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Caissons Go Rolling Along

A Memoir of America in Post-World War One Germany


Maj. Gen. Johnson Hagood

Edited by Larry A. Grant


Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2011

Hardback. v-228 pp. ISBN 978-1-57003-915-7. $39.95


Reviewed by Michael Marino

The College of New Jersey




Caissons Go Rolling Along provides readers with a memoir of an American artillery officer’s experiences and observations in the period immediately after the First World War. The writer’s perspective is a unique one in that little has been written about the American army in the years between the Civil War and the First World War. The author, General Johnson Hagood, entered the US Army in 1896, and his perspective provides insight into the values, beliefs and attitudes of the American army at this time.

Although General Hagood’s memoir discusses his life before and during World War One, the bulk of the text is devoted to his observations while serving as commander of an artillery brigade (as part of the US Second Division) tasked with marching from France into Germany to serve as a component of the Allied occupation forces. In this capacity, General Hagood had a chance to observe conditions in France and Germany and to ruminate about the peace negotiations that were then occurring at Versailles. Many of the General’s observations run towards the mundane. For example, considerable time is spent discussing the quality of his lodgings and the sorts of meals he was served. General Hagood also emerges very much as a man of his time—a career officer with a deferential attitude towards his superiors and an overweening concern for rules and regulations. Illustrative of this fact is how his memoir reprints a number of circulars and missives he issued while serving in occupied Germany. These announcements provide valuable perspective into the nature of the American occupation, but they also show that their author was someone much concerned with attention to detail.

General Hagood does prove himself to be an acute observer of political events at the time and many of his observations can be described as prescient. For example, in the years after the Versailles Conference, much was made about Germany’s suffering and how the punitive aspects of the Versailles treaty had irreparably harmed Germany. However, General Hagood notes in several places how France had suffered much worse than Germany and that even German children seemed healthier than the French children he had met. At one point he states, “During the time I was in Germany, I saw no underfed babies, no undernourished, cold, or hungry children… there was nothing to compare to the conditions of northern France or the devastated regions of Belgium.” General Hagood also seemed to have little use for Woodrow Wilson and the idealistic notions with which he described America’s war aims, noting that “you would never hear an American soldier say that he was fighting to make the world safe for democracy.” Later he criticizes Wilson for his meddling at the Paris Conference and for failing to make the treaty as punitive and harsh as it needed to be to prevent Germany’s eventual resurgence.

This last point is perhaps the most significant observation General Hagood provides in his memoir. He continually alludes to the latent power of Germany and the fact that the Germans had not seemed to suffer much during the war. He also found many of the Germans he met to be grasping, devious and calculating, stating that “my own impressions of the Germans were never favorable, and the longer I stay here the more I dislike them.” Hagood also routinely cites the atrocities committed by Germany over the course of the war and notes how these atrocities serve as evidence of the criminal nature with which Germany prosecuted the war. As such, the impression that General Hagood had of Germany was that it was a dangerous nation that constituted a serious threat to the stability of Europe. At one point he notes in his memoir that “heaven knows what will happen to us twenty years from now if Germany is still a nation.” General Hagood can thus count himself among the small minority of people (French general Foch is another that comes to mind) who recognized the inherent strength of Germany and that the flawed Versailles Treaty did little to curtail Germany’s underlying power. Observations such as these show how Hagood’s memoir reveals its author to be more than a blinkered, narrow-minded military man; rather he emerges as someone with a keen and astute perspective into the world situation at the time.

Caissons Go Rolling Along is a useful primary source that provides readers with several important perspectives into the time it was written. For one, General Hagood’s discussion about the military culture of the pre-World War One American Army gives readers insight into a period of history not much studied or written about. Indeed, the general seemed to have lived a fascinating life, moving from postings as an instructor at West Point, to service as a staff officer, to duty in the Philippines. General Hagood’s memoir also provides readers with a sense of what life was like in Europe in the months immediately after the end of World War One, and his observations about his time in Germany offer a valuable contribution to our understanding of this period. The only issue that could be raised with the book is that it is hard to define exactly what it is. It is not quite a diary, but not exactly a memoir. The most accurate description might be that it is a journal, and the General was clearly recording his observations with the thought that others might one day read them. Whether this fact unduly influenced what General Hagood wrote and said in his journal is left for individual readers to decide. Despite this, readers would certainly find the observations contained in Caissons Go Rolling Along to be valuable and thought provoking.




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