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

Friday, May 24, 2024

The 353rd "All Kansas" Infantry Regiment of the National Army, Part 2 — Early Days at Camp Funston

By James Patton

Camp Funston, also known as the 14th Cantonment, was constructed on a 2,000 acre site adjacent to the cavalry post at Ft. Riley, Kansas. Over 50,000 trainees passed through, including the entire National Army 89th Division and Regular Army 10th Division , (which later became the Panama Canal Division) and Funston was one of the eight camps that trained the men of the 92nd Division. At its peak, there were about 40,000 people on the site with about 1,400 buildings. By 1924 all had been razed, and the only traces visible today are a chimney and some foundations. 

The following is an extract from the History of the 353rd Infantry regiment 89th Division, National Army September 1917 – June 1919, by Capt. Charles F. Dienst and associates, published by the 353rd Infantry Society in 1921. It has been extensively edited for length, style and clarity.  Camp Funston is considered to be one of the early sites where the Spanish flu broke out. The 353rd left Funston in May, which was early in the pandemic. The influenza is not mentioned in the regimental history.

The First Men of the 353rd Report to Camp Funston

On the morning of 5 September 1917, the first five percent of the enlisted personnel arrived. The names of the men were checked off at Regimental Headquarters, then all passed under the cold showers. The surgeons gave each man a careful going-over before he received his clothing. Sizes were determined by the supply on hand: "Two each shirts O. D., one each trouser denim, one each jumper, etc." Civilian clothing couldn’t  be kept; it was either sent home or turned over to the Belgian Relief Commission. Drill began immediately, men arriving in the morning were on the drill field in the afternoon; and everyone the following morning.

By 19 September, when the 40 per cent increment had arrived (approximately one hundred twenty-five additional men per company), the system of assigning new men to the different companies had been perfected. Each company now supplied its men. Barracks planned for 150 men now were crowded with two hundred. As a result of this congestion various diseases made their appearance. But in spite of the inevitable monotony of drill, equipment shortages and disease, determined effort soon manifested itself in the military appearance of the new organization.

Hurrying Up and Waiting for Supply Issue

During the first six weeks, training was uniform. Every man was kept busy on Infantry Drill. "Letter perfect" was the requirement; "cheerful and immediate" in execution. Movements were diagrammed and demonstrated and repeated again and again until habit allowed no error in execution. 

Members of the French and British Missions arrived. These seasoned personnel saw little value in close order drill; modern warfare demanded "specialists” so emphasis was shifted from drill to instruction. Starting on 5 November 1917, schooling began in the French language, bayonet fighting, grenade throwing, field fortifications, automatic rifles, and scouting. 

Members of Camp Funston's Foreign Mission

No part of military training appealed to the men so strongly as marksmanship. The six mile march to the range began at first light. All day long the firing continued in shifts, until the light grew too dim, and then came the return march. But interest in scores seemed to overcome hardships. Officers of the Foreign Missions admitted that these mid-western soldiers were better at the beginning of practice than the average British or French soldiers were at the end. Target practice was completed early in 1918. 

Another objective was "the excavation of a Divisional Trench System on Carpenter Hill." Digging on that hill was hard work and progress was slow. After the first foot or two the tough clay soil had to be picked loose. In some sectors rocks were near the surface. Fortunately there were some miners. For them digging was a welcome variation in the schedule. In at least two respects this training fulfilled its purpose—intensity and organization. 

Going Over the Top from the Practice Trenches

For field exercises the companies were lined up before sun-up and marched to Smoky Hill Flats, a distance of approximately five miles. Upon arrival the work began—bayonet training, live grenade throwing, Chauchat automatic rifle practice, trench and combat formations in unbroken succession. At four-thirty the return march was begun and entrance to camp was made after dark. When asked of the men about this time, they replied, "You'll be glad to see Camp Funston before the week is over."  

These exercises revealed the need of emphasis upon more practical organization. Exercises in minor tactics made up in aggressiveness where they lacked in accuracy. Both sides claimed the victory in many bloodless campaigns around Morris Hill. "You're a prisoner" was answered by "I killed you half an hour ago." In victory or defeat the aggressive execution of the general plan was expected of every officer and man.

The increase in the number of men in the different units and introduction of modern equipment demanded new formations and new methods of control. Instead of 150 men and three officers per company, there were now 250 men and six officers. In addition to rifles the infantrymen carried hand and rifle grenades, automatic rifles, bolos, and trench knives. Coordination and control of the increased personnel and these various arms of the Infantry appeared now as the problem of the future. 

But the preparation for service included more than was written in Training Plans and Field Orders. Colonel Reeves knew the value of recreation and comradeship. He insisted that soldiers must be broad-minded, loyal men before they could be good fighters and that the development of these qualities was as necessary as the manual of arms. This policy was advanced in the Regiment through the co-operation of the entire personnel. Officers Conferences and Non Commissioned Officers Committees were formed. These meetings were open and every valuable suggestion received encouragement, and plans were carried back to the enlisted men. In this way every man gained responsibility for the mutual welfare. 

A Squad from the 353rd's Machine Gun Company

On 5 October 1917  in the mess hall of Company "C" all of the officers heard General Leonard Wood plainly and frankly: "You men," he said, "need to get together. You are going to have to live under conditions that will make you absolutely dependent upon one another.” These meetings continued on the 5th of each succeeding month.

In order to provide a meeting place for the men with their relatives and friends, the "Kansas Building" project was conceived. Governor Capper took a leading interest in the movement and subscribed the first $100 on 26 October 1917. Support poured in from every section of the state. On 5 November 1917, the Regimental Bulletin was able to announce, "Construction of the Regimental Building is begun."

Officers and enlisted men of the 353rd did the work. On 15 January 1918, the massive three story all wooden structure—96 feet wide and 236 feet long with a seating capacity of 4,000—was dedicated to the welfare of Kansas men, with speeches by notable Kansas citizens and camp officials. This achievement was not only a matter of pride to the men but a revelation of the support on the part of the people back home. There was but one requirement with regard to the use of the building and that was summed up in the general order, "Treat this building as your home."

A Performance of Handel's Messiah Before
the Entire Regiment

Concerts were staged, including a pro bono appearance by the St. Louis Symphony. To the soldiers who had been shut up in the routine of camp life for five months, this entertainment appealed as the finest favor yet received from the co-operating forces of civilian life. The enlisted men held open houses for their parents, brothers, sisters, sweethearts, wives and children. Acquaintance between the men broadened to their loved ones at home and the spirit of comradeship grew stronger with the deeper appreciation of common problems and sacrifices.

Of equal importance were the local gatherings: boxing, athletic contests, regimental band concerts and shows helped to break the monotony of drill and study. Continued association in these various activities developed deep concern for the welfare of each man. 

Change was inevitable. On 28 February 1918 it was announced: "There will be a smoker in the [all wooden!] Regimental Building at 7 o'clock this evening to be attended by the entire Regiment. The guests of honor will be the 504 men who are to be transferred over-seas.” The transferees were given a rousing ovation, all joined in to sing many choruses of "Over There," then each one received a dollar out of the Company Fund to cheer him on his way. 

Continued transfers seemed to indicate that the hope of the men to remain in their own outfit was in vain. The final separation was more like breaking home ties than a military exercise. This attitude grew to be the strongest tradition of the 353rd and bore its finest fruit in self-sacrifice on the battlefields. 

Present Day Historic Markers at the Site of Camp Funston

Next Friday: The All Kansas regiment heads Over There.

James Patton

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