Battle of Saint Etienne

On October 4th, 1918, men of the 142nd Infantry were preparing to leave Champigneul, a village near the Marne river in northeast France. The 142nd was part of the 36th Infantry Division, headquartered in Pocancy, the next village to the south. The 36th Infantry had been living in villages near the south bank of the Marne river for six days, waiting to go to the front. Just eight days before, on September 26th, allied forces attacked the entire German line in France and Belgium. It was, and remains, the largest land battle in U.S. military history.

Only the 36th Infantry Division was not with the American army. U.S. General John J. Pershing had loaned the 36th to the French Army for the battle, where it expected to stay in reserve behind the front line. The 36th had just cut short their training to join the Groupe d’armées de Centre, who were fighting alongside the U.S. First Army. Most noteworthy, the 36th Infantry had no combat experience, and had never been to the front. When it entered combat, according to the plan, the 36th Infantry would push through the French countryside after others had broken through German fortifications.

For France

During their short stay south of the Marne the men of the 36th experienced firsthand glimpses of war. Hundreds of buildings stood in ruins from artillery and aircraft attacks. The appearance of German planes brought the Southwesterners out of their billets to watch. Some of the towns were attacked, while Texans and Oklahomans took shots at German aircraft with their rifles.

Meanwhile, the 36th did their best to get equipped for combat. The French gave them the correct number of mortars, flare pistols and grenades. The men carried out drills as best they could during that week along the Marne, staying out of sight of German aircraft. At night they would look to the north and east to watch and hear artillery duels just beyond the horizon.

To the front

In nearby Champagne, German and French armies faced one another from more or less the same trenches since September 1914. The French had suffered great losses twice in 1915 trying to push the Germans out. Since 1914, the Germans had built concrete bunkers in multiple lines of defense. The last French offensive, in September 1915, cost them 145,000 casualties. The defending Germans regained all lost ground at half the cost in dead and wounded. Over three years the French and Germans expanded their fortifications. Germany’s Hindenburg line was a system of machine-gun bunkers, observation posts and underground shelters that stretched across the region.

Three years later, in September 1918, the French attacked in Champagne. French soldiers were able to capture parts of the Hindenburg Line. Still, after two attacks, they were unable to break through a German stronghold in the Champagne countryside called Blanc Mont. Visiting there today, you can see why: a long hill bristling with bunkers with a clear view for miles around. The French sent in a fresh division, the U.S. Second Infantry, to take Blanc Mont.

Send the Second

The reputation of the Second Division is the stuff of legend (“Second to None”, if you ask them). One of the first U.S. divisions to become active in France in 1917, the division included one Army brigade and one Marine brigade.  In June 1918 the Second Infantry blunted the German spring offensive at Belleau Wood, saving the city of Paris in the process. It was a desperate, costly fight that neither side could afford to lose. German attackers were amazed at the fighting spirit of the inexperienced Yanks, who turned them back in spite of terrible casualties. On June 26th, 1918, silence in Belleau Wood was followed by a dispatch from Major Maurice Shearer, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. It simply said:

“Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”

Blanc Mont

On October 3rd, 1918, the U.S. Second Division attacked the system of fortifications at Blanc Mont and captured it within two hours. In doing so, they had advanced a mile and a half beyond the nearby French lines and so were exposed on their left and right. Facing the enemy on three sides, the Second Infantry held their ground despite German counterattacks. The Americans held a narrow wedge of territory, 500 yards wide, inside the German defenses. Try as they might to push forward, further German strong points made this impossible. Artillery shells were landing on the American position from close range. U.S. soldiers and marines dig in and kept watch for an assault.

The next day, October 4th, the Germans counterattacked on the left flank of American positions, which were held by Marines. There was also heavy fighting on the right side, which was held by the Army. On that day and the next, October 5th, the Americans tried to advance but could not. The fighting was intense and losses were heavy. The American-French force had broken through German defensive lines and wanted to expand beyond them. The Germans were determined to resist because retreating would endanger other German troops fighting the main American army in the Meuse-Argonne sector.

Marine veterans of Belleau Wood said the Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge was the tougher fight.

Call to the 36th

French and American commanders agreed reinforcements were needed immediately. The 36th Division was called to the front. On October 4th, half the division traveled by truck about 31 miles from Champigneul to the ruined town of Suippes. The journey took all night and the 142nd Infantry marched the last two miles to their first stop, Somme-Suippe. The 142nd waited at Somme-Suippe on October 5th waiting for the other half of the 71st Infantry Brigade, the 141st Infantry Regiment, to arrive. On October 6th the whole brigade marched north to the town of Somme-Py, about 11 miles. On their way the 71st Brigade made its way through the Hindenburg Line, taken by the French in the first days of the battle. Here, Texans and Oklahomans saw French and German dead on the battlefield. When they got to Somme-Py, the U.S. Second Division had ammunition and supplies there waiting for them.

The rest of the way, about four miles, was under German observation and would have to be crossed at night. The commanders of the 141st and 142nd Infantry reported to Marine Major General John A. Lejeune, commanding the U.S. Second Division, for orders. The order was for the 71st Brigade to make its way to the front and relieve the entire 2nd Infantry Division.

 

At the front

The men of the 142nd Regiment spent late afternoon and evening of October 6th near Somme-Py taking as many supplies as they could carry. Company commanders tried to get their hands on maps of enemy positions and water for the men. Marines were expected to guide them to the front, but they had taken shelter while the Germans were shelling the town. However, soldiers of the 142nd did not meet their Marine guides until after nightfall. Since the Marines had arrived by truck in daylight, they did not know how to get back to the front by foot. Finding their way forward in the dark was trial by error, and the men quickly became lost. As a result, the 142nd Regiment did not get on the right track until late at night.

The untested soldiers were now on their way to war. Second Division Marines on their way to the rear passed them as they advanced and remarked of the National Guardsmen “singing and joking as they went. High words of courage were on their lips and nervous laughter.” One Marine told another, “Hell, them birds don’t know no better…Yeah, we went up singin’ too, once–good Lord, how long ago!…they won’t sing when they come out, or any time after.”

The soldiers had witnessed German artillery hits that afternoon near Somme-Py. Now that they were moving nearer to the front, exploding shells were closer and closer. The Germans had targeted crossroads especially, and soldiers were held up at them waiting for a pause in the shelling. Two men were killed by German artillery, the first combat losses in the 142nd.

