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Essay: ‘Yankee’ Division’s time in World War I deserves a film of its own

  • George MacKay in “1917.” MUST CREDIT: François Duhamel/Universal Pictures

  • \"1917\" opens in theaters Jan. 9.

  • George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," co-written and directed by Sam Mendes. MUST CREDIT: Handout photo by François Duhamel/Universal Pictures

  • Anti-aircraft machine gun of 101st Field Artillery (formerly 1st Massachusetts Field Artillery, New England Coast Artillery), firing on a German observation plane at Plateau Chemin des Dames, France.

For the Valley News
Published: 1/31/2020 5:35:19 PM
Modified: 2/3/2020 6:29:43 PM

Like any film based on historical events, 1917 has history geeks debating issues as small as helmet insignia or as large as the film’s storyline, in which two men are sent on a treacherous mission over hazardous ground that seems more easily done by telephone or plane.

Regardless of the details, the general consensus is that 1917, which is based on British director Sam Mendes’ grandfather’s World War I experiences, provides a reliable impression of life for British troops in trenches on the Western Front of Belgium and northern France in April 1917.

While it may be reliable, 1917 is only a snapshot. World War I was variegated, changing over time and space. Geology, climate and distance on other fronts in the Middle East, Russia or elsewhere in France created a range of conditions. The World War I fought by American troops, such as the Vermont and New Hampshire men in the 26th “Yankee” Division, often resembled the Civil War, Vietnam or World War II, more than the trench warfare depicted in 1917.

The war evolved over time, too. By 1917, military leaders had inched closer to solving the real cause of deadlock in the trenches. This was a technology gap between innovations in weaponry — machine guns and artillery — that outpaced communications and tactics. Other things changed in 1917. Russia dropped out. The French army almost collapsed. The U.S. joined in, affecting the war even before the American Expeditionary Forces were in combat.

On March 21, 1918, German commander Erich Ludendorff launched a series of offensives, which he hoped would knock out the British and French before America’s vast resources came into play.

Swelled with troops freed up when Russia dropped out, and using new tactics, the Germans broke through French and British lines. By April 11, the Allies, in the words of British chief Douglas Haig, had their “backs to the wall.” By May 31, the Germans were 40 miles from Paris.

It was two American divisions who stopped the German assault from reaching Paris. The 3rd Division kept them from crossing the Marne River at Chateau Thierry. When the Germans turned west towards Paris, the 2nd Division, which included a Marine brigade, held off the Germans in fields north of Chateau Thierry.

On June 6, the Marines hit back and attacked the Germans, who had retreated into a forested patch the size of New York’s Central Park, Belleau Wood. Vietnam veterans would recognize a Marine’s description in a letter home of fighting in Belleau Wood as a deadly game of “hide and seek,” with no distinguishable front line and the enemy all around. In the breezeless woods, poison gas sank and lingered for days. Rocky outcroppings and caves made perfect miniature forts for German machine gun nests, which had to be rooted out one by one. German letters reported that Americans “killed anything that moved” and said they must be drunk or crazy to fight this way.

Britain’s World War I troops were rotated out of frontline trenches after three or four days. The Marines fought hand to hand in Belleau Wood for a month until the Yankee Division relieved them.

With the Germans on the back foot, the war was out of the trenches and on the move. In mid-July, American, British and French troops launched a major offensive at Soissons near Reims. Except for the tanks on the field, American Civil War veterans might have felt at home watching the French cavalry charge, perhaps history’s last.

Sept. 12, 1918 was the original “D-day.” At St. Mihiel, Gen. John G. Pershing led the first action of the war planned and executed by Americans. This combined infantry, tanks and airplanes in a way that veterans of the second, better known D-day in 1944 would recognize. Lebanon’s V.F.W. post is named for Joseph Carignan, who was among the 4,500 Americans killed at St. Mihiel.

Barely two weeks later, Pershing wheeled the American Expeditionary Forces north. On Sept. 26, 1 million American troops began what is still the biggest battle in American history — the Meuse-Argonne. The terrain was challenging; a thick forest (an extension of the Ardennes, site of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge) and a series of strategic ridges. American divisions, including the Yankee, had to take each ridge in a deadly uphill slog. Moreover, Germans had occupied the area since 1914 and had created an elaborate defense system with some of the only trenches American soldiers would ever see. Sometimes it took it weeks to go 500 yards. Sometimes U.S. troops chased Germans fighting in retreat for miles. The army America raised in barely a year was scantily trained and often poorly led. They were still in summer uniforms as the cold weather came on them. A new enemy, the influenza epidemic, killed more troops than combat did.

Before the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne ended with the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, it claimed 26,000 American lives. Overall, America lost more men per day of combat than any other World War I combatant.

Regardless of their different circumstances, the men depicted in 1917 were little different from these Americans. Some things are universal. Both British and American veterans considered the war their life’s greatest adventure. They suffered, they made friends, they survived and they died.

Two million American men served in France in World War I, the same number as in Europe in World War II. After 210 days in combat, the 26th Division had 1,587 killed and 12,077 wounded.

Yet America chose to forget a war it was ambivalent about entering in the first place. Britain never did forget what it still calls the “Great War.” It is to our discredit that we Americans have allowed the British to paint their ancestors’ version of the war over our own.

Maybe, just maybe, 1917 will inspire some American director to learn about and film a version of their grandfather’s exploits.

Madeleine Johnson lives in Enfield. Her great-uncle, Lothar R. Long, fought as a Marine in the battles of Belleau Wood, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne.

Valley News

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