The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter 8, Part 1

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

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CHAPTER VIII
THE TWENTY-SEVENTH (New York) DIVISION OF THE AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCES IN FRANCE.

To review adequately the military part taken by New York State in the World War one would have to sketch the history of the American Expeditionary Forces as a whole, for New Yorkers were to be found in every American division that served in France. But such a review would be too indirect to be satisfactory. So the compiler will confine himself to the military histories of those divisions in which considerable groups of New York soldiers were enrolled.

Two divisions may be wholly claimed by, and are commonly conceded to new York State. They are the 27th and the 77th divisions. The 27th especially distinguished itself by piercing and breaking the well-nigh impregnable system of entrenchments known as the Hindenburg Line, and the 77th covered itself with glory and wounds in the Argonne Forest.

Two other divisions maybe partly claimed by New York State. The New York City regiment--the 69th--made notable history as a unit of an all-American division, the 42d, which is commonly known as the Rainbow Division. And Western new York contributed largely to the ranks of the New Jersey division, the 78th, otherwise known as the Lightning Division. The record of these two divisions will be reviewed in a separate chapter; so also will that glorious story of New York's Melting-Pot Division, the 77th. this chapter will be devoted to the stirring story of the New York National Guard Division, the 27th.

The story of the 27th division has been well written by its commander, Major-General John F. O'Ryan. From this source--and where is there a more authoritative?--this sketch will be taken.

The men who formed the nucleus of the 27th division were soldiers of some training and of some active war service even before being called upon to meet the World War emergency. The regiments that composed it were units of the State troops--the militia, commonly known as the National Guard. In 1916 the latter units were mobilized and despatched to the Mexican Border to meet the threat of war by Mexico. Major-General Charles F. Roe was in command of the military forces of New York State, but upon his retirement, for age, the governor appointed, as General Roe's successor, John F. O'Ryan, a major of field artillery. As subsequent history showed, the appointment was a good one, Major-General O'Ryan proving to be well worthy of the responsibility.

During the Mexican Border trouble, Major-General O'Ryan enforced a standard of discipline which developed an active vigorous soldiery, clean of body and alert of mind. His command was thus well prepared

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for the more arduous European service that was ultimately to be demanded of it. In his "History of the Twenty-seventh Division of the American Expeditionary Forces," Major-General O'Ryan refers particularly to this preparatory upbuilding of the manhood of his command. He writes: "Unless the principles underlying that training are understood, it will be impossible adequately to sense the tremendous devotion and intelligent spirit of sacrifice which later characterized in such forcible manner the conduct of the division of the World War. In the earlier part of the Border service these principles were not disclosed to the men. Some would not have understood them. Others might have doubted their practicability. But later opportunities were made to explain the motives which had determined the methods employed." On one occasion the General addressed his command, while in camp, pointing out the Spartan ideal that made strong soldiery. He differed from the viewpoint of the ordinary civilian, who thought that to become an efficient soldier to ride and shoot, and to make and break camp. General O'Ryan pointed out that "these are qualifications requiring physical dexterity and are readily acquired; that war requires self-sacrificing and dependable men who will suffer and endure without unreasonable complaint and that these qualities are not grown overnight. They are the result of a biological and physiological process which, compared with the mere acquisition of manual dexterity, is slow." He mentioned that the hikes developed the good material and weeded out the weaklings. Major-General O'Ryan enforced a strict prohibition of the use of intoxicants by his soldiers on the Border long before the Volstead Act was passed. It was part of his method of building a strong army, for, as he said, while it "safeguarded the health and morals of the division to an extent difficult to appreciate, it performed a most valuable service in the development of morale, in that it stimulated self-control in individual accomplishment."

The Border service is a record rather of strenuous marching and rigorous discipline than of fighting. In fact, the new York troops saw no fighting during the Mexican trouble. But upon their return to home stations they were to all intents veteran troops--an upstanding healthy well-trained army. Probably the higher officers knew that a sterner task was before them; that they would need all the reserve vitality that they could conserve to withstand the hardships of combat in Europe. Every day brought perplexities which the State Department of the Untied States found ever-increasing difficult in solving; the international relations of the United States with the Central Powers each day, during the last months of 1916 and the first of 1917, seemed likely to break. And when the New York unites returned from the Mexican Border it was almost generally recognized that they must continue to stand, to all intents, at arms.

