The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter 10, Part 1

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

CHAPTER X

THE SEVENTY-SEVENTH DIVISION OF THE AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCES IN FRANCE, 1917-19

Its divisional number was not the only name by which the 77th Division was known. In the early days of its service the people of the metropolitan district were fond of referring to the division as New York's Own, and again as the Metropolitan Division. They were justified in doing so, for, although its personnel came from all parts of the State of New York, the greater part of its strength was drawn from the five boroughs of the metropolitan district, Greater New York. The name officially preferred seems to have been Livery Division, for its should insignia was the Statute of Liberty. But of all the names by which the 77th was known the most descriptive and, one most commonly preferred was the Melting-Pot Division. No other name could so readily describe its personnel. The 77th contained men from every clime. Almost every race and creed under the sun was to be found in its ranks. Hundreds of those who donned the uniform could not speak English when they were gathered together on the Eastside of New York City, under the authority of the Selective Service Act, and sent to Camp Upton by the City "with perhaps a little anxiety in its heart as to the ultimate outcome" of the experiment if converting such a cosmopolitan group of men into a harmonious, patriotic whole, amenable to discipline, alert at the word of command, and infused with the American spirit. At best it seemed a doubtful experiment, for "there were Italians, Jews, Chinese, Irish, Armenians, Syrians, as well as men from a score of races whose names would never have deserted the geographic or musty histories had not this war broken the seals." There were the good and the bad, the crude and the cultured. "There were gunmen and gangsters, and there were descendants of those sturdy forebears who laid the foundations of the America of today." This was at once seen in the very first drawing of men to serve in this division, and in the first contingent, which reached Camp Upton on September 10th, 1917. It was positively "a clear cross-section of the City and the State." "there were America's oldest families and America's newest, sometimes spoken of as the highest and the lowest. There were the wise and town-worn boys with keen wits sharpened by a life-long need for wits, and country boys from Up-state, stronger but not as quick." At the outset, there were not very many of the country boys, the metropolitan district having been drawn upon very heavily. Later replacement increments, however, were mainly from Up-State. Still, even in its early days, there was hardly a county of New York State that was unrepresented in the 77th Division. It was the contribution of the leading the State to the National Army of the Untied States, and, as World War history shows, the division upheld the dignity of its State, being first and conspicuously in the lead among National Army divisions in many phases of the active operations. It was the first National Army division to go overseas, the first to be ordered to an active part of the line, and the first to be made responsible for a sector of that battle-front. These men of the Melting-Pot Division won renown in the Argonne, as the shrewd reasoner, at the outset, would have seen to be quite logical, for men of greater resourcefulness and initiative would be hard to find than those whose wits had been sharpened in the strenuous everyday battle of life in the great city. There was personality and originality stamped on the face of almost every townified New Yorker. "Every man has a story," said one of the officers of the 77th, who was rather aghast at the Babel of tongues that came upon his ear as the recruits gathered at Yaphank. Maybe he was appalled at the task that confronted him and other officers whose duty it was to make good soldiers out of such material. But he got to know them better after a while and, in passing through the shadow of death with these cheerful, capable, resourceful soldiers in France, he came to know them as they really were, and to be proud of their personalities. As he stated to an "Evening Post" reporter in New York, in 1919, upon the return of the Melting Pot Division: "The Seventy-seventh division may not have been the best division in the A. E. F. It didn't win the war, or anything like that, but--Well! it's the most human division of all. There's no way to describe it at all. Every man has a story. It was just simply the Melting Pot." Its personnel, in September, 1917, left "their clubs and their kitchens, their offices and their Chines laundries, their limousines and their taxi-driver seats" and cheerfully took to the new life. To some extent, every training camp was a melting pot, but, as the "Literary Digest," in 1919, stated, in reviewing the work of the 77th Division, "some pots do not have such diverse and interesting ingredients for their brews, such highly seasoned condiments to dash in here and there. And they were melted just enough so that then those boys all walked down the Avenue on February 22, 11918, it was a Division, not a lot of strangely sorted men."

"No finer men point of education, courtesy, and breeding have fought the war than the officers and very many of the men of this division," asserted the "Literary Digest" in making it clear that the term Melting Pot Division did not necessarily signify an illiterate conglomeration of men. Some were illiterate--at least in English--but many were graduates of the best American universities. And many had been educated in European institutions of high standard. Nevertheless, "no more conglomerate lot of races, nationalities, occupations, customs, and points of view were ever gathered together than right here; in the 77th. "We talk of Americanization" adds the "Literary Digest," "Never has it been so strikingly and yet to unconsciously developed as in this war--and perhaps, in this war, never so strikingly as in the Seventy-seventh."

