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With trenches, horses and coaching, New York National Guard prepped for World War I

By Eric Durr | New York National Guard | November 06, 2017

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - By November of 1917 the 27,000 Soldiers of the New York National Guard's 27th Division had said goodbye to their families, marched through New York City, and were ready to get down to serious training in preparation for World War I.

They did this at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, just outside the city of Spartanburg.

When the Guard's 7th Regiment – renamed the 107th Infantry—showed up on Sept. 11, 1917, the carpenters were still banging away some of the 1000 buildings at the camp.

Work had only begun in July and by the end of August, along with 1000 buildings, 37 miles of pipe were installed, and 18,000 electric lights put in place. The Army ordered 629 cast iron stoves, 72,000 kegs of nails, and 6,119 doors for the work.

But there were still parade fields and exercise grounds and firing ranges that had once been forests filled with stumps. The 27th Division Soldiers wound up clearing those fields.

Total cost of the project was $2, 223,223.59 in 1917 dollars, which works out to $40 million in 2017 money.

Still, after the war Maj. Gen. John O'Ryan, the division commander, recalled one planning glitch which irked him.

The camp's company mess halls had been designed to hold 150 Soldiers each. But the Army had decided that a company should have 250 men. This was a case in which the Army should have known better when it designed the buildings, O'Ryan noted in his book "The Story of the 27th Division."

The division also had to fix and rebuild the five-mile long road that connected Camp Wadsworth with Spartanburg.

The "Snake Road," a typical country dirt road, was in terrible repair, and couldn't handle the traffic of Soldiers going back and forth between the camp and the city on business or on pass.

The 22nd Engineers, under the command of Col. Cornelius Vanderbilt, shored up the sides of the road, widened it, filled potholes, built bridges, and generally put it in better shape.

Today what remains of that country lane is known as Vanderbilt Road, in memory of the colonel and his engineers.

While the camp and the Snake Road were under construction, so was the organization of the division.

The New York National Guard's division had been organized in 1908 with three brigades of three regiments each.

The Army's plan for fighting the World War called for a "square" division of two brigades with two regiments each. Suddenly there were excess officers and excess men.

O'Ryan picked the best officers from the nine regiments to lead the four regiments he now had in his division. The Soldiers in the other five regiments filled gaps in the chosen regiments.

They were also assigned to logistics units, called "trains" in World War I or became "pioneers" - the World War I term for combat engineers or sappers.

The division's cavalry units—the 1st New York Cavalry and Squadron A - lost their horses and became machine gunners instead.

The division was also "raided" for Soldiers to serve elsewhere.
For example, the Army asked for 275 Soldiers who spoke French to serve as military police. Since these were often the best-educated Soldiers who were filling important slots already, their transfer hurt his effort to organize his unit for combat, O'Ryan recalled later.

The main business at Camp Wadsworth, of course, was learning modern war.

O'Ryan and a team of officers visited France and brought back the latest information in logistics and tactics from the French and British armies.
British and French Army instructors taught the American Soldiers how to deal with trench warfare and the art of throwing a grenade.

A British training team taught the Americans the latest in physical fitness techniques, which were shared throughout the division in a train the trainer concept.

These British physical fitness trainers, O'Ryan noted in his book, used a version of the game "Simon Says" to teach the raw American Soldiers to think on their feet and respond only to the right orders. Commands like "forward march" prefaced with the words "O'Grady says" were to be obeyed, while commands without those words first were to be ignored.

Classes were taught in how to use trench mortars—a new weapon in 1917—machine guns, bayonets, sniping, patrolling and reconnaissance, communications and signaling. Soldiers also learned camouflage techniques.

An especially important class - since the cars and trucks were still new—was training for the teamsters who drove teams of horses towing wagons and the Soldiers who packed gear on a horse.

In 1917 about 4,000 horses towed a division's artillery, hauled machine guns, and carried ammunition and food forward to the front lines. Men who had never worked with horses before had to learn how.

There were also classes in equitation—the art of horseback riding—for noncommissioned officers and officers who were expected to ride a horse as part of their duties like some officer from the Civil War.

Another school helped the members of the division's seven bands become better at their job.

An important piece of the division's training plan involved constructing a trench system like those that stretched across Europe from the English Channel to Switzerland.

The division engineers dug a trench system of eight miles of trenches covering a front of 700 meters. The trenches of World War I were more than just a single ditch.

Behind the front line trenches were trenches designed to protect troops and supplies moving forward and second and third line of defense trenches. In addition, these trenches zig-zagged to ensure that one bomb or grenade injured and killed only a small number of Soldiers.
The trench system also included dug-outs and bomb shelters.

Infantry battalions and machine gun detachments would spend up to 72 hours in these practice trenches learning out to keep them repaired, put out listening posts, and even use the toilet facilities.

An opposing trench filled with the "enemy" would launch raids on the trench line filled with training Soldiers.

The division's Soldiers all spent several days living in the practice trench system to get them used to what they would be doing in Europe.

The Guard members, according to a November 1917 story in the New York Times, had a lot to learn about trench warfare. British officers acting as the opposing force said "they had penetrated the trenches and calmly watched the work going forward to deceive them," according to the New York Times.

The division's artillery practiced firing "barrages", a term coming from the French word for dam, which created a wall of fire to protect trench lines or advancing troops.

Despite of, or in spite of, the need to learn trench fighting, the leaders of the 27th Division focused much time and training on what was then called "open warfare": infantrymen maneuvering for position and using rifles and grenades to engage the enemy after breaking through the trenches.

Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, insisted that American Soldiers were riflemen and that the key to victory would be their ability to employ that rifle to kill Germans. O'Ryan trained his New York Guardsmen with this in mind.

While the National Guard's 42nd Division—composed of Guard Soldiers from 26 states—and the 26th Division from New England were sent to Europe to complete their training, there was no rush to deploy the 27th Division.

The division stayed at Camp Wadsworth from September 1917 until May of 1918. Then the New York Guard members left for Europe where they would fight with the British in Flanders, instead of with the separate American Army that Gen. Pershing had moved into the line further south.

More than 400,000 New Yorkers served in the military during World War I, more than any other state.