Today’s post comes from Austin McManus with the National Archives History Office.
The United States, following the tradition of neutrality established by President George Washington and maintained over the decades, remained uninvolved as Europe became embroiled in World War I in 1914.
American public attitude toward neutrality began to change after Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare led to the death of 128 American civilians Germany’s sinking the RMS Lusitania in 1915.
After the British revealed the Zimmerman Telegram in March 1917, shocked and angered Americans began to lean toward war. At the request of President Woodrow Wilson, Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
Americans had volunteered to fight alongside the British and French on land, on the seas, and in the air since 1915. Hundreds of Americans had served as infantrymen, ambulance drivers, pilots, and nurses before the United States’ official declaration of war. But it wasn’t until November 1917 that the first unit of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) fought in Europe.
In compliance with British and French commissioners, who expressed the immediate needs of their respective militaries, the U.S. War Department commissioned nine railway engineer regiments that became the first American troops sent overseas.
One of these regiments, the 11th Engineers, consisted of 1,400 volunteers from New York, many of them railroad workers. Following their training in Jersey City, NJ, the 11th Engineers journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean and landed in France in August of 1917, becoming the first American unit to enter the European theater.
Upon landing, they were almost immediately deployed to Gouzeaucourt, just south of Cambrai, to improve the rail facilities in the area. Specifically, the 11th Engineers prepared the lines of railway communication, repaired abandoned main railway lines, and unloaded and positioned tank fleets in case of a German attack.
Prior to facing combat in France, the 11th Engineers came under German artillery fire on September 5, 1917. Two of the soldiers, Sgt. Matthew Calderwood and Pvt. William Branigan, were injured in the shellfire. These men were the first American casualties of the war in Europe.
The actions for which the 11th Engineers earned the brand “the first to fight,” however, occurred more than two months later, when their British allies initiated an offensive against the German lines in the area surrounding the French town of Cambrai.
On November 30, 1917, the 11th Engineers were responsible for re-laying the railroad track on the main line running north into Cambrai as soon as their European allies successfully advanced. In doing so, they were also ordered to remain under cover until the German troops had fallen back and were not preparing for immediate counterattack.
Instead of falling back, German Sturmtruppen (“storm troops”) penetrated the British lines and ambushed the 11th Engineers at their work site. Armed with only discarded rifles, spades, and other hand tools, the volunteer railway workers managed to hold their position and wait out the ambush until British troops forced the assaulting German troops to withdraw, thus relieving the American engineers.
News of the actions of the 11th Engineers dominated many newspapers back in New York, and two of its volunteers received special recognition for their heroism.
1st Lt. Paul McLoud from Albany, and Sgt. Donald MacIsaac from Long Island received the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions during the Battle of Cambrai.
McLoud remained under shell fire “until the escape of his men, who had been caught unarmed by the German attack, was assured” before assisting in “leading troops to the trenches” and “directing the procurement and distribution of ammunition.”
MacIsaac remained vulnerable to the German barrage in order “to assist American soldiers of another unit,” and even returned to the battle “a second time to search for wounded British soldiers.”
Following their efforts at Gouzeaucourt on November 30, 1917, Gen. John J. Pershing of the AEF commended the 11th Engineers. In his final report, Pershing described the Battle of Cambrai as of “special interest, since it was here that American troops first participated in active fighting.”
As we remember the men and women who served in Europe on behalf of the United States in the “Great War,” the story of the 11th Engineers as “the first to fight” is an important one to remember. Through their efforts in support of the Allied war effort in France, the story of the New York railway workers who fought at Cambrai is one worth remembering and celebrating today.
Visit the National Archives website for a full list of events and activities related to the 100th anniversary of World War I.
And read more about the U.S. Entry into the War to End All Wars.