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


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.



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.)

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.


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.


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





Training for War

To win the European war, AEF General John J. Pershing and his staff wanted thirty infantry divisions in France by 1919. By the beginning of 1918, there were four complete divisions and part of a fifth already in France. Over one million men had been training stateside since September 1917 in camps across the country.

What was keeping them there was the shortage of ships and equipment. Ships available to the United States were in short supply throughout the war. Several were sunk by German U-boats. A great number of American troops crossed the Atlantic in British ships as a result. But there were always more men to transport than spaces for them on transport ships.

American Industry catches up

The other issue was the supply of arms and equipment. The War Department performed a massive manpower effort in 1917 recruiting and drafting an army for General Pershing. It would do so again in two 1918 drafts as well. Now that the men were in training, they needed weapons and equipment.

American troops went to war with some of the best weapons of any army including the M1903 Springfield rifle and the Browning Automatic Rifle, versions of which are in use today. As with blankets and overcoats, the military’s problem was getting arms into the hands of recruits for training.

To address the issue of retooling the economy for war, President Wilson created the War Industries Board to direct production and allocate resources for American industry. In December 1917 Wilson also nationalized America’s railroads. The U. S. Railroad Administration coordinated the movement of men and materiel across the continent until March, 1920.

The effort to send the whole economy to war produced far-reaching results, including high employment and better real wages for American workers while the war lasted. But the costs would define the country’s economy up through the Great Depression. Sending the AEF to Europe cost the American economy between $20 and $31.2 billion 1917 US Dollars ($375 to $614.2 billion 2018 US dollars. See here for more about the wartime economy).

Camp Bowie prepares for war

While there were thousands of rifles at Camp Bowie in 1917, most were used for instruction and big training exercises. There were not enough rifles for each rifleman until June, 1918. The 36th Infantry Division had only a half-dozen cannon well into 1918.  So Camp Bowie built rifle ranges and a trench system while it waited. The trench system was ten miles long and had mortar pits, machine gun ports and bomb shelters. It was big enough to train one regiment against another in simulated combat.

While it was waiting for its artillery pieces, Camp Bowie also built an artillery range for its 131st, 132nd and 133rd Field Artillery Regiments. It was located near Weatherford, Texas just west of Camp Bowie. In April the 36th Infantry Division received more artillery, plus motor trucks, machine guns, mortars and ammunition.


During a live-fire demonstration in front of the Division Commander, tragedy struck. Mortar teams of the 141st and 142nd Infantry Regiments were practicing on May 8, 1918, when a round exploded while firing. Eleven men were killed and six wounded. The cause was never determined, although the two mortar teams had been practicing for hours that day.

Many of the casualties were from Headquarters Company, 142nd Infantry Regiment. Four of the dead, including First Lieutenant Allen McDavid, and three of the wounded were all from Taylor County’s Company I. Lt. McDavid had personally recruited many of the men in the old Company I.

As funerals were held for the dead in Abilene and elsewhere in Texas, communities were reminded that for some the sacrifice to country would be in the extreme.

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.


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


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.


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.

To the Front

In the summer and fall of 1917, American Expeditionary Forces commander John J. Pershing, now a four-star general, was building an army in France. He began in June with a small advance staff and by October had assembled enough soldiers for one division, the U.S. First Infantry, known to history as The Big Red One.

By the end of 1917 Pershing would have most of four infantry divisions in France. This was not enough to make much of an impact at the front against the Germans. However these first fighters, a combination of regular army and national guardsmen together with a brigade of U.S. Marines, blazed a trail for all Americans who would fight in France.

U.S. 16th Infantry Regiment arrives at St. Nazaire France on 26 June, 1917

“Duty First”

The 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment was one of the first American fighting units to reach France in June 1917. It was the 16th Regiment’s Second Battalion who made the famous July 4th march through Paris. From July to October the 16th Regiment trained with other regiments of the Big Red One in rural France. Although they were a Regular Army unit whose heritage went back to the Civil War, in fact many of the 16th Infantry were new recruits.

