America’s First Division 90 years ago

Written By: Paul Herbert

Artillerymen from Battery E, 5th Field Artillery, 1st Division, advance along a road near Toul, France, 7 March 1918. (McCormick Research Center Collection)

When the U.S. Army began the conversion to brigade combat teams in 2004, it started to move cautiously away from the combined arms division, the Army’s building block for nearly ninety years. The first permanent divisions were created amid the crisis conditions of 1917, and the first among these new formations was the 1st Division, today’s 1st Infantry Division, the famous Big Red One.

Its formative experience preparing for combat on the Western Front in World War I challenged soldiers of that day in ways their counterparts of today might recognize—raw recruits manning a new organization; extreme personnel turbulence; unfamiliar technology; precarious relationships with allies; doctrinal uncertainty; harsh living and training conditions; and the prospect of imminent combat with a hardened and dangerous enemy. The organization they honed did more than break a path for the forty-two divisions of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) that followed—it set the foundation for the modern, permanently organized, combined arms divisions that characterized the U.S. Army for the rest of the twentieth century.

The idea of permanent divisions percolated throughout the U.S. Army for at least twenty years prior to 1917. The basic formation for more than a century had been the single arm regiment. Temporary “divisions” had been formed in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War to consolidate commanders’ span of control and to combine infantry and field artillery.

While the major European powers organized divisions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S. Army had no similar compelling need as it policed the western frontier and America’s new colonial holdings. Wartime divisions were codified in the 1905 Field Service Regulations (FSR), but the central argument for forming permanent divisions between 1900 and 1917 was for the unlikely contingency of continental defense against a major power.

From 1910, instability in Mexico provided opportunities to experiment with divisions. In 1911, the War Department assembled a provisional “maneuver division” of Regular and National Guard units in San Antonio, Texas. The assembly itself required nearly the entire period of the call-up, from March to August. The event provided relevant experience, leading to a more efficient mobilization of the 2d Division in Texas in 1913 and deployment of a brigade to Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1914. Meanwhile, an Army War College study recommended reorganizing the Regular Army as a “mobile army” of divisions ready for immediate service. Moreover, the 1914 FSR called the division the basic organization for offensive operations.

The FSR further defined a division in modern terms: “A self-contained unit made up of all necessary arms and services, and complete in itself with every requirement for independent action incident to its operations.” The War College plan, however, was never completely adopted or funded. The onset of World War I in Europe led to the National Defense Act of 1916, which expanded both the Regular Army and the National Guard and called for the organization of both into permanent tactical brigades and divisions. Events overtook this plan as well. In response to Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, 8th Brigade, 3d Division, commander BG John J. Pershing received orders to organize a force to apprehend Villa’s gang.

Pershing assembled the “Punitive Expedition,” a provisional division of two cavalry and one infantry brigades and, for the next year, conducted the first modern division operations in the Army’s history. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the expedition integrated radio and telephone communications, airplanes, and partly motorized logistics with ground maneuver and provided Pershing and others a taste of the complexities of twentieth century warfare.

While Pershing led his expedition through the wilds of northern Mexico, events in Europe brought the United States into World War I. Germany’s leaders decided to strangle Great Britain with unrestricted submarine warfare and, clumsily, to arrange a Mexican attack on the United States in the event of the latter’s entry on the Allied side. President Woodrow Wilson requested and received a Congressional declaration of war on 6 April 1917. Great Britain and France immediately pressed for the deployment of an American division.

It is hard to exaggerate the crisis of 1917 for the American Army. Pershing’s expedition had only been withdrawn from Mexico in February, having consumed most of the Quartermaster’s meager stocks. The four extant divisions were administrative groupings, not trained, deployable units. There were no plans for manpower or industrial mobilization, no stocks of weapons and munitions, and no plans for transporting a significant military force over contested seas.

No American officers had ever served in anything like the European divisions then fighting on the Western and Eastern Fronts. America’s new allies themselves were in near desperate straits: the British Somme Offensive of 1916 had failed; the French “Nivelle Offensive” was failing; and Russia was in the throes of revolution. The British and French delegations dispatched to the United States, which included France’s hero of the Marne battles Marshal Joseph Joffre, implored the American government for immediate assistance.

