Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, May 1, 2017

"Vive l'Amèrique!" — When the Yanks Began Arriving in France

By Raquel Hendrickson

"Vive l'Amèrique!" shouted the little boy standing at the edge of a Boulogne pier as he waved his arms at the steamer passing into port. 

General Pershing Arrives in France, 13 June 1917

On deck, the American general raised a hand to the distant lad. Near him, a newspaperman noted this exchange and looked to the dock ahead at the waiting French emissaries, a guard of honor and a band playing the French national anthem and "The Star Spangled Banner."

For the 190 American soldiers and civilians that comprised Gen. John J. Pershing's entourage, the arrival at Boulogne-sur-Mer on 13 June 1917 was rather quiet. Yet all appreciated their place in history. 

Just as they had been the first U.S. military force to ever set foot in Great Britain a week earlier, they were also the first to arrive on the Continent. The contingent included only 67 enlisted men and 40 regular army officers. It was a disappointingly small group from the perspective of the French, who hoped America's declaration of war would mean instant waves of corn-fed Yankees hitting their shores. And so the waves would come, but excruciatingly slowly. 

The coordination effort of moving one division, let alone seven corps, across the Atlantic was profound. Landing the units, analyzing circumstances and reorganizing the divisions as quickly as needed was an unprecedented task. 

The First Division landed at the ports of the ancient shipbuilding town of St. Nazaire in late June. This first wave was about 14,500 strong—some regular army, a battalion of Marines, and many very raw recruits. "Sturdy rookies," Pershing called them. The general was on hand to greet the 14-vessel convoy as it sailed into port with American flags flying. The sight, Pershing would write, "gave us all a thrill of pride." 

It was not the sharpest-looking outfit, however. Uniforms were so new and ill-fitting they looked as though they had been purchased from a catalogue. Many experienced officers and veterans had been stripped out to help train other units. The lack of preparation decried by Pershing retarded the U.S. participation in the conflict, though none of the Allied commanders expected the Americans to be ready before the end of the "fighting season" for that year. Also at issue was how much of an influence the French officers would be in the training of the Doughboys. 

The soldiers in the First Division may have been in dire need of drilling, but they were enthusiastic. Being safe back on land after the fretful crossing (with the constant threat of German U-boats), the Yankees were a happy, singing lot. The citizens of St. Nazaire did not care what they looked like or how long they had trained. Their welcome was boisterous. It took at least three days for the division to complete its debarkation in the port city, long enough for the soldiers to avail themselves of all the amenities and introduce themselves to France. 

In the days between his own arrival and that of the First Division, Pershing had come to a full grasp of the deplorable state of morale for the French people and the French Army. The Allied commanders knew that the sight of the fresh American soldiers would have a bolstering effect, had anticipated it for months, in fact. For that reason, a grand reception was arranged for the Fourth of July in Paris. 

Color Guard of the 16th Infantry in Pairs, 4 July 1917

Pershing brought a battalion of the 16th Infantry to parade in Paris with great pomp and circumstance. The general's contingent rose to the dramatic occasion. "Nous voilà, Lafayette!" declared Lt. Col. Charles Stanton before the jubilant Parisians assembled at the marquis's tomb. Pershing kissed the sword of Napoleon that was presented for his viewing. Eschewing protocol, women infiltrated the ranks to grab the soldiers and shower them with garlands and kisses. Others fell to their knees on the sidewalks. 

The arrival of the rest of the American Expeditionary Force would be less theatrical. While the First Division was undergoing heavy training and Pershing was shaking up and rebuilding his command, the Second Division began arriving in late August. The Second, in total about 25,000 men, rather trickled into France. In March, April, and May of 1918 they were still arriving. This again was mainly due to the experienced men being transferred to train other units and being replaced piecemeal by new recruits and conscripts still coming in from the States. 

Once in port, the Doughboys were loaded into railroad boxcars—large enough for 40 men or eight horses—and sent off to their designated training areas. The trip sometimes took a few days and was almost always followed by a long hike to camp. For the divisions that arrived in the late fall and winter, the French excursion was a swift awakening to the wet, cold conditions they would slog through for months. 

Meanwhile, French officials were becoming impatient for the Doughboys to actually get into the fight. 

In July 1917 Pershing sent Washington his request for one million soldiers. He insisted on keeping his Americans an independent army, and anything less than one million men could not be called a real army, in his estimation. Long before he left Washington, he was battling the French and English demands that the Sammies be placed under the command and training of the Allied commanders. Pershing, with the backing of President Wilson, demanded that his men fight only under American officers and only when they were good and ready. 

In September the 26th Division was on French shores and then in October, the 42nd (Rainbow) Division. Both were comprised of National Guard units, the former mainly from New England and the latter from all over the country. This ingress, too, was slow and in installments. Even regiments had to be temporarily broken apart to facilitate shipping. Part of the 26th had already been in some scraps before the entire division had completely disembarked by January 1918. 

Units also faced rapid command changes. Many a division, many a regiment, many a battalion found itself with a different commanding officer than it had trained under in the States. Again, the situation can be marked down in part to the shifting of experienced officers, but a large reason for it was the quick assessment of the officers' real abilities. Pershing and his staff were no respecters of persons when it came to weeding out longtime officers they deemed unfit for the warfare they faced. The Second Division, made up of Army, Navy, and Marines, was completely reorganized in France. 

Three other divisions, or at least division commands, began arriving on French shores before the end of 1917. The 32nd, a National Guard division, came out of Michigan and Wisconsin. The 41st, another NG division, was comprised of units from all over the West and became the 1st Depot Division. 

John Singer Sargent's Depiction of the Yanks 
Arriving on the Western Front

And then there was the 93rd National Army Division, a so-called "colored" unit. The U.S. military was, of course, not integrated, and some generals had already made it very clear they did not want to command black soldiers. The British, too, stated to Pershing that training with the African Americans would be bad for morale. The French had no such hesitations and welcomed the chance to fill their lines with the four infantry regiments. Almost as soon as the division command arrived in January, Pershing executed a rare break from his firm stand against American soldiers fighting under foreign command and sent the 93rd to the French. This was ostensibly on a temporary basis as replacements. They would be with the French troops for the rest of the war. 

Residents of crowded ports like Brest became accustomed to the sight of Yankees marching off the ships and the American stevedores, white and black side by side, unloading supplies. So common was the sight of disembarking U.S. soldiers after a time that the reception by residents became quite lackadaisical and inclined to self-interest. Prices, already bloated by war, shot up. Hospitality businesses thrived. It would not be long before the ports were well known as havens for prostitutes and the accompanying diseases. 

As those first divisions arrived, Pershing's staff began to put the organizational plan into order. Already determined were the location of training centers, the procedures of transportation within the French interior, lines of communication, and the business of trying to feed and supply an unprecedented American Expeditionary Force. 

1 comment:

  1. Great summary of the challenges awaiting the Americans! However, It's a plural American Expeditionary Forces.