Training and equipping the AEF

The basic combat element of the AEF, capable of completely independent action, was the infantry division. Ultimately, by the time of Armistice in November 1918, forty-two American divisions had been sent to France. The numbering of the individual divisions indicated their origin:

  • Nos. 1 – 8 …… Regular Army
  • Nos. 26 – 42 …… National Guard
  • Nos. 76 – 93 …… National Army (mostly Selective Service Act draftees)

In 1918 an American combat division was remarkably large, often totalling about 25,500 men. Allied and German divisions were no more than half this size. The premise was that an AEF division would have a greater capacity to absorb casualties and thus remain fully combative for a longer period. In practical terms, the relatively large size of divisions (and regiments) was often due to a shortage of experienced senior officers. Structurally, an AEF division was said to be ‘square’; that is, it was divided into two infantry brigades, with each brigade comprising two regiments. These were supported by an artillery brigade. To their chagrin, some divisions found that they could not retain their identity as fighting units but were to act solely as sources of replacements for combat divisions.

Nearly half of the doughboys landed in England, usually at Liverpool, entrained and then crossed the Channel to northern France (Fig. 2). The alternative was a direct crossing of the Atlantic to the French ports of Cherbourg, Brest, St. Nazaire, La Pallice (La Rochelle) and Bassens (Bordeaux). New arrivals were dispersed amongst twenty-one divisional training areas that lay behind the southern sectors of the French front line. The General Headquarters of the AEF were established at Damrémont Barracks, Chaumont in the midst of these training areas (Fig. 3). This caserne has changed surprisingly little over the years. Here, to this day, the large quadrangle of the parade ground is still framed by three impressive four-storey buildings, presumably dormitories, and a guarded main entrance. A bronze plaque recalls its one-time occupancy by the AEF (September 1917 – July 1919). The large establishment is now a training school for the French Gendarmerie and thus retains its military aura.

Fig. 2 – Doughboys marching through London en route to France: September 5. 1917 (Underwood & Underwood/ Courtesy of the US National Archives: 530734).

Fig. 3 – Damrémont Barracks, General HQ of AEF, Chaumont.

The disposition of the Belgian and British armies, protecting the Channel ports, and the French army, protecting Paris, led to congestion of the communication system in northern and central France; it was therefore logical for the AEF to be assigned to the southerly Lorraine sector. General Pershing (Fig. 4) was content with this allocation as it presented the challenge of smashing through serried lines of German defence works, advancing in a north-easterly direction, and delivering a crushing blow at the vitals of the enemy’s railway support system. He demanded that the AEF comply with his strict ideas on dress code, discipline and marksmanship with the rifle. In reality, newly-arrived infantry had often received minimal basic training, sometimes as little as four weeks. Eight hundred experienced French and British officers and NCOs were assigned to instruct them in the evolving requirements of trench warfare.

Fig. 4 – General John J. Pershing at Chaumont: October 19, 1918 (Courtesy of the US National Archives: 530766).

Pershing disliked the defensive implications of trench warfare and intended to break the enemy with massive frontal attacks followed by open-field warfare. This policy emphasized aggression (L’attaque) and mobility but not artillery support. When he launched nine divisions (225,000) doughboys into his Argonne-Meuse offensive in the autumn of 1918 the hard-won lessons of the previous three years were too often disregarded. There was the usual butcher’s bill to pay as the attackers were drawn inexorably into a mill of bloody attrition. In this 47-day battle 26,277 doughboys were killed and 95,796 wounded.15 It ended on Armistice Day, November 11: on that day the AEF suffered 3,500 casualties, arguably without reason.

Naturally, the Allied governments viewed the large numbers of fresh incoming troops, the ‘Sammies’ (from les amis), as a much-needed source of infantry replacements. ‘Black Jack’ Pershing quickly disabused them of this simple idea and, under orders from Washington, persistently opposed political pressures from the Allies toward amalgamation. In his words, he was ‘against our becoming a recruiting agency for either the French or the British’. Although he allowed some ‘green’ American units to serve in ‘quiet’ sectors under Allied command in order to gain combat experience, his basic policy was to build the AEF into a powerful independent army capable of fighting on its own terms. (Significantly, President Wilson would describe America as an Associate of the Allies.) From April 1917 to May 1919 this military commitment would cost the United States more than $1,000,000 per hour.

