American forces reach the trenches
By John Stephen Futini
via the Napa Valley Register web site
On Nov. 30, 1917, 100 years ago in World War I, a large U.S. non-combat unit was the first such to engage the enemy. The 11th Engineer Regiment, 1,400 strong, composed of volunteer railway workers from Queens, New York, fought German attackers with shovels and picks. (It prior helped assemble British-made tanks used in history’s first mass armor offensive at the Battle of Cambrai.)
Repairing a rail supply line, the 11th abruptly came under a surprise German counterattack. Under the calm leadership of 1st Lt. Paul McLoud — who procured ammunition for rifles, apparently later handed out — the engineers fell back to a vacant British trench and repelled the attack. Twelve Americans were wounded, one lost in action, 17-year-old Private Dalton Ranlet, who lied about his age to join up. Said Gen. John Pershing, “Wars are not won by fighting with shovels.” (Shovels were used in trench warfare by attacking Germans as thrusting spears.)
Twenty-seven days earlier on Nov. 3, three U.S. soldiers were killed in fierce trench fighting on the Western Front. They were the first American combat fatalities of some 52,000 more to follow in the next 372 days. Cpl. James Gresham, age 24, Pvt. Merle Hay, age 21, and Pvt. Thomas Enright, age 30, died in a night trench raid by the Germans at the front’s “quiet sector” near Artois.
Before the war, Gresham was a furniture maker in Evansville, Indiana. In 1914, when the European war began, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in El Paso, under “Black-Jack” John J. Pershing, the future commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. Hay, of Glidden, Iowa, was a store clerk repairing farm equipment. With his father’s blessing, he enlisted in the American army on May 3, 1917, a month and a day after President Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress to declare war upon Imperial Germany. Enright, from near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had already served in the U.S. Army from 1909 to 1916. A veteran soldier, he had survived the post-Boxer Rebellion occupation in China, the Moro wars in the southern Philippines, the garrisoning of Vera Cruz, and the punitive expedition under Pershing to quash Pancho Villa in northern Mexico. The three were among “Pershing’s darlings,” the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division in France in the fall of 1917.
Read the entire article on the Napa Valley Register web site.
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