The New Yorkers were strenuously trained at Camp Upton during the winter, and in February were given overseas equipment. The great year, with its unknown but stupendous possibilities, was opening ominously. The Germans were working like bees behind their lines. The greatest drive of the war impended, and the Allies were not ready to meet it. What would be the outcome? It cannot have come as a very absorbing problem to the rank and file of the Melting Pot Division. They were happy in noting the preparations made for their early shipment overseas. Grave thought furrowed the foreheads of some of them but it must be confessed that inmost cases the profundity originated more in the uncertainty of gaining a week-end pass into Gotham than in doubt as to the destiny of the world.

However, events moved quickly with the 77th. On March 27th the division began to tread the decks of the transports. If the men did not then sing "Goodbye Broadway! Hello, France!" they were just as ready to pass cheerfully from one to the other to the tune of "Over there," as played for their benefit by a British battleship as their troop movement proceeded. Some, however, may have thought that the tune "There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," played on the same occasion by the Untied States marine Band, was somewhat inappropriate. The first units of the 77th Division were marched onto the British liner "Carmania," and other liners took the remainder. They departed for Halifax, whence, at Easter time, a convoy of nine ships, escorted by a British warships, departed for Liverpool, England. Another convoy soon followed, the first unit of the 77th--the 302nd Engineers--landing in Liverpool on April 12 and the last of the Infantry Brigades on April 19. The voyage was not especially eventful, save that a submarine attack on the morning of the 11th almost bought disaster to the heavily human-laden "Carmania." By a narrow margin she escaped the torpedo that was aimed at her; it found lodgment in the stern of the escorting warship. However, Liverpool was safely reached, and from that port the troops were hurried across England, and across the Channel to Calais. There the men of the division "gazed with awe at the multi-colored uniforms of a heterogeneous mass of soldiers. Every allied nationality was represented--French, Scotch, Belgian, English, Moroccan, Canadians, Algerian, Australian, Italian Serbian, new Zealanders. Even the Chines coolies, who were laborers, added to the variety."

Calais was an especially congested centre of military activity at that time. There was grave doubt as to whether it could be held. The tremendous German drive, which had been launched a week or so before the first of the 77th division had embarked in New York, had penetrated the British front to a precarious extent. The British fought doggedly. The Channel ports were vital to the Allied armies; they must be held. Dunkirk and Calais were too near England to bring any but grave thoughts, and serious apprehensions to the English people. It is said that the drum-fire of the immense guns along the Flanders Front could sometimes be heard in London. The Germans, indeed, seemed to be almost within speaking distance of Calais, and only a narrow strait separated England and France at this point. More serious still was the thought that further German advance would cut off France from its vital English source of supply. Without British munitions, as well as man-power, France could not go on. It was not much consolation to the desperate allies of America to realize that, at the time of the departure of the 77th Division, there were a million and a half American soldiers in training in American camps. They were 3,000 miles away, and tot a degree were "marking time"--waiting for ships to be built to bridge the Atlantic. But that would be too late. The emergency was extremely urgent. As Palmer wrote in his "America in France": "Our programme of troop transport, with its gradual increase as we built shipping, no longer applied when the Allied house was on fire. Ships must be found, Dutch, Japanese, any kind. The man-power of America must be brought to France. England had shipping to spare when disaster on the old Somme battlefield called for a speeding up which nothing else had effected. At the Abbeville conference later, she agreed to supply the bridge, and in return it was agreed to assign a number of American division to her army for training and for use in emergency."

These, broadly, were the circumstances that led to the landing at Calais of the 77th American Division--the first of the National Army divisions to go overseas in British ships for training with British divisions. And there seemed every likelihood that the emergency which would use raw troops, without any special European training, was actually present, with the Melting Pot Division crossed the channel to Calais. As the 77th history has it: "Marching from the dock through the city, it became apparent that this was part of the theatre of war, though far from the firing line. The square was obstructed by the ruins of several buildings which had been bombed by Boche aviators a few nights before." Although their voiced expressions may have been flippant and jocular, there is no doubt that this devastation before their eyes impressed the men from New York. They had not thought that war would be brought actually before them so soon.

