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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Doughboy Basics: What Parts Did Trench & Gas Warfare Play in the American War Experience?

Trench Warfare

Trench warfare, or least vivid memories of unpleasant extended periods of service in the trenches, was not a big part of the American experience in the war.   One reason for this is that trench warfare effectively  ended in the most active parts of the front, Flanders-Artois-Aisne/Marn-Champagne-Verdun-St. Mihiel, when the German Army launched its first of five spring offensives on 21 March 1918.  From this point on American forces in these hot zones were either plugging a  gap, as they did at Château-Thierry, or launching an attack.

1st Division Doughboys Digging a New Trench

This is not to say that the Doughboys didn't spend time in the trenches to get their footing and test the command structure of the units.  The ideal was to spend some time in a quiet zone where the trenches were well-established and this was actually the experience of the early arriving units, particularly the 1st and 2nd regular divisions,  and the 26th Yankee and 42nd Rainbow Divisions.  The 1st division incurred the first casualties in action in November 1917 during a trench raid in the Vosges Mountains at BathelĂ©mont.  The following spring the 26th division was targeted by special German assault units in a memorable trench raid at Seicheprey on the border of the St. Mihiel Salient.  During the summer, however, as the arrival of Americans turned to a flood (10,000 arrivals per day in July) things were also heating up on the battlefields.  The newer units were rushed into action and had less time to spend in the trenches.  These shorter stays could still be dangerous, with random bombardments including gas shelling, sniper fire, and enemy raids.  But the postwar memories of the troops focused much more on what happened to them, say, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive than in their brief service in the trenches.

This is probably a good time to mention something for which General Pershing has been broadly criticized since the war.  He felt trench warfare was futile and wanted his men trained for open warfare.  On this  general point he was absolutely correct.  However, the tactics he preferred involved attacking with mobile infantry, primarily riflemen.  By the latter stages of the  war, Pershing's staff and field commanders including such officers as Fox Conner, George Marshall, Hunter Liggettt, Charles Summerall, and John Lejeune had figured out  the winning formula for dominating the World War I battlefield—through the coordination of infantry, artillery, and the supporting logistics train. We will expand on this in later editions of "Doughboy Basics."

Gas Warfare

28th Division Troops Under Gas Attack

Defensive Measures

Gas took a tremendous toll on the Doughboys.  Nearly 75,000 men were gassed.  The official figures suggest about 1,500  of these  men died.   This, I believe, is  misleading, possibly dramatically so. Since I've been publishing the Doughboy Center website I have been told of dozens of episodes like this: "Uncle Bill was gassed at Belleau Wood.  He survived the war, but died of respiratory problems in the 1920s or '30s."  The most famous example of this is baseball hall-of-famer Christy Mathewson, who was gassed in a drill in France and developed TB after he returned home and died soon after. Such stories are anecdotal, of course,  but I believe a substantial number of the 75,000 men—far beyond the official number—eventually died young because of their gassing during the war.  Another factor to consider is the Spanish Flu, which also attacked the respiratory system.  An early gassing episode would weaken a soldier's  ability to fight off the flu when it struck. This means that some of the AEF's fatalities that are categorized as "from illness" are due to being gassed on the battlefield.

Why was the AEF so hard hit by gas?  The experience of the 29th National Guard Division from Maryland and Virginia is instructive.  They were sent into action on the heights of the east side of the Meuse River on 8 October 1918.  Within three weeks the division was pulled from the line due to attrition from gas shelling. German artillery had fired 22,000 gas shells at the Americans during the period over which the 29th Division suffered 2,408 wounded and 1,782 gas cases.

The analysis of the 29th Division period in the  front line is very critical of the division's officers and by inference the higher command of the AEF:

1.  The Division Gas Officer lacked authority in matters of training and discipline The division's first gas officer was relieved for excessive zeal.

2.  The German tactic of desultory but almost non-stop gas bombardment was not understood as effective at taking casualties and  the persistence of phosgene gas was not understood.

3.  Men could not wear their gas masks all the time.  They were willing to tolerate slight irritations not realizing the cumulative effect of the gas.

4. The main lesson learned by the Allied armies from the first use of gas in 1915 that the best way to suppress the enemy's use of gas is to use it on him was never absorbed by the U.S. command.  The French artillery assigned to support the 29th Division only fired gas on the German artillery a single day during October.

Offensive Applications

As pointed out above, there was reluctance to use gas even as a defensive measure to limit its own casualties by the AEF. But one of the dirty secrets of the Great War was that gas could be effective on the battlefield—even decisive—if used intelligently.  This was true, for instance, for the German attack at Caporetto in October 1917 and the British Army at Amiens in August 1918. However, in the opening of the  largest American battles of the war, the  Meuse-Argonne Offensives, gas use was minimal. even though shells were made available throughout the First Army. The senior staff did not appreciate the offensive possibilities of gas and gas shells were not given  a high priority by corps and division commanders.  Plus, there were  reservations about the morality of gas and a one-sided fear that  if gas was used, the enemy would retaliate with his own gas.  For the last phase  of the offensive, however, new leadership had arrived to lead the U.S. First Army, and they had no reservations about its use.  Gas played a critical role in the attack of 1 November 1918 that shattered the German defensive structure and opened the road to Sedan.  It was a singular event for the AEF, though, and the war ended soon afterward.

In sum,  the American experience with gas warfare can be described thus;

Because the U.S. Army failed to develop gas warfare doctrine, the average AEF officer never really understood the potential value of chemicals. Nor could he put aside his preconceived, if perhaps erroneous notion, that chemicals were unusually inhumane weapons whose development should not be pursued.  For America the real inhumanity of chemical warfare in World War I lay in the blindness of U.S. civilian and military leaders who, having ignored the real and present threat posed by gas, deployed the doughboys of the AEF to fight unprepared in a chemical environment. Ignorance, shortsightedness, and unpreparedness extracted a high toll at the front, a toll that the United States with its intellectual and technological resources should not have had to pay. 

Chemical Warfare in World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918 
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984


  1. Lengel sees many American units failing to learn gas lessons from either the French of their US predecessors (in Thunder and Flames).

    1. While I appreciate Lengel, I find him overly negative about practically everything.

  2. I agree with you. That is a very valid point you bring up. Thank you for sharing this very informative and well explained post with us
    12:33 PM World History