1st Infantry Division helped establish U.S. power in WWI
By GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 27, 2006
Part I of a three-part series, "The Big Red One: Nearly a century of war".
A few years into World War I, British and French forces were suffering. Beset by a crushing German offensive and a large-scale mutiny of French soldiers, the Allies welcomed America’s entry into the war in 1917.
But they wanted to see America mix forces with their own tired and depleted ranks, not form divisions of their own, said Andrew Woods, a research historian at the Cantigny First Division Foundation in Wheaton, Ill.
“There was a mind-set that we were a second-rate power,” Woods said.
But as American Expeditionary Force commander Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing began amassing soldiers in France, he wanted no doughboy to take orders in the field from foreign officers.
(The exact reason why American soldiers were called “doughboys” during World War I is unclear. One theory posits that it was a derisive nickname used by the British and French against U.S. soldiers whom they viewed as soft and naive.)
“I was decidedly against our becoming a recruiting agency for either the French or British,” Pershing later wrote in “My Experiences in the World War.” “While fully realizing the difficulties, it was definitely understood … that we should proceed to organize our own units from top to bottom, and build a distinctive army of our own as rapidly as possible.”
With that insistence, the 1st Infantry Division was born, and the units of the first division in American history set foot in France during the summer of 1917.
By this time, Germany had fought the Allies to a standstill on the western front, and each side occupied trenches across from the other that stretched in an almost complete line from the North Sea south to the Swiss border.
While Pershing won out in his desire to not have U.S. forces as a colonial footnote, America still possessed a comparatively small fighting force, so the U.S. had to rely on French artillery and tanks for much of the war, according to Woods.
The 14,000 or so U.S. troops who made up the beginnings of the 1st ID arrived in France in June 1917 and were followed by more soldiers who would round out the division ranks at about 25,000 by the end of the year.
Besides wanting to command his own guys, Woods said, Pershing had some thoughts on how to end that bitter draw along the trench lines.
Before the U.S. arrived, much of the fighting involved more of a defensive posture, due largely to the stalemate in the trenches and the devastation inflicted by the latest machine gun and artillery capabilities.
Pershing had the 1st ID soldiers and others who followed train in a more open type of warfare that emphasized marksmanship, Woods said, and where a rolling artillery barrage would be followed up by waves of infantry.
“He had the idea of breaking through this crust of entrenchment, getting behind the German lines and taking their artillery positions, their supply and getting out in the open where you’re past these trenches,” Woods said.
As part of their training and initial deployment, units were assigned trench duty along what were considered to be quieter sectors of the trench line.
Division soldiers learned how to wage war from trenches — and the nastier aspects of living in them.
“Lice was everywhere,” Woods said. “The uniforms were not really a good fatigue uniform. They were very tight-fitting wool.”
“Corn willy,” basically canned beef hash, was the dominant meal in the trenches.
“Sometimes even canned salmon, which was suspected to have been left from the Spanish-American War,” Woods said.
‘War-wearied and sorely tried’
Pershing needed a defining moment to lift the spirits of the 1st ID soldiers and other American soldiers were pouring into France each day. He found that moment at Cantigny.
In 1918, division forces prepared for their first limited attack. That spring had been rough on the Allies. Germany had launched a series of offensives that had pushed forces within 40 miles of Paris, with more and more soldiers amassing on the western front.
The French village of Cantigny on the front had proven to be a hard place for the French to reclaim and even harder to keep. Taking it wouldn’t turn the tide of the war, but a psychological uplift was needed for American forces.
“Taking Cantigny was relatively easy [compared] to holding Cantigny,” Woods said. “Up to that time, we hadn’t done anything but trench raids. Now there’s a whole regiment taking the town that had been held by a German regiment.”
Situated at a strategically advantageous high ground, it had been taken back by French forces in previous battles, but had never been held in the face of German counterattacks.
In April, 1st ID soldiers relieved exhausted French First Army forces and hunkered down in trenches about 600 yards away from the town. The approach was covered by German artillery and machine guns.
Approximately 4,000 men, mostly from the division’s 2nd Infantry Brigade, 28th Infantry Regiment, were to lead the fight.
After an Allied artillery bombardment that began just before 6 a.m. on May 28, the infantry moved in, taking the town within an hour. But the fight wasn’t over.