They were scared, of course. Indeed, they were eager to get into the thick of the affray, having thoughts akin to those of one of the first Yankee regulars to reach France. Adjusting his pack and slinging his rifle into a comfortable position, this tough Yankee's first inquiry upon landing in France was: "Say! Where the Hell is all this trouble, anyway?" He was quite ready for the "rough stuff,' was quite willing to "go to it," without any preliminary fanfares. So were the men of the 77th. They would have liked to have evaded altogether the tiresome period of training in trench warfare. They would prefer to gain their experience in doing "the real thing." But when one's wishes are too quickly granted, one is apt to gasp for a moment. Her they were in France, to all intents at the Front, almost before the roll of the sea had left them. Within a day of their landing at Liverpool, in England, these men, "many of whom had never wandered more then five kilometers from Broadway and Forty-second Street," had before their very eyes, and in France grim evidences of the proximity of the enemy. But, they had arrived. That's all there was to it, after the first surprise had passed. Like characteristic Americans, these breezy men of the Melting Pot Division soon began to take most things as matters of course. They were possessed of the right spirit and during the next half a year along the Western Front were "to make history which even posterity cannot efface."

Undoubtedly the men of the Melting Pot Division were the objects of critical, though kindly inspection when they reached the British area. They represented The Vital Untried Experiment. Army units, of ordinary composition, had been coming to France for years, and to the men of the billeting areas, they had ceased to excite interest. "A division was just another division." That could not be said of the 77th. The Melting Pot began a new epoch of the war-mad era. The destiny of the Anglo-Saxon nations rested upon the strength of the National Army of the Untied States--man-power superabundant but of quality yet unknown. As Palmer writes:

We all had a thrill with the news that a National Army division, the 77th . . . . .from New York City, was in France. Everyone wanted a glimpse of the Seventy-seventh, not only because it was national Army, but because it was truly a "melting-pot" division. Our British cousins could hardly recognize in its ranks the consanguinity that some of the men did not speak English except in a broken fashion. The size of the men, too, was a surprise, considering that they came from overseas. The little fellows from the tenements of the East Side hardly measured up to the physical standards set by the native Australians or Canadians.

There was no division which included a great variety of occupations--all there were in New York City. If you wanted a garment work, a printer, a sign painter, a gunsmith, a wheelwright, a metalworker, a plumber, a cobbler, an artist, a poet, a cook who could do French pastry or corned beef and cabbage, a valet, a waiter or a butler, why, you had only to call on the Seventy-seventh. The one feature in which it was weak was in men who knew how to care for horses. Subway guards, lace-makers, cigar-makers and store clerks did not take to animal transport without a lot of training.

Everybody in the American Expeditionary Forces had an affection for the Seventy-seventh without ever having seen a single man of the division. The Seventy-seventh expressed a National idea. We wanted to see those little fellows from the tenements, who were bunking with the sons from the apartments and the houses Uptown, make a fine showing. If they did, it would be the proof of the National idea carried into practice.

The 77th passed muster fairly well. They may not have presented as impressive an appearance as later did the men of the Corn Belt. The tenements cannot grow bone and brawn of the size grown on the rolling prairie; they may not have seemed as well able to dig trenches and carry an eighty-pound pack as the six-footers from the Middle West, but undoubtedly they were alert, optimistic, and fresh--in more senses then one. They could take care of themselves. At least, concludes Palmer, "they ought not to be alarmed by shellfire after having survived New York traffic." In stature they were short, but the British recalled that they, too, had in their own armies almost the counterpart of the New Yorkers--the muscle-bound but short men from the mill districts, and the cockneys from London's East End. These had proved equal to the best in courage. No doubt, the men of America's Melting Pot Division would also.

Had they put the question to the officers of the 77th, or for that matter tot he men of the division, they would have realized that no doubts on that score existed in divisional circles. They were New Yorkers. That should have been enough to give confidence to anyone who knows how keen the battle of everyday life is in that city of hustle and bustle and bang. The 77th would stand the strain of war.

Their grueling began, however, almost immediately. From Calais, the division marched to a rest camp nearby, presumably to "get their land-legs" after fourteen days of adjusting their carriages to marine motion. Apparently, it was thought that they had not stretched their legs sufficiently, for they had scarcely reached the rest-camp before being reassembled in company formation and marched back to war-congested Calais, there to change their Springfield rifles for Enfields, the British type. "Why Enfields?" they asked. "The Boche has broken through, and the Seventy-seven is to fill the gap: was the rumor that ran through the ranks. As a matter of fact, they were not urgently needed to bolster the hard-pressed British,, but those were desperate uncertain days in Flanders, and who knew how soon the men from New York would have to be drawn into the melee. In any event, as they were to be brigaded with the British, they must necessarily use the arms of the British type. The Americans were certainly being introduced rapidly to the excitements of war. Within a few minutes of their return to their rest-camp they were again on the march, this time on "a hike of eight long kilos to draw gas masks and helmets." It seems that they had scant comfort for a while. In that, their first, day in France they had to endure "eight longer kilos back to camp; an overcrowded mess; then to bed on a hard floor, but not to sleep--for it was a beautiful moonlit night, and the Boche aviators took advantage of it to bomb the town."