The Europeans, however, did not like the War College plans for American divisions nor the timetable for organizing them. Led by MAJ John McAuley Palmer, the War College planners posited a 28,000-man division of three brigades of three regiments of three battalions. Designed for continental defense, this division required nearly twenty miles of road space for movement and, in the Europeans’ view, lacked the integrated artillery, machine guns, and trench mortars necessary on the Western Front. Moreover, the War College plan called for raising and training such divisions in the United States before deploying them, a process that would delay the arrival of American troops in France to 1918 or even 1919.

The British in particular wanted instead the dispatch of American troops to the front as replacements for European formations, a prospect totally unacceptable to the Americans. Army Chief of Staff GEN Hugh L. Scott directed the planners to develop another division organization on the French model of two brigades of two infantry regiments that reflected the best advice of the British and French officers.
Meanwhile, recognizing the imperative of an American presence in France to bolster French morale, President Woodrow Wilson promised Joffre a division immediately. He directed Secretary of War Newton Baker and GEN Scott, who in turn ordered MG Pershing, now commander of the Army’s Southern Department, to select four infantry regiments and one artillery regiment for immediate “foreign service.”

A transport ship carrying soldiers of the First Expeditionary Division enters the harbor of St. Nazaire, France, 27 June 1917. (McCormick Research Center Collection)

Unsurprisingly, Pershing, designated to command the expeditionary force, selected Regular Army regiments with excellent records on the Punitive Expedition or along the Mexican border: the 16th, 18th, 26th, and 28th Infantry Regiments and the 5th and 6th Field Artillery Regiments. Pershing would later be promoted to general in October 1917 and appointed commander of the AEF.

As the infantry regiments prepared in great haste for their movement to Hoboken, New Jersey, and shipment overseas, they filled their vacant ranks with many enthusiastic but untrained volunteer recruits and “emergency” officers selected from the Officer Training Camps springing up around the country.

The new division’s commanding general, BG William L. Sibert, and brigade commanders BG Robert L. Bullard and BG Omar Bundy, like their hastily selected staff, met their commands for the first time at the port of Hoboken, New Jersey. There, on 8 June 1917, War Department orders established the headquarters of the First Expeditionary Division.

According to newly appointed general staff officer CPT George C. Marshall, “…the staff of the division…met for the first time aboard the boat [ the Tenadores…where] most of us were informed of the organization prescribed for the division…We found that the infantry regiments had been increased about threefold in strength and contained organizations previously unheard of, which were to be armed with implements entirely new to us.”

Marshall’s confusion stemmed from the fact that the 1917 Provisional Tables of Organization for the First Division were only some two weeks old. Huddling with their French counterparts, Palmer’s team at the War College revised their organization of three brigades to a French model “square” organization of two brigades of two regiments. The basic division numbered about 14,000 troops, but the addition of artillery, machine guns, and trench mortars urged by the French, as well as an aviation unit, ample trains and special service troops brought the number up to about 24,000. Acting Chief of Staff GEN Tasker H. Bliss approved this organization only for the initial expeditionary force, recognizing that further changes may be desired by the AEF commander.

Bliss also knew that no more divisions would be deployed as hastily as the First; the War Department would need time to refine the organization of the follow-on divisions. Such refinement was indeed underway. While crossing the Atlantic, Pershing put his staff to work on organizing a one million man AEF. A similar effort was underway at the War Department, led by COL Chauncey Baker. The two efforts coordinated their conclusions in the General Organization Project, producing by August 1917 a plan for a 27,000-man division. However, the rationale for this division foreshadowed a doctrinal tension between the United States and the Europeans that continued throughout the war.

Whereas the French division organization was optimized for rotating forces in and out of trench works, the Americans wanted a robust division for sustained combat to force the enemy out of his trenches and into “open warfare.” The convoys carrying the First Expeditionary Division sailed from New York on 12 June 1917 and arrived largely without incident at St. Nazaire, France, between 26 and 30 June.

Company K, 28th Infantry Regiment, was the first organized unit to set foot on French soil. Billeted in a former prisoner-of-war camp dubbed Camp Number 1, and without motor transport or horses, the troops made daily marches of eighteen miles to the ground designated for drill. Almost immediately, officers were levied to Pershing’s headquarters in Paris or for duty elsewhere in the AEF infrastructure.

