"Vive l'Amèrique!" shouted the little boy standing at the edge of a Boulogne
pier as he waved his arms at the steamer passing into port.
On deck, the American General raised a hand to the distant lad. Near him, a
newspaperman noted this exchange and looked to the dock ahead at the waiting
French emissaries, a guard of honor and a band playing the French national
anthem and The Star Spangled Banner.
For the 190 American soldiers and civilians that comprised Gen. John J.
Pershing's entourage, the arrival at Boulogne-sur-Mer 13 June 1917 was rather
quiet. Yet all appreciated their place in history.
Just as they had been the first U.S. military force to ever set foot in Great
Britain a week earlier, they were also the first to arrive on the Continent.
The contingent included only 67 enlisted men and 40 regular army officers. It
was a disappointingly small group from the perspective of the French, who
hoped America's declaration of war would mean instant waves of corn-fed
Yankees hitting their shores. And so the waves would come, but excruciatingly
The coordination effort of moving one division, let alone seven corps, across
the Atlantic was profound. Landing the units, analyzing circumstances and
reorganizing the divisions as quickly as needed was an unprecedented task.
The First Division landed at the ports of the ancient shipbuilding town of
St. Nazaire in late June. This first wave was about 14,500 strong -- some
regular army, a battalion of Marines, and many very raw recruits. "Sturdy
rookies," Pershing called them. The general was on hand to greet the 14-
vessel convoy as it sailed into port with American flags flying. The sight,
Pershing would write, "gave us all a thrill of pride."
It was not the sharpest-looking outfit, however. Uniforms were so new and
ill-fitting they looked as though they had been purchased from a catalogue.
Many experienced officers and veterans had been stripped out to help train
other units. The lack of preparation decried by Pershing retarded the U.S.
participation in the conflict, though none of the allied commanders expected
the Americans to be ready before the end of the "fighting season" for that
year. Also at issue was how much of an influence the French officers would be
in the training of the doughboys.
The soldiers in the First Division may have been in dire need of drilling but
they were enthusiastic. Being safely back on land after the fretful crossing
(with the constant threat of German U-boats), the Yankees were a happy,
singing lot. The citizens of St. Nazaire did not care what they looked like
or how long they had trained. Their welcome was boisterous. It took at least
three days for the division to complete its debarkation in the port city,
long enough for the soldiers to avail themselves of all the amenities and
introduce themselves to France.
In the days between his own arrival and that of the First Division, Pershing
had come to a full grasp of the deplorable state of morale for the French
people and the French Army. The allied commanders knew that the sight of the
fresh American soldiers would have a bolstering effect; had anticipated it
for months, in fact. For that reason, a grand reception was arranged for the
Fourth of July in Paris.
Pershing brought a battalion of the 16th Infantry to parade in Paris with
great pomp and circumstance. The general's contingent rose to the dramatic
occasion. "Nous voilà, Lafayette!" declared Lt. Col. Charles Stanton before
the jubilant Parisians assembled at the Marquis' tomb. Pershing kissed the
sword of Napoleon that was presented for his viewing. Eschewing protocol,
women infiltrated the ranks to grab the soldiers and shower them with
garlands and kisses. Others fell to their knees on the sidewalks.
The arrival of the rest of the American Expeditionary Force would be less
theatrical. While the First Division was undergoing heavy training and
Pershing was shaking up and rebuilding his command, the Second Division began
arriving in late August. The Second, in total about 25,000 men, rather
trickled into France. In March, April and May of 1918 they were still
arriving. This again was mainly due to the experienced men being transferred
to train other units and being replaced piecemeal by new recruits and
conscripts still coming in from the States.
Once in port, the doughboys were loaded into railroad boxcars - large enough
for 40 men or eight horses - and sent off to their designated training areas.
The trip sometimes took a few days and was almost always followed by a long
hike to camp. For the divisions that arrived in the late fall and winter, the
French excursion was a swift awakening to the wet, cold conditions they would
slog through for months.
Meanwhile, French officials were becoming impatient for the doughboys to
actually get into the fight.
In July 1917, Pershing sent Washington his request for one million soldiers.
He insisted on keeping his Americans an independent army, and anything less
than one million men could not be called a real army, in his estimation. Long
before he left Washington, he was battling the French and English demands
that the Sammies be placed under the command and training of the allied
commanders. Pershing, with the backing of President Wilson, demanded that his
men fight only under American officers and only when they were good and
In September, the 26th Division was on French shores and then in October, the
42nd (Rainbow) Division. Both were comprised of National Guard units, the
former mainly from New England and the latter from all over the country. This
ingress, too, was slow and in installments. Even regiments had to be
temporarily broken apart to facilitate shipping. Part of the 26th had already
been in some scraps before the entire division had completely disembarked by
Units also faced rapid command changes. Many a division, many a regiment,
many a battalion found itself with a different commanding officer than it had
trained under in the States. Again, the situation can be marked down in part
to the shifting of experienced officers, but a large reason for it was the
quick assessment of the officers' real abilities. Pershing and his staff were
no respecters of persons when it came to weeding out long-time officers they
deemed unfit for the warfare they faced. The Second Division, made up of
Army, Navy and Marines, was completely reorganized in France.
Three other divisions, or at least division commands, began arriving on
French shores before the end of 1917. The 32nd, a National Guard division,
came out of Michigan and Wisconsin. The 41st, another NG division, was
comprised of units from all over the West and became the 1st Depot Division.
And then there was the 93rd National Army Division, a so-called "colored"
unit. The U.S. military was, of course, not integrated, and some generals had
already made it very clear they did not want to command black soldiers. The
British, too, stated to Pershing that training with the African-Americans
would be bad for morale. The French had no such hesitations and welcomed the
chance to fill their lines with the four infantry regiments. Almost as soon
as the division command arrived in January, Pershing executed a rare break
from his firm stand against American soldiers fighting under foreign command
and sent the 93rd to the French. This was ostensibly on a temporary basis as
replacements. They would be with the French troops for the rest of the war.
Residents of crowded ports like Brest became accustomed to the sight of
Yankees marching off the ships and the American stevedores, white and black
side-by-side, unloading supplies. So common was the sight of disembarking
U.S. soldiers after a time that the reception by residents became quite
lackadaisical and inclined to self-interest. Prices, already bloated by war,
shot up. Hospitality businesses thrived. It would not be long before the
ports were well known as havens for prostitutes and the accompanying
As those first divisions arrived, Pershing's staff began to put the
organizational plan into order. Already determined were the location of
training centers, the procedures of transportation within the French
interior, lines of communication and the business of trying to feed and
supply an unprecedented American Expeditionary Force.
Sources and Thanks:Photos from Ray Mentzer and Herb Stickel. The author found these works useful in preparing this article and recommends them:
My Experiences in the First World War by General John J. Pershing
- The AEF: With General Pershing and the American Forces by Heywood Broun
- The American Army in France, 1917-1919 by James G. Harbord
- The Doughboys: The Story of the AEF, 1917-1919 by Laurence Stallings
- The Nation at War by Peyton Marsh
- Mr. Wilson's War by John Dos Passos