 

Dug In

It was daylight, October 7, when the 142nd reached the front line. It was not like anything they had trained for: a series of foxholes and shell craters with the occasional abandoned German dugout was their shelter. The Germans were about 100 yards away, and had seen them arrive. Machine guns opened up on the Americans and soon artillery shells exploded nearby. Men dug their own holes or leaped into foxholes just vacated by the Marines. Germans could be seen across no-man’s land, moving from dugout to dugout. That afternoon, artillery hits were more severe with American dead and wounded.

Commanders in the 71st Brigade spent a frantic day completing the relief of the Second Division and locating supplies and ammunition. Later on, a French tank battalion showed up, which encouraged the men. Maps were in short supply and not useful when commanders got them. There was only one day’s supply of food and water; what each man had carried there.

That night, commanders made their way back to Somme-Py for final orders. At that moment they learned that they would attack the German line. Major General Lejeune had asked his French commanders that the 36th spend a few days getting used to combat operations before going on the attack. His superior, French XXI Corps commander General Stanislas Naulin, disagreed and set the attack to resume at dawn on October 8th with the 71st Brigade in the lead.

 

Brave and True, part 2

The 111th Engineer Regiment was part of a National Guard Division, the 36th Infantry, that was sent to France in July 1918. Six weeks after they got there, the 111th Engineers were sent to the front without the 36th Division. For the rest of the war they served as the Engineers of I Corps, First Army. Their job was to follow closely behind the leading division of the First Army and clear obstacles, defuse landmines, build roads and string telephone wire along the front. Their job would have been difficult even if it were not in the combat zone. Clearing mines and building roads so the wounded could be transported to hospitals saved a lot of lives, but the job was dangerous.

September 23, 1918 found the 111th near Les Islettes in the Argonne Forest. They were close to the front line and still with I Corps, American First Army. They had spent the last seven days on the march to get to the Argonne Forest, where the largest American operation of the war was about to begin. As usual, it was raining. The men found shelter wherever they could. The area was full of American and French forces moving forward, preparing for the coming fight.

111th Engineers Band

Meuse-Argonne

On September 25th, the 111th Engineers were on the move again, marching at night once more. Around midnight hundreds of American and French cannon begin firing at the Germans and the battle is begun. By 5 a.m. on the 26th, the Engineers are on the road again marching through Clermont-en-Argonne and Neuvilly-en-Argonne in heavy rain. German artillery hit their position in Neuvilly at 10 a.m. and they spent the day repairing the road. The next day the 111th is at work further up the road between Boureuilles and Cheppy. German prisoners and wounded men on their way from the front fill the road. German artillery continues to fall, but Americans are still advancing.

The 111th arrives in Varennes-en-Argonne on the 28th to find the town demolished by the fighting. German aircraft once again are bombing at night. Artillery projectiles are falling all around, in one instance killing a number of soldiers near the 111th Engineers. On the 29th, Company D enters Vauqois, a small village that was the front line on the first day of the battle. It had been a battleground for four years. No living thing remained in Vauqois; artillery and tunnel mines from both sides cratered the countryside.

 

Stalled

By October 1, the gains of the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive stalled. German forces had reorganized a defense further down the line, and the advances stopped. The 111th Engineers were in an unfamiliar situation: they hadn’t spent two nights in the same place for twenty days. The regiment was located near Varennes-en-Argonne at this time and there was plenty to be done. There were more roads to repair and since there was a bottleneck they were always crowded. The Engineers got to work and built a new road around Varennes to ease the traffic.

While American forces were making slow progress just ahead, German planes still ruled the air. On October 9th they bombed the 111th Engineers, killing one. They were also still in range of German artillery, which would send over shells for a few minutes and then go silent. On October 11th part of the regiment moved ahead fifteen kilometers to just south of Marcq and Grandpré repairing roads. It was raining there, too.

 

Doubling Down

With the advance stalled, American General John J. Pershing reorganized forces and sent new divisions to the front. The 111th were still near Varennes and trying to keep up. Rain was a constant, roads were turning into mud flats, and the increase of soldiers and supplies going up, wounded going down, kept the roads clogged. The engineers got in the habit of using rubble from ruined buildings in making roads, but more was needed. They found a quarry and soon were hauling rock for their highways. They also cleared mines and improvised explosives buried in the roads by the Germans.

Through October the men of the 111th steadily built and rebuilt roads for I Corps north from Varennes. They even built a narrow-gauge railroad from their quarry in Chatel-Chéhéry. Through that month the American front line straightened and forces were better deployed at the front. By this point the First Army has overrun three German defensive lines in the Argonne region. German resistance was organized and determined. Their aircraft make frequent bomb sorties over the 111th, which make them a little nervous since some of them are encamped across the road from an ammunition dump. (You can read first-hand accounts of Sergeant Lou Sheckard, Company D, 111th Engineers in Peter Finkle’s blog here.)

 

111th Engineer Regiment on parade in Dallas, June 14, 1919

November 1918

Just after midnight on November 1st, the 111th Engineers were on the move. At 3 a.m. they witnessed an artillery barrage that lit up the sky. “(T)alk about being able to read a newspaper at night,” one engineer wrote, “you sure could then.” One American Division, the 2nd Infantry, advances six miles the first day. The gains are costly and engineers encounter carnage on the battlefield as they make their way forward. The men are hard at work clearing the way for reinforcements. Once more, there are German prisoners streaming away from the fighting. In seven days the 111th had advanced twelve miles.

The retreating Germans blew up bridges, shell holes dotted the roads. As the 111th repaired them, they saw abandoned trucks and artillery pieces. The enemy retreat was beginning to look hasty. The American advance brings the engineers further north. They are busy as ever, repairing roads, when Germany signs the Armistice on November 11th.

The men are hungry and exhausted. The 111th Engineer Regiment served 62 days in the combat zone, about three times as long as the rest of the 36th Division. On November 11th they began yet another long march, this time away from the front. Eventually they rejoined the 36th Division and waited until their transport back home. When they returned to the United States, they paraded in their hometowns of Tulsa and Dallas before the men mustered out of the Army at Camp Bowie in June, 1919.

After the war a motto was chosen for the 111th Engineers, Fortis et Fidelis. And that remains true of them to this day.

(You can read the account of Corporal Walter G. Sanders, Company B, 111th Engineers in Judy Duke’s post to WWI Texas History here.)

