Centennial of first U.S. combat troops in France on June 26, 1917
By Paul Brugholzer
June 26th marks the 100th anniversary of the first unit of American combat troops landing in France.
The small French port of St. Nazaire welcomed the first wave of American soldiers from the 1st Division with open arms. St. Nazaire was an ancient shipbuilding town. Upon the arrival of the first troop ships, the city was the focus of jubilant celebration. French citizens cheered and shouted, as a new sense of hope flooded their hearts. They had seen four years of horrifying war, and millions of men, women, and children had been killed. A significant part of France was occupied by Germany. The opposing militaries were deadlocked, and the end had been nowhere in sight.
The people of St. Nazaire saw the American Army as a heroic liberator. The fantastical notion of liberation is one that has shaped America’s character and it was sealed in reality when the heroes of the US Army landed in St. Nazaire.
America in 1917 was not regarded a world power. It was a country that, a little over 50 years ago, almost tore itself apart in a brutal civil war. The US had little colonial influence compared to the great European powers. America was still largely agrarian and most of the soldiers landing in France had never been to Europe before. American life was isolated from the problems of the world until the nation entered the war. These troops, who marched through the streets of St. Nazaire were the physical representation of America entering the world stage with the global superpowers.
In some ways, the German leadership was not concerned when America entered the war America lacked a modern army, at the time. Further, the incredible logistical effort to form a modern army, and to deploy troops across the Atlantic Ocean, was seen as far beyond their capability. But somehow, despite the enormous challenges, and through with national focus, under an incredible leadership effort, America was able to create their modern army, and to bring them across the ocean, and to leverage them into effective use to end this awful war.
The American soldiers who arrived in St. Nazaire in June of 1917 showed courage. They left their homes and families, to fight for the liberty of peoples in Europe. Their enemy was a much stronger army, with years of experience in modern warfare. But these American troops carried on, because, for them, liberty worth the risk, and the strife.
Many photos of the troop arrival in St. Nazaire are displayed online by our friends at the French Ministry of Defense. Website is here http://www.ecpad.fr/larrivee-des-troupes-americaines-a-saint-nazaire/
Paul Brugholzer is a Summer 2017 intern with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.