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.

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