by Paul Herbert, Executive Director, First Division Museum
One hundred years ago, the United States entered "the war to end all wars." Two momentous events in 1917 set the U.S. Army on its path from the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas to the poppy-covered fields of Cantigny, France. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare provoked an American declaration of war in April and a promise from President Woodrow Wilson to immediately dispatch “a division” to France, which at the time the U.S. had none. The four infantry regiments selected to comprise the “First Expeditionary Division,” were among the very first to arrive in France in June 1917 and complete enough training to be ready by the spring of 1918.
The 1st Division's formative experience preparing for combat on the Western Front in World War I challenged soldiers in ways their counterparts today might recognize - raw recruits manning a new organization; extreme personnel turbulence; unfamiliar technology; precarious relationships with allies; doctrinal uncertainty; harsh living and training conditions; and the prospect of imminent combat with a hardened dangerous enemy. The organization they created did more than break a path for the forty-two divisions of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) that followed, it set the foundation for the modern, permanently organized, combined arms divisions that characterized the U.S. Army for the rest of the twentieth century.
After the Battle of Cantigny, the First Division participated in the major battles of Soissons, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne. From May 1918 to the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the First Division suffered more than 20,000 casualties, which included killed, wounded, and missing soldiers. It clearly wasn't “the war to end all wars,” but it was the war to change the world. It certainly introduced the United States as a major world power. The United States, for all its flaws, has been a force for good ever since.