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VFW Magazine November 2017 : Page 38

IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUMS PHOTO NOV. 30 MARKS 100 YEARS SINCE THE FIRST SIGNIFICANT COMBAT ENGAGEMENT OF AMERICAN TROOPS DURING WORLD WAR I. ARMY ENGINEERS FOUGHT ALONGSIDE BRITISH TROOPS IN A BATTLE THAT FEATURED THE FIRST OFFENSIVE USE OF TANKS. ‘LIKE ‘LIK K E BEARC BEARCATS’ AT CAMBRAI T he year 1917 marked the begin-ning of America’s involve-ment in the Great War. It was not a good year for the Allies on Europe’s western front. While they did maintain their positions on the front line, many of the allied attacks that year, including an offensive near Cambrai, France, on Nov. 20, 1917, failed to per-manently break the German-held line. The Battle of Cambrai is widely con-sidered to be the first instance in which armies used tanks as offensive weap-ons. The battle also was one of the early encounters where Germans met American troops. That included the 11th Engineer Regiment, comprised main-ly of New York-based railway engineers. The 11th Engineer Regiment is a part of today’s 11th Engineer Battalion lineage. While the 1917 Battle of Cambrai is the first significant combat Americans experienced in World War I, the first American troops to die in battle were three Army infantrymen, Cpl. James Gresham, Pvt. Thomas Enright and Pvt. Merle Hay. The three men, of F Co., 16th Inf., 1st Inf. Div., were killed by Germans in a firefight during a Nov. 3 skirmish in the Artois region of France. However, the first U.S. service-man killed in WWI was Navy Chief Boatswain’s Mate John Eopolucci, who was an armed guard aboard the steam-er Aztec . He died on a lifeboat on April 1, 1917, after his ship was torpedoed 11TH ENGINEERS FOUGHT BY DAVE SPIVA off France. The U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6. During the first 10 days of the bat-tle in Cambrai, British forces broke the German line near Havrincourt, France, and maintained the newly formed line near Cambrai in northeast France. Then-Army Lt. Col. William Parsons, who later made the rank of brigadier general, was the commanding officer of the 11th Engineer Regiment during the Battle of Cambrai. After returning home to New York in April 1919, Parsons, according to The Literary Digest History of the World War , wrote that at 7 a.m. on Nov. 30, Germans attacked points at Moeuvres and Gouzeaucourt, near Cambrai. He noted that the German ABOVE: Two American soldiers identified as “sergeants Mclsaac and Cairola” of the 11th Engineer Regiment are shown on Nov. 30, 1917, the day of the regiment’s encounter with German forces in Gouzeaucourt, France. That day marked America’s first significant combat encounter with the enemy during World War I. Six Doughboys were killed in the fight. One engineer earned the Distinguished Service Cross. 38 • VFW  • NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2017

WWI Battle Of Cambrai

Dave Spiva

NOV. 30 MARKS 100 YEARS SINCE THE FIRST SIGNIFICANT COMBAT ENGAGEMENT OF AMERICAN TROOPS DURING WORLD WAR I. ARMY ENGINEERS FOUGHT ALONGSIDE BRITISH TROOPS IN A BATTLE THAT FEATURED THE FIRST OFFENSIVE USE OF TANKS.

11TH ENGINEERS FOUGHT

‘LIKE BEARCATS’

AT CAMBRAI

The year 1917 marked the beginning of America’s involvement in the Great War. It was not a good year for the Allies on Europe’s western front. While they did maintain their positions on the front line, many of the allied attacks that year, including an offensive near Cambrai, France, on Nov. 20, 1917, failed to permanently break the German-held line.

The Battle of Cambrai is widely considered to be the first instance in which armies used tanks as offensive weapons. The battle also was one of the early encounters where Germans met American troops. That included the 11th Engineer Regiment, comprised mainly of New York-based railway engineers. The 11th Engineer Regiment is a part of today’s 11th Engineer Battalion lineage.