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The "watchful waiting" that so many impetuous Americans found so hard to bear was patiently pursued by President Wilson through 1915 and 1916. Ex-President Roosevelt had not hesitated to denounce the Germans for their treatment of Belgium in 1914; and in 1915 preparedness meeting--preparedness for war--were the vogue among those who felt as the Great American, Roosevelt, did. But the Chief Executive of the Nation held government reins steadily and steered an even course through a stormy sea until the end of 1916. President Wilson wished, if possible, to keep the American nations aloof from the entanglements of a war check had gripped almost the whole of the Old World. The interest he felt in it, or his most fervent desire, was to act as peacemaker. But there were many moments during 1916 when it seemed that the inevitable could not be staved off--that the reckless acts of the German submarine commanders, in destroying ships at sea, regardless of international law and of the rights of neutrals, might at any moment make the official voice of the greatest of the neutral Nations--the Untied States--heard above the din of war in angry declaration of war against the common enemy. But even at the eleventh hour, President Wilson sought to bring the warring nations into discussion of peace terms. As the perplexing year 1916 was drawing to a close, the President began the preparations of a note tot he nations at war, asking them to define their wear purposes and aims. Simultaneously--indeed before president Wilson could act--the Central Powers promulgated an offer of peace. At that time the war seemed to be favoring Germany. As the War Bureau Committee bulletin reads: "The first official Germany's eyes, victory for her army was already at hand. In the west the Allies had no more than held the German line, while in the west the Central Powers had gained the aid of Turkey and Bulgaria, had overrun Poland, Serbia, Roumania, and had inflicted serious reverses upon the British in Mesopotamia. The Italians were advancing towards Trieste, and the sea was cleared of German merchant ships; but during the first two years of war then ending, the fortunes of war were decidedly with Germany and her allies. Under these circumstances the German Government offered to discuss peace, confident that if the Allies accepted the offer she could get what she wanted, while if they refused it, it could be made to appear that they were responsible for prolonging the conflict." Germany professed to aim "not to shatter nor annihilate" their adversaries. Although fully conscious of their "military and economic strength' and of their readiness to continue the war to the "bitter end,' if necessary, they wished "to make an end of the atrocities of war," and so the sought the good offices of three neutral nations, Switzerland, Spain, and the Untied States, to forward their proposals \to their adversaries. At about the same time, the German Govern-

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ment informed the Pope that Germany was actually conducting "a war of defense against her enemies which aim at her destruction," and that she fought merely to "assure the integrity of her frontiers' and to "develop freely her intellectual and economic energies." "Such an offer, clearly, could have been made only b y those who felt that they had the upper hand," states the War Bureau bulletin. "It was not an offer of terms, but an offer to stop the war on condition that the Allies should signify a willingness to accept such terms as Germany might propose. For the Entente to have accepted an offer of a peace conference under the circumstances would have been equivalent to an "unconditional surrender" to Germany. The formal reply to the German offer was contained in a joint note to all the Allied governments, December 30, 1916. The Allies refused to consider a proposal which is empty and insincere." It was thought that Germany's object in making this, their first peace proposal, was to prepare the way for intensified submarine warfare. Indeed, unofficial word reached Washington that unless the neutral nations, "used their influence to bring the war to an end on terms satisfactory to Berlin," Germany would "consider herself and her allies free to make such warfare as she chose without respect to the rights of neutral or non-belligerent nations." It seemed as if Germany almost hoped that the United States might be provoked into a declaration of war. In a war-hardened world, there was perhaps excuse for the thought that a victorious Germany could finally extort heavier indemnities from her vanquished foes if the rich United States were among them.

President Wilson did not forward the German note. On December 18, 1916, six days after the German peace proposal had been promulgated he despatched the note to which he had been giving thought prior to the peace move by Germany. He was careful to dissociate his action with that of Germany, and merely asked the Allies to avow the "precise objects which would, if attained, satisfy them and their people." The President felt justified in seeking information, because the United States had almost as vital an interest as any of the nations at war in the "measures to be taken to secure the future peace of the world." The submarine threat might well call for strong belligerent measures to crush the disturber of the peace of neutral nations.

