On Sept. 20, 1917, scores of men from Pennsylvania and parts of Maryland arrived at the newly established Camp Meade to train for combat in World War I.
The men came carrying bags, suitcases and bundles and represented a snapshot of the society in which they lived. They were Philadelphia bankers, Eerie coal miners, Gettysburg farmers, Eastern Shore crabbers, Baltimore laborers, clerks, teachers, high school professors, lumber jacks, and even moonshiners and bootleggers.
By the following June, thousands of them would ship out to France as the 79th Division to become a part of Gen. John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force.
On Saturday afternoon, retired Col. Kenneth O. McCreedy, a former Fort Meade garrison commander and military historian, recounted how the division overcame poor training and a strong German defense to capture Montfcauon, a key objective during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the major battle of WWI.
McCreedy’s lecture, titled “Camp Meade and the Great War,” was held at the Odenton Regional Library as part of Fort Meade’s 100th anniversary celebration.
“I think this kind of presentation on Fort Meade is what our patrons like to see,” said Carol Cason, the library’s branch manager. “Judging by the questions that they ask, the audience really shows an interest in these topics.”
During the 75-minute lecture, McCreedy discussed how President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly requested a declaration of war against Germany, leading Congress to do so on April 6, 1917.
The draft was reinstated to build up the nation’s Army, and on June 14, 1917, the secretary of war announced that Annapolis Junction in west Anne Arundel County would become one of 16 cantonments to train Soldiers.
The cantonment came to be known as “Camp Meade.” By mid-September, about 39,000 men had “reported for duty, reported to go to war,” McCreedy said.
They trained under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Joseph Kuhn, a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, and now commanding general of the 79th Division. The unit was composed of 157th Infantry Brigade, which included the 313th (Baltimore’s Own) and 314th Infantry Regiments, and the 158th Infantry Brigade, which was composed of the 315th (Philadelphia’s Own) and 316th Infantry Regiments.
McCreedy said although the division was assigned to the AEF to fight in France, much of their training for war was insufficient.
“What they lacked were some critical equipment — rifles, machine guns, field artillery pieces — real weapons.” ” McCreedy said.
McCreedy said that most of the time, the Soldiers did their marksmanship training without weapons and that to make matters worse, the noncommissioned officers who were sent in to train them were not “the cream of the crop.”
Kuhn emphasized physical fitness and the men often took long hikes in the Maryland countryside, McCreedy said. As the months progressed, the training included manual arms and drills.
Later, several “more-creative officers” arranged for the unit to do some marksmanship training with the midshipmen through a Marine detachment at the U.S. Naval Academy.
By November 1917, British and French officers arrived at Camp Meade to help out with training. The men learned how to build and get out of a trench. Training schools were created, ranging from intelligence, small arms, machine gun and artillery fire to engineering, first-aid and gas defense.
But when the winter came, training slowed.
“You don’t get a sense, looking at reports of that time, that the division was focused on training as we would be today,” McCreedy said. “It was kind of an eight- to 10-hour deal with weekends off for the most part.”
Raids on personnel to fill other divisions that began in the fall dwindled the division’s numbers from about 25,000 to 15,000. When the unit shipped out to France in June 1918, more than half the division had not received more than a few weeks of training.
“What arrived in France was a tremendously green division,” McCreedy said. “ … It was in a very poor position of preparedness.”
Instead of receiving three additional months of training per the standard set by Pershing for deploying forces, the 79th Division received only six weeks of training in France before being committed to battle.
Nine U.S. divisions of the First American Army, which included the 79th Division, conducted the initial offensive attack at Meuse-Argonne. The 79th Division was ordered to break the German line at Meuse-Argonne and seize an enemy strongpoint called Montfaucon. The French had been unable to take the line in three years, yet this green division was expected to do it in one day.
McCreedy said the German defense system at Meuse-Argonne was of “unusual depth and strength” and was a “wide zone of utter devastation … a serious obstacle to offensive operations. The strategic importance of this defense line was second to none on the Western Front.”
Montfaucon was “impregnable for years,” McCreedy said. “It was dubbed ‘Little Gibraltar’ by the French.”
Overcoming The Odds
On Sept. 26, McCreedy said, the division faced “the largest concentration of artillery fire in World War I.”
The two forward lines of the German defense were made up of barbed wire, machine gun nests, artillery, trenches and three belts of fortifications. In the Meuse forest, the Germans cleverly concealed fortified pillboxes armed with machine guns.
McCreedy said the attack “crawled at a snail’s pace” and the division was “overwhelmed by artillery fire.”
But eventually, the 313th pushed its defenders against Montfaucon with the support of light artillery fire and six French tanks.
By noon on Sept, 27, Montfaucon was in American hands.
The men of the 313th and 314th were exhausted, McCreedy said. They had gone without fresh water and food since the launch of the attack.
On Sept. 30, the division was withdrawn from battlefield and placed into a quiet sector of the front to reorganize and refit. They had advanced 10 kilometers and had taken 905 German prisoners.
McCreedy said there were officially 3,600 casualties, but there were probably more due to shell shock, exhaustion and the effects of gassing.
The 79th Division then went on to capture La Borne de Cornouiller, known by the U.S. troops as “Corn Willy Hill,” on Nov. 6, 1918.
After the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, the division took on occupation duties.
On April 12, 1919, Pershing reviewed the division.
McCreedy said that in a letter to Kuhn, Pershing wrote that the division’s performance at Meuse-Argonne is “a fine record for any division, and I want the officers and men to know this and to realize how much they contributed to the success of our arms.
“They may return home justly proud of themselves and the part they played in the American Expeditionary Forces.”