While the 1917 Battle of Cambrai is the first significant combat Americans experienced in World War I, the first American troops to die in battle were three Army infantrymen, Cpl. James Gresham, Pvt. Thomas Enright and Pvt. Merle Hay. The three men, of F Co., 16th Inf., 1st Inf. Div., were killed by Germans in a firefight during a Nov. 3 skirmish in the Artois region of France.

However, the first U.S. serviceman killed in WWI was Navy Chief Boatswain’s Mate John Eopolucci, who was an armed guard aboard the steamer Aztec. He died on a lifeboat on April 1, 1917, after his ship was torpedoed off France. The U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6.

During the first 10 days of the battle in Cambrai, British forces broke the German line near Havrincourt, France, and maintained the newly formed line near Cambrai in northeast France.

Then-Army Lt. Col. William Parsons, who later made the rank of brigadier general, was the commanding officer of the 11th Engineer Regiment during the Battle of Cambrai. After returning home to New York in April 1919, Parsons, according to The Literary Digest History of the World War, wrote that at 7 a.m. on Nov. 30, Germans attacked points at Moeuvres and Gouzeaucourt, near Cambrai. He noted that the German attack at Moeuvres “failed,” but Gouzeaucourt was “lightly held” by British forces, and the Germans were able to break through. At the same time, Parsons’ men were repairing railways near Gouzeaucourt, which also was near the German line.

The American soldiers were caught in the fight. They borrowed rifles from men of Britain’s 29th Division and proceeded to fight “like bearcats,” according to The Literary Digest History of the World War.

“We suffered heavily in killed, wounded and prisoners,” Parsons wrote. “It was the first real fight of the war in which American forces had taken part.”

Army Cpl. Harold Andrews, of B Co., 11th Eng. Regt., was among the first Americans to die in WWI near Cambrai. He was among six U.S. troops killed in action. Another 13 Americans were wounded and 11 were captured by the Germans, according to an article from the Advertiser-Democrat, a newspaper in Norway, Maine.

During the fight, Army Lt. Paul McLoud, of the 11th Engineer Regiment, earned the Distinguished Service Cross for leading troops into battle against the Germans.

Toward the end of the battle, British forces gave up their newly gained territory to strengthen back-line trenches. This move left the newly repaired railway connections in German control, Parsons wrote.

After the battle, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of British forces in France, sent a letter to U.S. Gen. John Pershing, who led American Expeditionary Forces in Europe at the time, to thank Pershing’s men for fighting with the British.

“I trust that you will be good enough to convey to these gallant men how much we all appreciate their prompt and soldierly readiness to assist in what was for a time a difficult situation,” Haig wrote of the 11th Engineer Regiment. “I much regret the losses suffered by these companies.”

In January 1918, according to Parsons, the 11th Engineer Regiment was ordered to report in central France to construct new railways and yards to be used by Allied forces in the war.

Although they failed to push back German forces, the Allies regarded the Battle of Cambrai to be one of the last significant German offenses of the war. Germany attempted to gain victory before U.S. troops took to the battlefield the following year, a turning point of the Great War.

EMAIL dspiva@vfw.org

• As a civilian, former Army Lt. Col. William Parsons, who commanded the U.S. 11th Engineer Regiment at Cambrai, designed the first subway in New York City and the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts.

• The Battle of Cambrai took place on Thanksgiving Day 1917. To celebrate the holiday, specially detailed officers searched the countryside for turkeys two weeks before Thanksgiving.

ABOVE: Two American soldiers identified as “sergeants Mclsaac and Cairola” of the 11th Engineer Regiment are shown on Nov. 30, 1917, the day of the regiment’s encounter with German forces in Gouzeaucourt, France. That day marked America’s first significant combat encounter with the enemy during World War I. Six Doughboys were killed in the fight. One engineer earned the Distinguished Service Cross.

Read the full article at http://digitaledition.qwinc.com/article/WWI+Battle+Of+Cambrai/2909351/445172/article.html.

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