The Engineer Regiment of the Division was the first to move to the billeting area in which the 77th Infantry brigades were tog through a course of special training in trench warfare. On April 16 the engineers entrained for Audruicq, whence they were marched to Ruminghem, their billeting area in the Pas-de-Calais. Early in May, the infantry regiments from New York also assembled there, and began intensive training under British instructors of the British 39th Division. Constantly before these novices there was a reminder that they were within a short distance of the Front. The furious bombardment of British positions in the Ypres and Mr. Kemmel sectors was so distinctly audible that the New Yorkers. Would not have been at all surprised had their training course been abruptly interrupted and terminated by actual fighting. Fortunately, the British, "with their backs to the wall," were holding on at that point, and the schooling of the Americans went its normal course of four weeks, interrupted only by air raids. The New Yorkers soon became accustomed to this form of attack, though it took the lives of eight of their number during the period.

On Decoration Day, May 30, the Engineers were ordered to move. Rumor was rife and extravagant, for great events were happening. The second drive of the German legions had begun a few days ago, and the thrust against Paris was developing perilously. Was the 77th Division to be thrown into the breach? Were the infantry regiments to rush into the melee unsupported by their artillery? Only those who have been among the rank and file of the regiment in wartime have an adequate idea of the astonishing range that rumor can quickly cover. However, the move of the 77th was not directly to the desperately active front, but to relieve another American division which had been longer in France, and had had the advantage of longer training in the special science of thwarting the Germans. Troop movements were fast and furious during the next two or three weeks. Units of the 77th were in several places behind the front, but in the third week of June the Engineers and the Infantry were in the Lorraine sector, at Baccarat, southwest of Nancy. It was a front-line position, but such a quiet sector, it is said, that the men of the Rainbow division, which the 77th relieved, had been wont to "hang their wash on the barbed wire entanglements in No Man's Land." It cannot be said that the 77th found it quite to be a harmless sector. Indeed, although German observation balloons greeted them upon arrival with "Good bye, 42nd Division! Hello, 77th Division!" they proceeded to give practical expression to their welcoming of the new American division. On the morning of June 24th when the relief had almost been completed, the Germans shelled the front-line with mustard and phosgene gas. It did not seem especially harmful to those citizen-soldiers who were in the font-lines for the first time, and some perhaps were not as careful as they should have been in adjusting their gas-masks. The result was that there were 180 casualties among the newcomers. But it was a lesson well learned; thereafter they probably looked upon their gas-masks as of as much vital importance as were their bayonets.

The 77th was not complete division at that time. Its artillery brigade had not yet arrived. The division, fully organized, was to consist of two brigades of infantry, each brigade having two regiments of infantry and one machine-gun battalion; one brigade of field artillery, consisting of three regiments and a trench mortar battery; one engineer regiment; a battalion of signal troops; and division units, including a headquarters troop and a machine-gun battalion. Specifically, the 77th division, when organized consisted of:

One Hundred and Fifty-third Brigade of infantry, under Brigadier-General Edward Wittenmeyer, made up of the 305th and 306th Regiments, and the 305th Machine Gun Battalion.

One Hundred and Fifth-fourth Brigade of infantry, under Brigadier-General Evan M. Johnson, made up of the 307th and the 308th regiments, and the 306th Machine Gun Battalion.

One Hundred and Fifty-second Brigade of Field Artillery, under Brigadier-General Thomas H. Reeves, consisting of the 304th, 305th and 306th regiments of Artillery, and the 302nd Trench Mortar Battery.

Three Hundred and Second Regiment of Engineers.

Three Hundred and Second Battalion of the Signal Corps.

Division Units: Headquarters Troops, and 304th Machine Gun Battalion.

Major-General George B. Duncan was assigned to the command of the 77th Division in May, 1918. Major-General Robert Alexander succeeded to the command of the division in August. One of its most conspicuous officers was Brigadier-General Michael J. Lenihan, who was decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honor. Another was Major Whittlesey, of "Lost Battalion" fame.

The artillery brigade did not leave New York until after the middle of April, and did not join the division until some time in July. The artillerymen had disembarked at Brest on May 2 and soon were on their way to Camp de Souge, beyond Bordeaux. In this camp, the 152d Brigade went into intensive training under French artillery experts. "Here the American gunners learned of the famous French 75's, and here the fine points of the 'barrage' were practiced." On the fourth of July, the brigade paraded in Bordeaux.