Deployed

September 1918 found the 36th Infantry Division still in the Thirteenth Training Area surrounding Bar-sur-Aube, France. The 36th had been there since early August for their final training before entering the combat zone. Since the division arrived in Bar-sur-Aube from three different French ports of debarkation, it was a reunion. They spent a month traveling there from Texas by train, ship and foot. The Thirteenth Training area was a group of villages in northeastern France, and accommodations for many of the men were primitive. Yet soldiers of the 36th Infantry enjoyed the work and forged bonds with the French people during their training.

But the reunion didn’t last long. As the American First Army was preparing for its first offensive action in September, front-line Divisions needed to fill their ranks. Two thousand men from the 36th were transferred to other divisions in late August and September. Many of them transferred to the 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” division. This National Guard Division already contained a transportation unit from Texas and an Ambulance unit from Oklahoma. Overall the 42nd Infantry had units from twenty-six U.S. states and the District of Columbia, which made it unique in the Army.

Other men from the 36th transferred to the 90th “Texas-Oklahoma” Infantry, a National Army Division from Camp Travis in San Antonio. Men in the T-O insisted it stood for “Tough ‘Ombres” and would get a chance to prove it that September in the Saint-Mihiel Offensive.

Soldiers of the 36th Division with French youth after the Armistice.

 

Training for the real thing

As summer turned into fall the men of the 36th Infantry trained in rural France. Losses to the division by transfer were partly made up by the arrival from Camp Bowie of 783 men who– for one reason or another– didn’t make the train back in July. These men had been AWOL (Absent With Out Leave), sick in the hospital or otherwise detained from making the journey. Training was the constant in the last days of summer with long marches and simulated battles in the French countryside. The men participated with gusto but by the fall had worn out much of the clothing that had been issued to them in New York back in July. Soldiers were also having a hard time keeping clean in their makeshift lodgings and some of them were getting sick.

It was also at this time that the Spanish Influenza reached the Thirteenth Training Area. There was nothing “Spanish” about the this affliction since it was in fact a pandemic. Influenza had a significant impact on German forces just one hundred miles away. But the soldiers of the 36th Infantry were well spread out, and medical officers had the foresight to quarantine men with influenza from the rest of the troops. There were some fatalities from the pandemic. Illness brought more vigilance to personal care and hygiene in the division, and separate quarters were made in field hospitals for those not suffering from influenza. Patients noticed that the Medical units of the 36th Division were receiving supplies for battle.

Last minute changes

Equipment was finding its way to Area 13 as well. On September 20th, the 111th Supply Train got fifteen Pierce-Arrow trucks. Ninety-eight officers were transferred into the 36th Division at Bar-sur-Aube. On September 20th Otho Farrell was promoted six ranks from Corporal to Color Sergeant. Farrell was part of the 142nd Infantry Headquarters office staff, and as a corporal he would be expected to take down orders in shorthand, type them, keep records and post communications. Now he was one of two Color Sergeants in the 142nd, subordinate only to the Regimental Sergeant Major in the HQ.

Machine Gun Team, 132nd MG Battalion, 36th Div.

Deployed

On September 23rd 1918 the 36th Division was ordered to make itself ready for transport to the front. US Infantry Divisions in France normally trained for eight weeks behind the lines before transferring to a quiet zone of the front line. There infantry battalions would embed with an allied regiment (usually French) to learn defensive operations in the trenches. This process could take another eight weeks or more before an American Army Division was released for combat operations. But it was not to be; the strategic situation in late September 1918 had changed significantly. The 36th Division was needed on the front line.

The division curtailed its training schedule about ten days early and made preparations. Motor vehicles in the 36th pulled out toward the front. Men had to pack only their battlefield essentials and move toward the train stations. Troops gathered at stations in Bar-sur-Seine, Bar-sur-Aube and Brienne-le-Château on September 26th. For seven weeks, the 36th Division had made northeastern France their home. Now they were going to fight for it.

Transitions

When the old 7th Texas Infantry Regiment stepped off the train in Fort Worth in September 1917, there were over 1,900 new recruits from northwest Texas and the panhandle. Now, just over one year later, 615 of those same men boarded another train in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment. Of the missing 1,300 men some had been invalided out of the Army by a failed physical or by disease the previous winter. Some of them had died of those diseases, others were killed in accidents. Many were transferred to other units. The Texans that remained were joined by other volunteers from Oklahoma, and then by draftees from several other states. Somehow, the 615 who remained had a Texas-sized influence on the character of their unit on the eve of battle.

The trains and trucks traveled about sixty miles northward to Avize and Épernay, near the Marne River. On arriving, the 36th Division entered service as part of the French Army. General Pershing had loaned the 2nd, 36th and 93rd Infantry divisions to France. When they got there, no one in the French Army was expecting them. After the initial confusion men had to find shelter in the ever-present French rain. The Division had moved within twenty miles of the front line and were staying in villages between Châlons-en-Champagne and Épernay. Their Artillery Brigade, the 61st, had not joined them and they were missing their Engineer Regiment. The rest of the division was 20 percent understaffed.

131st Machine Gun Battalion, 36th Infantry Division after the Armistice.

Brave and True, part 1

Company A, Texas Engineers was a National Guard unit formed in the spring of 1916 in Port Arthur. Later that spring Company B formed in Dallas. Because of the Border Crisis, the two companies were Federalized for service along the U.S. – Mexico border in the summer of 1916. The Engineers served, along with the rest of the Texas National Guard, until March 21, 1917. Sixteen days later the United States was at war with Germany and these citizen-soldiers were again activated for duty. Company B traveled in June to San Antonio to build Camp Travis, future home of the 90th “Texas-Oklahoma” Division. Company A reported to Camp Bowie in August 1917.

The Texas Engineers were enlarged with the addition of Company C from Sweetwater in West Texas. The companies joined together for the first time in August at Camp Bowie as the First Battalion, Texas Engineers. Joining the Texans was the First Battalion, Oklahoma Engineers, who were recruited in 1917. Together they formed the 111th Engineer Regiment, the Engineers of the 36th Infantry Division. Along with the two battalions was a Headquarters detachment, a Medical detachment and the 111th Engineer Train. They helped the U.S. Army Cantonment Division construct the camp and took over responsibility for completing it when the Cantonment Division left Camp Bowie in November, 1917. Their home stations were as follows:

1st  Battalion, 111th Engineers

  • Company A: Port Arthur, Texas;
  • Company B: Dallas, Texas;
  • Company C: Sweetwater, Texas;

2nd Battalion, 111th Engineers

  • Company D: Tulsa, Oklahoma;
  • Company E: Ardmore, Oklahoma;
  • Company F: Oklahoma City
Part of the 111th Engineers at Camp Bowie, Texas

Training in France

On August 5th, 1918 the 111th Engineer Regiment arrived in Bar-sur-Aube, France with the 36th Infantry Division. The 36th was stationed there for final training. Headquarters for the 111th was in Spoy, a small village eight miles from Bar-sur-Aube. As the division engineers, the 111th was busy improving local roads, building rifle ranges and a grenade training area. They also dug model trenches for training and mapped the area as practice for the front. An Engineer Regiment in France normally had 1,750 members but the 111th had about 1,500 officers and men at this time.

