The ‘Bridge of Ships’

With the aid of the Selective Service Act, passed by Congress on May 18, 1917, America began the formidable task of increasing the size of its army by conscription from roughly 130,000 trained Regulars and 70,000 National Guardsmen to Commander-in-Chief John J. Pershing’s initial requirement of one million men. Beyond these preparations lay the challenge of safely transporting the newly-formed army 3,000 miles across ‘a bridge of ships’ to France.

In early 1917, German U-boats were sinking Allied merchant ships at the crippling rate of 570,000 tons per month, largely because merchant captains preferred to take their chances and travel unescorted. US Admiral William S. Sims, an expert on the use of destroyers, was duly appointed Commander of US naval forces in European waters. Promptly based in London, he fostered close and amicable cooperation between the US Navy and Britain’s Royal Navy.

An innovative convoy system was introduced. Convoys were escorted through the Western Approaches by American oil-fired destroyers operating from Queenstown (now Cobh) on the southern coast of Ireland. Later, in 1918, this 30-strong destroyer fleet, which was commanded by British Vice-Admiral Sir Lewis Bayley, would be complemented by American-built ‘submarine chasers’. These 110-foot craft were wooden-hulled, fueled by gasoline and fitted with sound-detectors.

In more northern waters, the US Navy and the Royal Navy laid a remarkable 270-mile-long barrage of 70,000 specially-designed mines between Scapa Flow, the Scottish loch base of the British Grand Fleet, and Norway, thereby discouraging U-boats from using this exit from the North Sea and entering the Atlantic. The combination of American battleships, cruisers and destroyers with the British fleet at Scapa Flow tightened the strategic grip on the German High Seas Fleet. After the controversial Battle of Jutland (May 31, 1916), the High Seas Fleet offered no serious challenge to the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea.14

Over a period of nineteen months, 2,084,000 American soldiers would be safely transported to France in British and American ships, mainly embarking at New York; of these doughboys, 1,390,000 saw active service at the front. In one record month in 1918, 313,410 men were transported to Europe.

  1. V. E. Tarrant, Jutland: the German Perspective (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1995) ISBN 1 85409 244 8. []