At this time there was clamor in New York State for the return of the National Guard troops from the Mexican Border, which it seemed had ceased to be a danger zone. The New York militia did not return until February and March of 1917, by which time this nations relations with Germany had passed beyond the breaking point. The Allies declined a peace with a government which had not respected its work; the Entente would prefer to fight on to the time when it could dictate peace. Wilson answered the German Government with a counter proposal, for the first time suggesting a League of Nations. This did not suit the German

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purpose, and, having failed to bring the Allies to their knees as suppliants, the Imperial Government, during January, made preparations to prosecute a ruthless submarine campaign. German spies in this country caused our government much concern by their activities and propaganda. On January 19th the infamous Zimmermann letter #1, which sought to draw Mexico and Japan into war with the United states, was transmitted by the German ambassador at Washington, County Van Bernstorff, to the German minister at Mexico City It came to the knowledge of our State Department and later was publicly known, adding to the indignation felt by most Americans against the German Government. On the last day of January, 1917, the affront, which brought diplomatic relations between Germany and the United States to an end, occurred. County Von Bernstorff transmitted to our State Department the note of the German Government which stated that it was the intention of the latter forthwith to instruct its submarine commanders to begin unrestricted warfare upon all ships that came within a delineated zone which Germany declared to be the zone of war. On February 3d the German ambassador tot he United States was given his passports, and the president, addressing both houses of congress, announced that diplomatic relations with Germany had been severed, though he still hoped that war might be avoided. The president recognized that it would bring poignant perplexity to many millions of naturalized Americans who were of Teutonic birth, and who naturally shrank from taking armed part against their native land. Wilson recognized that among German-Americans were some of the worthiest citizens this country possessed, and that the Germans who had made this their adopted country were, as a whole, one of the most progressive self-reliant stable sections of the population. Out grievance was not against the German people. As President Wilson pointed out: "We are the sincere friends of the German people, and earnestly desire to remain at peace with the Government which speaks for them. God grant that we may not be challenged by acts of willful injustice on the part of the government of Germany."

But the German High command heeded not the president's solemn

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warning that an overt act against an American ship would force the Untied States to actively enter into war with Germany. As February and march went by, with its ever-mounting toll of merchant ships-- of neutral as well as belligerent nations--sunk by the ruthless undersea boats of Germany, it was realized that the Untied States was in actual fact in a state of war with Germany, even though official recognition of this had yet been voiced. At the end of February, when the New York National Guard troops were returning from the Mexican Border, the newspapers were permitted to publish a copy of the Zimmermann note to Mexico. It could no longer be denied that the Imperial Government's aim of world domination did not embrace American territory; it was clear that the United States must fight--in her own defense. On March 12th, therefore, the order was issued to place guns and gun-crews on American merchant ships; and other measures of precaution and preparation were begun

Some of the National Guard units and the Naval Militia battalions were called into service, to guard public utilities of New York, in February, and more were mobilized in March. The constabulary, at vital points throughout the State, also were ultra-vigilant. In this way, whatever designs the secret agents of Germany may have had against new York public utilities were frustrated. But the State and the Nation were grimly preparing for war. On March 12th the President issued a call for 87,000 men to fill the navy to war strength, and to meet the drain upon the navy caused by the gun-crews supplied to the merchant ships. American lives were being lost. The submarine menace was daily bringing horrors to the American populace. Wilson had borne much, and in now deciding upon war, he was quite consistent with his attitude of a year before, when, at a meeting with the Gridiron Club, in February, 1916, he had said: "American ought to keep out of this war. She ought to keep out of this war at the sacrifice of everything except the single thing upon which her character and justice are founded--her sense of humanity and justice." #2 In the sinking of hundreds of neutral ships by German undersea boats, in the destroying of thousands of defenseless noncombatants of neutral nations, in the ruthless sinking of hospital ships, laden with maimed humanity--the wrecks of war ministered to by the messengers of mercy, the courageous women nurses--the time had come when Wilson the United States must take a fearless stand in defense of humanity and justice, must fight, not "to avenge lives taken or simply to save property,' but to save lives that would be in grave danger unless a powerful nation like the United States added its strength to that of the Entente to kill the hideous German sea-serpent that seemed to wish to draw under water everything that was upon the sea. The time had come when the United States,

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while holding aloft the torch of Liberty, must wield the rod of Justice to prove, for all time, that Right must prevail.

So, the great American republic went to war. The President, on March 21st, decided to convene Congress in special session; and in view of the increasing gravity of each day, the date of such extra session was advanced to April 2d. April 16th had been the original date set. On April 2d President Wilson delivered his war message to the assembled Senate and Congress, and on April 6th the House of representatives adopted a resolution which was tantamount to a declaration war. Recognizing that a state of war already existed between the untied States and the Imperial German Government, the Senate had already accepted the joint resolution, which read:

WHEREAS, the Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the Government and the people of the United States of America; there , be it

Resolved, by the Senate and house of representatives of the United State of America in Congress assembled, that the state of war between the untied States and the Imperial German Government which has thus been thrust upon the Untied States is hereby formally declared; and that the President be, and he is hereby authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the Untied States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial German Government; and to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the Untied States.