On 2 July, the 2d Battalion, 16th Infantry, paraded through Paris to the cheers of a war-weary public in need of good news, while the remainder of the division boarded trains for their first permanent encampment near Gondrecourt in Lorraine. On 6 July, the First Expeditionary Division was redesignated the 1st Division. The task that faced Sibert (promoted to major general on 27 June) and his officers upon arrival in their designated training area was daunting indeed.

They had to create, from the whole cloth of four infantry regiments manned mostly by untrained recruits, a combined arms division in which none of them had experience, according to an uncertain doctrine, to perform missions never before undertaken, against a seasoned enemy. Moreover, they had to do it in a manner that could be presented as an example to all follow-on divisions and as a showcase of American military competence to European observers and enemy intelligence.

Billeting the troops in stables and barns, Sibert began with barracks police, physical conditioning and basic drill to instill discipline, eight hours per day, five-and-a-half days per week. By August, he was ready to devote half of each training day to the more advanced training urged by the French 47th Division (Chasseurs Alpins) assigned to assist with the 1st Division’s training. As weapons became available, soldiers underwent familiarization and maintenance training with Chauchat and Hotchkiss machine guns, Stokes mortars, 37mm guns, flamethrowers, and hand and rifle grenades. They learned to don their gas masks and how to respond to gas alarms. They practiced bayonet drill, small unit tactics, and road marching.

Soon, the 1st Engineer Regiment arrived at Gondrecourt and constructed a full-scale mock-up of frontline trench works dubbed “Washington Center.” Here, French instructors taught American officers and NCOs the particular skills required for trench warfare and gave demonstrations of small unit tactics. The infantry regiments rotated through exercises at Washington Center from mid-September to mid-October, supported by 1st Division engineer, signal and trains troops and performing as they would in the field. Other less elaborate sites existed throughout the training area.

MG William L. Sibert, photographed in his headquarters in Gondrecourt, France, was the 1st Division’s first commanding general. (McCormick Research Center Collection)

2d Infantry Brigade commander BG Beaumont Buck’s description implies the complexities of training soldiers to operate in this new environment: We had built those trenches, with their shoulders and angles and zigzags and dugouts, with the barbed wire entanglements in front, with their cleared fields of fire, measured and recorded ranges to prominent points of the landscape, alarm posts, communicating trenches, trenches for supports, for first aid stations, kitchens, telephonic communications, posts of command, etc.

While executing all this work we constantly impressed upon the soldiers what each feature was for, how soldiers should man, fight in, and leave the trenches, and the like.

MG Robert L. Bullard, shown here as a lieutenant general, assumed command of the 1st Division in December 1917. (Library of Congress)

As the Americans improved, commanders hosted intramural skills competitions, including some against the French, to motivate the troops to sharpen their expertise. Meanwhile, lieutenants attended a hastily established AEF platoon commanders’ course at Gondrecourt while more senior officers traveled to the front to observe French units conducting actual combat operations. This training scheme would have been challenging in a division largely insulated against outside distractions, but such was not the case for the 1st Division.

Officers and NCOs were continuously levied to other duties throughout the growing AEF or sent off to schools. Nearly half the soldiers who comprised the division by January arrived during the fall training and had to be integrated.

The soldiers represented many ethnic groups so that internal language barriers compounded the difficulty of communicating with the French cadre. Modifications to the tables of organization required reassignment of personnel and more training. The division managed a constant stream of important visitors from AEF headquarters in nearby Chaumont, and from the French, British, Belgian and U.S. governments. Those from AEF headquarters, including GEN Pershing himself, were especially daunting as they enforced “the Chief’s” mandate that the standards of appearance and deportment for American soldiers be those of West Point.

Soldiers of the 2d Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Division, march in Paris, France, during a parade on 4 July 1917. (McCormick Research Center Collection)

Logistical problems plagued the division as well. Soldiers had only one pair of boots and insufficient clothing. The division’s lack of transport compounded general supply shortages, even in the relatively static situation of the training areas. Because American industry had not been mobilized yet, the AEF, and especially the 1st Division, relied on the French for nearly everything, including horses, trucks, automobiles, artillery, and so on.

