He stood up manfully against those who advocated the Siberian and Archangel expeditions, and his judgment, in the light of history, seems sound, though in the end he was forced to execute with a soldier’s loyalty orders of which he disapproved. He never showed better balance or greater wisdom than when, as the war drew to a close, he refused the exaggerated demands of General Pershing for troops and supplies, and reversed the great military machine which the American commander in France would have been willing to use in a futile advance to Berlin. The demobilization of the greatest army in our history was accomplished with remarkable smoothness under his direction.

Yet it is possible to exaggerate one’s personal role, even if one is General March. Some of the best appointments in the development of the American military machine were made before he took office, and for some of these, unhappily, he takes the credit himself. Nor is he entirely candid with regard to the scheme to make General Goethals head of the Service of Supply in France, with powers equal to those of the Commanding General. This scheme, indefensible in its division of responsibility, was violently opposed by Pershing, and never was carried into execution. But was it not sponsored by the Chief of Staff himself? One mentions these things in no spirit of captiousness; General March’s services were too important for that. But it would certainly make his picture of himself more appealing if he occasionally revealed a sense of the possibility of error.

To one man, however, March yields a tribute all the more touching because of the egotism which pervades his book. Like General Pershing before him, he proclaims Newton D. Baker to have been the greatest Secretary of War this country has ever produced. Strong men, these two military chieftains ; men by no means always agreeing with each other; yet they turn spontaneously and generously to the praise of their civilian superior. Their testimony is testimony to be accepted and remembered. And in March’s tone, in speaking of Baker, the reader of his book may find, perhaps, just the note on which it should close. This self-confident and determined soldier, this man of autocratic instincts, and of “pure act,” as Henry Adams said of Roosevelt, takes off his hat to one who was both a philosopher and a great administrator, a director of a military machine, a political leader, and a statesman. It is pleasant, after so much self-glorification, to find General March ending on this other note.


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