General William Sibert

 

 

A skilled engineer, General William Sibert led the First Division initially in France during World War I.  Sibert was an engineering officer who had won accolades for his work on the construction of the Panama Canal Zone.  In 1915 Congress had promoted him from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General.  However, the Army Corps of Engineers at that time was authorized only one general.  Sibert thus found himself at age 55 suddenly an infantry General who had never led an infantry unit or been in the infantry.  The Army put him in command of the West Coast artillery where it was reasoned an inexperience general could do little harm.

However in 1917 he suddenly found himself in command of the infantry units that landed in France on June 26, 1916 and which would eventually make up the First Division.  Sibert had a great deal of doubt as to whether he was suitable for this command.  Eventually Pershing shared his doubts, and along with several other general officers, Pershing relieved him in January 1918 prior to the First Division before the Division began duty in the trenches.

Pershing bore Sibert no ill will, understanding that he was not responsible for the attempt by Congress to force a round peg into a square hole.  When the Chemical Warfare Service was created later in 1918, Pershing recommended Sibert to command it in the continental United States, which he did.  After retirement as a Major General, Sibert would go on to work as an engineer in Mobile, Alabama and he served on the Presidential Commission which led to the construction of Hoover Dam.  He died in 1945.  Two of his five sons would go on to be Major Generals in the Army.

June 5, 1917: Alvin C. York Registers for the Draft

As millions of other American men registered for the draft, so did twenty-nine year old Tennessee mountaineer Alvin C. York.  On June 5, 1917 he filled out his registration form.  He claimed exemption with the simple words:  “Yes.  Don’t Want to Fight.”

 

York arrived in this world on December 3, 1887, the third of the eleven children of William and Mary York.  He was born into rural poverty.  Although both of his parents were quite hard-working, the Yorks lived in a two-room log cabin at a subsistence level.  None of the York children received more than nine-months education, as their labor was desperately needed to farm the few hard scrabble acres that the Yorks owned, and to hunt for food to feed the large family.

When his father died in 1911, Alvin took on the responsibility of helping his mother raise his younger siblings, and supporting the family.  Alvin early developed the reputation as both a hard-worker during the day and a drunken hell-raiser at night, something that constantly distressed his mother, a Christian and a pacifist.

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Published in: on June 22, 2017 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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June 14, 1917: President Wilson Speech

 

In 1917 Flag Day as an annual observance was one year old President Wilson’s speech, unsurprisingly, focused on the War that America was now a part of, and a rejection of any German peace feelers short of surrender:

 

My Fellow Citizens: We meet to celebrate Flag Day because this flag which we honour and under which we serve is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours. It floats in majestic silence above the hosts that execute those choices, whether in peace or in war. And yet, though silent, it speaks to us. —speaks to us of the past, * of the men and women who went before us and of the records they wrote upon it. We celebrate the day of its birth; and from its birth until now it has witnessed a great history, has floated on high the symbol of great, events, of a great plan of life worked out by a great people. We are about to carry it into battle, to lift it where it will draw the fire of our enemies. We are about to bid thousands, hundreds of thousands, it may be millions, of our men. the young, the strong, the capable men of the nation, to go forth and die beneath it on fields of blood far away, —for what? For some unaccustomed thing? For something for which it has never sought the fire before? American armies were never before sent across the seas. Why arc they sent now? For some new purpose, for which this great flag has never been carried before, or for some old. familiar, heroic purpose for which it has seen men, its own men, die on every battlefield upon which Americans have borne arms since the Revolution?

These are questions which must be answered. We are Americans. We in our turn serve America, and can serve her with no private purpose. We must use her flag as she has always used it. Wo are accountable at the bar of history and must plead in utter frankness what purpose it is we seek to serve. (more…)

Published in: on June 20, 2017 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Good-bye Broadway, Hello France

 

Something for the weekend.  Good-bye Broadway, Hello France.  Like the Civil War, World War I produced endless songs, most of which were never heard of again after the  War was concluded.  Quite popular during the War was Good-bye Broadway, Hello France, written in 1917 by by Billy Baskette, with lyrics written by C. Francis Reisner and Benny Davis.  Whenever a World War I documentary has ever been produced, this song is often played as US troops are shown being shipped to France.

Published in: on June 17, 2017 at 3:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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June 14, 1917: Pershing Arrives in France

 

On June 14, 1917 General John J. Pershing and 190 of his staff, military and civilians, arrived in France.  The first American combat troops would land on June 26, 1917.  America would not have a full division in France until the arrival of the last elements of the First Division in October 1917.  Eventually two million doughboys would serve in France but the buildup was initially a slow process.  No doubt many Allied leaders were wondering if the Americans would arrive in time to turn the balance against a Germany that was in the process of winning the War in the East.  Perilous times for America and its allies a century ago.  We forget today what a monumental task it was to raise an army of millions and to ship it across the Atlantic, and to do this from a starting stop in about a year’s time.  No wonder that some Allied leaders were skeptical, as Winston Churchill noted after Pearl Harbor:

Silly people — and there were many, not only in enemy countries — might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before — that the United States is like “a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.”

