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 16, 2022

Voices from the Great War: America on the Battlefields

Americans Ready to Fight, France, 1917

Once at the front, the American troops began to get ready for combat. U.S. Marine Melvin Krulewitch described the physical training he underwent.

All of us went through the tough Marine Corps Training. Which comprised not only the training as Marines, the technical military training, but physical training. When we were in camp we were required to serve one day of training and one day of the hardest physical labour that you can imagine. We handled five-tonne iron and steel beams by hand; we unloaded brick barges by hand; we made the oyster-shell roads by hand. We went on our hikes into the manoeuvre grounds carrying 95 pounds on our back. We got used to that: it was a great pleasure to go back to training after the day of hard work. And, every morning at 4.45, at reveille, we would have 15 minutes of hard physical exercise with the rifle itself – using it as a wand: a nine and a half pound gun.

The newly arrived American soldiers also received basic weapons training. American machine gunner Leon Diament described the equipment that he trained with.

When we arrived in France we had no machine guns. We went in training the best way we could with our small arms, waiting for our machine guns to arrive. Well, they didn’t arrive for about a week, or maybe even a little longer. If I remember, it was about eight or nine days. A shipment of machine-guns finally arrived, and when we opened them, we almost had a revolution. We found we’d received Hotchkiss guns – Hotchkiss machine guns – that was the guns the French Army used. Well, there was a big commotion. The officers got in touch with headquarters and headquarters with supreme headquarters, and back and forth, back and forth, but nothing happened. Next morning the officer came in and said, ‘Men, I’m sorry, that’s it. Those are your weapons, and that’s what you have to use up front. You’d better learn how to operate them. Tout de suite!’ There was a commotion, there was a little resentment but we were good soldiers; we had to take it.

British officer Bill Haine was part of a demonstration platoon that delivered combat training to American troops in 1918.

When we were dragged out of the line to form GHQ troops we still went on training and one of the things which happened was that they formed a number of demonstration platoons. All these people had been a lot of actual warfare and all our fellows had seen a lot of actual warfare and they formed these demonstration platoons to try and instruct other people how to carry on. Well, it was a highly trained platoon and it was there to demonstrate to troops who had not had the experience of war. The discipline was a great thing; I mean we trained like guardsmen as far as the drill was concerned. But then on the battle side, you showed them how you should do things and how you should use your weapons.

Charles Templar of the Gloucestershire Regiment was a signals instructor to the New York Division in 1918.

When I got back to the battalion and was greeted as I was. I was obviously being kept back because I was sent on a separate duty to join the New York Division – the American New York Division – which had just landed in France, only just landed. And they sent me because they wanted me to give instruction and information to the American signallers of the division concerning the sort of work they’d have to do in the front line and the areas around the front line. So I had the signallers in a group and I didn’t try to teach them anything I might talk to them about the sort of things that they could expect.

After this training, behind the lines, U.S. troops joined French and British units in relatively quiet sectors to gain front-line experience. British private Fred Lewis recalled the American soldiers that he served with.

When the Americans came, when they came out, there was about eight and they come to our lot. And the sergeant there, the first words he said when he was in our trenches were, ‘Where are the goddam Germans?’ Someone told him, ‘Just over there.’ I says, ‘You’ll know where they are when you’ve been here a few days, when they start throwing the shells about…!’

Alexander Stanier, an officer in the Welsh Guards, found there were some difficulties caused by the influx of new troops not used to trench life.

They were in very good form they didn’t seem to realise that the Germans were close; they made the most appalling noise which of course frightened the Germans who thought they were going to be attacked, I think. They also had a bet on as to who’d shoot the first German in this battalion. The Germans sent over a patrol to find out what was happening and of course they all let fly and they did shoot the equivalent of a German company sergeant major, who was brought in, dead. And of course then there was the most appalling argument as to who’d shot him, because about a million rounds had been fired. But they were very keen and, as I say, there were too many of them in a small space. They caused the most frightful commotion and the Germans kept on thinking they were being attacked. I had a very uncomfortable time because we had much more shelling while they were there. We kept it all quiet.

