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