These were often provided in scant numbers. French horses especially were in poor physical condition after three years of war. Each wagon or artillery piece therefore required more than the usual number of horses, reducing overall the number of wagons or guns that could be pulled. Many rural roads were in poor condition made worse by military traffic and early autumn rains.

While the bulk of the 1st Division struggled to manage all of these troubles, the 1st Field Artillery Brigade underwent a parallel evolution at the French artillery school at Valdahon, near the Swiss border. Arriving in August, artillery troops went directly from St. Nazaire to Valdahon, where the 6th and 7th Field Artillery Regiments received French 75mm field guns and the 5th Field Artillery Regiment received Schneider 155mm howitzers. Like their infantry counterparts, battery officers were soon levied to a commanders’ course at Saumar while the troops learned artillery skills from French cadre.

Regular live fire target practice by individual guns, sections, and batteries punctuated a training schedule that included battery road marches, various techniques of adjusting fire, fire for destruction, and barrage fire. Among the numerous technical skills to be mastered were aerial observation and adjustment of fire from airplanes and balloons.

By early October, the 1st Division was ready to experience the front. Underlying all of the training, however, was tension between the American command and its new allies over strategy, doctrine, and organization that would dramatically affect how the division matured over the next three months. GEN Pershing had received orders directly from President Wilson to create an independent American army in France and to play a distinctively American role in defeating the Germans.

Pershing, determined to do this, saw strategic merit in the Lorraine sector—from there, an American field army could attack north to sever German communications to the rest of the front through Metz and move on to occupy the iron producing region of Briey. Creating an army capable of such an offensive would take time, especially given Pershing’s exacting standards.

Its divisions had to be large, not only to conserve the limited number of American staff officers trained at the staff college at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but also to sustain the momentum of an attack through the enemy’s fortified zone and into the open country beyond, where the opposing forces would be destroyed in “open warfare” by American riflemen. Here, the special weapons of trench warfare such as grenades, mortars, and flamethrowers, would be less important. Training in the AEF needed to reflect this entire strategic scenario and not become focused solely on the first task of operating effectively in the trenches.
The British and French saw things differently.

They were desperate to get American manpower to the front because of pressing military, psychological, and political reasons, and were quite willing to forego the training of large American formations in order to expedite the deployment of American soldiers into their own sectors of the front. Accordingly, they tended to focus American training entirely on their own techniques of trench warfare and to discount open warfare and large-scale maneuvers.

While Pershing was willing to allow American units at the front to complete their training, he recognized that good small unit performance there without similar performance at all levels could bolster allied demands for “amalgamation,” that is, the permanent integration of American troops into allied formations. These contradictory imperatives swirled around MG Sibert and his staff as they prepared the 1st Division for the first American combat operations on the Western Front.

The 1st Division went into the front lines as part of a training sequence prescribed by AEF headquarters for all U.S. divisions and generally followed by the 1st Division. The sequence called for a month of individual and small unit training, another month of rotating small units in and out of a French sector of the front, and a final month of large formation exercises in open warfare. On 8 October, AEF headquarters ordered MG Sibert to select one battalion per infantry and artillery regiment for service in the French 18th Division’s quiet sector of the front between Nancy and Luneville. After thorough reconnaissance and liaison with the French, the battalions would deploy first to the French second line for a few days of familiarization, and then to the first line for a week.

Platoons and companies would be under American command, but French officers would command at battalion and higher levels, while their American counterparts observed. The artillery battalions arrived by train directly from Valdahon and positioned batteries to reinforce the fires of the French artillery, which did not displace. After ten days, the next battalions of each regiment relieved their predecessors, and so on until all infantry and artillery battalions had served ten days or more.

Engineer, signal, machine gun, field ambulance, and hospital units were integrated into the scheme to get as much exposure as possible. Merely deploying the troops proved an instructive challenge for the staff. CPT Marshall, now the division operations officer, worried that the variety of headgear on the soldiers leaving for the front “registered a very poor opinion of the division” among AEF observers.

