Wednesday, 31 January 2018

AEF and Baldwin Gas Mechanicals went to war 100 years ago



One hundred years ago, there was watching and waiting on the Western Front. The Germans signed a treaty with the new Soviet government of Russia which gave them a tract of agricultural land and ensured safety to their east. They could now move their armies westward. If they could attack as soon in the early spring, they could knock out France before the AEF (American Expeditionary Force of the USA) could deploy for battle. A system of convoys, for the most part British in 1917 to early 1918, was bringing US troops in British shipping across the Atlantic.
The Baldwin Gas Mechanical. Any excuse to include a picture of this lovely brute!A series built beginning 7001 running on 60cm gauge was built for the AEF. This is a 16mm scale model by  MD Wright
As well as an Army, the AEF had to create a whole system of trench railways, which they modelled on the existing 60 cm gauge. In ‘Colonel Pechot: Tracks to the trenches’ pages 236-239, I describe the US Light Railways. Just at the planning stage in 1917, they were a formidable force by the end of the War. 150 examples of the 50h.p. Baldwin Gas Mechanical locomotive were built. They were identical to a large order (over 500) for the French Army. US industry also imitated French practice and constructed over 2800 bogie wagons for carrying freight. Rich Dunn comments 'there was some controversy about this decision' Clearly there were many proponents of simple four-wheel wagons for gauge this narrow.
German Military Intelligence told the High Command that this fresh new AEF was grouped south of Verdun (east of Soissons at the bottom right of the map); the western Front swung east from Soissons through Reims, then on to Verdun and Toul. Though this area had been regarded as the hinge of the Front in 1916, for various reasons, the Germans did not wish a frontal attack on the AEF.
Railway map of north-east France. In February 1918, The Front ran from just west of Lille at the top right to just east of Soissons, bottom right. A strong attack on Amiens(centre), well to the west of Albert, would knock out most n/s communications. Map courtesy of Terry van Winkle
The original Schlieffen Plan had been to attack France from the North-East, punch through the existing defences, destroy communications, cut off northern France and encircle Paris. It had worked before. The Front now ran from Soissons northwards, west of Lille, dangerously close to the Channel.
Military Intelligence also told the Germans that the British had just taken over the sector of the Front west of Amiens and had no time to settle in. This city was an irreplaceable centre for communication and supply for the whole north-east sector. A successful attack could cut off the north of France and most of the Channel ports (Boulogne is shown top left on the map). Thus their forces could encircle Paris without a threat to their northern flank. With France knocked out, the AEF would go home. They had come to protect their sister republic and didn’t have much interest in Britain. German Intelligence suggested that the new army stayed well clear of the British.
It was a good plan and nearly worked.
The Germans had developed storm-troopers. In the last years of the war, StoƟtruppen ("shock troops" or "thrust troops") were trained to fight with imfiltration tactics. Most memorable of these tactics were flame-throwers directed into trenches. Gas projectiles were also used.  A soldier trained in these methods was known in Germany as a Sturmmann ("storm man", usually translated as "stormtrooper"), formed into companies of Sturmtruppen.  
It is observed in Wikipedia that the infiltration tactics were much copied. In the Second World War, the Russians developed the flame-thrower into the Katyusha (Little Katy) and used this against the Germans.
The Allies were aware of a German threat. Unfortunately the British generals simply reinforced the defences forward of Amiens. This filled the trenches with fodder for flamethrowers.
The first AEF  troops were in France by August 1917. A contingent arrives by standard gauge Photo 'Illustration'
Fortunately, the British were also learning the use of trench communications. A resilient network, described at more length in ‘Tracks to the trenches’ page 226-7 had strength in depth and redundancy. Even if one line was cut, reserves could be brought up on parallel lines. Another advantage of the trench railway was how quickly it could be repaired.
The Germans also misunderstood the AEF. It did not stay solely behind the lines at St Mihiel. Troops were already out with the French, learning war-craft and how to deploy the Schneider 155 and the Filloux 155 which were being manufactured for them in France.
Some of the AEF were also supporting the British. In Rich Dunn’s ‘Narrow Gauge to No-man’s Land’ he describes how the 12th Engineers of the AEF were out on British War Department Light Railways quite early in 1917. The 11th Engineers were also with them, as standard gauge specialists.
Both 11th and 12th Engineers did brief training in June to July 1917 and left for Europe by the end of August. The 12th Engineers arrived in Liverpool on August 15th to lead a parade of US troops through the city. They then went to the Somme valley (east of Amiens) to operate the WDLR. 
Both 11th and 12th saw action in November, helping to capture some territory. When the Germans counterattacked, they fought their way out in spirited fashion. You can read the full story in Chapter 2 of Rich Dunn’s book.
Doughboys facing the oven! French and US soldiers share a trench in the winter of 1917-18. The US boys look fresher. The French are wearing the distinctive greatcoat and ridged helmet. Photo 'Illustration'

Though not made by simpletons, claims that the AEF kept itself to itself are overly simplistic. There were, no doubt many jokes about being divided by a common language, but they joked together, fought together and, sadly, often died together.
Sarah Wright,‘Colonel Pechot: Tracks to the trenches’  Birse Press
Richard Dunn ‘Narrow Gauge To Noman’s Land’  Benchmark Press
WJK Davis ‘Light Railways of the First World War’David & Charles

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