By Eric Durr, New York State Division of Military and Naval AffairsApril 6, 2018
Secret move of the 77th Division from Long Island was not so secret in 1918
YPAHANK, N.Y.--The move from Camp Upton, Long Island to France was supposed to be secret, but when the U.S. Army's 77th Division left in March and April 1918, everybody in New York City-- the hometown for most of the 23,000 men-- seemed to know about it.
"Although the troops invariably left camp at night or very early in the morning, the racket the men made was quite indicative that a departure was in progress," the New York Times reported in June of 1918, after the Army officially announced the division was in France.
"They made great fires of waste straw from mattresses and shouted and sang until they boarded the trains. The men had liberal furloughs just before they sailed and they were allowed to have their relatives visit them even on the days they were to leave," the Times reported.
The division's official history, published in 1919, also admitted that the operations security was not the best.
"Although the departure of the Division had been kept secret, New York seemed to know intuitively that her Division was on its way. The office buildings were alive with waving hand-kerchiefs, and thousands of whistles sounded their blatant greetings," according to the "History of the Seventy Seventh Division, August 25th 1917, and November 11th 1918."
The 77th Division was the New York City division. The New York National Guard's 27th Division represented the whole state, with "apple knockers" from Albany and men from Utica and Syracuse and Buffalo making up the bulk of the division.
The National Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment and 15th Infantry Regiment -- better known as the 369th Harlem Hell Fighters--did come from New York City, but they were units of 3,500 men each and they had left earlier.
The 77th Division's 23,000 Soldiers were recruited through the draft. The division was part of the "National Army," which did not have roots in the Regular Army or the National Guard.
The 77th was the first National Army division to be sent to France, in the wake of Regular Army and National Guard divisions which had been arriving since the fall of 1917.
"The men who formed it were from all classes of life, from peddlers and laborers to professional men and sons of the rich," according to the New York Times. "But within a short time the fifty nationalities represented were melted into a solid corps of American soldiers with racial distinction eliminated."
The division's Soldiers supposedly represented 50 nationalities and spoke 43 languages along with English.
From Camp Upton, divisional units moved to New York City, Boston, Brooklyn, Hoboken, New Jersey, and Portland, Maine to board troopships heading for France and Great Britain.
The first elements left March 27. The bulk of the division's four infantry regiments moved out by April 16. Men put signs on their barracks announcing they were "for rent for the summer. Owner touring Europe," the New York Times reported.
Three Soldiers in the 305th Infantry Regiment got married at midnight just before the unit departed, according to the Times. A train carrying part of the 305th derailed on the way to the port and three men were killed and 30 injured.
The first wave of troop ships assembled in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before heading to Liverpool, England in a massive troop convoy. The Soldiers landed there after two weeks at sea at the end of April and were then ferried from Dover to Calais.
The rest of the division--the artillery and support troops--sailed later and landed directly in the French ports of St. Nazaire and Brest in early May.
Most Soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force -- the name for the U.S. Army in France--landed in St. Nazaire and trained with the French Army. The 77th was one of five American divisions which deployed behind the British Army in northern France.
The American Soldiers were shocked when they were told to turn in their American-made 1903 Springfield rifles for the British Lee- Enfield rifle and began eating British Army rations.
That meant, according to the division history, "tea and jam for breakfast; jam, tea, and meat for dinner, and jam, tea and cheese for supper." The Americans, according to the history, went looking in French shops for additional food, and prices soared when French shop keepers learned Americans were paid $1.10 per day.
The 77th and four other divisions--including the New York National Guard's 27th Division--trained with the British and deployed behind the British Army in order to take advantage of every vacant training area in France, Army officials said at the time.
Another reason, according to the book "The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I" was a commitment to help the British Army, which had been hit hard by the German "Kaiser Offensive" in March 1918.
Worried about the arrival of one million American Soldiers on the battlefields of France, the Germans launched a last ditch attempt to defeat the British and French. The American Divisions were there in case they had to backstop the British.
But the German offensive ran out of steam and only two of these divisions--including the 27th--fought with the British.
But the New Yorkers learned the British way of trench warfare from soldiers of the British 39th Division. They learned British Army bayonet drill and how to use British machine guns instead of the French machines guns the rest of the AEF used.
Video on the National Archives Youtube channel --seen here at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJiwyjI3X38 -- records the Soldiers of the 77th Division training with the 39th Division.
The American Soldiers also visited the British front lines in small groups, where they were "most impressed by the vast amount of shelling" according to the "AEF Way of War."
But while the AEF leadership appreciated the British bayonet training, they were not as impressed by the British trench warfare combat drills the 77th Division learned.
The goal of the American leadership was to break out of the trenches and begin "open warfare" in order to defeat the German Army as soon as possible. The 77th Division would have to unlearn some of the British lessons in June 1918, when they were brought back home to the AEF in June 1918 and sent to the front, the first National Army division to see combat.
The New York City troops would find a welcome friend when the 77th Division entered combat. It replaced the National Guard's 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division near Baccarat, France in June 1918 which included the New York City Irishmen of the 165th Infantry, the new name of the famous "Fighting 69th".
But the American Army's operational security was still shaky. As the 77th moved in, German observation balloons across no-man's land displayed signs saying "Good-bye, 42nd Division- Hello, 77th Division."
On June 24th, 1918, the Germans started their real welcome for the New York City division by shelling the new troops with mustard and phosgene gas. The enemy fired approximately 3,000 rounds, resulting in 180 casualties, about 100 of which were severe.
The New Yorkers were now in the fight.
During the World War I centennial observance the Division of Military and Naval Affairs will issue press releases noting key dates which impacted New Yorkers based on information provided by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. More than 400,000 New Yorkers served in the military during World War I, more than any other state.