Frank Gaffney has been lost to the popular imagination, but in 1918, his name was on the lips of every newspaperman in America. A New Yorker by birth but an Irishman by conviction, Gaffney’s exploits on the battlefield in the closing weeks of World War I earned him a Medal of Honor and propelled him into the limelight. On September 29 that year, Gaffney single-handedly charged the German lines, and (among other things) captured a German machine gun nest, holding it until reinforcements arrived. The feat made him something akin to a national hero; as his biographer John R. Strasburg puts it in this impeccably researched biography, “Private Frank Gaffney picked the lock on a door that the Germans were confident could not be opened”.
Gaffney’s is the sort of story that is out of fashion in the realm of serious history, which is why John R. Strasburg’s book is such a welcome addition to the literature on the soldiery of the Great War. The rarefied atmosphere in academia in recent years manifests among historians as a “publish or die” mentality, an attitude prompted by the fact that too many PhDs are competing for too few permanent jobs in history departments across the United States and Europe. With tenure on the line, when it comes to research projects, many professional historians are minded to plump for funding-friendly topics. Gaffney’s life story is plainly ancillary to the big questions facing historians of the Great War, and so it has not been told. Strasburg’s biography plugs the gap with commendable thoroughness and attention to detail; it is hard to see how it could have been related any more thoroughly. Sent to a home for indigent children at the age of ten due to his father’s “dissipation”, Gaffney worked in a paper mill before joining up in 1917. Strasburg’s admiration for Gaffney’s feats is obvious, but he is careful not to lapse into hagiography. He is also alert to the fact that, though Gaffney’s life after the war was hardly uneventful (he had children and became an active member of numerous veterans’ organizations), it was nevertheless unremarkable, and so the greater part of the book by far is taken up with an account of his wartime experiences. Strasburg’s trawl through the primary and secondary sources was deep and thorough, uncovering (among other things) regimental records, soldiers’ newspapers, and a collection of seven letters written by Gaffney himself, some of which are quoted here.
Some might question the extent to which Strasburg ruminates on the minutiae of Gaffney’s life. The ten pages or so devoted to the trouble Gaffney experienced in securing his finances after the war do little other than provide further confirmation of the way in which wounded veterans (Gaffney lost an arm to a German bullet a few weeks before the war ended) often found it difficult, if not impossible, to make their way or even get adequate medical treatment. But it is this forensic attention to detail that marks the book out as a labor of love, and the story of Gaffney’s medal-winning exploits is no less compelling because of it. The book is also beautifully produced, with a number of previously unpublished photographs. Strasburg’s work is a fitting and readable tribute to the heroism of an unprepossessing man whose modesty in later life extended to denying he had ever been a soldier.
John R. Strasburg’s HE CHARGED ALONE is an impeccably researched biography of one of the most decorated American soldiers in history – scrupulous, thoughtful, and immensely readable.
~Craig Jones for IndieReader