From first shot to first fatalities

The 1st. Infantry Division was the first AEF division to land in France. It would also become the first AEF division to enter the front line, fire at the enemy, suffer losses and capture prisoners. These ‘firsts’ underlay its adoption of a ‘Red 1 on a green shield’ as the divisional insignia.24 On October 21, 1917, four of its infantry regiments (16th., 18th., 26th. and 28th.) took over trenches in a ‘quiet’ Lorraine sector from French troops as part of a ‘breaking-in’ process. The official French reception was rather lukewarm as they thought that the Americans should have been sent to reinforce the Somme sector up north. The Americans were based around the small village of Bathelémont which lies about 25 km east of Nancy. Their front line was on high ground 2 km east of the village and consisted of ‘centres of resistance’ linked by broad bands of barbed wire. Artillery fire was desultory. A live-and-let-live attitude had prevailed since the front stabilized: this did not suit the newly-arrived American units.

At 6.05 a.m. on October 23, 1917, a ‘75’ field gun of Battery C, 6th. Field Artillery, 1st. Division (Fig. 8) fired the historic ‘first shot’ from a small orchard 400 metres east of Bathelémont through fog and in the general direction of a German artillery position. A total of twenty-four rounds was fired. Propaganda photographs of the proud gun crew were taken and the brass shell case of the first round was sent back home to President Wilson as a souvenir destined for a mantelpiece in the White House. The field gun was eventually shipped back to the United States, on the orders of General Pershing, and helped in the sale of Liberty Bonds. It now resides in the Museum of the US Military Academy, West Point.

Fig. 8 – ’75’ of Battery C, 6th. Artillery Regiment, 1st. Division in rapid action at Beaumont: September 1918. (Courtesy of the US National Archives: 530744)

The Americans in this sector operated under the command of General Bordeaux of the French 18th. Division. Ironically, they were explicitly forbidden to mount patrols and raids into no man’s land. In the early hours of November 3, 1917, after artillery fire and Bangalore torpedoes had blasted three paths through the barbed wire belts, a raiding party of more than two hundred Germans attacked a lightly-manned American post east of Bathelémont. After killing three doughboys, they withdrew with eleven prisoners, three of whom were wounded. The three soldiers who perished were :

  • Private Thomas Francis Enright (20 years) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Corporal James Bethel Gresham (24 years) of Evansville, Indiana,
  • Private Merle D. Hay (21 years) of Glidden, Iowa.

They had served in Company F, 16th. Infantry Regiment.25 On the morning of the following day, they were buried with full military honours in a small military cemetery near Bathelémont. Special significance was attached to the proceedings in token of long-standing AmericanFrench amity. The open-airservice was attended by soldiers from a variety of French units. Two American officers were present; one of them was George C. Marshall, Jr., director of training and planning for the 1st. Infantry Division (Fig. 9).26,27 General Bordeaux made an eloquent speech that greatly impressed Marshall: he duly obtained a translated copy from a French officer, Lieutenant Jean Hugo (great-grandson of the renowned novelist Victor Hugo). Throughout the service, French guns fired salvoes into the enemy lines at minute intervals.

Fig. 9 – Major George C. Marshall, AEF. (Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, VA, USA: GCM 00233)

At the time, in November 1917, the death of these three soldiers from the ranks of the AEF assumed a symbolic significance out of all proportion to the scale of the episode. After all, in military terms, a single trench raid was a very minor affair. Details of the raid were promptly reported in the newspapers of America and Europe. In Germany, propaganda postcards were issued to show the eight (unwounded) captured Americans; interestingly, these men are all noticeably taller and more robust than their surrounding captors.

  1. The World War II battle honours of the ‘Big Red One’ are Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy, the Bulge (Ardennes) and Germany. []
  2. A.A. Hoehling, The Fierce Lambs: an Account of 1917, the Year America went ‘Over There’ (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960) 133-75. []
  3. George C. Marshall, Memoirs of my Services in the World War 1917-1918 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976) 45-52. ISBN 0 395 20725 8 []
  4. George Catlett Marshall (1880-1959) would become a US Army General and US Army Chief of Staff (1939-45) with a central role in the direction of America’s military strategy. In 1947 he masterminded the Marshall Plan for West European recovery. He served as US Secretary of State (1947-9) and as Secretary of Defense (1950-1). His remarkable career was crowned with the Nobel Prize for Peace (1953). []