Company D, 111th Engineers at Camp Bowie

Moved to the Front

On September 9th, 1918 the 111th Engineer Regiment was ordered to leave the 36th Infantry Division and report to I Corps, First U.S. Army at Frouard, one hundred miles away. The Texas – Oklahoma Engineers were going to war. The Engineers left Bar-sur-Aube on September 10th and 11th for the 10-hour train trip. Once the regiment arrived at Frouard, they unloaded their equipment and rested. On the morning of September 11, the regiment marched toward the front line past Griscourt, a nine-to-twelve mile journey. The march took the regiment nine hours.

The first American-led attack of army-size in the war, the St. Mihiel offensive reduced a German bulge in the front line. The German Army had seized the area early in the war, in September 1914, and had eliminated French Army resistance inside the bulge by May 1915. The bulge stuck out over a dozen miles into France from the rest of the front, ending at the town of Saint-Mihiel. Busting the bulge and moving the Germans back to the 1914 line would enable the Americans and French to more easily send troops and equipment by rail to their next objective, the Argonne Forest region.

Saint-Mihiel operation

The 111th Engineer Regiment made camp for the night in a forest just north of Griscourt at 6 p.m. At ten o’clock, the sky lit up and trees shook as American and French artillery opened up along the front. Seven American infantry divisions went across the front line near the 111th early on the morning of September 12. The regiment was on the road again by 8 a.m. By three o’clock the next morning, the 111th reached Regniéville-en-Haye, a village so badly ruined by war that it does not exist today. At Regniéville the regiment built a road through the ruined village for army trucks and artillery to aid combat troops just ahead.

It was at Regniéville that the 111th took its first fire from the Germans. Artillery shells were a real danger for Engineer troops working just behind the front line. The first shells on September 13 killed some horses. German planes would fly over at night and drop bombs on the engineers. On the 14th the regiment continued to build roads over captured trenches and shell craters. They made their way another six miles to Thiaucourt, where they met newly-liberated French civilians.

After repairing the roads around Thiaucourt, the 111th Engineers started their march from the front at 3 p.m. on September 15. Away from the front, but not from danger. On the evening of the 16th, they were shelled near the village of Blénod and three men were wounded. The next night, gas shells hit near their camp at Dieulouard. For six days in the St. Mihiel salient, Texas-Oklahoma engineers had tested their mettle. (You can read Sergeant Lou Sheckard’s first-hand experiences in Company D, 111th Engineers, in Peter Finkle’s blog here)

 

Company E, 111th Engineers in Le Mans after the Armistice.

Meuse-Argonne

With the St. Mihiel pocket reduced, it was now time to prepare for what became the largest offensive of the war. Over one million American soldiers and marines would participate in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The French-American plan was to push trough the Argonne Forest to the Meuse river and seize the fortress city of Sedan. If the Germans lost Sedan and Metz to the southeast, they would lose rail transport networks and their famous Hindenburg line of defenses. They would have little option but to retire back to Germany.

On the march

The front lines in the Argonne Forest were sixty-five miles away. To get there, the 111th Engineers would have to walk once again. They left Dieulouard on September 17th at 7 p.m. and marched all night. Along the way they passed a line of captured German artillery two miles long. The next morning they camped just past Sanzey, sixteen miles away. The regiment would march at night on their way to the Argonne Forest, which kept them safe from German artillery. By 5 a.m. on September 19 they had possibly reached Sampigny, 20 miles from Sanzey.

Two days later the Texas-Oklahoma Engineers were in Èvres, 26 miles away. By this point the roads are clogged with soldiers on their way to the front, and the going is slow. In addition, some of the men were coming down with influenza and had to be hospitalized. Americans in France all remembered the near constant rain. It had rained for much of the time the 111th was on the move.

By September 23rd the regiment was in Les Islettes, 15 miles from Èvres. In seven nights of marching the 111th had gone about 77 miles though northeast France.

(Read about the experience of Corporal Walter G. Sanders, Company B, 111th Engineers in France in Judy Duke’s post to WWI Texas History here.)

 

AEF Engineers stringing telephone wire near the front, 1918

Area 13

On his seventh day at Saint Nazaire, France, Otho Farrell and Headquarters Company of the 142nd Infantry Regiment marched to the train station. It was the beginning of their journey inland, to final training before combat. By August 6th, the 142nd Infantry was spread over three ports of entry on the Atlantic coast of France. The regiment would be reunited at the training area, Area 13.

Soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division lined up at train stations near Bordeaux, Saint Nazaire and Brest for the trip. Non-commissioned officers (sergeants) rode in second-class coaches. The rest of the enlisted men traveled in 40-and-8s. A 40-and-8 is a French boxcar, much smaller than its American counterpart. Each one was to carry forty men, or eight horses (40 Hommes/8 Chevaux). Standing inside of one today makes one wonder how forty men with their gear could possibly stand, much less sit or eat or sleep in it. There was no bathroom, you just stood on the running board outside. The officers, by the way, rode in first class coaches.

36th Div. HQ was in Bar-sur-Aube

Experiencing France

Traveling through France packed with thirty-nine of your closest chums in a boxcar in August is no vacation. But the men did see a lot of France. Depending on where he started from, a soldier in the 36th traveled through Tours, Bourges, Orléans, Dijon, or else around Versailles and Paris. Crowding in the boxcars was unbearable and some rode on top of the train. The 142nd experienced its first fatality in France when a private from Company G was knocked off his boxcar by a low bridge.

Along the way, the men of the 36th saw ancient cities and towns, cathedrals, factories and farms. Farmers and ranchers from the west marveled at the small stonewalled fields and horse-drawn farming equipment. They traveled through vineyards and mountain passes, villages and fields of grain in summer. If the rude condition of their transit could be forgotten, France was starting to look better.

