Over There

By July 4, 1917 the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) had just over 14,000 troops in France; half a division. While the French people were ecstatic to see Americans after nearly three years of war, Major General John Pershing knew his fight was to grow an American army in France.

General Pershing’s first challenge was transportation. As he was preparing his headquarters in France during the summer of 1917, over one million men were entering the armed forces at home. That summer Pershing and his staff requested Washington that it send 30 infantry divisions to Europe by 1919. These infantry divisions, plus artillery forces and other services, would form a freestanding American army to fight alongside the French and the British Empire forces on the Western Front.

This plan did not sit well with the French and especially the British. At the time they were fighting in trenches along a 700-kilometer (nearly 450 mile) front against an emboldened enemy. Millions of enemy troops were fighting on the Eastern Front against Russia, but this war was changing in the Central Powers’ favor. Russia’s severe losses in the war had caused Czar Nicholas’ abdication in February 1917. Although the war In the East dragged on through 1917, Germany and Austria-Hungary could now give the West more of their attention.


General Pershing inspecting U.S. troops at Chaumont, France 1917

The Allies test Pershing

As the enemy was gaining momentum in 1917, the Allies were having a bad year. A massive French offensive in the spring had gone so badly that hundreds of units in the French army simply refused to go over the top of their trenches anymore. The British and Empire forces experienced horrific losses during their own hundred-day battle in northwest France and Belgium near Ypres. Similarly, Central Powers armies pushed the Italian front back sixty miles in the fall.

The Allies (French and British Empires; Woodrow Wilson called America an “associated power”, not an allied one) were desperate for men. Their losses included the loss of confidence in their political and military leaders. French and British people were growing tired of war; while the grim sacrifice of so many young men for so little gain brought them close to despair. The western Allies had the weapons and experienced leadership, but they were running out of men.

America had men. One million men were in training stateside in 1917, but the potential was many more men could be drafted. France and Britain were interested. Could the United States merely send the men, and let the Allies equip and command them? The French suggested that American units could be interspersed with French in a bi-national Army under French control. There would be no need for American generals, just field troops.

The British plan was even more outrageous: since there was no language barrier, new American recruits should just don British uniforms as soon as they crossed the Atlantic and join the fight as an Anglo-American Army led by British officers. This would lead to the quickest victory in the West, they believed, at a time when defeat was a real possibility.


Among the first Americans to go overseas were Hospital staff

Walking the tightrope

Pershing was having none of it. American soldiers were not going to wear British uniforms or join French regiments. The U.S. Army was going to fight in France as an army and not as a client in the Great War. The pressure on him was great, however Pershing did not give up. He envisioned an American army victorious in an American sector of the Western Front. In any case, Pershing shared this view with his superiors in Washington all the way to the White House.

But as a small “a” ally, Pershing knew he needed the other two to reach this goal. Great Britain had the ships he would need to help get soldiers across the Atlantic. The Allies had weapons and equipment these soldiers would need in France. They also had experienced soldiers needed to train untested Americans how to fight a complicated machine age war in Europe.

So some compromises were made. Transporting American infantrymen became the priority for Allied shipping, often to the detriment of artillerymen, artillery and war materials from the States. American units would first go onto the front line in quieter sectors under French command until they were experienced in combat operations. The tension of American manpower in the European war never really went away.

Preparing for the day

In the summer of 1917 and after, General Pershing put together an Army command that shared his vision and his urgency. His most important creation was likely his logistics command, called Services of Supply. Thousands of soldiers and engineers created an infrastructure to receive, transport, arm and feed this new American army. They enlarged four Atlantic harbors in France, adding 82 berths for incoming ships. One thousand miles of standard gauge railroads were built to move their cargoes. One hundred thousand miles of wires were strung for use by the AEF in France.

