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On Nov. 30, 1917, 100 years ago in World War I, a large U.S. non-combat unit was the first such to engage the enemy. The 11th Engineer Regiment, 1,400 strong, composed of volunteer railway workers from Queens, New York, fought German attackers with shovels and picks. (It prior helped assemble British-made tanks used in history’s first mass armor offensive at the Battle of Cambrai.)

Repairing a rail supply line, the 11th abruptly came under a surprise German counterattack. Under the calm leadership of 1st Lt. Paul McLoud — who procured ammunition for rifles, apparently later handed out — the engineers fell back to a vacant British trench and repelled the attack. Twelve Americans were wounded, one lost in action, 17-year-old Private Dalton Ranlet, who lied about his age to join up. Said Gen. John Pershing, “Wars are not won by fighting with shovels.” (Shovels were used in trench warfare by attacking Germans as thrusting spears.)

Twenty-seven days earlier on Nov. 3, three U.S. soldiers were killed in fierce trench fighting on the Western Front. They were the first American combat fatalities of some 52,000 more to follow in the next 372 days. Cpl. James Gresham, age 24, Pvt. Merle Hay, age 21, and Pvt. Thomas Enright, age 30, died in a night trench raid by the Germans at the front’s “quiet sector” near Artois.

Before the war, Gresham was a furniture maker in Evansville, Indiana. In 1914, when the European war began, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in El Paso, under “Black-Jack” John J. Pershing, the future commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. Hay, of Glidden, Iowa, was a store clerk repairing farm equipment. With his father’s blessing, he enlisted in the American army on May 3, 1917, a month and a day after President Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress to declare war upon Imperial Germany. Enright, from near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had already served in the U.S. Army from 1909 to 1916. A veteran soldier, he had survived the post-Boxer Rebellion occupation in China, the Moro wars in the southern Philippines, the garrisoning of Vera Cruz, and the punitive expedition under Pershing to quash Pancho Villa in northern Mexico. The three were among “Pershing’s darlings,” the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division in France in the fall of 1917.

Its 16th Infantry Regiment, the first overseas U.S. combat unit, had sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, June 14, 1917. It paraded July 4th in Paris. By late September 1917, it was in a non-glamorous training program about the anatomy of a division.

On Oct. 6, the American neophytes were assigned in driblets to a French infantry division for a baptismal training tour of the forward trenches. On Oct. 23, Co. F, 16th Regiment, rotated in as the Great War’s first U.S. unit to relieve French poilus, in the Artois subsector, Sommerville sector-thirty kilometers east of Nancy.

Perhaps via the “trench vine,” the Germans had suspected a new American troop presence in the middle trench section, referred to as the “center of resistance.” On the night of Nov. 2-3, a one-hour box barrage zeroed in and a German trench-raiding party fatally at first mistaken as Americans by Hay and Gresham — ventured past outposts into their trench, rolling in grenades and fighting in a close, brutal melee. Well-armed with Lugers, grenades, and knives, it captured 12 Americans (Enright was killed when resisting capture) before it went back to its own trench.

One or two German soldiers were killed or wounded and seven were captured, but the stealthy enemy trench raid was successful in conducting night harassment and taking captives. (It absconded with the Doughboys’ accouterments.)

Of the three Americans killed, one was shot, another’s throat was slit, and one’s skull crushed. Folklore had it that Hay’s gold watch, given him by his mother, had stopped at 2:40 a.m. Pershing cried when he got the after-action report. Buried on the spot (Hays was later reinterred in America in July 1921) a grateful inscription by a sorrowful France eulogized, “Here [lay] the first soldiers of the illustrious Republic of the United States who fell on French soil for justice and liberty.”

To the Doughboys’ French mentors, the nascent Americans were not very suave in the art of trench raiding. In one French-led nighttime trench raid, a German had been captured and was being forced back to Allied lines for interrogation. An attached American Doughboy noticed in the gloom only yards away that a German trench-raiding party was dragging a captured French poilu in the opposite direction. Looking askance as to why his own party would not attack the Germans in order to rescue their fellow soldier, he was tartly informed there existed a tacit agreement by both sides that while in No Nan’s Land, successful opposing trench raiders did not thus interfere with each other. French trainers scoffed that American soldiers had no comprehension about the etiquette involved in the art of mutual trench raiding.

Ironically, Pershing objected to British and French trainers of the inexperienced American troops teaching the use of grenades and mortars in trench warfare. To him, the rifle and bayonet was the supreme war weapon. True to his idol, Civil War general of the Union armies, Ulysses S. Grant, he would wage an offensive campaign of open total war into Germany by 1919, hanging “Kaiser Bill’s” soldaten on lamp posts on the Unter den Linden, Berlin, to make Germany unconditionally surrender.

Pershing’s highfalutin concept of American warfare in Europe had its own major intrinsic obstacles to attempt to overcome. In 1917, the year of America’s war entry, no active U.S. Army officer had commanded much more than a regiment. Pershing, who led up to thousands of soldiers in Cuba, in Mindanao and Jolo, and in Mexico, would now be expected to lead millions of American troops in stalemated Western Europe. Although he felt newly minted U.S. Army officers would quickly adapt, upon acknowledging the dearth of U.S.-manufactured arms, Pershing lamented, “We were beggars as to every weapon except the rifle.” (On Oct. 23, at Luneville, the first American shot of the war was fired by Cpl. Robert Bralet, using a “French 75.”)

Pershing’s avuncular observations were that “although U.S. troops [might be] raw and unskilled, [they] were [nonetheless] the hardiest men on the Western Front.” Bearing “the burden [of] Europe’s war,” they were to “inherit,” they would tilt the balance of victory for America and the Allies. (France and Britain seemed spent — entrenched British Tommies hailed American arrivals as “Eleventh Hour” soldiers.)

Retorted the British and French high commands, “such superb raw material ought not suffer under tyro [U.S.] leaders.” Pershing told British Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, “News of amalgamation would confirm the U.S. public’s suspicion of a government giveaway,” as U.S. soldiers were absorbed into Allied ranks. He would tell Allied C-in-C, Ferdinand Foch, “Our army will fight wherever you may decide, [but] it will fight as an independent American army.” The AEF was “Pershing’s regime,” yet it was realistic French and British trench training that bestowed its full independence.

Futini is a Napa-based history enthusiast.

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