Getting American Soldiers Trained in the Realities of Trench Warfare

The United States had a small standing Army in April 1917 when the country officially joined the Great War. Most of the men in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) were new soldiers in need of training. While veteran units of the Army and Marines brought experience to the AEF, conditions and fighting they had seen in Vera Cruz, on the Mexican Border, the Philippines, and other small conflicts were very different from rapidly changing conditions in Europe. Veteran units incorporated many new volunteers, with draftees soon to follow. With a force built primarily on brand new soldiers, the AEF needed to train men quickly and efficiently, and relied on the French and British to give practical training in trench warfare.  

The first combat troops to arrive in France, the basis of the 1st Division, were a combination of recruits and veterans. By autumn the 42nd “Rainbow” Division, the 26th “Yankee” Division, and the 2nd Division, which included a brigade of  Marines, had arrived. Specialized schools and camps for artillery, infantry, and the other arms and services were established. French and British veterans provided training in these camps. Men learned to use gas masks, dig trenches and lay barbed wire. American artillery units were introduced to their new French field pieces and howitzers. When training was complete, battalions went into the line with Allied units in quiet sectors for a month of operational training.

During this first month assignment in the trenches, many early AEF combat casualties occurred. In the early hours of November 3, 1917 several companies of the 1st Division were in the front line trenches. The Germans threw an artillery “box barrage” around some of the Americans and attacked with raiding parties. Eleven Americans were taken prisoner, and Cpl. James Gresham, Pvt. Thomas Enright, and Pvt. Merle Hay were killed. These men became the first American infantry casualties of World War I.

For those who survived their first month in the trenches, the battalions returned to their divisions to train as an all arms team. This phase reflected the AEF’s focus on “open warfare”.  Gen. John J. Pershing and his staff felt the war would only be won when the enemy was forced out of the stalemate of the trenches and defeated in a battle of maneuvers in the open.  Of the AEF combat units that became fully trained and entered combat in World War I, the average soldier had six months of training in the United States, two months of training in France, and one month in a quiet sector of the front. 

The AEF grew from the first four divisions to a total of 42 sent to France. Between the ports of Calais and Boulogne on the English Channel, Americans trained in 13 different British training centers, and more than 50 French training areas across France. These totals do not include training areas in Italy, France, and England for the U.S. Air Service.  With the rapid expansion of the AEF and the need to fully fill the ranks, many opportunities existed for soldiers to acquire new skills and receive promotions.

One of these men was Pvt. Robert Hayden Graham, who served in the 18th Engineers. As part of a railway engineering regiment, he went straight to work in 1917 on ports and rail yards in southwestern France. With a critical need for expertise in various subject areas, Graham was soon sent to training at a French “motor school” after confirming he knew what an internal combustion engine was.  For the final exam at this school, squads were given a large crate containing a disassembled American truck, and French assembly instructions. At the end of the exam, an officer would attempt to start the truck. If the truck started, the squad  graduated.  After completing this training Graham began driving trucks “full of explosives” to artillery ammunition dumps close behind the front. As an ambitious man, who had an education, he went on to drive staff cars, and he eventually earned a commission in France.

Suggested Reading

The War with Germany a Statistical Summary by Leonard P. Ayres, Washington, GPO (1919).

The Eighteenth Engineers: A.E.F. France, 1917-1919 by Hugh Wiley, Berkeley, Gillick Printing (1959).

The United States Army in the World War 1917-1919: Training and Use of American Units with British and French, Washington, Center of Military History (1989).

American Military History Vol. II: The United States in a Global Era , 1917-2008, Ed. Richard Stewart, Washington, Center of Military History (2010).