 

 

 

Published in: on June 16, 2017 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Roosevelt’s Letter to His Volunteers

 

With the entry of the US into World War I, Theodore Roosevelt began organizing a volunteer force of four divisions.  The reaction around the nation was enthusiastic with over 100,000 men volunteering, and many professional officers in the Regular Army seeking to serve with the divisions.  Congress authorized the raising of the four volunteer divisions, at the discretion of the President, in the Selective Service Act of 1917.  Roosevelt was not named as the commander of the divisions, but everyone knew who this provision was intended for.  Wilson quickly decided that he would not authorize the divisions, fearing that Roosevelt would either get killed, in which case he might be blamed, or Roosevelt would return a national hero and be a formidable Republican candidate for the White House in 1920.  Wilson’s decision was perhaps the bitterest disappointment in Roosevelt’s life, a disappointment that echoes in his May 21, 1917 letter to his volunteers:

 

The President has announced that he will decline to permit those divisions to be organized or to permit me to have a command in connection with such a force. After consultation yesterday, personally or by wire, with some of the men who have volunteered to raise units—regiments and battalions—for the divisions, including John C. Groome, of Pennsylvania; Seth Bullock, of South Dakota; John C. Greenway, of Arizona; John M. Parker, of Louisiana; Robert Carey, of Wyoming; J. P. Donnelly, of Nevada; Sloan Simpson, of Texas; D. C. Collier and F. R. Burnham, of California; I. L. Reeves, Frazer Metzger, and H. Nelson Jackson, of Vermont; Harry Stimson, W. J. Schieffelin, and William H. Donovan, of New York, and Messrs. James R. Garfield, Raymond Robbins, R. H. Channing, David M. Goodrich, W. E. Dame, George Roosevelt, Richard Derby and various others who were immediately accessible, it was decided unanimously that in view of the decision of the President the only course open to us is forthwith to disband and to abandon all further effort in connection with the divisions, thereby leaving each man free to get into the military service in some other way, if that is possible, and, if not, then to serve his country in civil life as he best can. (more…)

Published in: on June 4, 2017 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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June 1, 1917: Hank Gowdy Enlists

Hank Gowdy was a great ball player and a great patriot.   The high point of his ball career was in the 1914 World Series where he was the most valuable player for winning the World Series for the Boston Braves.  In 1917 he was 28 years old and at his peak as a ball player.  On June 1, he turned his back on fame and fortune, enlisting in the Army, the first major leaguer to do so .  He served in the 166th regiment of the Rainbow Division in France, going through some of the worst trench fighting that American troops experience in the War.  Coming home from the War in one piece, he resumed his career with the Braves.  In 1923 he was traded to the Giants.  After he retired from ball played, he served as a coach with the Braves, the Giants and the Reds.

When the US entered World War II, Gowdy enlisted in the Army again, despite being 53.  Among other duties he served as chief athletic officer at Fort Benning.  He was the only major leaguer to serve in both world wars.  After the War he served as coach and manager for the Reds, retiring from baseball in 1948.  He passed away in 1966 at age 76. (more…)

The Big Red One Goes to France

President Wilson realized it would be many months before the US ground forces could be trained, equipped and shipped across the Atlantic in numbers sufficient to make a difference on the battlefields of France.  However, he also knew that Allied, and American, morale would soar with the news that the Americans had landed in France, no matter how many they were.  Thus on May 19, 1917 Wilson ordered that the First Expeditionary Division be formed, and that units of the Division sail to France as soon as possible.  Thus was born the First Infantry Division, the Big Red One.  By the end of the War the Division would incur casualties of 4,964 killed in action, 17,201 wounded in action, and 1,056 missing or died of wounds.  It would be the first Division to cross the Rhine into occupied Germany.  Five soldiers of the Division earned Medals of Honor during the War, out of a total of 92 earned by the Army.   The Big Red One has been in continuous service with the Army since its creation in 1917. (more…)

Published in: on May 21, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Big Red One Goes to France  
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May 18, 1917: Wilson Signs Selective Service Act of 1917

 

The first draft imposed since the Civil War, the Selective Service Act of 1917, passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress, was signed by President Wilson a century ago.  The Act provided for the enlistment, at the discretion of the President, of the four volunteer divisions that Theodore Roosevelt planned to lead.  Go here to read about this provision.  Wilson, alarmed that Roosevelt would either be killed in France and he would be blamed, or that he would come back a national hero and be swept into the Presidency in 1920, would refuse to ever authorize the four volunteer divisions.  By the end of the War some 2 million Americans volunteered for service and some 2.8 million were drafted.

Individuals who belonged to religions or organizations opposed to War were exempted from combatant service but not from noncombatant service.  Members of the clergy were exempted from conscription as were seminarians. (more…)

Published in: on May 18, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 18, 1917: Wilson Signs Selective Service Act of 1917  
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May 10, 1917: Pershing Appointed to Lead the AEF

 

After the death of Frederick Funston on February 19, 1917, it was inevitable that the newly promoted Major General John J. (Blackjack) Pershing would command the American Expeditionary Force that would be sent to France.  It must have seemed somewhat dizzying to him.  Nineteen years before he had been an overage thirty-eight year old First Lieutenant who would be lucky to make Major before retirement.  In 1893 he obtained a law degree in case he decided to leave the Army, fed up by the slow promotions offered by the minuscule peace time Army.

 

The Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt made him.  At the battle of San Juan Hill he made a lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt.  Under fire he was as “cool as a bowl of cracked ice”, as one observer noted.  Rising to the temporary rank of Major of Volunteers he gained a reputation as a good combat officer in both Cuba and the Philippines and would serve as Adjutant General of the Philippines Department.

After the Spanish-American War he reverted to the regular army rank of Captain.  In 1905 Captain Pershing was promoted to Brigadier General Pershing by President Roosevelt over the heads of 835 officers more senior than him.  Surprisingly there was not much animosity over this, Pershing enjoying a reputation of extreme professional competence in the Army, a soldier’s soldier. (more…)

Published in: on May 10, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 10, 1917: Pershing Appointed to Lead the AEF  
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