Although the American Expeditionary Force began arriving in Europe in June 1917, their main area of operations would be the Meuse-Argonne region of north eastern France, and it is far less well known that four American divisions fought in Flanders during the last months of the war, two in the final few weeks as the Allies pushed the Germans back towards the River Scheldt, twenty miles east of Ypres (Ieper), and two considerably earlier, in the fighting to the south of the city in the high summer of 1918.
Only recently arrived in France, and after training for a couple of months with the British to whom they were, in effect, ‘loaned’ (minus their artillery – Pershing was not about to give the British any of his guns) for the duration of the war, the 50,000 National Guardsmen of the U.S. 27th Infantry Division, mainly men from New York State, and the U.S. 30th Infantry Division, southerners from Tennessee, Virginia and North & South Carolina, moved into reserve trenches behind the British front line in the area shown on the map below (Ypres top right) in late July 1918.
A few weeks later, whilst 30th Division took over the sector from the north of Dickebusch Lake, as far as Lankhof Farm (just to the east of the Ypres-Comines Canal – the pink line on the map), to their immediate south 27th Division replaced British troops in the front line approximately as far south as the village of Kemmel (the orange line). Our position at the memorial is marked on the map with a blue dot, and it seems to me, unlike some, to have been positioned in a very appropriate position, for here the Americans would fight the Battle of Vierstraat Ridge between 31st August & 2nd September 1918, leaving their trenches for the first time to attack the Germans as the Allies final offensive began. Incidentally, despite this being the seventh post in this tour, we are still only five hundred yards from the crossroads at Vierstraat, and less than eight hundred, as the crow flies, from where we started at the Demarcation Stone in Post One. The insets show 27th Division men during training (top), and – possibly – on the Vierstraat Ridge during the battle (bottom).
The dates say ‘August 18-September 4’, 18th August being the date 30th Division first entered the front line, 27th following suit on 23rd August. Some sources say the Americans were in the front line some weeks earlier, and probably a few units were, to gain experience, but we’ll go with the date confirmed on the memorial.
And their baptism of fire would be a tough one.
The final days of August 1918 saw the Germans already beginning to withdraw troops from their front line positions in the Kemmel sector and, with a projected Allied attack due the following day, reports began to arrive that the Germans had even abandoned the Kemmelberg itself.
Early on 1st September, however, as the Americans left their trenches, well-hidden German machine gun nests, manned by experienced crews, immediately began taking their toll, supported by artillery who had no problem pinpointing targets in territory that had been under German control until a few days earlier.
According to a German report, referring to the Americans, written on 3rd September 1918, ‘The inexperienced troops do not yet know how to utilize terrain in movement, work their way forward during an attack, or choose the correct formation in the event the enemy opens artillery fire.’
Even American reports suggested that their training went out of the window at times, resulting in the inevitable casualty list. ‘When enemy machine-gun nests were located there was a tendency with some of the attacking groups to abandon the deliberate methods for attacking such points, which they know so well, and to resort to the quicker but much more dangerous method of rushing such points of opposition. Accordingly, losses were voluntarily incurred by some of our groups which it is believed were avoidable.’
The German defence was dogged. The same American report continued, ‘Except towards the very end, such [machine-gun] detachments stuck to their jobs with the greatest courage and spirit of self-sacrifice. Indeed, some of them refused to surrender even when our men were upon them and were killed at their posts.’
The Americans would take their objectives on 2nd September after three days of hard fighting.
However, between them, 27th & 30th Division would suffer 2,100 casualties during the Battle of Vierstraat Ridge, some of whom are buried at Flanders Field Cemetery in Waregem, the only American military cemetery in Belgium. And casualties, for these two divisions, were even more problematic than for the other forty U.S. divisions now serving in the American 1st or 2nd Armies, because Pershing at no time sent reinforcements; the divisions had to fight with the men they had, and that was the end of it.
By war’s end, 27th Division’s casualty list, after three months of fighting, stood at 1,791 men killed in action, and another 9,427 wounded,…
…while 30th Division suffered 1.237 killed, and a further 7,178 wounded or missing.
The memorial itself, a white stone block on a low platform,…
…gives the date of its construction, 1930, which is also, presumably, when it was inaugurated. Or near enough.
The English inscription on the face of the memorial is repeated in Flemish on the far end, as pictured earlier,…
…and in French…
…at this end.
Following their first battle, 27th Division would be relieved on 3rd September, and 30th the next day, both moving south into France and the St. Quentin area on the Somme, and if you wish to find out the next part of their story, I should click here if I were you.
However American forces remained in the Salient – this image shows a 30th Division sniper in Flanders in the summer of 1918 – and we shall follow their progress in a future tour. Meanwhile, our current tour will continue shortly as we follow the road south towards Kemmel.