from 'the War Illustrated', 3rd November, 1917
'With The Americans In France'
By Sidney Low

How the U.S. Army is Getting Ready for its Great Work

pages from 'the War Illustrated'


“SOMEWHERE in France !" But not the France that millions of Britons have got to know only too well, the France of the lush, damp meadows, the torn woodlands, the shattered villages, the weeping skies, the pitiless, all-pervasive mud. I traverse another France as I run out from Paris to visit the camp where the American troops are training — a fertile, delectable land, asleep in the mild autumn sunshine. A peaceful land, you would say ; but there is a sadness in its peace that knocks upon the heart. For you know why there is no clang of hobnailed boots on the rough paving of the little streets, why no jovial groups drink and gossip at the tables outside the auberge.

Our car is held up at a railway level-crossing while an old woman — of course it is an old woman — slides back the gates. There is a sentry here on guard, in a khaki tunic and canvas leggings and a broad-brimmed, pinched-in hat, with a twisted cord round it — a tall sentry, full-chested, and rigorously clean-shaven. He is, in fact, a member of the "American Expeditionary Forces," and I am in touch with the advance guard of that friendly army of invasion which in the next few months, will settle down upon the fields of France.

No "Brass-hat" Manner

Even as it is, the signs of their activity are much in evidence. We come upon a Staff automobile filled with American officers, upon a heavy transport waggon with U.S.A. No.------ inscribed upon its tailboard, upon a mounted military policeman, red-capped and badged like our own, but riding on the high-pummelled Western saddle with his feet in wooden stirrups. We enter a little town which is no longer asleep. The shops have awakened, and business is brisk; an enterprising grocer has labelled his establishment "American Store" ; a boy perambulates the streets with copies of the Paris "New York Herald." American soldiers are everywhere, strolling along in twos and threes, driving mule-carts with stores and, forage, mounting guard over waggons and machine-guns, chaffering with the trades-people in elementary French for grapes and apples. They have not been long in the town, but they are already on excellent terms with the inhabitants. I notice a good-looking American boy walking beside a French girl. She carries a large blue parasol, which throws a shade over her own pretty dark head and the soldier's slouched hat, and the two are very close together. The Americans will have opportunities for improving their colloquial French.

We come to an unpretentious building which is the headquarters of the general commanding the division. The brass-hat manner is not cultivated here. "Walk right in," says the aide-de-camp, and I walk right in to the plain little room where the O.C, works. He is a Regular soldier, an old West Point man, like most of the members of his Staff, and like them all he is frankly and unreservedly professional. There is no amateurishness about these officers of the U.S. Army, no desire to avoid "talking shop" out of business hours. They do not pretend to like war ; but also they do not pretend that they are sorry to have the opportunity of practising the grim trade for which they — a tiny group of military students in a land given over to the works of peace — have been preparing themselves since they first put on the cadet uniform.

Democracy in Arms

They are students still, well knowing that they have much to learn of the new conditions of warfare. They struck me as an assiduous, hard-thinking body of men, setting out to examine the great task before them without prejudice or dogmatism, diffident in their estimate of American military capacity, but quietly determined to make the new National Army of the United States just about the best fighting-machine in the world.

We went to dinner, and at table the conversation still ran-on professional lines. Some of us drank a little of the. good red or white wine of France ; but the general drinks water only, and smokes not at all. He told me he had been addicted to the use of tobacco ; but he said, "I quit smoking on the boat coming over here." I thought I knew why. It is a temperate Army that of the United States ; the strongest drink the men get is a tin of hot coffee with their midday hash.

It is an Army also with a certain democratic atmosphere. There is a camaraderie among all ranks which is more like that of the British than the French service, or perhaps one may say it is midway between the two. In the American Army, I think, the ranker would have no scruple in addressing the colonel; and, if he did so, he would not deem it necessary to put a "sir" into every sentence. But I did not notice that this freedom of manner tended to any slackness on duty. Orders were sharply given and promptly obeyed ; when the men were at drill errors were corrected, and slight lapses condemned, with a plain-spoken emphasis which would have been welcomed by a British sergeant-major.

Realistic Practice

The next morning I went out on a breezy open down to watch the soldiers at their training. Realistic trenches had been dug, with parapets and barbed-wire, to be assaulted by waves of men, moving with the proper field kit in the latest attack formation behind a barrage from the guns. In a-convenient hollow, targets had been fixed, and the rifles were rattling away merrily. Another set of butts was devoted to machine-gun work, and here I found sections not only shooting, but taking the Maxims and automatic rifle to pieces, examining the parts, and assembling them again. Lines of dummy Germans were set up, and the soldiers rushed at them with a yell and drove bayonets into their sawdust bodies. Sometimes the effigy of Fritz would be artfully posed behind a traverse or abutment, and the Americans were being taught how to dodge round him and pin him down, or blow him to pieces with a bomb without getting hurt. The Americans were receiving advice, instruction, and example from the officers and men of a French regiment of Chasseurs Alpins, specially detailed to assist them in their training. No better selection could have been made ; for these French mountaineers, like their friendly rivals the Italian Alpini, are not only first-rate soldiers, but are also adaptable, handy fellows, with no stiffness or pedantry about them. They make good teachers for the Americans, and the Americans make good pupils, for they art-most anxious to learn — alert, intelligent, and persevering.

We passed to another part of the field where some companies were drilling under their own officers. They marched and counter-marched, formed platoon, advanced and retired in column, with creditable smartness and precision. After that they stripped off coats and caps and belts, and sometimes shirts, and were put through a spell of animated physical drill.

They have copied the French rather than the British model, and pay more attention to free and rapid movement-than to the formal toe-raisings and arm-extensions of the gymnastic instructor.

Forerunners of the Host

As the main object is to render the men quick on their feet, they are encouraged to run and jump and play leap-frog, to go through a kind of country dance or rag-time gallop, and generally to make the whole performance as much like an exhilarating game as possible.

The troops I saw were chiefly infantry and engineers, all enlisted men, who had not waited to be brought in under the compulsion law. A good proportion belong to the United States Regular Army, that small but admirable force of trained long-service soldiers, under professional officers.

Others are the picked young athletes of the colleges, footballers, baseball players, oarsmen, track-runners, motorists, sportsmen, many of them the sons of wealthy fathers, who shoulder their rifles cheerfully alongside of Western, cattle-punchers and Pittsburg mechanics. They are in the pink of physical condition, and as you look along the ranks the line of clean-shaven, resolute faces, with the square chins and good mouths, is impressive. I do not say that the show will be quite so imposing when the draft takes in the bank-clerks and shop-assistants. But these latter will come on rapidly under the tuition and with the example of the men of this first American division, who will furnish a splendid stiffening of non-commissioned officers and well-trained privates.

Only one thing is needed to complete their military education, and that is the actual experience of war under enemy fire. I hope some of them will be given this finishing touch in the trenches while their comrades of the National Army are being drilled in .the United States. This will confer on them a higher status and .prestige with the keen youths who have never yet faced rifle-bullet and bomb ; and it will enable them to take a still more useful share in the making of the great organised host which is to come upon the stage in the final scene of the world-drama of Germany's decline and fall.


Back to Index