10 Firsts in America’s Involvement in World War I

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World War I was a global battle that lasted from July 28, 1914, to November 11, 1918. Tens of millions of servicemen from over 30 countries fought on battlegrounds all over the world. Many methods of combat were pioneered in this bloodbath, which ended up killing 16 million people. Technology-wise, it was the first war to see large scale use of poisonous gas, airplanes, and tanks. Also, artillery technology and targeting was perfected to rain death on thousands of soldiers. America tried to stay out of it for years but was pulled in, declaring war against Germany on April 6, 1917. Here are 10 historic firsts in America’s involvement in World War I…



10.  First Soldiers to Die in a WWI Battle

In late 1917, the Americans took over a portion of the front lines near Artois, France. That same year, on November 3, the Germans launched an early morning raid on US lines. When the dust cleared eleven Americans were taken Prisoner of War, and three Americans were found dead. They were Corporal James Gresham of Kentucky, Private Merle Hay of Iowa, and Private Thomas Enright of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the chaos of the German attack, who died first was lost in the fog of war, so the three are seen as the first US deaths of the war.

Seven months later, Michigan’s Private Joseph William Guyton was the first to die in Germany on May 24, 1918. President Harding later honored his grave by saying, “In the name of the republic, I bestow this tribute on the casket of the first soldier who perished on the soil of the enemy.” These men were the first Americans soldiers to die in WWI, but were they the first Americans to die in combat?

Many Americans balked at their nation’s initial neutral stance. Some due to their heritage, beliefs, or sense of adventure, joined the militaries of other nations that were involved in the fighting. Some are seen as “technical” Americans. For example, Harold Chapin was born in Brooklyn, New York (thus an American citizen) but moved to England and became a hugely successful actor before he died during the Battle of Loos on September, 26 1915. He viewed himself as “an English actor, and English playwright, and died as a British soldier.” According to writer Gary Ward in VFW Magazine, the official publication of the US Veterans of Foreign Wars, the earliest American that died as a soldier in WWI combat was Edward Mandell Stone, the son of a Chicago industrialist. Serving with the French Foreign Legion, Stone was mortally wounded by German shellfire and died on February 27, 1915.

The first American to kill a German after formally entering the front line trenches was Sergeant Major Herbert Sleigh. Using WWI sniper technology the US media claimed he was able to shoot a German from 1,400 yards.

The first servicewomen to die in the war were Nurses Edith Ayres and Helen Wood, who both were accidentally killed after a deck gun exploded on May 20, 1917, aboard the USS Mongolia. The ship was on its way to France.

9. First WWI Naval Death

Osmond Kelly Ingram was just 16-years-old when he joined the US Navy on November 24, 1903. When America joined the war, his ship, the destroyer USS Cassin, was assigned to escort American troop convoys to ports in England and France. On October 15, 1917, the US destroyer encountered the Imperial German U-boat SM U-61 off the coast of Ireland. The Cassin immediately pursued the sub but it somehow was able to let loose a torpedo that breached the water twice. Each time it came to the surface its path curved and by dumb luck slammed straight into the Cassin.

While on the deck of the USS Cassin, Gunner’s Mate First Class Osmond Ingram predicted where the torpedo would hit and to his great horror saw that it would ignite some depth charges on the destroyer’s deck. Valiantly, he started to throw the charges overboard, but before he could get them all the torpedo struck, igniting the remaining depth charges and killing him instantly. He was the first US Naval fatality of WWI. For his actions, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

8. First Artillery Salvo of WWI

Machine guns in World War One were the cause of death of many charging soldiers, but most battlefield casualties were caused by developments and innovations of WWI artillery. Some 60 percent of all casualties were caused by artillery fire. In 1917, when American forces landed in French ports, they did so with little to no artillery of their own. The French stepped up and supplied the Yankees with thousands of artillery and mortar pieces as well as the ammunition to fire them.

When the US forces moved to the front they brought these guns to bear against the Germans. At  6:30 AM October 23, 1917, Sergeant Alexander Arch of Battery “C” 6th FA Regiment, 1st FA Brigade, American 1st Division, shouted “fire” to the crew manning the French 75mm field gun. This was America’s first artillery salvo of WWI.