There was a remarkable difference in expression, or in the extent of expression, when the news went through the country that the Nation was in a state of was with Germany than when America went to war with Spain in 1898. When the sinking of the "Maine" forced McKinley to declare ware in 1898, the newspapers could not be held down to reasonable headlines; but when, in April, 1917, the press had to comment upon the fact that war between Germany and the United States was a present state, that Germany had been waging war upon us for many months, the newspaper captions seemed to reflect the general opinion. The stupendous possibilities thrust upon the people of this free land by a militaristic power which had only minor places in its theorizing for honor and sentiment, and therefore could not conceive it as possible that any Nation would place her honor before her material interests, were too great and serious to find expression readily in words. It was time for action, not words. Very few newspapers gave way to startling headlines. Most papers throughout the country during the first ten days of April, 1917, held comment on the state of war down to less than a column or two of space. A small-town murder case, in peace-time, command more front-page space than the momentous action by Congress in April, 1917, did. There was greater excitement among the populace on April 2d, when President Wilson delivered his war message than on April 6th, when he affixed his signature to the resolution of Congress recognizing the state of war. It seemed as though a grim determination had taken

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hold of all classes in the Nation to dispense with expressed heroics, and let deeds take the place of words. The country as a whole desired to clear the deck for action. It had too long been littered by notes and diplomatic hindrances that had prevented America from hitting back. Now Americans were quietly bent upon preparing for a struggle which they did not fear. It might cost tens of thousands of lives, but--Liberty and Justice called for the defense that America's strong right arm could afford, and Americans had heard the call. An indication of the manner in which war came to the country-side maybe found in the following comment on the momentous news of the first week of April, 1917. A country newspaper, of weekly circulation, reaching probably 3,000 families, whose news of the world is culled mainly from its columns, stated, with its issue of April 6th:

The Senate, Wednesday night, passed the resolution declaring state of war exists between the United States and Germany. The vote was 82 to 6. . . . . . the government is now engaged in gigantic military problems now confronting the Nation. All classes and conditions among the American people must bear their full share of war-burdens. There are to be no favored classes, and no discrimination between the rich and poor.

The decision of the government in favor of universal military service, it was official stated, will discourage and prevent the raising of regiments as in former times. . . . . it is thought the volunteer system has received its death-blow and the nation will soon have 500,000 men under arms.

Such was the only comment made upon an undertaking which might take the blood and life of hundreds of thousands of the nation's young men--a conflict the end of which, some experts had estimated, might be years distant. Yet it was appropriate comment; grim, deliberate, businesslike--as deliberate and calm as the Government had become, and as the people of all phases of war activity were destined to become. Thousands of country newspapers passed the war message on to its millions of subscribers in somewhat a similar manner to that quoted above. The daily papers of the cities necessarily gave more prominence, and greater length, to their reports of the great Washington decisions; and the populace of the cities, gathering as they would be greater numbers, would give more emphatic expression to their thoughts; but at the highest pitch, the voiced excitement of the average American reached such little heat that a German, drawing inferences therefrom, would either persuade himself that the war was unpopular among Americans or see terrible forebodings in the calm strength of the American people.

The government planned to raise an American army of 500,000 men; but, as American man-power was so abundant and as service in this war of deep trenches and high explosives was so exacting, it was resolved to send to France only the fittest of America's manhood. President Wilson heeded the advice of experts of our allies, and so was able to avoid mistakes such as England made in the first year of the war. Within six months of the outreaching of war in 1914, England as possessed a

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volunteer army of 2,000,000, but could only arm them at the rate of 50,000 in a week. Another sad reflection came to the English ministers after the first high-crested wave of recruiting had swept over the land--men whose experience and capabilities fitted them better as factory superintendents were marking time as privates in the volunteer army; professors and honor students from the colleges were wasting their talents on such menial tasks as peeling potatoes. England's man-power was being wasted. England lost much valuable time and hundreds of millions in money before she was able to reorganize her resources, and assign her volunteers to the duty--military or industrial--for which they were best fitted. American resolved to do so from the beginning.

