In April 1917, the USA declared war on the Central Powers.
Pic As Rich Dunn records in ‘Narrow Gauge to No Man’s Land’ there was an immediate response to a call for volunteers. From May 1917, recruits with railway experience were drawn to narrow gauge railway regiments. They were given military training. The 12th Engineers, recruited from the south and mid-west of the United States were in France as early as 18th August 1917. Between then and October, they took charge of 60cm networks in the Somme valley.
|When the advance guard of the AEF crossed the Atlantic, it set up camp at St Nazaire on the west coast of France. Here one of the first soldiers is doing sentry duty. Picture from Illustration' magazine, courtesy Malcolm Wright|
From the first, the AEF determined on 60cm gauge for supply in the field. It was interesting that a country which has its own proud history of Narrow Gauge railways, especially 3’ gauge, should go for this foreign one which used the metric system rather than good old feet and inches.
|The 16th infantry were among the first troops to arrive. Here they pose under their flags. The 12th and 14th Engineers were also early arrivers. Both werein France by August.Picture from Illustration' magazine, courtesy Malcolm Wright|
General Pershing was put in charge of the AEF but ‘had to deal with a opinionated (US) War Department which jealous of its prerogatives and determined to manage the War from the other side of the Atlantic’ Pershing was ‘willing to stand up to Foch, Haig, Lloyd George and Clemenceau’. These are the words of John Mosier - ‘The Myth of The Great War’ page 308. In short, Pershing was powerful, well connected (son in law of a senior Rupublican Senator), quite possibly bloody-minded and in short not pushover.
|General Pershing stands on the left, Vice-Admiral Gleaves beside him on the deck of an escort ship bringing in a convoy in June 17. Picture from Illustration' magazine, courtesy Malcolm Wright|
Pershing, though a real sceptic, was convinced of the value of the French porteur militaire, and a version of this system was used by the AEF. The French system in use in 1917 was based on the Péchot system first adopted in 1888, thanks to its tireless promotion by Prsoper Péchot – as I have recounted in Colonel Péchot: Tracks To The Trenches’. The Germans adopted and developed this system, starting only a few months after the French. Coincidence? I think not.
|The 0-4-4-0 Péchot Bourdon locomotive was designed to run on portable track that had been laid at speed on country paths. Just under 60 were in use before WW!, but several hundred were ordered for use during the War. Photo courtesy Raymond Duton|
Because trench warfare threw up problems which were not foreseen in 1888, the system was updated. We can take one example, the fascinating Péchot-Bourdon locomotive, designed to run on prefabricated track. Steam locomotives give off a plume of smoke in day-light and showers of glowing sparks at night. The solution, as the French, Germans and British found, was the internal combustion engine. Petrol and diesel powered locomotives, or loco-tractors as they were called, were used near the front line.
My particular favourite are the Baldwin Gas Mechanicals. These were designed and made at the Baldwin Works in Philadelphia. They were supplied in both 35hp and 50 hp versions to the AEF and the 50hp version was supplied to the French Army. (See my previous blog)
|THis 50 hp Baldwin Gas Mechanical locomotive was photographed in the Museum at Froissy in the Valley of the Somme. Courtesy Jim Hawkesworth|
The US Expedition to the Western Front was a tremendous achievement. From across the Atlantic, the American Expeditionary Force AEF had to create and run a supply network feeding the Western Front.
Their particular interest was the Argonne, due east (roughly) of Paris, but as Rich Dunn has pointed out, they lent a hand in other places too. The 12th and 14th Engineers helped on French and British lines in the Somme sector, at first as assistants and then to run entire sections of the Front themselves. They were caught in the German Spring Offensives of March/April 1918. They retreated in good order, but did something quite valuable. They stopped equipment being used by the advancing German Army. Baldwin Gas Mechanicals, such as the one pictured above, were stripped of their magnetos and carburettors. These vital parts were buried. The men of the 12th continued their hike to the rear, reformed and helped the Allies build trenches to defend the new Front.
|16mm model of the Baldwin Gas Mechanical made by Malcolm Wright|
It has often been said that the AEF did not respond to appeals from its Allies when the might of the German Army broke on the Somme Front. Just remember the Engineers!