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Thread: [History] The Big Red One...The First US Infantry Division in WWI

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    Default [History] The Big Red One...The First US Infantry Division in WWI

    Author: Legio XX Valeria Victrix
    Original thread: The Big Red One...The First US Infantry Division in WWI

    The Big Red One...The First US Infantry Division in WWIRecently I've had the pleasure of working on a project at work making a document to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the founding of this prestigious unit, which will be on June 8th of this year.

    The First Division was what it's numerical designation implies: it was the first of many things in the modern American army.

    Prior to 1917 and America's entry into the First World War, the US Army was a small organization, comprised of less than 30,000 active duty soldiers, most of whom served in the cavalry. The late 19th Century had seen a rapid demobilization after the Civil War that left a small Army mostly concerned with Indians in the American West.

    In 1916, the Army's main occupation was chasing Pancho Villa around northern Mexico, a fruitless task that wore out the troops involved, but gave them some kind of experience that would help them when they arrived in France. In April 1917, the US entered the Great War, and found itself woefully unprepared for the challenges it faced. John J. Pershing, commander of the Mexican Punitive Expedition, was designated the commander of the First US Expeditionary Division, and was given the freedom of hand to choose the units that would comprise this first group of American doughboys.

    For this, Pershing selected men he knew, men who had served with him in Mexico: the 16th, 18th, 26th, and 28th Infantry Regiments, and the 5th and 6th Field Artillery. By June 1917, these units had been brought up to war strength, and assembled at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, where they were officially entered into Regular Army service. Beginning on June 12, they shipped out of Hoboken, New Jersey for France. By June 28, the first contingent had arrived in St. Nazaire, France. A few short days later, American troops of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry celebrated their first 4th of July in France, parading through Paris to buoy the spirits of the Parisians. It was here that a member of Pershing's staff echoed the words: "Lafayette, we are here!"

    First Division soldiers entraining for the Front, April 6, 1918.

    Following the brief Parisian interlude, the division was assembled at Gondrecourt, France, in August 1917. There it undertook several months of intensive training in trench combat, led by French instructors. By October, Pershing and the divisional officers felt confident enough to offer their services to the French, who agreed to place the division in a quiet sector of the trench lines to get its first taste of war. On the night of October 20, two of the division's regiments slipped silently into the trenches along the Sommervillier sector. On October 23, Battery C of the 6th Field Artillery sent the first American shell hurtling to German lines. A few short days later, on November 3, 1917, three Americans were killed in a trench raid by German's eager to test their new American adversaries. These were the first Americans KIA in the war.

    One of the first three Americans killed in action on November 3, 1917.

    More training occupied the division's schedule until the new year of 1918. On January 18, they entered a more active sector of the trenches, the Ansauville Subsector. Here the division was engaged in heavier combat and suffered its first serious casualties. By April 3, the situation faced by the Allies was so demanding that the First Division could not be wasted on a relatively quiet sector like Ansauville.

    On March 21, the Germans had launched Operation Michael, the vast attack along a broad stretch of the Western Front using reserves come over from Russia after that nation's withdrawal from the war in late 1917. The Allies were bludgeoned back with heavy losses, and all the men available were necessary to prevent a breakthrough.

    The First was put in along the Montdidier-Noyon sector, near where the Somme Offensive was fought two years before. The Germans had captured a small town by the name of Cantigny, situated on a high bluff that gave the Germans excellent artillery positions. The 28th Infantry was charged with taking that town back from the Germans in what would be the first American offensive of the war. This they did successfully, in a matter of 45 minutes, on May 28, 1918. For the next three days, the Germans counterattacked, but were unable to retake the village. The First Division lost just over 1,000 men in its debut attack. Engaged along this sector until mid-June, the Division lost over 3,000 men there.

    A training attack, complete with French tanks, on May 11, 1918. Just two weeks prior to the real thing at Cantigny.

    The First Division would eventually compile the fullest combat record of any American unit in the war, fighting in the offensives at Soissons (where they lost 4,500 men) on July 18-23, at St. Mihiel on September 12-15 (where they lost 1,600), and finally in the Meuse-Argonne offensive from September 26 to Armistice Day, in which over 5,000 men of the division fell. They lost, in total, over 26,000 men in France.

    Reserve troops of the First Division, waiting to be called into action at Couvres-et-Vaisery, France. July 18, 1918.

    Close quarters fighting in the Argonne Forest near the town of Exermont, France in October 1918. Note the bullet hole in the helmet.

    Their overseas service in the Great War is exemplary of America's impact on that war. Countless recollections depict a battered and demoralized French and British force when they first arrived in the country, but following American intervention at key points in the battles of Cantigny, Belleau Wood, and Chateau Thierry, the Allies were willing to fight on to German defeat. Though their losses paled in comparison to those who had borne the fight for four long years, they injected the Allied forces with optimism, and their brazen, headlong assaults were viewed not with cynicism, but as the sign of an Army that had not been dismembered through three years of costly and fruitless assaults.

    A French woman shows her appreciation of American troops in France.
    Last edited by jimkatalanos; July 30, 2007 at 10:54 AM.
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