The US 27th Division with the BEF, 1918 (article revised 4 September 2009)
The US 27th Division was one of only two divisions of the US army which spent its entire active time under British Command in 1918. The 27th Division was made up of the National Guard from New York. The National Guard was a militia originating from the seventeenth and eighteenth century Colonial Wars against the French and the Indians. They were involved in the Anglo-French Wars on the Canadian border, changing their name to the National Guard in honour of Lafayette when he visited New York in 1824; they were also part of the US Army. They were state militias, responding to the respective state governors unless mobilized by the Federal Government.
In 1917 there were 127,000 regular US troops spread out over the US and abroad and 180,000 National Guard based on the Canadian and Mexican borders. After the military draft was instituted in 1917, the numbers in the army grew to four million by 1918 (two million of these were in Northern France).
The 27th Division contained 28,000 men organised into two infantry brigades of two regiments each. The 27th Division had machine gun units in place of cavalry. These machine gun units were issued with Vickers heavy machine guns.
The basic training of the Division was carried out at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, under the supervision of British and French officers and NCOs. This included scaling objects, bayonet training and PE. During the training, the troops lived in tents as a preparation for the trenches in the front line in Northern France.
The plan originally was for ten US divisions to be assigned to the British sector, but this changed and only two were sent. The others formed the nucleus for a new American sector, which would ultimately include 39 of the 43 Divisions that the US sent to France.
The 27th Division's CO, Major-General John F O'Ryan, proudly took his division to Europe in April 1918. They reached France in May 1918, they promptly lost their field artillery to the American sector and joined 30th Division in forming the US II Corps. These two divisions were the only American troops to spend their entire time on the Western Front fighting under the British. Other US divisions or corps were assigned to the Allies for short term operations only.
For their initial training, the 27th Division was mentored by the 66th Division of the BEF in the Somme estuary area, and in June the Yanks (as part of the US II Corps) joined Byng's Third Army in the Ypres sector. This meant there were 50,000 Yanks assigned to XIX Corps east of Poperinge. During this time they participated in the occupation of the Dickebusch Lake and Scherpenburg Sectors.
The period 23-27August 1918 found the 27th and 30th Divisions moving forward as the German army withdrew from Mount Kemmel. By the time they were relieved on 3 September, the 27th Division had taken 1,300 casualties.
In September the two Divisions (27th and 30th) were moved to the Somme sector. They joined the Fourth Army and moved into the line on 24 September. Their objective was the breaching of the Hindenburg line at the St Quentin canal. They took their highest casualties on 29 September when they became ‘stuck' during the attack on the Outpost line. This was partly due to problems with relatively inflexible artillery support in a rapidly changing battle. The inexperienced American infantry also had a lot to learn about fighting veteran German units. On 30 September the Australian Corps moved through them as the next stage in the attack and the 27th Division was rested.
Their next action was the Battle of the Selle River where they took casualties at St Souplet during their assault in support of the US 30th division on the Jonc de Mer ridge. The US II Corps was pulled out of the line on the 21 October, and were sent for training, along with 5,000 replacement troops, in preparation for the next action scheduled for 13 November. Instead, the Armistice intervened and the 27th Division saw no more action.
During this period of intense fighting, the 27th Division suffered over 8,000 casualties: 1,442 KIA and 6,892 wounded. The Division was ‘inactivated' on their return to New York (in April, 1919).
195 officers and men of the 27th Division were decorated for gallantry and conspicuous service after the war. Major-General O'Ryan was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (for leadership), five NCOs were awarded Medals of Honour (for bravery and self-sacrifice), and two Lt-Cols and a Major were awarded the British DSO (for acts of bravery in the face of the enemy). 13 British DCMs, 11 British MCs, 51 British MMs and three Croixs de Guerre make up the remaining British and French awards.
This 1918 experience was the first significant occasion when American troops fought along side their British counterparts (previous occasions going back to 1775 having found them on opposite sides!). The lessons learned from this memorable experience were used in 1942 as the US Army prepared to join again with Britain against a formidable foe. The military bond that the two nations had formed since then continues today.
Reference: this article is based on a talk given by Lt. Colonel John Bessette (US Air Force retired) to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA.Contributed by: Peter J Palmer
Images supplied by Peter J Palmer. The second image above shows Major-General J F O’Ryan with Colonel Ward (106 Infantry Regiment, 53rd Infantry Brigade ), at Busigny, October 1918.
27th Division troops with Mark V tanks, September 29th 1918 Hindenburg Line.
Insignia of the 27th Division (there is a pun here – Orion’s constellation and O’Ryan’s division! with the NY for New York)