Bar-sur-Aube

Training Area 13 was located in the Aube département of France, 120 miles southeast of Paris. The train stopped in Bar-sur-Aube, where the Division Headquarters was located. The rest of the division was spread out in towns and villages in the area. There was no army camp or fort; the soldiers would live side by side with the local civilians. Nearly one third of the 36th Division did not go to Area 13. Instead the 61st Field Artillery Brigade traveled to artillery camps for training.

Once detrained at Bar-sur-Aube, soldiers marched to the town or village where they were to find quarters. Quarters could be in a farmhouse, a barn, a mill or outside in a tent. Accommodations were ad hoc, but most soldiers found the countryside and the relative quiet enjoyable.

Otho Farrell arrived in Bar-sur-Aube at 5 a.m. on August 8, 1918, after riding in a boxcar for thirty-six hours. He and the men of Headquarters Company marched the nine miles to the village of Bligny, arriving there by 12:45 p.m. The Headquarters staff of the 142nd Infantry found comfortable quarters in the local Château. Headquarters Company, the regiment’s medical detachment, Company C and Company D were all quartered around Bligny, as was the 71st Brigade Headquarters. Other units of the 142nd were located nearby at Urville, Couvignon, Bergères, Montmartin, Le Puits, Nuismont, Meurville and Le Val Perdu.

Chateau de Bligny, 142nd Inf. HQ

Training the AEF way

By this time in 1918, General John J. Pershing had 1,210,703 Americans serving in Europe. Fourteen months earlier he had just two battalions, 1,308 men. Even more soldiers and marines were on the way, over 200,000 new American arrivals in France during July, 1918. While the men were trained to varying levels of competence stateside, they were about to enter a machine-age war in Europe. American troops had been trained for trench warfare at home. Pershing and his staff saw the results of four years of deadlock in European trenches and wanted nothing to do with it.

Instead the American Expeditionary Forces taught open warfare doctrine; an aggressive, mobile tactic designed to move the Germans from their trenches in order to beat them. As a commander, Pershing planned to rely on his strength of American marksmanship and physical stamina to win battles and the war. Part of this tactic must have come from the wish to avoid the grinding, unrewarding war of attrition that turned the fields of France into a slaughterhouse. But part of Pershing’s plan was practical as the front line, for the first time in nearly four years, was beginning to crack.

Training Area 13

Pershing wanted his men to take German fortified points in combined-arms thrusts with stopwatch precision. To get to that level, the men had to learn anew how to fight. For the men of the 36th Infantry Division, training started with a refresher in military discipline and physical strength. Southwest men were proud of their rough and ready skills, but they did not translate as easily to military discipline as the staff of the AEF saw it. Training in France was to reacquaint the soldier to inspections, military courtesy and precision in all things. The next element of the training was fitness. The men once again became familiar with long hikes with their gear, this time over the hills, forests and valleys of northeast France.

The men also took bayonet practice and the Engineers built rifle ranges and grenade pits. Men of the 36th Infantry threw their first live grenades at Area 13. They improved their marksmanship and became familiar with the new Browning Machine Gun and Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). The 36th was the first division in the AEF to be equipped solely with BARs. The men made night marches and solved field problems. They learned to coordinate their movements with each other, but there were no tanks or artillery to train with in Area 13.

Despite their spread-out existence in rural France, Area 13 was just 100 miles from the front line. They were in frequent contact with soldiers from other units and other nations. They were learning daily of the war that was, at this moment in the war’s last summer, raging just out of earshot.

Letter from Bligny to Gladys Loper, 1918

 

 

 

 

Landed

The 142nd Infantry Regiment left Camp Bowie in Fort Worth on the 9th, 10th and 11th of July, 1918. Early on July 17, the regiment was in Hoboken, NJ waiting to board ship. The next day, most of of the 142nd embarked for France (soldiers aboard one ship, the Maui, stayed behind while it was repaired). Much of the 36th Infantry Division, to which the 142nd Infantry belonged, convoyed from Hoboken on July 18. This convoy was joined by more ships from Newport News, VA which included most of the Division’s 143rd Infantry Regiment. The rest of the 36th Division embarked on July 26th, July 31 and August 3.

War at Sea

These troops, as well as the 6th, 7th and 85th Infantry Divisions crossed the ocean at a most busy and deadly time in the Atlantic war. German submarines sortied to sea to prevent a defeat on land should the American force land intact. On May 31, 1918 the troopship USS President Lincoln was returning from France with 715 aboard when it was torpedoed by the U-90. Twenty-six were killed and a Navy officer was taken prisoner (to learn more of this remarkable officer, Edouard Izac, click here). On July 1, the troopship USS Covington was torpedoed soon after leaving port in France. The Covington sank the next day, with a loss of six of the 776 on board. The loss of life on both ships would have been much greater if they were inbound to France and full of troops.

Just one day after many of the 36th Division sailed out of New York Bight, the cruiser USS San Diego struck a German mine off Fire Island, New York. The San Diego, on convoy escort duty due to its age, sank with a loss of six men and was the largest American warship sunk in the war. The mine was laid by the U-156 which caused even more trouble days later when it used its deck gun to fire on coal barges within sight of Orleans, Massachusetts.

U.S. Soldiers at Pontanezen Camp near Brest, France

In France

Units of the 36th Infantry Division reached port in several places. For example, most of the 142nd Infantry landed in St. Nazaire on July 30. St. Nazaire was first among the Atlantic ports used by the American Expeditionary Forces as a logistics center for men and materiel from the U.S. By the summer of 1918 it had been joined by the ports of Brest, Bordeaux and Cherbourg. Together these ports received two million American fighting men and millions of tons of war materiél over a two-year period.

As they had when sailing past New York, men on every ship lined the deck rail as they approached the old continent. They had heard and read much of France and the war, but now here it was, right in front of them. First impressions being important, the experience of each man as he stepped onto solid ground in France after an arduous journey would stay with him. Ships coming into these ports usually rode at anchor for one night and disembarked their troops early the next morning, often before breakfast. Hungry, tired and walking on wobbly legs, the men made their way through the winding streets of unfamiliar port towns to a temporary camp some distance outside town.

French civilians hitch a ride with the American Army, Brest.

First Impressions

Whether the experience was positive depended on where your ship made port. The most positively received port of debarkation was Bordeaux. The old city lay 52 miles up the Gironde River from the coast, with much more temperate weather. Everywhere there were sights to behold, “the cathedrals, towers and art museums,” as one soldier wrote home. “The boys have to drag me out [of them] every time we go” into Bordeaux. The rest camp outside of Bordeaux was also fondly remembered.

