American divisions used quiet sectors of the Western Front for training purposes after they arrived in France. The normal procedure for divisions was first to carry out intensive training in rear of the front lines, then to serve in quiet sectors for a time with French or British troops, and finally to complete their training for battle by occupying sectors of their own. This procedure was broken during the emergencies of 1918 when several divisions were sent directly from their training areas into battle. Divisions which suffered in combat were also rotated back to these areas for reorganizing and retraining later in the war.
Inexperienced Doughboys Arrive in Sector
The sector most frequently assigned to American divisions for their sector occupancy was in the Vosges Mountains, north of the Swiss border. This article will focus on that segment of the Western Front. Divisions sent to the British sectors are discussed in the articles on Initial Operations in the Flanders and Somme sectors.
Locate the Vosges Mountains on a Map of the Western Front.
Service in sector varied widely in character, but included sometimes preparing for the possibility of either side taking the offensive, incessant efforts by each side to discover the intentions of the opponent through trench raids, local attacks and frequent artillery and gas bombardments.
A Typical Trench Raid
...The moon was bright but Lt. Holmes crawled up with his men, cut 12 strands of wire, and when the sentry looked out of the post, leaped on him himself. While Lt. Holmes was wrestling in the water in the trench with the first sentry, the second German shot at the lieutenant. Sgt. Murphy killed him with his bayonet. The prisoner was then secured, yelling, "Kamerade", and taken back over No Man's Land.
Reported by Major Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
Staff Report 26th Infantry, 1st Division
Major Events During Sector Occupation
- November 2, 1917
- First three Americans killed in enemy action. Three members of the 1st
Division killed in a German trench raid near Bathelemont. [See account below.]
- April 20, 1918
- The 26th Division suffers heavy casualties in German trench raids which they finally beat off.
- May, 1918
- The 42nd Division suffers severe casualties in gas attack near Baccarat.
- August 17, 1918
- The 5th Division in the Vosges capture the town of Frapelle and Hill 451 in well planned attack.
- August, 1918
- The 89th Division suffers severe casualties in gas barrage at Flirey
- October 4, 1918
- Fifty men of the 6th Division beat off a trench raid by over 300 German troops near Sondernach.
French Officers Instruct the Doughboys
The most memorable event associated with Sector Occupation involves the deaths of the AEF's first men killed in action: James Gresham [shown left], Merle Hay and Thomas Enright all of Company F, 16th Infantry, 1st Division. In his 1963 classic The Doughboys Laurence Stallings describes what happened:
When night fell on November 2 [1917 near Bathelemont, a German] Assault Company was brought into their front line and sent to the deepest dugouts to await its hour...Exactly at three o'clock in the morning all hell broke loose. Enemy guns spoke in chorus, tons of metal descended heavily along the Yank's front, communicating trenches were plastered with mortar fire, machine guns sent their whispering streams of nickeled steel over the heads of the Doughboys in the line...The fire was concentrated, isolating in a box barrage F Company...
The box soon closed in on one platoon front. There was nothing now on the face of the earth, which could reach this chosen platoon. The Assault Company, facing it, leaped from their trenches and started across the two hundred meters that separated Americans from Germans. Bangalore torpedoes blasted a path through the wire. The side of the box barrage nearest the Germans now vanished, the other three sides roaring with breaking shells. The platoon first knew of the Germans' presence when grenades burst among them.
Trenches Similar to those of the Raid
...It was over in three dark minutes -- pistols, bayonets, knives. The platoon did not blench. It fought in the dark. There was no mad rush for a communicating trench or a deep dugout. The Assault Company left on a precise schedule, taking their own wounded, together with a Doughboy sergeant and ten men, some of them wounded, too, and all of them stunned; dragging them back through the gaps in the wire as the open side of the box barrage again was closed with forbidding bursts. Another three minutes and all guns ceased....Three men lay dead in the muddy bottom of the trench. Corporal James B. Gresham, Private Thomas F. Enright, and Private Merle D. Hay. They were buried that afternoon near Bathelemont on a little rise of pasturage...