Olive-drab uniforms were standard issue for doughboys; however, many Marines wore their own traditional ‘forest green’ versions. Doughboys arriving in France often wore distinctive felt campaign hats with three-inch brims and ‘Montana peak’ crowns; in time they would exchange them for overseas caps and, for combat, the British ‘Tommy’ steel helmets. In French sectors they often adopted the crested Model 1915 Adrian helmet. The prime emphasis was on building up manpower; accordingly much AEF equipment and armament was provided by the French and British.16 It was quite common for AEF infantry divisions to arrive in France with little more than shoulder weapons, such as the Colt automatic pistol (0.45 inch, Model 1911) and the highly-regarded US Springfield rifle, 0.30 inch calibre, Model 1903.17 However, the majority of doughboys were equipped with the US Enfield rifle (0.30 inch calibre, Model 1917) which had an excellent bolt action and was capable of 15 rounds per minute aimed fire. Its essential design derived from the standard English rifle, the ‘short magazine LeeEnfield’ (SMLE). AEF machine guns ranged from the light Lewis to heavier French Hotchkiss (1914) guns and water-cooled types such as the American Browning (0.30 inch, Model 1917) and the British Vickers (0.303 inch, Mk I). AEF experiences with the French-made Chauchat light machine gun were unhappy. Poor materials of construction, excessively wide manufacturing tolerances and a tendency to clog with mud led to unreliability in service; it has been estimated that half of the 40,000 Chauchats supplied to the AEF were discarded as unserviceable. Doughboys often used the French 37 mm Model 1916 infantry gun (Fig. 5). Capable of 15-20 shells per minute and very accurate, it was primarily intended for the elimination of machine gun nests and strongpoints.

Fig. 5 – 37 mm gun crew of the 23rd. Infantry Regt., 2nd. Division, during advance against German entrenchments, 1918 (Courtesy of the US National Archives: 531005)

Amongst the artillery supplied, the French 75 mm field gun (the famous soixante-quinze, Model 1897) was manufactured to extremely close engineering tolerances and lived up to its reputation as the finest field artillery piece of the war (Fig. 6). With a firing rate of fifteen rounds per minute and a range of 7-8 km, its shrapnel shells could wreak havoc on enemy infantry advancing over open ground. The AEF would eventually have more than 1,900 of these guns. The ingenious oleo-pneumatic recoil system gave great stability so that a ‘75’ could even be mounted on a road vehicle and serve as an anti-aircraft gun. The AEF also made extensive use of the standard British 18-pounder Quick Fire field gun (3.3 inch calibre) and the French 155 mm howitzer.

Fig. 6 – French 75 mm field gun at Armistice site, Forest of Compiègne.

In transportation, the ubiquitous Ford Model-T vehicle with its 20 horsepower engine and two-speed gearbox was much in evidence. In 1918 the AEF would receive about five hundred French Renault FT-17 tanks for infantry support. Revolutionary in design, it had a two-man crew, a fully-rotatable gun turret and a 35-horsepower petrol engine that propelled it at 7-8 km per hour. Horses and mules featured prominently in the AEF as in other armies on the Western Front and it was a common sight to see horses hauling the guns and caissons of the AEF into action. Even before America entered the war, demand from the Allied armies for draught animals and cavalry mounts was prodigious; in 1916 alone, America supplied them with 357,553 animals.18

  1. Doughboy Center web site, The Big Show []
  2. Philip J. Haythornthwaite, The World War One Source Book (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1999) ISBN 1 85409 102 6 []
  3. Later versions of the Model 1903 found extensive combat use in World War II and the Korean War; for special tasks, such as sniping, they were often preferred to the Garand M1. []
  4. Fairfax Downey, Sound of the Guns: The Story of American Artillery (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1956) 205. []