On the Warpath

It was a dark and stormy night.

Well, as a matter of fact, it was a mostly cloudy early afternoon in February when I walked into the Tourist Information office in the small town of Combe Martin in North Devon, England. It did turn out to be pretty dramatic, though. As I looked for a map that would tell me how to access the nearby coastal cliff hiking path, I struck up a conversation with a man standing nearby. He “detected a North American accent,” which led to a discussion of my study abroad term and area of study. This in turn found us marveling at the serendipity that had brought together a (novice) U.S. military historian and a British WWII hobbyist employed by a small nonprofit that preserves the Assault Training Center, where American troops perfected their amphibious assault techniques before launching into Normandy on D-Day.

As a student who has always been drawn to the study of the past, it took no particular genius to realize that history is a story of conflict. As the product of an American school system it was clear to me that my own country had been born through war, reunited by war, and involved in combat in some form for over ninety percent of its history. As a child in a military family I grew up enveloped by the military culture and was fed on stories of family members who had fought in various 20th century conflicts. Eventually these formative influences and my developing intellectual curiosity elevated natural enthusiasm for the mythology of the American warrior to a more substantial and serious study of war and the military’s place in it. This produced my current academic trajectory – History major with an unofficial concentration in, you guessed it, military history.

When my WWI work with the Marine Corps in the summer of 2015 collided with my personal familiarity with WWII, I noted with interest that there were similarities between Americans fighting in Europe in both wars. It wasn’t until I ended up in England on exchange this spring and encountered the Friends of the Assault Training Center nonprofit group that these similarities went from mere historical interest to facts I could investigate. I had the resources and proximity, and before I reached the cliffs of Combe Martin that afternoon I had a plan.

My project, laboring under the cumbersome but explicit title of “On the Warpath: In the Footsteps of the American Combat Infantryman in the World Wars,” builds from two focal points – I aim to map the physical journeys of select American infantrymen across the continent of Europe in both the first and second World Wars  and then use their written letters as a means of contextualizing these journeys.  The eventual goal is to construct a comparison between the experience of the American infantry in Europe in these conflicts.

The scope of this research is beyond anything I have previously attempted.  It will carry me to battlefields across the European theater; it will require trawling through archives in Paris, Freiburg, Quantico, and West Point; despite my conversational familiarity with German it will likely encounter language barriers; as an explicitly interdisciplinary project it is dependent on any number of variables such as the evolving nature of warfare between the world wars, changing political climates, and even the organizational differences between separate U.S. military services, which must be deliberately integrated to produce a holistically complete product.

As a rising senior, this is becoming rather my undergraduate magnum opus, and I’d love to have you along for the ride as I push my capabilities as an historian out into the field to follow our infantry On the Warpath.