St. Nazaire was the scene of an enthusiastic welcome as ships made their way up the Loire River. “All along the way French inhabitants rushed to the river bank and waved their hands and shouted,” one soldier remembered. While there, men from the 36th Division stayed at Camp No. 1, Base Section No. 1. No one seemed to have had a bad word to say about St. Nazaire.

The Old Stone Barracks

Brest

The men who landed at Brest had a different impression altogether. First of all, the main harbor was so shallow that their ships could not dock there at all. Everyone and everything had to be lifted there by lighters, small craft that would ferry them to shore. Once there, they found a small city at the western end of remote Brittany, where even Frenchmen felt a little out of place. As they marched wearily down crooked streets, the bulk of the 36th Infantry Division were also greeted with gusto by the Bretons. Many lined the streets to cheer these Westerners, but they did not see any men of fighting age to greet them. What they saw were the elderly, women and children asking for pennies for food.

The French who greeted the 36th Division were about to enter their fifth year of relentless war. The war had taken healthy men to the front; their young orphans each wore a black apron. Children looked a little malnourished. Adults looked tired. The men working at the docks were German prisoners, who appeared well-fed. Most of the inhabitants wore wooden shoes, which surprised the men. “They say we get women’s fashions from France.” one soldier wrote his sister, “Well, the girls wear wooden shoes, so you will have to get you a pair.”

 

German Prisoners of War in Brest

Pontanézen

A few miles uphill above Brest stood Pontanézen barracks. Pontanézen was a Napoleonic era complex of long stone buildings surrounded by a stone wall. It had served as an army base, then a prison and lastly as a rest camp for newly debarked Americans. The soldiers who were billeted there were not fond of it. Pontanézen offered cold stone floors, not enough bedding and only cold water to wash with. Locked in a stall, but still within view, was the guillotine from Pontanézen’s prison days.

Even less popular was what awaited most of the men a few miles beyond the old barracks: manure-strewn fields where most of the men had to sleep. There were no shelters except for the half-tent canvas square each man carried in his pack. After lashing that together with that of his tentmate, a soldier had only his woolen blanket and overcoat for warmth. Which would have been fine if they were still in Texas. But instead they were on the coastline of Brittany, where it rained almost every day.

What rest?

Food had to be prepared and eaten out in the field by the men. There were no permanent facilities there. And if you wanted to bathe, that was two miles back at the barracks. Men started coming down with colds and pneumonia. One man in the 36th Division died at Pontanézen. Practically the only relief was the local wine and cognac.  Stronger stuff like cognac was prohibited but still sometimes available to Americans in France.

Units in Pontanézen and the other rest camps stayed only until train transport to the French interior was organized. This was usually five to seven days. Then they would move on to the next phase, which was their final training. As for the men who were in rest camps around Brest, one remarked that “The only rest about them was that the soldiers who were so unfortunate as to pass through them would remember their awful experience there for the REST of their lives.”

 

 

 

Embarked

Corporal Otho Farrell left Camp Bowie on July 11, 1918 with Headquarters Company, 142nd Infantry. Being a railroad man, Otho kept a diary of their progress across the country.

Headquarters Company stopped in nearby Fort Worth on the eleventh, the next morning in Malvern, Arkansas, before reaching Little Rock the afternoon of July 12. On the morning of July 13, they were in East Saint Louis reaching Indianapolis by evening. On the fourteenth, they arrived in Cleveland on their way to Buffalo, Rochester and finally Syracuse by 9 p.m.

After arriving in Jersey City at 8 a.m. on July 15, Headquarters Company was ferried past the Statue of Liberty to Long Island City, Queens. There they waited for the train to take them to Camp Mills, arriving at 5:30 p.m.

Soldiers boarding the Maui in France, 1918

Camp Mills

Camp Mills was established in the summer of 1917 near Hempstead, Long island as a temporary training camp for National Guard divisions. From August to October that year the 42nd Infantry Division received basic training there before embarkation to France. On April 4th, 1918, Camp Mills became part of the New York Port of Embarkation, a massive command that organized the transport of millions of Americans to the war in Europe.

Camp Mills, about ten miles from the dock in Queens, was large enough to house a division of troops. Like the other National Guard camps, the men lived in tents. Camp Mills had a hospital, all the facilities and a garrison of fifty-five hundred.

Otho Farrell and Headquarters Company spent only two nights at Camp Mills, 15 and 16 July. Other members of the 36th Infantry Division stayed longer; the 61st Artillery Brigade was at Camp Mills for a week. Men of the 61st were able to get passes to New York City during their stay. However, soldiers of the 142nd Infantry were treated to a physical, uniform and equipment inspections and were issued travel documents. Soldiers of the 36th Infantry who were not American citizens had the opportunity to become naturalized or else serve stateside.

Rijndam before the war

Ships of the Army

Before the war the Army Transportation Service had the responsibility of moving modest forces and equipment to where they were needed in the Caribbean or across the Pacific. When war against Germany was declared in April, the Service had two troop transports on the Atlantic. With two million men entering the ranks that year, the Army was going to need a navy in 1917.

By June 1917 the Army Transportation Service was greatly enlarged and the New York Port of Embarkation was established. The Service brought on line a number of German, Austrian and–after March 1918–Dutch ships seized in American harbors as well as other ships leased to the Army. On June 14th, the Army embarked its first convoy of twelve thousand personnel aboard fourteen passenger vessels, plus U.S. Navy escorts. (Read more about the seizure of neutral Dutch vessels here)

In 1918 the New York Port of Embarkation command grew to include operations out of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. In addition, it sent troops to be transported on its ships in Montreal, Halifax and St. John’s, Newfoundland. By then the Transportation Service had 173 ships of many nations in its fleet. Moreover, at the height of the fighting in the fall of 1918, the Army was embarking ten thousand men to France every day.

Lenape in New York, 1918

To the Docks

At 4:30 a.m. on July 17, 1918 Headquarters Company and the rest of the 142nd Infantry Regiment left Camp Mills by train for Long Island City. From there they took a ferry down the East River and up the Hudson to Hoboken, New Jersey, home of the Embarkation command.

The New York Port of Embarkation had taken over the port facilities of two German passenger lines for its operations. About twenty German and Austrian vessels, seized by the United States, were now transporting troops. The 36th Infantry Division boarded ship during the busiest days of the war for the Army Transportation Service. For example, the same day the 36th embarked it was joined by the 6th, 7th and 85th Infantry Divisions at Hoboken.