On the night of 20-21 October, however, all four American battalions had assumed their positions. Almost immediately, routine German shelling inflicted casualties. On 23 October, Battery F, 6th Field Artillery, fired the first shot in anger by U.S. artillery from its 75mm guns. Marshall further bemoaned a French prohibition on the inexperienced Americans patrolling outside the barbed wire in front of their positions.

Not until the second rotation did 1st Division troops experience significant combat. Just after the 2d Battalion, 16th Infantry, relieved the 1st Battalion near Artois on the night of 2-3 November, a German raid struck the position manned by Company F.

A short, intense German artillery barrage forced the American defenders deep into their trenches. Next, a “box” barrage sealed the position from escape or reinforcement while approximately 200 raiders from the 7th Bavarian Landwehr Regiment assaulted. In the melee that followed, three American doughboys died and several were wounded before the raiders withdrew with eleven prisoners. CPL James B. Gresham, PVT Thomas F. Enright, and PVT Merle D. Hay became the first Americans killed in action in the war.

CPT Marshall was at the headquarters of the French 18th Division when the reports of the casualties came in. He was able to go immediately to the scene, interview participants, and conduct a fairly thorough study. Another was conducted by AEF headquarters. The Americans chafed at the policy of prohibiting U.S. patrols outside the wire barriers, which might have intercepted the raid.

Teddy and Archie Roosevelt, the sons of former President Theodore Roosevelt, were both serving in the 1st Division at the time and received permission to organize a retaliatory raid, but it was later aborted. The French conducted an elaborate memorial service for the three fallen doughboys, both to honor the young casualties and to emphasize that the Americans were now seriously in the fight.

Underscoring that point was the loss of another thirty-six soldiers before the 1st Division completed its sector training on 20 November and re-assembled with its artillery at Gondrecourt as a full and blooded division. Early autumn rains and freezing weather began during the division’s time at the front, adding to what soldiers called the Valley Forge of the AEF. Short days, fatigue, and the reality of combat all added to the dreariness.

News from other fronts was bad indeed–the British Somme Offensive failed with horrific casualties, the Italians suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Caporetto, and the Russian revolutionary government signed an armistice with Germany. Realizing that the Germans would likely transfer troops from the Eastern to Western Fronts and seize the initiative, the French and British pressed ever more vigorously for amalgamation. These circumstances prompted Pershing to take an action he had been considering since early October–replacing Sibert as commander of the 1st Division with 2d Infantry Brigade Commander BG Robert L. Bullard.

Sibert, an engineer officer with neither combat nor recent troop experience, had conducted himself well but did not have the drive and confidence that Pershing thought was essential in combat commanders, especially those of America’s first division. Moreover, he seemed too influenced by the French and insufficiently committed to open warfare. Bullard’s long and distinguished service in the Philippines and Mexico complemented a personality and physique that seemed the perfect fit.

At about the same time as Bullard assumed command, other key leaders changed as well. COLs John L. Hines, Frank Parker, Hamilton A. Smith, and Hanson Ely took over the 16th, 18th , 26th and 28th Infantry Regiments, respectively. George Marshall remained as Operations Officer, but Campbell King became Chief of Staff. Bullard requested the replacement of 1st Field Artillery Brigade commander BG Charles McKinstry with BG Charles P. Summerall, who had just arrived in France in command of the 149th Field Artillery Brigade. These men were expected to raise the division’s standards of training, morale, and discipline.

According to Summerall: I at once visited the regiments…and inspected the batteries in their billets. The weather was very cold and the men were suffering from exposure. The feet of officers and men would be so swollen that it was difficult to put shoes on in the morning…Although the troops had been trained by the French and had been in a quiet sector for a short time, they were rather inactive. To my surprise, I found one major and four captains absent without leave.

It was necessary to tighten discipline and institute a vigorous program of training because we did not know the day we would move into the line. Bullard immediately set out training requirements to make the 1st Division “a machine that will work independently of the quality of the man that turns the crank.” He instilled a warrior ethos: “It was constantly emphasized that the enemy must be killed or disabled unless he surrendered. Men were taught to think of personal combat and of how to use their weapons with the greatest violence and effect.”