The Americans stayed in a training area with an experienced French division and learned how to fight a modern war in large formations. There they practiced trench warfare, gas mask drills and worked together with artillery units in exercises.

The goal was to enter the war as a freestanding American force that could hold, fight and win on the Western Front. But their training at home had been basic. Now they were learning from veterans who had seen it all.

Soldiers of the U.S. 16th Infantry in Bathelemont, France November 1917

Experiencing the Front

The German line first received notice from American arms at 6:05 a.m. on October 23, 1917. That’s when the cannon of Battery C, 6th Field Artillery Regiment of the Big Red One fired their first shots into German-held territory. American units were now entering the trenches at the front line.

After months of training behind the lines, introduction to actual combat operations was intended to be gradual. American battalions would occupy one sector between French battalions, under French command. Only one battalion each from the four Infantry regiments would serve at a time, and then withdraw to be replaced by another American battalion. Moreover, the sector the Americans held was quiet.

Quiet on the Western Front was shattered on the night of 2-3 November 1917 when a company of the 7th Bavarian Landwehr Regiment, in a coordinated attack with German artillery, isolated and entered the American line held by Second Battalion, 16th U.S. Infantry.

In just minutes of savage fighting, the Bavarians made off with eleven prisoners and their weapons. They left behind seven Americans wounded and three Americans dead. Corporal James Gresham, Privates Merle Hay and Thomas Enright, all of Company F, were the first in American uniform to die in combat on the front line. The sector they held, near Bathelémont, hadn’t seen serious fighting since October 1915 and was considered quiet.

American and French soldiers give a military funeral for those killed on November 3, 1917

The morning after

While the Germans celebrated their raid on the inexperienced Americans, they too had left behind two of their dead and one German who deserted. Additionally seven of the German raiders were wounded. The Americans on the front line did not break and run, as so many in Germany had predicted.

Firsthand experience of close combat was a sobering moment for the First Infantry. They buried their dead that afternoon, November 3rd, in Bathelémont. The policy of sending battalions to the front line was reassessed and the 2nd Battalion was withdrawn later that month. Corporal Gresham, Private May and Private Enright each posthumously received the Croix de Guerre from the French nation.

Queenstown, Ireland

The first six American Navy destroyers arrived in Queenstown on May 4, 1917. Almost immediately they began patrolling the Western Approaches to the British Isles. Then six ships of Destroyer Division Seven arrived on May 17. By the fall about 37 U.S. Navy destroyers and a number of support ships were based in Queenstown. The destroyers guarded convoys inbound to the British Isles and France and made antisubmarine patrols.

On October 15, 1917 the destroyer USS Cassin was patrolling near Mine Head, Ireland when it sighted German submarine U61Cassin gave chase, but soon a torpedo was sighted heading toward the destroyer. Cassin tried to evade the torpedo, but it looked as though it would hit the stern of the destroyer.

At that moment Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Osmond Ingram ran aft to release Cassin’s depth charges before the impact destroyed the ship. Before all the charges could be released the torpedo hit, blowing the stern off the destroyer.

GM1 Ingram’s quick thinking saved his ship but cost him his life. Nine other sailors were wounded and one officer later died of complications from exposure. But the Cassin made it back to Queenstown and was eventually repaired. Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Ingram was the first American sailor to die in combat in World War I. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (see GM1 Osmond ingram’s Medal of Honor citation here).


GM1 O. K. Ingram aboard the USS Cassin (DD-43), 15 October 1917 by Charles B. Falls


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.

“Lafayette, we are here!”

On June 13th, 1917, the cross-channel ferry entered the harbor of Boulonge-sur-Mer from England. On shore a young boy waved his arms, shouting “Vive l’Amérique” toward the incoming steamer. Though it was June, the tall, sturdily-erect man at the rail of the ship raised a gloved hand and waved to the boy, returning his greeting. The welcomes had just begun. Major General John J. Pershing was in France.