Otho Farrell and Headquarters Company arrived at Pier #2 in Hoboken at 8:30 a.m. They lined up in a large, dimly-lit building on the dock until they boarded ship an hour later. Headquarters Company, the Machine Gun Company, the Medical Detachment and the Supply Company all joined Second Battalion (Companies E, F, G and H) on the Rijndam. First Battalion (Companies A, B, C and D) boarded the Maui. Third Battalion (Companies I, K, L and M) traveled on the Lenape. Soldiers on the Maui found themselves stuck in port while it was repaired; and their departure was delayed two weeks.

Convoy sets sail

Although Otho Farrell was aboard the Rijndam by 9:30 a.m. on July 17, the convoy did not leave Hoboken until 2:25 p.m. the next day. There on the Hudson River thousands lined the shores to cheer one of the biggest convoys of the war on July 18. For the men of the 36th Division, it was a memorable event. Men lined the rails of their ship as they passed the skyscrapers of Manhattan, returning cheer for cheer. Lastly, a Navy band serenaded the convoy from Battery Park, finishing with The Star Spangled Banner.

Most of the men from Texas and Oklahoma had never been on a ship, or had seen the ocean. Conditions aboard ship were very crowded. Apart from the frequent lifeboat drills, men had little to do but wait in line for meals. Not that many wanted to eat; the waves began to roll early in the voyage and most men were seasick. Otho Farrell wrote to his sweetheart Gladys Loper about his unpleasant ordeal.

While the food was unappetizing for most and the sea inhospitable, the men filled their time writing letters or watching silent movies in the mess. Some soldiers helped to move coal through the ship. Others watched the crews take gunnery practice at sea. Because of the threat of German submarines, there were always men up on deck watching.

“Periscope!”

After twelve days at sea with eleven other ships, the Maui was in convoy nearing France. Her convoy had left Hoboken on July 31 and the voyage had been unremarkable when a periscope popped up in the middle of the convoy on August 11, 1918. Captain Ben Chastaine of the 142nd Infantry was on deck: “The appearance of the undersea craft was the signal for every available piece of naval artillery to open fire…The guns, however, had not been able to get into action before the submarine had launched a torpedo which barely missed the stern of the Maui.”

Destroyers rushed to the scene and dropped depth charges. Transport ships fired their guns. By this point, the entire company of every ship was on deck in life jackets cheering the Navy as they fought back against the submarine. When one depth charge brought up an oil slick from below, the men aboard the Maui cheered like it was a fourth-quarter touchdown.

 

 

 

Transported

On July 2, 1918 the 36th Division received its orders for transport to the Port of Embarkation on the East Coast. The first group of soldiers left on July 4th. The division had practiced for this moment, and now it was here.

But how do you buy cross-country train tickets for 28,000 men?

To move the men and the raw materials of war where they needed to go, the U.S. Government took control of American railroads in December 1917. The U.S. Railroad Service was created by law early in 1918 to coordinate rail traffic for the next two years. Similarly the movement of troops across the country was the responsibility of the Inland Transportation Division and it had priority in scheduling rail travel.

All Aboard

July 1918 turned out to be the biggest effort by the Inland Transportation Division in the entire war. The United States had been transporting soldiers and marines to France for a year already, but now more men were trained and ready for deployment.

Units of the 36th Infantry began to leave Camp Bowie in Fort Worth in early July. The trip across the country took at least four days, although it depended on which route was taken. Some trains traveled east through Shreveport, Birmingham, Vicksburg, Atlanta, Raleigh, Richmond, Washington and Baltimore to Jersey City.

Other trains went north through Arkansas to St. Louis and then east through Cleveland, then Scranton to Jersey City. Some trains even traveled to Detroit and then by ferry into Canada, reentering the U.S. in Niagara Falls. In any event, much of the 36th Infantry Division was somewhere on the rails on July 13, when the Inland Transportation Division moved 41,000 men on 77 dedicated troop trains through the country. The busiest day on the rails of the war.

Getting this many men transported was a complex and delicate task. Unfortunately there were mishaps. Seventeen miles from Shreveport, four cars on a train carrying 36th Infantry soldiers derailed injuring several men and killing one.

Photo by George L. Beam. (Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.)
U.S. Troops entraining near Denver, CO

Seeing America

After months of training in Camp Bowie and enduring the daily grind of duties, the men of the 36th all seem to remember vividly their voyage across America. The first day covered familiar ground, the Great Plains. After that the scenery changed, and depending on what train one was on, a soldier saw vast cornfields and Midwestern cities or remote Southern hamlets between the bright cities of Birmingham and Atlanta. They saw factories and forges, tenements and some of the industrial wonders of the time.

What none of the men forgot was the welcome. Everywhere they went, if the train had a reason to stop, there was a crowd. Young women in American Red Cross uniforms gave out candy and postcards, and sometimes kisses. Mail was handed out of rail car windows, and it was posted. Bands played on station platforms. Men marched off to meals, to baths, or even a swim in Lake Erie. Addresses were exchanged and letters actually sent back and forth from France. People gathered and cheered in small towns, even if the trains didn’t stop.

America showed up; and it was seen from train windows by men going off to war.

Photo by George L. Beam. (Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.)
U.S. Troops near Denver, CO

Defend This

Whatever lay ahead for these men, the memory of their sendoff meant a great deal that summer of 1918. One private in the 61st Artillery Brigade, 36th Infantry Division remembered their encounter this way:

“The men felt grateful as well as pleased over the manner in which the American people along their route had greeted them, and many a man felt that he had really been appreciated for the first time in his life while on this trip, and since he was making a great sacrifice and had been torn by the emotions of leaving home and everything he considered dear, these manifestations had touched him more than they ordinarily would have done.”

Mobilized

With over 41,000 residents, Camp Bowie in Fort Worth was a city within a city. As with all cities, change was normal in Camp Bowie. After the consolidation of the eight infantry regiments into four big ones, the next big change was transfers.

While the original soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division were National Guard volunteers, that distinction soon changed. In November 1917, five thousand draftees were transferred to Camp Bowie from Camp Travis in San Antonio and Camp Dodge in Iowa.

By this time training was in earnest and officers and non-commissioned officers were sent off-base for training at special schools across the country. Camp Bowie also hosted a number of British and French officers and noncoms who helped train the men.