Most important, he scheduled large-scale exercises in open warfare for battalions through division, the latter level requiring two that straddled Christmas, a single day of rest in which the soldiers hosted Christmas parties, complete with trees and presents, for local children throughout the training area.
The exercises probably did little for soldier proficiency other than test their endurance, but they gave commanders and staffs invaluable opportunities to address the real challenges of planning and directing operations.

Despite more levies of officers and continued re-organizations, the exercises integrated all arms and services (even airplanes when weather permitted), with the artillery displacing in accordance with maneuvers and firing simulated fires. The Washington Center works were often part of the tactical problems, but at the division level, the emphasis was on coordinated maneuver on “open” terrain.

The weather compounded the difficulties but likely added stress and urgency analogous to actual combat. Heavy rains turning to sleet and snow made roads nearly impassable. Undernourished horses sometimes fell dead in their harnesses, while vehicles of all kinds frequently careened off icy roads, requiring hours to recover.

Even as the last exercise took place on 5-7 January, leading Pershing to declare the division ready for deployment to the front, orders to that effect arrived. America’s first division would relieve the 1st Moroccan Division in the Ansauville Sector north of Toul and along the St. Mihiel salient, near Seicheprey, becoming part of the French XXXII Corps. The 1st Infantry Brigade would deploy on 14 January 1918.

The 1st Division occupied the Ansauville Subsector from 18 January to 3 April 1918, the first modern combat operation by a permanently established division in American history. It operated entirely under its own commanders, competently integrating organic and non-organic arms and services. Most important, it fought – the division analyzed its mission and the enemy situation and successfully crafted combined arms operations and tactics to defeat the enemy.

Merely deploying to the sector was a challenge. Because American formations were so large, the 1st Infantry Brigade departed first, to relieve the 1st Moroccan Division’s infantry and come temporarily under the command of the adjacent French 69th Division. When the relief was complete and the 1st Division securely established, the entire sector was handed over to Bullard on 5 February. The 2d Brigade remained in Gondredourt for training and relieved the 1st Brigade on 9 March. The subsector was about forty kilometers north of Gondrecourt.

The French 69th Division provided road, billet, and route data for the Americans, who departed in the wake of a blizzard on 15 January, marching (due to the shortage of transport) through snow and icy roads to begin moving toward their frontline positions on 18 January.

An example of a World War I-era 1st Division shoulder patch. (McCormick Research Center Collection)

The sector was unattractive. Relatively quiet since 1914, the seven-and-a-half kilometers of front occupied by the 1st Division included an east-west ridgeline through Beaumont sloping down to low-lying, wet ground along the deep, narrow stream known as the Rupt de Mad. Across the stream, beyond “no-man’s-land” and the German defenses, was Montsec, a prominent hill thoroughly fortified by the Germans and affording them observation of the 1st’s entire position.

The trenches and gun emplacements were deep in mud, while the dugouts were cold and infested with vermin. Nevertheless, the untried division and its new leaders went about the occupation with alacrity.

The 2d Field Signal Battalion re-organized the sector communications, laying miles of new wire. BG Summerall recalled: “The artillery began occupying battery positions by platoons on the night of January 22d so that some of the French batteries remained always ready to fire… Artillery liaison officers were attached to infantry regiments. Sentinels were posted at the guns with a shell in readiness to be fired instantly at the point indicated by signal rockets…the guns were camouflaged…Enemy planes directed the fire of their batteries and also strafed our positions. Our air effort was feeble and little help came from the French.”

To combat “the old arm prejudice of the infantry against the artillery,” Summerall organized frequent exchanges of visits and demanded prompt response to calls for fire. Bullard approved, instigating artillery duels. He wanted the Germans and French to know immediately that the Americans were there to fight. Upon assuming command of the sector on 5 February, his first order read: …do not wait for [the enemy] to fire first. Be active all over no-man’s-land; do not leave its control to the enemy…Front line commanders will immediately locate and report all places where there is a favorable opportunity for strong ambuscades and for raids on the enemy’s lines… Although this sector of the front was quiet, the Germans were anything but stagnant in the winter of 1918.

