Texans Abroad

While Texas and Oklahoma soldiers were training at Camp Bowie in Fort Worth, a Texas unit was already serving in France.

Created the 1st Texas Supply Train in the spring of 1917, it was to be the motor transport unit of a new Texas National Guard Division then taking shape. The unit had six companies across the state in Houston, Austin, Dallas and Big Spring. They trained that summer in anticipation of joining other Texas National Guard units at Camp Bowie in September.

Instead the six companies and headquarters section of the 1st Texas Supply Train were federalized on August 5th and sent east to Long Island, New York.

There, in Camp Mills, National Guard units from 26 states and the District of Columbia were gathered as one of the first divisions to be sent overseas: the 42nd Infantry Division.

117th Supply Train Motor Truck Company D of Big Spring, Texas

Shipping out

At Camp Mills, the 1st Texas Supply Train became the 117th Supply Train. The 42nd Infantry Division left Hoboken, New Jersey for France beginning in late October, 1917. The whole division was in France by December. With the most basic of training stateside, the 42nd spent six weeks in eastern France at a training camp near Vaucouleurs.

One of the infantry regiments of the 42nd Division was the 165th Infantry, better known as the 69th New York. The “Fighting 69th” began a decade before the Civil War as a New York militia unit, the 2nd Irish Regiment. By the summer of 1862, the unit was known as “The Fighting Irish” to their Confederate opponents around Richmond, Virginia.

Troops of the 42nd Infantry Division at Camp Mills, NY

42nd’s Valley Forge

BY the end of 1917, American Expeditionary Forces commander General John Pershing had nearly 150,000 American soldiers and marines in France. Shortly after celebrating Christmas, the 42nd Division received orders to move to Rolampont, over 40 miles away. Rolampont was the site of the Army’s Seventh Training Area. It was winter; snow covered the roads, and they had to walk.

Welcome to Valley Forge.

The temperature in this hilly region of eastern France was frigid and the men were ill-equipped. A winter storm blew in. Boots wore out, extra supplies used up. Not every man had an overcoat. Texans of the 117th Supply Train, a motor truck company, had to haul the division’s gear the old fashioned way, by horse and wagon.

Wagons got stuck in the snow; men huddled in barns and haylofts at night. For some men, food ran out after the first day. Men of the supply train had to move their best horses and mules from wagon to wagon to pull them out of snowdrifts. Overburdened men grew exhausted and fell out of line.

Over the hills and through the snow

As the temperatures sank below zero, men were coming down with mumps and pneumonia. Hundreds were falling behind from exhaustion. The region they marched through was in the foothills of France’s Vosges mountains. The passage to Rolampont tested men and their early 20th-Century equipment to extremes. Worn out boots were discarded because of swollen feet, evoking images of the real Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78.

It took most units four days to make the trek through the frozen countryside of France. By New Year’s day 1918, the whole division was in Rolampont. Although it was an arduous introduction to war, the 42nd Infantry Division would have to adapt. Moving to the front early in 1918, the 42nd would spend 176 days of that year at the front.

 

Home Leave

On September 6, 1917, Otho K. Farrell arrived at Camp Bowie with Company A of Amarillo, Texas. Captain Barton’s Company A, like most companies in the 7th Texas Infantry, was a rifle company. Its 160 enlisted men and three officers were volunteers from the Texas panhandle.

Shortly after arriving at Camp Bowie, on September 23, Company A merged with Company C of Childress, Texas. Together they formed the new Company G, 142nd Infantry Regiment. Captain Thomas Barton, former commander of Company A, was the new Company commander. Company G had 210 enlisted men and five officers upon consolidation.

Otho Farrell was left out of it.

Because of his work as a stenographer at the Santa Fe Railroad, O.K. Farrell was moved to Headquarters Company of the new 142nd Infantry Regiment. Col. Alfred Bloor was the commander. The headquarters company managed the fifteen companies in the regiment, divided into three battalions. It managed personnel matters and coordinated with the 71st Brigade and the 36th Division of which it was a part.

Otho Farrell (third from left) at Camp Bowie

At Headquarters

Private Otho Farrell’s new job was to work for the ranking NCO in the 142nd, the Regimental Sergeant Major. Farrell transcribed notes, typed up orders and kept records for the regiment. On October 15th, 1917, Otho Farrell was promoted to Private First Class.

The 245 enlisted men of Headquarters Company came from all over Oklahoma and northwest Texas. They were divided into five Platoons, each with a different job in the regiment.

-First Platoon: Headquarters Staff, Orderlies, Mounted Guard and the Regimental Band.

-Second Platoon: Signals; with staff at Regiment and all three Battalion Headquarters.

-Third Platoon was the Regiment’s Mortar section.

-Fourth Platoon: Engineers; who built and repaired defenses around headquarters.

-Fifth Platoon was the Regiment’s 37mm Gun section.

Headquarters Company also provided the Battalion Headquarters staff and couriers.