It is national history well known to all how the United States raised its citizen army; how it overcame the almost insurmountable difficulties of transportation through submarine-infested waters; and how, in 1918, when the last great German drive seemed likely to reach Paris, the American troops barred the way in such numbers, and with such fresh vigor and irresistible will to conquer, that it brought to the German authorities and people the irrefutable realization that the end was near--that their dreams of world domination would not become fact. A glorious chapter in Untied States history--for that matter, in world history--is the narrative of America's part in the World War; and the more then 200,000 casualties sustained by the American forces, during the about six months of severe fighting in which the United States did not shrink from the grim realities of war. The American "doughboys' went out to fight--left their native land in the dead of night, without the blare of trumpets or the thrill of drum-beat; without even a touch of relieving color in their dress--not even a bright button. All was drab. They crossed the dark ocean living in life-jackets, with the ever-present possibility of an "abandon ship!" call and a sudden plunge into the cold all-devouring sea. Fortunately for America, very few of its soldiers were called upon to experience such a calamity. No American troopship, with its full human cargo aboard, was reached by a German torpedo, otherwise the loss of life might have been appalling, for most of the troopships had lifeboat capacity for only ten or fifteen per cent of their crew and human cargo. Still, the doughboys went overseas cheerfully, few giving apprehensive thought to the extraordinary dangers of the sea. They landed somewhere in the theatre of war; were hustled secretly from place to place, generally during the night hours, in a damp dreary drab country; moved silently, and in darkness, in single file, into a front-line trench, with its mud, its rats and smaller vermin, its stenches of decomposing matter, often human; yet, through it all the soldiers from the New World maintained a bright optimism that could not be shaken--the spirit of the American boys who would not be downhearted,, who could not be subdued. That spirit

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won the war. Confidence is as valuable as experience. A haughty Prussian major once came into the American lines as a prisoner. When asked what he thought of the fighting qualities of the American "doughboys," he threw up his hands--threw them up at the very thought that such raw troops should have even thought themselves to be a match for the past-masters of the science of fighting--the veterans of the Prussian Guard. And he threw up his hands even more helplessly when he thought of the appalling impossibility of fighting against the impossible Americans. "Doughboys?" he exclaimed. "Americans? Fight against them? Impossible." With increasing exasperation he continued: "We can't fight against them. They don't know the rules' they fight by no known book of tactics, and--and I have but two eyes.' "Americans?" Again he threw up his hands. "Impossible, They're everywhere. They bob up like rabbits from nowhere, and--and it's all over."

It was so. The vast spaces of this continent, the freedom of life, the illimitable resources of the country, the optimism that is developed in the heart of a man who is not tied down by class distinctions and restrictions, who knows that the degree of his capability is the only limit to his advancement in American affairs--all these and many other morale-building factors have had part in putting into the character of the average American citizen initiative, self-reliance and buoyancy such a could send him irresistibly forward where the more seasoned fighters of France and Britain ventured only with great caution. The American soldiers were probably no more courageous than the French or the British, but the spirit of victory, the will to conquer, was strong in them at a time when the French and the British, as well as the Germans, were jaded and wearied by many years of fighting.

Of course, not all Americans who donned uniform after the declaration of war were novices in the art of war. The National Guard regiments, in most of the States, were efficient well-drilled troops. The New York militia were exceptionally so--thanks to the rigorous discipline and intensive training enforced by major-General O'Ryan during the Mexican Border campaign of 1916-17. Some of the soldiers had scarcely been mustered out a fortnight before they were drawn again into active service. State units of Naval militia were actually mustered into the Federal service before the war message was delivered to Congress. The ink of President Wilson's signature to the joint resolution of Senate and Congress was scarcely dry before the Naval Militia were quietly departing from home stations to the seaboard. They went to man the naval depots and coast stations and fleets while the State soldiery mounted guard over vital utilities.

The National Guard regiments were most valuable additions to the small regular army of the Nation. They bridged the precarious span of preparation. While the National Administration devised the machinery

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that would call men into federal service, under a Selective Service Act, the State Militia stood as a reliable national barricade. Invasion was not expected, but within the Untied States were hundreds of thousands of Germans and Austrians and millions of naturalized American citizens who were of Teutonic origin and naturally sympathized with their fatherland. That nothing serious was attempted by this hostile element to cripple or hamper the Untied States while the latter was marshaling its citizenry, may perhaps be attributed more to the vigilance and obvious strength of the State Militia than to the peaceful inclinations and harmless designs of enemy aliens resident within the Untied States when war was declared.

 

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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