General “Black Jack” Pershing had been given command of American forces in Europe on May 10th. He had led men in combat in Cuba, the Philippines and Mexico; one of a few Americans of flag rank to do so. He was in France to build an American army that would match the French and British armies in size and professionalism, if not in experience.  With him on the steamer were his military staff of about 40 officers, some civilian employees of the federal government, about one hundred enlisted soldiers and his adjutant, Captain George S. Patton.

The first American wave into France totaled about 190 men.

General Pershing disembarks in Boulogne on 13 June 1917

(Read more about General Pershing’s arrival here)

Dark days for France

The welcome of the French was out of proportion to the size of the American advance guard. France had been in the war for nearly three years and had been bled white by the costly offensives and attrition of the Great War. French line units were deeply demoralized by the spring of 1917 and some of them had mutinied. Dozens of mutineers had been court martialed and shot. The Americans’ arrival at this crucial time restored the spirits of all France.

Pershing’s small staff had their work cut out for them. The American Expeditionary Force, as they were now known, were planning to bring an army of one million men across the Atlantic to fight. To accomplish this, they would have to build infrastructure: docks, roads and railroads. Incoming soldiers would need training camps, supply depots and field hospitals. They would need tons of food, fuel and clothing. As this was the early Twentieth Century, they would need horses and fodder to feed them. And weapons; no one at AEF Headquarters was sure what weapons the American Doughboy was going to use in combat.

The key to this and all other problems lay in transport. The United States had limited transatlantic shipping capacity and too many men, animals and materiel stateside. French and British generals were insistent that America send troops, but Napoleon’s rule that an army marches on its stomach had to be followed.


The vast Atlantic

Bringing the American military in force to Europe in time to defeat Germany would require the Allies had mastery of the seas. They didn’t. German submarines had resumed unrestricted attacks around the British Isles in February and Britain was fearful that losses on land and sea may end the war in Germany’s favor before the United States could fully enter it.

In the early evening of April 24th, six U.S. Navy destroyers cleared Boston harbor steaming east. Their mission would become clear only when they were fifty miles east of Provincetown. Once out to sea, the orders read that they were to cross the Atlantic and make contact with a British warship outside Queenstown, Ireland. The U.S. Navy was going to war.

The six ships of Destroyer Division Eight arrived in Ireland on May 4th, 1917. Their home base was Queenstown (now Cobh), on the south coast. They began patrolling the Western Approaches of the British Isles almost immediately and were joined by another six American destroyers on May 17.

Antisubmarine patrol from Queenstown was not glamorous. The coastline was unfamiliar; filled with dangerous rocks and ledges. The weather was notoriously bad year round. German submarines were laying mines and stalking ships. American destroyermen had to learn how to track submarines from the men of the Royal Navy, who’d been at it for over two years.


The Return of the Mayflower, 4th May, 1917 by Bernard Emmanuel Finnigan Gribble


A debt repaid

Slowly, the number of American soldiers in France grew. By the end of June, about half of the U.S. First Division, the Big Red One, had landed in St. Nazaire. There was also a battalion of U.S. Marines. American soldiers and marines were enthusiastically greeted everywhere they went.

Pershing knew they were not yet ready for action. They would need to train for the relentless trench warfare of the Western Front. They would need to train with new and unfamiliar weapons and tactics. Most of all, more men were needed in France.

July 4th, 1917 saw a parade in Paris. For five miles through the old city the 2nd Battalion of the 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment marched until they reached the gravesite of Gilbert du Motier, the sixth Marquis de Lafayette. With General John Pershing at the head, the Americans saluted their Revolutionary War comrade. A voice called out “Nous voilà, Lafayette!


16th Infantry Regiment marches in Paris on July 4, 1917