In the United States, staging areas were built near the ports of New York City, Hoboken, New Jersey and Newport News, Virginia to send American men and materiel on an international fleet. In fact, some sailed on ships seized from the enemy. When they got there, training camps were built where soldiers learned to fight together in ever larger formations. Their teachers were veteran French and British soldiers, who had seen it all. By the late fall of 1917, Pershing had most of four infantry divisions in France, 78,000 men. They were willing to go into action, but time would tell if they were ready.

U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 5 in Dannes-Camiers, France

Base Hospital No. 5

The Army Medical Corps was the first to be ready. During the Border war with Mexico, the Medical Corps and the American Red Cross organized a number of mobile hospital units that would move toward the front lines when activated. These units were organized around teaching hospitals and medical schools. In addition, many of the medical and nursing staff were already coworkers in civilian life.

Army Medical Corps units were mobilized and embarked for Europe in early May, 1917. The first unit arrived on May 18 and by mid-June, six U.S. Army hospital units were operating in France. On July 14, 1917 Lieutenant Louis J. Genella, a physician in the Medical Corps, was the first in American uniform to be wounded in action when his hospital unit was shelled southwest of Arras. Beatrice M. MacDonald of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps was badly injured when the Germans shelled her forward triage unit at Lozinghem, France on August 17, 1917. (See Nurse Beatrice MacDonald’s Distinguished Service Cross citation here)

Base Hospital No. 5 was organized in February 1916 in Boston at Harvard Medical School. Doctors, nurses and a core hospital staff were already training from that time. When war was declared with Germany a full unit, about company strength, was recruited and trained.

Base Hospital 5 was one of six evacuation hospital units requested for immediate service with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). These units worked in tents and temporary buildings near the front lines as a first stop for wounded and ill soldiers. They had X-Ray buildings and operating rooms, triage offices and nursing wards. They were the first line in a care system that could get the badly wounded Tommy into a hospital in England within twenty-four hours.

Into the war

The men and women of Base Hospital No. 5 left Boston on May 7, 1917. By May 11, they were on the British steamer Saxonia making way from New York to Falmouth, England. As the first Americans in uniform to land, they received a tumultuous greeting in England. After that, they quickly transited through England and crossed the Channel to France. Base Hospital No. 5 was greeted to even wilder acclaim in Boulogne on Memorial Day, 1917.

The unit was first embedded next to a British Hospital unit, General Hospital No. 11, in Dannes-Camiers. Camiers was on the coastal plain near the Pas-des-Calais. Soon Base Hospital No. 5 had taken over staffing the hospital. While they were prepared to care for five hundred patients, the hospital was sometimes filled to 2,000 patients during the Ypres offensive that summer.

On September 4, 1917 Base Hospital No. 5 was attacked by a German bomber. Privates Oscar Tugo, Rudolph Rubino, Jr., Leslie Woods and Lieutenant William Fitzsimmons were killed. Lieutenant Rae Whidden later died of his injuries. They were the first in American uniform to die in France in World War I.

During the attack four members of the hospital staff were seriously injured, as well as twenty-two patients. You can read more about Base Hospital No. 5 here.

Camp Bowie

In the first weeks of America’s involvement in World War I, the Army decided it needed to raise a force of at least one million men. While that number was soon found to be much too small, the effort to recruit, house and train so many men turned out to be one of the war’s great achievements.

In May 1917 the Army planned to raise sixteen divisions of draftees and sixteen divisions from an enlarged Army National Guard. Thirty-two new camps for these divisions needed to be built from scratch. In addition other camps for Artillery, Coastal Defense, Quartermaster Corps, Engineers, Transport, Signal Corps and an Infantry School needed to be built in the same time frame.

The schedule itself was punishing: Soldiers would appear on the doorstep of their new camps beginning on September 5, 1917. If all the camp sites were selected, contractors found, money and materials freed up, it still would have been an organizational miracle to see all these small cities built in three months.

But in most cases the Army had to do it in a month and a half.

Camp Bowie

Nineteen National Guard training camps were to be built, and the Army decided to create tent cities for the Guard. The idea was, since the camps were to train one division and then close, resources would be diverted into the more permanent camps. Most of the Nineteen National Guard camps were built in the Southern or the Western department of the Army’s command.