German artillery soon began to pound the village’s rubble, and German soldiers emerged from hiding to battle the doughboys. Later in the afternoon, as close-quarter fighting continued, the German infantry led a counterattack against the town. In all, three German counterattacks were repulsed. The division held Cantigny.
“Cantigny was … one of the most important engagements of the war in its import to our war-wearied and sorely tried Allies,” division commander Maj. Gen. Robert Bullard later said, according to Ian Westwell’s book, “Spearhead: 1st Infantry Division.” “To both friend and foe it said, ‘Americans will both fight and stick.’”
Over the trenches and through the woods …
Over the summer of 1918, division forces — and a rapidly expanding American force that numbered more than one million men and 29 divisions by the fall — helped rout the Germans.
A 1st ID battle in July near the town of Soissons, France, helped cut vital German supply routes, Woods said.
“Soissons begins a retreat for the Germans,” he said.
In September, the division helped clear out a particularly stubborn bulge in the German lines known as the St. Mihiel salient.
All this led to the enormous Meuse-Argonne offensive and the final breaking point for the German army. It would take Allied forces through to the end of the war, as Allied forces would work to deliver the fatal hammer blows to the enemy.
Named for the Meuse River and the Argonne forest, around which much of the fighting would take place, the offensive started in September 1918, with the 1st ID mainly held as a reserve force. But taking the dense Argonne forest proved more difficult than expected, and on Oct. 1, the 1st ID was called in to replace the decimated 35th Infantry Division, whose inexperienced infantrymen had crumbled in the face of stiff German fortifications.
While in position and awaiting orders to attack, the 1st ID soldiers were shelled and gassed by German forces from higher points.
On Oct. 4, the First Army and its assembled Corps began the second push of the mammoth offensive, which included more than 1 million American soldiers.
After assuming their positions, the division met with machine gun fire and other fierce resistance as soldiers battled through woods and treacherous terrain.
“They’re (Germans) still on retreat, but they’re able to hold their ground for a long time,” Woods said.
The forest was covered with pillboxes and wire barriers, and the Germans had positions on higher ground that proved devastating to U.S. forces, Woods said.
“The chemical shells were most effective,” he said of the German defense of the region. “The mustard gas or the chlorine gas stay in the low areas of the forest.”
On Oct. 11, after advancing and driving a wedge in the German lines, the exhausted 1st ID soldiers turned their sector over to the 42nd Infantry Division and moved back to receive and integrate thousands of replacement soldiers.
Pulling out of the line, the soldiers were exhausted and starving. There was also a lack of food and potable water, rain and constant slogs through muddy terrain and a decimated landscape.
The Allied attack continued, and the Germans were driven back home. The war officially ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
The 1st ID went from a smattering of smaller forces into a unit that helped defeat the most powerful army in the world, all within 17 grueling months and at a cost of more than 21,000 lives. In all, more than 100,000 Americans perished in the war.
Through the efforts of the 1st ID, America’s military stepped into the 20th century. But it would take a second global conflict more than two decades later to establish the U.S. at the forefront of the Western world.
After war, a circus
These days, soldiers hook up their iPod, Xbox or other electronics to keep them occupied while deployed. It wasn’t always that easy.
After World War I, the 1st Infantry Division stuck around Germany and Europe for about a year, ensuring that the Germans adhered to the terms of the armistice that ended the war in November 1918. During the occupation, division leaders were looking for something to keep the soldiers busy, and they decided: It’s time for a circus.
“There [was] very little for the soldiers to do” in 1919, said Andrew Woods, a research historian at the Cantigny First Division Foundation in Wheaton, Ill. “They [wanted] to keep them from fraternizing, or from coming under the sway of communism, so they [came] up with a lot more activities.”
Certain units of the division — mainly ordnance and signal units — ended up putting on a circus for German civilians and GIs.
“They had animals, and a big horse show, because the division artillery was horse-drawn,” Woods said.
The merriment even included soldiers dressed as clowns, and some troops put on a play and dressed as women for certain parts, he said.
“There was even an elephant,” Woods said, adding that he doesn’t know where the division found an elephant in post-war Europe.
— Geoff Ziezulewicz