Otho K. Farrell near his 21st birthday

As a member of First Platoon, Otho Farrell served as part of a staff of fifteen privates who managed the office work of the regiment. They kept personnel records and daily health and duty rosters. They also prepared communications down to the Battalion level or up to Brigade or Division level. Most of all, Headquarters was responsible for making the regiment a weapon of war in a complex battlefield.

American Red Cross soldiers’ canteen at Waynoka, OK train station, 1918

Home Leave

In the winter of 1917-1918 Otho Farrell got a 10-day furlough to visit home. He took the train from Fort Worth through north Texas and Oklahoma to Waynoka, north of Oklahoma City. His parents, Thomas and Nancy, and two sisters had lived in Waynoka since 1913.

O.K. Farrell in Waynoka, OK 1918

First to Fight

In the fall of 1917 American forces were making contributions to the Allied cause in Europe. Among the first to enter the war zone were American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Engineers. In April 1917 the US Army created nine Engineer regiments for rapid deployment to France. Their job was to enlarge French ports: building docks, ship berths and storage facilities. US Engineer regiments would also build and repair thousands of miles of railroad track during the war.

One such unit, the 11th US Engineers, began in New York state in April 1917 with a force of 1,400 volunteers. Most of them had worked in railroads before the war. The 11th Engineers trained at Fort Totten, Queens until they were transported across the Atlantic, reaching England on July 27. When they reached France in August, they immediately went to work for the British Third Army in Flanders.

That’s where they were on September 5th when Company F came under attack by German artillery. The men of Company F were laying track in Gouzeaucourt, France when German shells fell. Sgt. Matthew Calderwood and Pvt. William Brannigan were wounded in the attack. They were the first combat soldiers in American uniform to be wounded in France in the war.

Officers and men of the 11th US Engineers shortly after the battle of November 30th 1917

Cambrai

American Engineers were operating in the same zone almost three months later when the British launched the largest tank offensive of the war. The attack was focused on Cambrai, near the Belgian border with France. The 11th and 12th US Engineers were laying narrow gauge track to bring the tanks to the front line. They also had to get the machines off the railcars and prepare them for battle.

While the British tanks were punching holes on the German lines, German troops were coming through them in counterattack. On November 30 they penetrated British lines as far as Gouzeaucourt, where a company of the 11th Engineers was building a rail yard. The company retreated with their British allies to an old British trench system near Fins.

What rifles and ammunition the Engineers had with them they gathered there. But what happened next surprised the British officers who were organizing the defense:

“…I think Captain Hulsant was commanding the Gouzeaucourt party when the German advance fell upon them. Some had rifles with them, in the case of others they were far away, but that made no difference to these gallant Yankees. With spades and pickaxes they fell upon the advancing Germans and although many were knocked out, I was assured that they got the best of it in a hand to hand combat.

It was a brave thing to do; for surrender would have been easy and for once justifiable.”

First to Fight

Twelve US soldiers were seriously wounded in the fighting. But they forced the Germans back and even found Private Charles Geiger, who had been wounded and captured by the Germans. Seeing the allies advance, the Germans left their prisoners and fled Gouzeaucourt.

The British effort in what became the Battle of Cambrai was a bust; no real land was gained in exchange for over 47,000 casualties. Twenty-eight Americans were wounded in the unlikely action of the 11th US Engineers where they were the first to fight in the AEF.

Destroyer Tender USS Melville in Queenstown; USS Jacob Jones is closest to the Melville.

Queenstown

Late in the fall of 1917 the US Navy was patrolling the Western Approaches from its base in Queenstown, Ireland. Over forty American destroyers from Queenstown escorted convoys and hunted German submarines. They also rescued survivors when U-Boats struck. Queenstown harbor was full of American ships coming and going on patrol.

On November 17, 1917 two Queenstown based destroyers, USS Fanning and USS Nicholson, were escorting an inbound convoy when the Coxwain of the Fanning spotted a periscope about a foot above the waves. A torpedo appeared in the water but missed its target. Fanning and Nicholson raced to the scene and dropped depth charges.

The barrage brought up the submarine, U-58, which tried to escape on the surface. Nicholson fired at the U-Boat, scoring a hit. Fanning gave chase, firing from her bow. A few more hits from the Fanning and the crew emerged from the stricken raider with their hands up.

The American destroyers rescued thirty-eight crew from the U-58 before it sank off the Welsh coast. It was the first confirmed sinking of an enemy submarine by the US Navy in World War I.

USS Jacob Jones

On December 6th another Queenstown based destroyer, Jacob Jones, was steaming back to base after convoy duty. As the destroyer approached the Cornish coast, lookouts spotted a torpedo to its starboard. Evasive action failed to clear the torpedo’s path, and the Jacob Jones was struck in the stern. The explosion ruptured an oil tank, which burst into flames and left the ship without power. Sinking in just eight minutes, exploding depth charges from the Jacob Jones killed some of the sixty-four men who died when it went down.

The men who survived on what boats and rafts remained were astonished to see a submarine, the U-53, surface fifteen minutes later. The U-boat took two badly injured sailors onboard and slipped beneath the waves.