American Industry steps up

By 1918, weapons and equipment were beginning to arrive at Camp Bowie. The Division’s first six artillery pieces arrived in January and February. Rifles were more plentiful after the beginning of the year as well. But there were still shortages of weapons and ammunition. Two more cannon arrived in April, but the 61st Field Artillery Brigade was not fully equipped until June.

Officers of the 36th Infantry Division kept the men busy training while waiting for equipment to arrive. Soldiers could expect long hikes, simulated battles, and instruction in trench warfare. This included gas mask drills, cutting through barbed wire, and using Camp Bowie’s ten mile-long trench system.

As 1918 wore on the Division received motor trucks, wagons and communications equipment. The men also trained to proficiency with their rifles, squad automatic rifles and machine guns. But it would not be until June when every rifleman in the division had his own rifle.

Division in review

By the spring of 1918 the 36th Infantry Division was approaching readiness. Ready, but not sent overseas. Other Divisions that trained in Texas, for example the 32nd Infantry (Camp MacArthur in Waco) and the 90th Infantry (Camp Travis in San Antonio), were already transferred to France. Some in and outside Camp Bowie wondered if they would ever get there.

In the meantime, Fort Worth got to see their Sammies on parade. On April 11th, about 25,000 of them, along with 1,200 vehicles and 5,000 horses passed in a miles-long review before the multitudes. In the proud column was Otho Farrell of Headquarters Company, 142nd Infantry, who had just been promoted Corporal on April 5th.

Otho wrote a letter to Gladys Loper, a friend of his sisters’ in Waynoka, OK around this time. She was about to graduate High School and was thinking about her future.

Mobilized

Men of the 36th Infantry Division could sense things were changing. Five thousand men, draftees from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, were added in May. That month, the War Department gave the division orders to be ready to move on short notice. In June, the men were drilling for immediate deployment, packing and moving to departure points. They knew it was the real thing when they were issued new dog tags that did not include their unit name.

At last, on July 2nd, the order to leave Camp Bowie was received. For ten months Fort Worth and Camp Bowie were home to the 36th Infantry Division. In late summer 1917, this was a largely untested mass of Guardsmen, volunteers all. They were practically the entire National Guard of both Texas and Oklahoma; just as diverse as the lands they represented.

Although they were volunteers and Guardsmen, they had been adequately prepared. Their morale was high and, despite all hazards of the previous year, had formed into a force they believed was equal to the fight. Texas and Oklahoma expected no less.

 

The Flag

In January 1918 Georgia O’Keeffe was still teaching art at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, about 13 miles south of Amarillo. She had been chair of the art department there since fall 1916, but things were not going well. Since the entry of the United States into the war the previous April, Georgia O’Keeffe saw her community caught up in a wave of change that included her family.

Soon after she settled in her job at Canyon, O’Keeffe was joined by her younger sister Claudia, who was still in high school. Together they traveled through the Southwest, taking in the vast landscapes of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. The stark expanse of light, sky and desert mountains mesmerized the O’Keeffes. It would be a life theme for Georgia’s art from the time she first moved to west Texas in 1912.

Georgia O’Keeffe

War comes to the O’Keeffes

Like many college towns across the country, Canyon, Texas was caught up in the enthusiasm of America’s entry into the war. Young men, students of O’Keeffe’s, wanted to enlist before graduating from West Texas State. Whether or not these men enlisted, many marched up main streets and participated in rallies nationwide. And townsfolk stood by and cheered. It was their way of supporting the war. But it was a low cost way.

Georgia O’Keeffe was brought up in Madison, Wisconsin in a large, close-knit family. Progressive and conscientious, the O’Keeffes were serious about their Christian faith and its commitment to nonviolence. So Georgia was very much troubled by the kind of patriotism she witnessed in her new home town of Canyon. She described the country being at war as “a state that exists and experiencing it in reality seems preferable to the way we are all being soaked with it second hand–it is everywhere…There is no-one here I can talk to–its all like a bad dream.”

…Personally

Soon after America entered the war O’Keeffe’s younger brother Alexis enlisted. Georgia visited him while he was in officer’s training at Fort Sheridan, near Chicago. She respected her brother’s sense of duty, but feared what it all might amount to: “A sober–serious–willingness appalling–he has changed much–it makes me stand still and wonder–a sort of awe–He was the sort that used to seem like a large wind when he came into the house.”

Back in Canyon, Georgia O’Keeffe felt more and more isolated from her neighbors and their casual anti-German attitudes. Texas had a visible German population at the time, as did her home state of Wisconsin. She was able to visit Alexis again, now a Second Lieutenant in the 32nd Infantry Division, while he was training at Camp MacArthur in Waco, Texas. His unit was the sixth Infantry division shipped to France in the war and would see heavy fighting, which is what Alexis wanted.

Alone

Georgia’s sister Claudia left Canyon in December 1917 for her student teaching assignment in Spur, Texas, 150 miles away. On January 2nd, the 32nd Infantry Division left Waco for France. That same month, Georgia O’Keeffe became ill in the first wave of a disease that had spread across the world, the 1918 influenza epidemic. O’Keeffe was very ill and took months to recover. In February 1918 she received medical leave from West Texas State. She moved to Waring, Texas, 450 miles away, to recuperate at the home of her friend, Leah Harris.

It was well for Georgia O’Keeffe to get out of Canyon. Her ambivalence about the war and dislike of jingoist descriptions of the enemy fed the rumor mill. Townsfolk began to view her as not patriotic enough.

It was a scene that was repeated across the country. In June, 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act which criminalized any attempt to hinder enlistment or the draft. In May 1918, the Sedition Act also outlawed criticism of the government, the Constitution, the flag and the conduct of the war. The law was aimed in part against attempts from hostile nations to influence American public opinion. But the law also made free debate of the war among Americans illegal, even in private.

Georgia O’Keeffe, The Flag, 1918

The Flag

It was in this environment that Georgia O’Keeffe painted her most political work. The Flag is a deeply emotional and personal view of her crisis: True blue absorbing into a dark blue sky that blots out the stars, leaving a streak of red. The flag battered in the storm.

Later in 1918 O’Keeffe would find out her brother was gravely injured in a gas attack while serving in France.  Alexis O’Keeffe made it home alive, but in poor health. The Flag was never shown publicly during the war; doing so would risk breaking the Sedition Act.

The Sedition Act expired at the end of the war and was never renewed.

Alexis O’Keeffe died of his war injuries in January, 1930 at age 37.