Book Review: Toward the Flame: A Memoir of World War I


by Hervey Allen

Lincoln: Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press. 2003. Pp. xxiv, 282. Illus.. $18.00 paper. ISBN: 0803259476

A Classic Doughboy Memoir 

In later life William Hervy Allen, Jr. (1889-1949) was a noted university professor and critically acclaimed writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. As a young man he had to drop out of Annapolis due to a sports injury, secured a degree in economics, and was the commissioned in the Pennsylvania National Guard. He did his bit on the Mexican border in 1916, getting a poetry collection out of his experiences, and then served in the 111th Infantry, 28th Division in France, where he was wounded during the Aisne-Marne Offensive

Allen wrote Toward the Flame in 1926, and the current volume is a reprint of the 1934 edition. He does not start where the reader would expect the beginning to be; stateside training, etc., but plunges us immediately into his life as an infantryman in open field combat; arrival on the Marne sector, route marching constantly regardless of time, weather, or exhaustion, dodging shell bursts, enduring hunger. No trench warfare here. Only at the beginning does Allen give a date, July 4, 1918. Otherwise, the reader is like a typical doughboy, lost as to time and location.

Allen describes the minutiae necessary to survive war, as shown by this quote,

"In order to keep from drawing a shelling, the men had not moved anything in the yard. There was a child’s bicycle by the station and a little wagon. To have moved these would have shown up in aerial photos and might have brought a bombardment on that part of the town."

Throughout, Allen tells of the attrition of war, especially the hideous affronts of war upon soldiers’ bodies and minds. He describes the effects of a shell burst,

“Then we heard those awful agonized screams and cries for help that so often followed. It is impossible to make people at home understand what listening to them does to your brain. You never get rid of them again.”

Allen continues as a semi-detached observer throughout his book but only towards the end does his unit, a company down to less than half-strength, come in direct contact with the enemy. They are continually whittled down by enemy artillery at the Fismette village, during the Second battle of the Marne, where a withdrawal order by an American officer is overruled by an obsessed French general. The narrative ends as Allen’s troops are overwhelmed by German flamethrowers, explaining the title.

Because of injuries from this battle, Allen spent considerable time in hospital, providing the opportunity to write letters home which became the basis of this book. He recovered, returned to combat, finished the war, and became an interpreter.

Read this book if the experiences of ground pounders are of interest but it is not for those specializing in strategy or the “higher levels” of war. The mundane, horrors, tactical basics, and the dreariness of life under combat are the subjects here.


Our Reviewer: Ron Drees is an archivist, retired from processing the collection of Dr. Michael DeBakey, the world-famous cardiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His interest in history dates back to junior high school with an emphasis on American military history, particularly the Civil and World Wars. He has written several reviews for Michael Hanlon's blog "Roads to the Great War", about the catastrophe that still shapes the world. His favorite WWI book is Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919 which tells how the tragedy was compounded by setting the stage for even greater misery. He lives in Houston with his wife of 42 years, Lin, a retired librarian, and their Sheltie, Hannah. He had a grandfather who was a teamster on the German side in WWI, his first boss had been a Marine at Iwo Jima, virtually the only survivor of his company, and his brother-in-law had been at Inchon. Ron’s previous reviews include Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918, Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front, Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy, Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division during World War, The Kaiser’s U-Boat Assault on America, This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, 1918: Winning the War, Losing the War, After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France After the Great War, A Mad Catastrophe, Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I, July, 1914: Countdown to War, and Dreadnought.





Note: Toward the Flame is also available in e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Ron Drees   

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