The 26th (Yankee) Infantry Division was formed on July 18th, 1917, under the command of Maj. Gen. C.R. Edwards. The component units were selected from the National Guards of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Due to the proximity of these units to the port of Boston, and the political necessity of getting troops ‘over there’ expeditiously, the 26th was the first National Guard unit to embark for France, arriving on Sept. 21st, 1917, more than a month before the 42nd Division. As a result of this hasty departure, the division needed months of training, which was conducted by the French.
In January 1918 the 26th, along with the 1st, 2nd and 42nd, was constituted as I Corps and shortly thereafter they began front-line service in ‘quiet’ sectors in relief of French units. The 26th was moved into the line between Aprémont and the Bois de Jury in the St. Mihiel Salient sector on April 3rd.
The Germans had been watching the insertion of American units with interest, and their headquarters decided to stage a battalion-sized trench raid to test the fighting ability of these green Americans who had been trained by the French. The burning questions were: would they stand and fight, and if so, how well?
The fortified ruin of the small village of Seicheprey (it’s still small, the population is 81) was selected as the target, a piece of the line held by elements of the US 102nd Infantry regiment, mostly men from the Connecticut National Guard. The Germans delivered a 36 hour box barrage, including the heavy use of gas, and on April 20th a battalion of stoßtruppen infiltrated the gaps in the defenses. The line was breached in places but the defenders rallied and the attackers then withdrew as was their tactical directive. The 102nd lost 80 killed, 424 wounded and 130 prisoners; two rifle companies and a machine gun company were rendered hors de combat. The regiment’s mascot, the famous dog called ‘Sgt. Stubby’, was injured by grenade shrapnel, but recovered. The Germans lost about 150 or ¼ of their assaulting force, so one of the scarce, elite stoßtruppen battalions was sidelined as well.
To the American command, this action was a victory. Their troops had, to use modern football parlance, bent but didn’t break. The experience was a successful employment of the strategy known as ‘Defense in Depth’, a significant achievement for an unseasoned unit.
From the German perspective the attack wasn’t successful, as the Americans had fought tenaciously, withstanding a box barrage, heavy gas, flamethrowers, infiltration and hand-to-hand combat. Not wanting to admit that the experiment was unsuccessful, the Germans instead made a great show of the number of Americans taken prisoner.
Here’s an informative article from the New England Historical Society.
The 26th then went on to serve under French command in the Aisne-Marne Offensives, in a supporting but important role guarding the eastern flank, a task that Pershing didn’t like to entrust to the French.
At St. Mihiel in September, the 26th played a critical role, linking up with the Big Red One (1st Division) to complete the encirclement of the salient on Day 3. After a brief respite for reinforcement they participated in the last phase of the Meuse Argonne Offensive, ending their war near Ville dévant-Chaumont, once again holding Pershing’s eastern flank.
Unique amongst all of the US memorials on the Western Front is the 26th Division Church in the village of Belleau, not far from the wood of the same name. The village was captured by the 26th on July 18th, 1918, during the Aisne-Marne Offensives, several weeks after the Marines had secured Belleau Wood. The current structure was reconstructed in the 1920’s with funds donated by the 26th Division’s veterans and their friends and functions both as the local parish church and a war memorial. The Massachusetts National Guard Association has continued to be a supporter of the church, having recently raised donations totaling €40,000 for roof repairs.