Many of the Americans were shocked when confronted with the realities of trench warfare. Leonard Stagg served with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The Americans when they came over it absolutely jolted them. I remember one of their MO’s saying to me, ‘Do you mean to tell me you chaps have stuck this for three years and more?’ Yes I said. He said, ‘Our chaps will never stick it.’ I remember one of those coming into the room, one was crying – his brother in law had been killed, down near Metz. They’d never experienced war like it; it just really shook them to their very marrows.

The American soldiers were unused to the dangers of front-line service, as British private William Gillman found out.

We liked the Americans. We used to take the mickey out of their boasting; you know, they’d only got to arrive and the war would be won. But of course it wasn’t, and it took some time. Because we knew very well that when they said that they were going to knock out these goddam Jerries and all the kind of thing like that then they got the reverse lesson. They learned, even after repeated warnings from us. Cos they never used to take much notice of us warning them, you know. They were so cocksure that they didn’t know what keeping your head down meant. And they paid a penalty to it, too. They thought they were going to knock old Jerry out just by looking over the top, see. But of course Jerry wasn’t like that and he taught them a lesson. And then as soon as they got used to it and began to realise that even their tin helmets wouldn’t stop bullets! They got more wise to things.

Sometimes, this inexperience had serious consequences—as Horace Calvert of the Grenadier Guards discovered.

We took them into the trenches with us and there were two or three with me and the section I was in. There was a sergeant who was further down and some more. They’d been told not to go out from our trenches unless they told the company on the right and the company on the left, in other words the flank men. And they’d pass it on if there was anybody, not to shoot at any patrol or anybody coming in, crawling in or walking in during the darkness but to challenge and make sure they did that before they did any shooting. Well this American sergeant took two or three men out looking for souvenirs – we told him there weren’t any, there were nothing worth having but he would go out to see if he could get any. And unluckily they got in front of the machine guns of the Irish Guards and they shot them. The sergeant I think did lose his leg and the others were wounded. That, you see, was them not listening.

After they had received their training, the American troops were eager to get into action. Earl Davison served with the U.S. artillery.

There was a general opinion among the men that – let’s get on with it, that if there’s nothing more that you can teach us here, so many miles back from where there’s something doing, we don’t want to stay here forever, we want to get this thing over with, that was general among the men. And we practically broke open a bottle of champagne when the words came that we were to move the next 48 hours, somewhere, we didn’t care where. We’d had enough of this business of play-acting. We wanted to get somewhere where we could do some damage, and get done, get back home.

The first American offensive of the First World War took place in France at Cantigny on 28 May 1918. John Figarovsky witnessed the battle.

And on the day of the battle, they had the tremendous barrage. They had a creeping barrage. I was watching through binoculars and they had a creeping barrage that was slowly creeping towards the town of Cantigny which was situated on high ground. And I could see some of the waves of American soldiers as they went forward. I saw many of them fall. I saw some of them get up and follow the barrage again. And every here and there, there was a Whippet tank with the troops, they did a lot of work when they got to the town those tanks, wiping out some of the machine-gun nests there. And there was so much smoke and so much noise going on from all the barrage and counter barrage, you know, that I couldn’t see very well exactly what was going on.

At the end of May, American troops arrived at Chateau Thierry, south of Soissons, to support the French against German attack. Gunner William Maher remembered what happened.

When we arrived in the Chateau Thierry section our battalion, our guns, went immediately into action in support of the Marines and the infantry who were in the Belleau Woods and Belleau and Bouresches; and we were firing continuously day and night, high explosive, gas, shrapnel. And we realised the importance of saving Paris and the Allied army itself was at stake. And there was a lot heavy work going on there hauling ammunition day and night. We had to keep off the roads in the daytime because we were under the constant observation of the enemy; and during the day we had to hide in the woods and clean our horses and all our equipment and get ready for the next night’s work. Our division suffered very heavy casualties, about 9,800 officers and men; but we felt we had turned the tide and we did a good job.

On 6 June, US Marines went into action against German forces at Belleau Wood. Melvin Krulewitch described the fierce fighting that took place there.