7. First Major Battle: Battle of Cantigny

The first US military unit to arrive in Europe was the 1st Aeronautical Detachment, under Kenneth Whiting, on June 5, 1917. The Americans entered the front line trenches in small groups by the winter of the same year. It took until the spring of 1918 to have enough men to enable the Americans to launch a battle of their own. Men from the famed “Big Red One,” the US 1st Division, was selected to push the German Eighteenth Army out of the village of Cantigny in France. Among those fighting was the 5th Field Artillery Regiment, which is the oldest American military unit on continuous active duty, and Major Theodore Roosevelt, Jr the oldest son of future President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt.

At 06:45 [H Hour] on May 28, 1918, around 4,000 Americans, helped by French manned artillery, tanks, and planes, climbed out of the front lines trenches and moved toward the German trenches. The Americans and the French tanks carefully followed a deadly rolling artillery barrage that advanced 100 meters every two minutes. They quickly captured the village and spent the rest of the battle fighting off German counterattacks. When the dust settled the advance cost 1,603 American casualties that included those Wounded in Action, Missing in Action, taken Prisoner and 199 soldiers Killed in Action. The Battle of Cantigny was the first major American battle of WWI.

6. First Air Kill

Airplanes were pioneered by the Wright brothers in America starting in 1903. Just over a decade later, aviation technology had exploded and in WWI control of the skies became a deadly goal fought over by all parties. The first dogfight occurred just days into the war when on August 15, 1914, an Austro-Hungarian and a Serbian pilot fired pistols at each other. Soon the skies became just as bloody as the ground.

Like Americans who joined other armies, pilots sought to join the Air Forces of other nations. In 1916 American pilots formed one such squad, Lafayette Escadrille, for the French Air Service. At its peak, there were 38 Americans in the squadron. One of these pilots was Newport, Tennessee born Kiffin Rockwell (pictured above). On May 18, 1916, he downed a German two-man observational plane over the Alsace battlefield. He became the first American of the Lafayette Escadrille to shoot down an enemy plane. Later in the year another American member of Lafayette Escadrille, Gervais Raoul Lufbery, became the first American ACE pilot when he shot down the required fifth German plane on October 12, 1916.

America finally joined the war in 1917. While waiting for its Air Force to become active over the slaughterhouse of the Western Front, American airmen would hitch rides on French planes. One US flyer, Stephen W. Thompson, participated as a gunner-bombardier on a French Air Service plane. While this squadron was returning from a bombing raid over Saarbrücken, Germany he became the first member of the United States military to shoot down an enemy aircraft when he downed a German plane on February 5, 1918.

5. First Time Germany Attacks the Atlantic Commerce



When the First World War started the British Royal Navy ruled the waves, keeping the Imperial German Navy boxed up in German-controlled ports. Utilizing U-boats, the Germans hoped to reduce the British numerical advantage. On September 5, 1914, Imperial German U-boat SM U-21 became the first to sink a ship, HMS Pathfinder, by a locomotive torpedo. Armed naval ships remained difficult targets so the Germans switched to the lightly armed civilian ships that were supporting the Allied war effort. On October 20, 1914, SS Glitra became the first British merchant vessel sunk after it was boarded and scuttled by the crew of Imperial German sub SM U-17. As the war dragged on the Germans thought they could strangle Allied commerce by a concentrated U-boat campaign.

The SS Prinz Eitel Friedrich was a German passenger liner that, in the summer of 1914 on the outbreak of war, was operating in China. She was converted into an Imperial German Raider and spent months plying the seas, attacking allied shipping. Off Brazil on January 27, 1915, it encountered the American four-masted steel sail ship, the William P. Frye. The Germans boarded the ship and ordered the US crew to throw its cargo overboard. When they took too long the Germans took the crew prisoner and sank the ship the next day. It was the first American ship lost in the war. At the time America was a neutral state and demanded $228,059.54 in damages ($ 5.4 million in 2017).

The first American death to German commerce raids occurred almost exactly two months later.  On March 28, 1915, SM U-28 fired at the British steamship RMS Falaba. The ship sank quickly, killing 104 people. Among those dead was one American passenger, Leon Chester Thrasher, a 31-year-old mining engineer from Massachusetts. His death caused outrage back in the states that would only be made worse when Imperial German U-boat SM U-20 sank the HMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 souls. Out of the 139 US citizens on board, 128 lost their lives.

