By JAMES KELLY
By the time Woodrow Wilson brought America into World War I, in the spring of 1917, few could have been unaware what awaited soldiers in the trenches. The conflict had already lasted nearly three years, and the stench of mustard gas and carrion hung over the fields of France. How could one William Otho Potwin Morgan, a 22-year-old Harvard junior, write to his fiancée that "I can hardly wait to get into the trenches"?
A native of Chicago, Morgan had entered college in 1914, excelling in both ice hockey and courting the daughter of a professor at Harvard Medical School. His letters and diary entries offer a poignant chronicle of what happens when idealism meets death 5,000 miles from home, and he is one of five Harvard students whose words and recollections shape "Five Lieutenants," James Carl Nelson's vivid and affecting account of the journeys these young men took "from Harvard Yard to Flanders Fields."
Part of the power of the book derives from its showing how these men from similar backgrounds meet very different fates. George Alexander McKinlock, the son of a utility executive from Lake Forest, Ill., died at Soissons in July 1918, leaving his mother so bereft that she went to France and reclaimed his body from a mismarked grave ("Mckinlow"). George Buchanan Redwood, a 30-year-old Maryland newspaperman, won decorations for exploits behind enemy lines before dying of wounds obtained by the same means. Morgan suffered shell shock and died in 1934 of tuberculosis, perhaps contracted in the trenches he once so pined for.
Mr. Nelson tracks his five men from birth to death, cleverly knitting their stories together even though only two of the five—Richard Newhall, a history graduate student who grew up in Minneapolis, and George Guest Haydock, a star pole vaulter from Milton, Mass.—ended up fighting side by side. None of these men is a writer on the order of Robert Graves, whose "Good-Bye to All That" (1929) remains the definitive account of an idealistic college student disillusioned by war. But the multiple voices, coupled with Mr. Nelson's narrative skills, create a powerful mosaic that captures the exhilaration and horror of war.
By James Carl Nelson
(St. Martin's, 366 pages, $27.99)
The Allied cause drew sympathy from students at Harvard from the start, partly because one of its alumni, former President Theodore Roosevelt, helped spearhead the so-called Preparedness Movement. Roosevelt felt that, despite Wilson's pledge to keep America out of the war, its entry was inevitable. To beef up the Army and Navy, he helped set up training camps around the country, where the first trainees were nicknamed TBMs, "tired businessmen," who paid $30 for a cheap uniform and several weeks' instruction "with the understanding that they would be first in line for officers' commissions should America enter the war." By summer 1916, these camps attracted hundreds of Ivy Leaguers, eager to thrust wooden bayonets into cloth dummies and practice digging trenches.
After the U.S. entered the war, the ranks of officers grew from less than 6,000 to 200,000 in 18 months. "More than 11,000 Harvard men would see some kind of action in the Great War, the largest number from any American college or university,'' notes Mr. Nelson. Harvard also finished first in a less desirable category: 375 perished, killed in action or dead from wounds, accidents or disease.
Doughboys' letters were censored, but officers got to edit their own writings, and Mr. Nelson draws on these to create a remarkably candid and literate view of the war. Newhall, in particular, must have been the most self-conscious and sensitive officer in the 1st Division. His first taste of war, like that of his fellow Harvard men, proved bitterly disappointing. They had come to fight but instead sat entrenched. Newhall eventually saw combat in May 1918. To his mother, on the eve of the battle, he wrote: "The traditional 'just-before-the-battle-Mother' line evidently doesn't come natural to me." He complained that a rehearsal for the advance saw him standing around with his men in an open field "long enough to run through in my mind all the music of Aida."
Forty-three years later, Newhall would recount a spat he had, on that same day, with Haydock, who had refused to take some chocolate for his ration kit: "There was no bickering, but the idea that he could be unfriendly distressed me." They had a friendly chat just before they split off the next day, Newhall glancing through the smoke and exploding earth to see "George walking at the head of his platoon." They never saw each other again.
The battle for the town of Cantigny lasted several days, but within the first few minutes Newhall got shot in the right armpit; then a second bullet hit his left arm, and a third struck him as he lay on the ground. For the next 40 hours, Newhall sat in agony as the battle ebbed around him, his only company the corpse of a corporal whose lower jaw had been blown off. He finally risked machine-gun fire to stumble the few hundred yards to his company's line. Had Cantigny been taken? Newhall asked. Yes. And what about Haydock? "He was killed." Newhall described his reaction thusly: "I went to pieces."
Newhall was the longest lived of Mr. Nelson's five. A professor of history at Williams College, he died at 85, in 1973, which meant that he had more than 50 years to think about his friend. He dedicated his first book, "The English Conquest of Normandy," to Haydock. Each May 28, the anniversary of Haydock's death, Newhall sent roses to his friend's parents until they, too, died.
Like any good historian, Newhall right to the end weighed the might-have-beens. After "long pondering," he concluded that only Haydock's early death allowed him to maintain their lifelong connection; had Haydock survived, their ties would have eroded. Faced with the choice "between the actual treasured memory" of his brief friendship "under extraordinary circumstances" and "a long period of intermittent friendly contact in the ordinary circumstances of living," Newhall realized that the choice was a false one. "Repining,'' wrote Newhall, "is a futile activity."
Mr. Kelly is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
A version of this article appeared January 8, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: They Bled Crimson.