With the centennial of the end of World War I around the corner, Smithsonian Associates held a program called “The Battle of the Meuse-Argonne” on February 27th at the S. Dillon Ripley Center. The guest speaker was Mitchell Yockelson, a military historian, archivist, and author of four books including Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing's Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I. He currently teaches history at Norwich University and works as an Investigative Archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. Yockelson also serves as a consultant in the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission. As one of the leading authorities on the topic of World War I, Yockelson's lecture was quite insightful as he was able to weave his personal admiration for General John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing with the extraordinary story of the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the largest in United States military history and commanded by that very same man.
Yockelson began the lecture with an anecdote about how he first learned about General Pershing. Coupled with a picture of a five-year-old Yockelson on the PowerPoint, Yockelson explained how he would always see the street sign “Pershing Drive” before he would go see the doctor for his yearly check-up. Yockelson's admiration grew as he learned about General Pershing’s achievements through reading scholastic books during his early adolescence and his military history classes in college. Yockelson walked the audience through the life of General Pershing, from his days at West Point, to the tragic fire that killed his wife and three daughters, and finally to the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne. Yockelson was able to characterize General Pershing so that I could feel the passion and admiration that Yockelson felt for him.
A part that I really enjoyed in the lecture was when Yockelson emphasized the characteristics of General Pershing. Yockelson made sure to highlight the fact that General Pershing was a natural leader, which helped him immensely during World War I. He also stressed how General Pershing had an instinctive drive to understand other people’s cultures, such as his interactions with Native Americans, African Americans, and the Moro people from the Philippines. Not only does it explain how he was able to work with French and British allied forces during World War I, but it also makes General Pershing truly ahead of his time as he was able to (to a certain degree) respect his fellow man in era of prejudice and discrimination.
After explaining the ending of World War I in detail, Yockelson concluded his lecture by explaining how the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, General Pershing, and World War I itself have been forgotten by the American people. He then shared that starting on April 6th the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission’s mission will be to educate people about World War I through lectures, tours, and books in hopes of honoring the sacrifices of the men and women who died protecting our nation. Keep an eye out for more Smithsonian Associates programs on World War I this spring!
All in all, through the laughter and the seriousness of the lecture, I thoroughly enjoy Yockelson telling the story of the remarkable General Pershing, a man truly to be admired.