They did indeed plan to seize the initiative in the West with the divisions freed from the East and to do so before the Americans could make a difference. First, though, they retrained their infantry divisions in a revised offensive doctrine that replaced long, preparatory artillery bombardments with short, violent ones, and waves of assaulting infantry on line with small infantry units trained to use the cover of the battlefield and to suppress, isolate, and bypass enemy defenses as they rapidly advanced. Emphasizing surprise and aided by the use of non-persistent gas along their intended routes, these assault troops carried with them light machine guns, mortars, and grenades to make them less reliant on artillery. Learning of this so-called “Maneuver of Rupture,” Bullard reorganized in greater depth the defenses he had inherited from the French.

The reorganization was not a trivial effort. Units and weapons had to re-positioned, new trenches, dugouts and wire barriers constructed, and new contingencies rehearsed. Raiding and repelling raids also required detailed planning and significant effort. While small parties constantly probed enemy lines, a significant raid required the participation of most of the 1st Field Artillery Brigade and the division’s machine gun battalions.

Officers planning and rehearsing such raids at all levels were slowly learning the nuts and bolts of the essential characteristic of the modern division: combining arms and services. Meanwhile the stream of important visitors increased because so many officials wanted to see the first American unit on the front. AEF headquarters, having no other forces in contact, demanded detailed information on everything that happened or failed to happen.

The principles of defense in depth were severely tested on 1 March. German fire on the Bois de Remieres in the days before appeared unusual because it came from heavy mortars. Marshall (now a lieutenant colonel) and French liaison officer Captaine Germain Seligman speculated that it might be registration fire indicating German preparations for a raid. Marshall, Bullard, and 1st Infantry Brigade commander BG Omar Bundy decided to reposition the 18th Infantry Regiment in the targeted area after dark. The frontline infantry pulled back to counter-attack positions. When the raid came, the German bombardment fell mostly on unoccupied trenches and the raiders found no resistance to their assault.

Once in the objective area, the Germans themselves became vulnerable to American counter-attack, swiftly though inexpertly delivered. Both sides suffered casualties, but the Germans were forced back across no-man’s-land, their mission unaccomplished, leaving the ground securely in American hands. This was a victory by the standards of the front. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, clearly heartened, arrived the next day to award the Croix de Guerre to several of the participants.

Bullard appreciated the awards but thought the more appropriate response was to raid the Germans. Bullard and Bundy had been preparing two simultaneous raids, one each by the 16th and 18th Infantry, near Reichecourt and Seicheprey, respectively. Despite detailed plans and rehearsals, the raids were cancelled, largely because the engineers could not get to the designated link-up point on time with the critical but cumbersome Bangalore torpedoes.

Not content to let matters rest there, the aggressive leaders re-scheduled the raids in sequence, the first intended to lull the Germans into believing it was the only one intended. These worked sufficiently well to satisfy 1st Division leaders. Summerall believed that the “Spirit of the First Division” was born on the night of the earlier aborted raids, when Bullard accepted complete responsibility for the failure and repeatedly refused to provide to the AEF staff the names of the officers involved.

On 9 March, the 2d Infantry Brigade relieved the 1st Brigade. Its tour was less eventful but nevertheless productive in that the brigade operated effectively in the context of all the division’s supporting systems. On 30 March, the 26th Division began the relief of the 1st Division, and on 8 April, Pershing declared the 1st Division fully trained and prepared for offensive operations.

Pershing’s assessment may have been driven more by the momentous events of those weeks elsewhere on the front. On 21 March, the long-expected German offensive opened along the Somme, aimed at Amiens and intended to split the British and French armies. Unlike earlier offensives, the Germans proceeded with tactical rhythm and confidence, penetrating forty miles into allied territory in the first two weeks. Four days later, Pershing offered “all that we have” to the Allies to meet the crisis, including U.S. divisions.

On 3 April, the Allies vested in Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch responsibility for overall coordination and strategic direction of the Western Front. By then, America’s first permanently established, combined arms division was boarding trains at Toul for commitment at the apex of the crisis. Still raw in many respects, it was profoundly more capable than any formation previously deployed by the U.S. Army. It was headed for a country village named Cantigny, where it would take the offensive and begin a tradition of valor that would last for the rest of the century and into the next.

Soldiers of the 16th Infantry learn trench warfare in first line trenches at the front, near Einville, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France, in the Somerville Sector, 19 November 1917. Note the French Chauchat machine gun. (McCormick Research Center Collection)