This was the greatest assemblage of artillery that most officers and men had seen. Bordeaux was in gala dress. The long column moved through the city escorted by French infantry. The streets and balconies were thronged, and as they passed the troops were showered with flowers. The column, led by General Reeves, marched around the three sides of the beautiful Place de la Quinconces and out of the city to the bivouac of the preceding night.

However, the preliminary stage of their European training was at an end, for on that day orders came to the brigade to join the division at Baccarat. There, the interesting experiment of determining "whether an army recruited from the motley ranks of civilian life could, with a few brief months, be trained into an effective fighting force" had been proceeding. Great hopes were pinned in American man-power, but until the 77th division, which was most representative of cosmopolitan civilian life in America, and the first of the National Army to reach the battle-front, had proved that it could, the value of America's millions of citizen soldiery could not be positively estimated. The experiment with the 77th "was to forecast whether the natural assets of initiative, alertness, courage, and determination could be matched against the iron discipline of a great war machine." "To the officers," says the History of the Division, "it meant leading men to for the first time under the strange and difficult conditions of actual battle; not men trained and seasoned to war, but men who a few months before had never worn a uniform. To the men it meant obedience under adverse conditions, conditions in which to falter might mean disaster. To both officers and men it meant adoption to new surroundings and unusual conditions. Afterward, it became a source of deep satisfaction to the 77th that it was the First National Army Division actually to have a sector and to face the Hun on the western front."

Of course, the 42nd Division, which the 77th relieved, was also enrolled from civilian ranks, the only distinction being that the 42d--like the 27th--was organized from National Guard troops, recruited from civilian life by other means than the Selective Service Act. The National Guard divisions were to all intents volunteer units, whereas the National Army was composed almost wholly of draftees. Whether the old adage, that a volunteer is worth two pressed men, would prove true in this emergency was as yet undecided. The 77th were the first of the so-called pressed men to prove that, in this war at least, the spirit of patriotism was as strong, the initiative as active and the will to conquer as firm and unshakable in the draft divisions as in the volunteer organizations that made up the American Expeditionary Forces in France. But this had not yet been proved, and the French were very careful to closely support, foster, and "father" the green citizen soldiers of New York, when they came into the Baccarat sector to relieve the now graduate 42d American Division. The Headquarters of the 77th Division was established at Baccarat on June 21, and on June 26 the last of the units of the 42nd departed for a more active front-line sector. Until the middle of July, the 77th was dependent upon French units for artillery support, but with the arrival of the Artillery Brigade from Bordeaux, the 77th Division was left to its own resources, the French Division being gradually withdrawn between July 15 and 18.

Those were momentous days, marking the launching of the third, and most stupendous, drive by the Germans and of the counter-offensive by the Allied troops--an offensive which was to continue almost incessantly with wonderful success until November 11, when the allies were almost on the threshold of Germany and the great German armies had to confess themselves powerless to stay the advance.

By the end of July, the last phase of the training of the 77th division had been completed. Although the Baccarat sector was comparatively quiet, there had been constant need for vigilance. They were actually in the presence of the enemy, and at any moment might be attacked. The American did some attacking themselves during July. And for their recklessness they paid dearly. In one raid, undertaken by a patrol of fifty-four men, almost all were killed or wounded. The New York draftees fought magnificently, but the bodies of thirty-three were left in No Man's Land and the other twenty-two who ere able to struggles back to their trenches were nearly all wounded. Captain Blanton Barrett, who commanded the patrol, was severely wounded, but fought on until killed. During the four or five weeks of excitement in the Baccarat sector, the 77th division was ever alert, and in the incidents of that period acquired some knowledge of most of the trench tricks of their more experience adversaries. "The long nights of alert waiting, the rattling bursts of machine guns, the brilliant trains of colored fires, the endless stretches of wire entanglements, the shell-torn expanse of No Man's Land, the ever-staring enemy lines, the watchful balloons hanging above the wooded hills, the weird singing of shells, the tell-tale clatter of duck-boards echoing in the stillness of the might, the rest-camps--all had made indelible impressions." The schooling of the men from New York was at an end. Had time not been so pressing or the situation so desperate, other preparatory courses might have been inflicted upon the men who chief desire now was to be "in the swim," to be with the other American divisions that were splashing about where shell-holes were newer. They wanted to be more than merely holding a line; they would like to tear their way through the foam and over the crest of one of those German shock-troop waves that the newspapers described. They thought that they might be able to emerge above water, with still a little breath left, even though they had as yet only practiced in still waters.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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