Off the Shelf: Ed Lengel

Edward G. Lengel, associate editor, the Papers of George Washington, "To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918." Henry Holt and Co.

March 14, 2008 — Ed Lengel's book, "To Conquer Hell" covers the dramatic story of the bloodiest battle in American history: the epic fight for the Meuse-Argonne in World War I.

On Sept. 26, 1918, more than 1 million American soldiers prepared to assault the German-held Meuse-Argonne region of France. Their commander, U.S. Army Gen. John J. Pershing, believed in the superiority of American "guts" over barbed wire, machine guns, massed artillery and poison gas. In 36 hours, he said, the Doughboys would crack the German defenses and open the road to Berlin.

Six weeks later, after savage fighting across swamps, forests, towns and rugged hills, the battle finally ended with the signing of the armistice that concluded the First World War. The Meuse-Argonne had fallen, at the cost of more than 120,000 American casualties, including 26,000 dead. In the bloodiest battle the country had ever seen, an entire generation of young Americans had been transformed forever.

"To Conquer Hell" also is studded with portraits of remarkable soldiers like Pershing, Harry Truman, George Patton and Alvin York, and authoritative in presenting the big picture. It is military history of the first rank and, incredibly, the first in-depth account of this fascinating and important battle.

"The Meuse-Argonne was the most important American battle of the First World War, and the bloodiest battle in American military history," said Lengel. "My book is the first comprehensive history of the battle from the soldiers’ eye view."

As an editor with the Washington Papers, Lengel has spent most of the last 12 years immersed in the Revolutionary War. But family history (he is a cousin of Sgt. Alvin C. York, famously portrayed by Gary Cooper in the 1941 film "Sergeant York") and a lifelong interest in soldiers' literature inspired his fascination with the First World War.

"This war was the single most important event of modern times," Lengel said. "It influenced every imaginable aspect of politics and culture across the globe."

Martin Gilbert, author of "The First World War" and "The Somme," praised the book as "one of the most powerful war books that I have read." He wrote, "Those who fought on the Meuse-Argonne in 1918, and all Americans interested in their national heritage, are fortunate that Edward G. Lengel has written this deeply researched book — bringing the strategy, the commanders, the officers and men, the tactics, the horror and the heroism together in a moving, dramatic and intensely human account."

Lengel is the author of "This Glorious Struggle: George Washington's Revolutionary War Letters," also released this year, and "General George Washington: A Military Life."