We got into the edge of the woods and we dug in. And we took position there, ready for either an advance again on orders from the top command or for a defence against a counter attack. Now this was the kind of fighting that many Americans knew of; no longer trench system, no trench warfare, but open warfare. The way their ancestors had fought on the frontiers and in all the wars of our country. And we knew it. But the difficulty with Belleau Wood was you never knew where the front was. Little groups of Americans, little groups of Germans got together to fight each other. And while you were fighting in one direction all of a sudden, without any warning, you’d find there were some Germans to the rear of you and they had to be mopped up. Clean up, mop up, and move ahead; move ahead with the unyielding determination to enforce your will on the enemy; and that was how we moved in Belleau Wood.

These American actions contributed to the Allied successes in the summer of 1918. British officer Murray Rymer-Jones was one of many who appreciated the USA’s support in the war.

Those were happy days and things had begun to look up. And so things were getting better and the Americans were down the south. We’d had one of their battalions in Arras in the trench and they were rather delighted that they had an officer killed on their first night. So they felt they were doing their job. I liked them very much, because they were full of enthusiasm, full of guts. They were after all, they’d come over to win the war and they were very good.

Donald Price of the Royal Fusiliers also had a positive opinion of the Americans he encountered.

We were taken down from Ypres right the way down to near Peronne. First time I met the Americans. It was down there somewhere, round Peronne or somewhere, where the Americans had just come in. I loved them; they were all so generous. We didn’t see many of them but we passed a lot once, they were on the side of the road there, chin-wagging and you know, they were pleased to see us, you know, mates. And they were very kind, they gave us cigarettes and chocolates and things like that.

But not everyone was so enthusiastic about them. One of the chief sources of tension was that the Americans earned more money than the British, as Herbert Verrity of the West Yorkshire Regiment explained.

The Americans were very unpopular because they had the money; they didn’t half get big money. So, if you was in small villages and all that there, the shopkeepers didn’t want to know you. Cos their prices was made to suit the Americans with their big money, what they could throw away. So of course that created a lot of bitterness really between the English soldier and the American soldier.

In some cases, animosity between the different nationalities serving alongside each other spilled over into physical violence. Royal Engineer Wilfred Whitlam recalled one such instance.

We was guarding a bridge just behind the lines and a mate of mine and myself went into a café – there was nobody else in the village, like, at all. And we were sat in this café and two Americans came in and of course they were bragging about how they’d come to win the war and all sorts. My mate says, ‘Shall I go and give him one?’ He’d been a boxer. I said, ‘Aye. I’ll look after the other one if he interferes.’ He just gave him one punch and he went flying over the top of the tables! The other chap was going to his help but I got hold of the scruff of his neck and said, ‘You mustn’t interfere or else you’ll get the same.’ And with that they went!

Despite these tensions, the overall contribution of America to the First World War was a key factor in the Allies’ ability to turn the tide against Germany in 1918. German officer Hartwig Pohlmann remembered how the numbers of men on the Western Front gradually tipped the scale in the Allies’ favour.

In July 1918 we tried to cross the River Marne but after three days we had to fall back. The resistance of the enemy was too heavy and there we met first American troops and now we knew from month to month more and more American troops will come to the front line and the enemy will become overwhelming for us. But we knew that we had to do our duty as soldiers and it was a matter of the politicians to find a way to a fair peace and so we did our duty as long as we could and most of the German soldiers did so. We had very heavy losses in that year and the units became smaller and smaller, we had to combine to form one company out of two and so on. The number of our guns diminished.

Many years after his service with the U.S. Army on the Western Front, Harvey Maness reflected on his experiences as one of over two million Americans who took part in the war.

All wars are hell. All wars are useless. All wars are futile. Nevertheless when I went in, I was just… this was the only war that was ever going to be fought to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy. I believed that – the only war that’s ever been fought to make the world safe for democracy and to end all wars. Just think if we had ended that. To tell you the truth, I’m very fortunate to come through World War One and be in shape I am. I’m so happy and proud to be in this stage in life; came through all of that and still in good health. I’m so grateful and thankful.

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