This meant that the relevant Departmental commander would choose where each small city of over 40,000 inhabitants would be built. A number of Texas cities as well as McAlester, Oklahoma were in the running for camps. Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce President Ben E. Keith and L. J. Wortham, President and Editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram led the charge for Cowtown.

Keith and Mayor W. D. Davis made the case for Fort Worth at Southern Department Headquarters in San Antonio in May and a delegation led by a Brigadier General made the trip to tour proposed sites. They were most impressed with the Arlington Heights district just west of downtown. Fort Worth was selected as the site for the Texas and Oklahoma National Guard camp on June 11th. It was to be named after Col. Jim Bowie, hero of the Alamo.

Men of the 111th Engineer Regiment at Camp Bowie

Rush to construction

It was now Fort Worth’s turn to make good on its promises. Roads, utilities and a rail spur to camp were built by the city. Land, nearly 1,500 acres of it, was purchased by or donated to the city for Camp Bowie (Uncle Sam got the land free of charge). Buildings had to be relocated or demolished, water and sewer lines dug, cattle moved.

Most of all, building materials had to be found. With so many construction projects underway, the government had to organize these resources. The War Department created a Cantonment Division which would organize base construction during the war. It was a massive organization, with over 16,000 enlisted soldiers nationwide. Over 200,000 tradesmen and laborers would work on at least one site owned by the Cantonment Division during the war.

The Dallas construction firm of J. W. Thompson was contracted to build Camp Bowie. The contractor was chosen for his ability to take on such a project as well as his ability to get credit; short term costs were steep. The Army managed the payroll of all laborers as well as reimbursing the cost of materials.

Building Camp Bowie

On July 18, 1917 officers from the Cantonment Division reported in Fort Worth for duty and the contract with the builder was signed. Construction on Camp Bowie was about to begin. On July 23 the Quartermaster’s Office was established and on July 25 the timekeeper’s office was built.

3,500 craftsmen and laborers joined to build a city that would house over 41,000 soldiers. They built roads, strung electric wire and put up hundreds of buildings. Most of the soldiers would sleep in tents, but there were bathhouses, mess halls, laundry shacks and 300 kitchens.

A spur of the Texas & Pacific Railroad went by the Quartermaster’s. There were stables and barns for horses of Texas’ 1st Cavalry Regiment, who would make their home in Camp Bowie. The Northern Texas Traction Company spent $125,000 (in 1917 dollars) to extend the Fort Worth Streetcar line through camp, adding or improving twelve stops.

Forty miles of roads were built in the hot summer sun. Water tanks were built and pipes were laid. Refrigeration units for food were installed. By August 21, 900 wooden buildings were constructed. A telephone exchange was built. A stockade was built near the Military Police barracks.

Will it ever be done?

On September 6th, Amarillo’s Company A, 7th Texas Infantry had arrived in Fort Worth on the same train as  Company B of Clarendon and Company C of Childress. By September 11, 1917 all of the Seventh Texas infantry Regiment was at Camp Bowie. The Seventh Texas was one of many Infantry, Artillery, Cavalry, Engineer, Ambulance, Transportation and Signal units gathered at Camp Bowie. Most of them would form the 36th Infantry Division.

Camp Bowie was far from finished. Water pipes and electrical wires had just been introduced to the camp. The hospital, which would include 300 buildings, was only begun on August 27. The rifle range had just been started. No hurry; rifles had not yet arrived at Camp Bowie. The artillery range was still in the planning stage.

Like most cities, Camp Bowie was constantly changing in size and appearance. The staff of the Cantonment Division left in November 1917. Engineers in the 36th Division declared the camp substantially finished on December 2nd, with the Camp Hospital still under construction. By July 1918, Camp Bowie had grown to 3,000 buildings and had cost the Army $3.4 million in 1917 dollars.