4. First Naval Victory

By the time the Americans entered the war the German surface fleet was bottled up in its European harbors. Therefore the American Navy’s focus was protecting the lumbering cargo vessels that kept the Allies supplied. It was while shepherding a merchant convoy off the coast of Ireland that the Americans achieved their first Naval victory.

On November 17, 1917, the destroyers USS Fanning and USS Nicholson were keeping one eye on the eight merchant ships they were escorting, and the other on the lookout for any subs. At 16:10 Coxswain Daniel David Loomis spotted the periscope of Imperial German Sub SM U-58 line up to fire a torpedo at one of the cargo ships. The two destroyers immediately engaged the U-boat, firing depth charges and their guns when the sub was forced to the surface. The attack disabled the sub, forcing Kapitänleutnant Gustav Amberger to surrender. The USS Fanning took onboard the crew as prisoners of war as well as two U-boat crew that were killed in action. This engagement was also the first time the US Navy had sunk a submarine.

Earlier the US Navy experienced a different kind of first when Imperial German submarine SM UC-71 sank the first American Naval ship of the war, a converted yacht, USS Alcedo on November 5, 1917. Over a month later, German SM U-53 sank the US Naval destroyer USS Jacob Jones on December 6, 1917. The ship sank in minutes and of its complement of around 100 men, 66 were killed. Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose of the German sub surfaced and took on two of the most severely wounded American survivors, and radioed the American Navy about where to find the rest before disappearing under the waves.

3. First Women to Serve

Before and after WWI, women were fighting for an equal role in society. Many saw the first step being the right to vote. The first state to allow women to vote was Wyoming in 1889 and when it joined the United States a year later it kept the women’s vote, and was thus the first US state to allow its female citizens to vote. In the 1916 election, intense anti-war advocate Jeannette Pickering Rankin became the first woman to hold federal office in the United States when she was elected to Congress. She voted against joining World War I and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor was the only member of Congress to vote “NO” to joining WWII.

Women played a valuable part in World War I. On March 17, 1917, Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the “first woman to enlist on active duty in the U.S. Navy. She was the first Yeoman F, or ‘Yeomanette,’ to enlist in World War I … In addition, she was the first female chief.”

2. First American Red Cross Staff

When the war started America declared itself neutral, but its people wanted to help those impacted by the war. A few weeks into the war the American Red Cross chartered the SS Hamburg, a German ocean liner that was held in New York. It was renamed the SS Red Cross and on September 13, 1914, set off to Europe with a cargo of 30 doctors, 125 nurses, and thousands of tons of medical supplies.

It was the American Red Cross’s first foray into the European conflict. Starting in 1914, and for the next three years of the war, the Nobel Peace Prize wasn’t awarded to anyone. Then in the winter of 1917, the Nobel committee decided to grant it to the International Committee of the Red Cross for its efforts to relieve those suffering during the war.

1. First Invasion of Russia

Fighting the war for over three years exhausted Russia and by 1917 the nation was coming apart at the seams. Military defeats across the Eastern Front had demoralized the Russian military, while on the homefront its population faced famine. Things came to a head when, in the winter of 1917, Lenin and the Communists overthrew the government. After some brutal concessions, Germany and Red Russia ended hostilities, allowing Lenin to focus on crushing anti-revolutionary forces throughout Russia.

The Western allies were horrified that a Communist government had taken over Russia and that Europe’s nations worn down by years of war might also succumb to the Red Menace. To counter this, allied nations sent military units into Russia to help anti-Communist forces. This is how the Americans found themselves in Russia.

While Germany and the Allies slaughtered each other on the Western Front, America quietly sent US forces into Russia. On August 15, 1918, they landed at the Eastern Russian port of Vladivostok and focused on controlling the railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk-Ussuriski. Another US force was sent to the north western Russian port of Arkhangelsk, known as the Polar Bear Expedition, landing on September 4, 1918. There they frequently battled Communist forces before withdrawing in the summer of 1919.

The Americans based in Eastern Russia lived miserable lives in a hostile environment for 19 months, well after WWI had ended on November 11, 1918. By the time the last American soldiers left Siberia on April 1, 1920, hundreds of them had died in Russia. The Communists would solidify their control of what would become the Soviet Union in the winter of 1922.

Jon Lucas covers WWI live, 100 years ago. You can follow the action on Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram

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