Though the Jacob Jones had lost its radio mast in the initial explosion and was sailing alone, British vessels came to rescue some forty survivors within hours. In a rare humanitarian gesture in war, the German U-boat commander had radioed the position and drift of the survivors to Queenstown.

The last moments of the USS Jacob Jones, photographed by a survivor.

Fierce Northers

During the summer of 1917 the U.S. Army built nineteen training camps for its National Guard divisions. It was an enormous task: More camps were being built at the same time across the country to build a military essentially from scratch.

Because most of the National Guard camps were built in the South and West, and because the training was anticipated to be brief, soldiers were housed in canvas tents intended for eight men.

That was the plan, anyway.

If you have ever spent a winter on the Plains, you know about wind. The cold winds that barrel south from Canada are called Northers, and in Texas they are serious business. A Norther can rapidly drop temperatures even on warm sunny days. The sky turns dark blue, the wind begins to howl, and then you– one observer was inspired to quote Milton–

“…feel by turns the bitter change

Of fierce extremes, extremes by change more fierce,

From beds of raging fire to starve in ice.”

John Milton; Paradise Lost, Book II, Lines 598-600

 

Cold Weather Arrives

Military planners did not expect the weather would deteriorate in the early fall of 1917; but Camp Bowie saw its first Blue Norther on September 26th. Soldiers had just recently arrived there from all parts of the Southwest, including posts on the Mexican border. The base was completely unprepared and, to make matters worse, lack of shelter meant that soldiers were living up to twelve to a tent.

Efforts were made to better prepare the men, but so far their standard issue was cotton summer uniforms and two wool blankets per man. The canvas tents had no walls, no heat and earth for a floor.

The second cold wind blew through camp on October 8th and found the camp little prepared. Construction on the base hospital had begun late in the game, opening its doors on September 24. It would not be complete until 1918. Some tents were issued small wood-burning stoves, others not.

The result of this was that the men started to get sick. Lack of warm clothing and heat plus overcrowding in the tents led to the spread of disease. Plainsmen who grew up without exposure to chicken pox, mumps and measles were now exposed. Soldiers from south Texas were not physically ready for the cold weather.

The unfinished base hospital was filling up. Normal occupancy for the hospital was set at 800 patients, with a maximum of 1,000. Soldiers were coming down with meningitis, measles, tuberculosis and pneumonia. It was not uncommon for a soldier admitted with measles to get sick with pneumonia after a few days. Men were starting to die.

Camp Bowie Hospital Complex is to the right

Camp Under Siege

Sickness raged through Camp Bowie in October and November of 1917. By early November the hospital held 1,867 men, over twice the normal capacity. In November forty-one men died from pneumonia alone. Thousands were admitted to the hospital during the epidemic. Training for the war was halted because of it.

Response to the crisis was piecemeal. Winter clothing arrived in October and November, but wool overcoats and extra blankets did not arrive until early December. Small stoves for the tents were provided, with wood to burn. More tents were erected, easing overcrowding. Soldiers began to install wooden walls and floors to their tents to protect themselves from the weather.

A quarantine at Camp Bowie was necessary. Passes were revoked and soldiers were kept in camp to prevent the spread of disease. Soldiers newly transferred to Camp Bowie were kept in a separate observation camp for two weeks before entry into the base. Doctors and hospital staff were increased, and hospital construction was accelerated.

By December over 3,300 soldiers had been admitted to the base hospital with measles and pneumonia. On average, eight men died each day. Companies could not function for all the men on the sick list. When the Surgeon General of the Army inspected Camp Bowie in early December, he remarked that the situation there was worse than in any of the other training camps he had seen. Twenty-five men died during the General’s brief visit.

Camp Bowie fights back

On December 10 more blankets and wool overcoats arrived. The Army hastened to add plumbing and facilities to the hospital complex under construction. 2,300 tents arrived as well as 1,200 stoves. Donations from the Red Cross and towns all over Texas and Oklahoma began to arrive. Every man had at least four blankets.

A week later, the hospital still had 1,427 patients, well above maximum capacity. The cold weather continued into January 1918 with temperatures near zero and blizzard conditions on the 10th. January 22nd set a record low at 6 degrees with more snow. Camp Bowie experienced an outbreak of mumps that month. At the hospital, there were still deaths every day.

But the sick rate was declining. While the weather at Camp Bowie was nothing like the Army imagined when Fort Worth was chosen, men were adapting. Better accommodation (well, the men were still sleeping under canvas in winter) and warm clothing made it easier to avoid disease. Watching new arrivals in a separate camp also helped. Probably the best action was the decision by commanders to furlough nearly the whole camp for Christmas.

Camp Bowie’s hospital was finally completed by February, 1918. That’s when the last of the plumbing was installed in the over fifty buildings that made the hospital complex. By mid-April, the hospital census had returned to normal.

234 men died at Camp Bowie of pneumonia in 1917 alone.