The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) Somme American Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing is located between Bony and Le Catelet in the modern region of Hauts-de-France. During the Great War this region was called by its ancient name, Picardy.

The site is actually located on the battlefield of September 29th – 30th , 1918 where the American 27th and 30th Divisions, backed by the Australian 2nd and 5th Divisions, attacked over the Bellicourt Tunnel and broke through the Siegfriedstellung, which the Allies called the Hindenburg Line.

The cemetery and memorial are sited on a gentle slope typical of the open, rolling terrain. The 14.3-acre cemetery contains 1,844 burials, most of whom died while serving in American units attached to the British Fourth Army, or in the 1st Division’s attack at Cantigny. The headstones are set in regular rows and separated into four plots by paths that intersect at the flagpole near the top of the slope.

The chapel, a massive block structure reminiscent of a pill box, is at the south-eastern end of the cemetery. The entrance has a heavy set of bronze doors bearing 48 stars, surmounted by an American eagle, and the outer walls contain sculptures depicting military equipment. The wording above the door is:

TO THOSE WHO DIED
FOR THEIR COUNTRY

There are three windows in the chapel, a cross-shaped crystal window above the marble altar of sacrifice and two stained glass windows on the left and right of the altar which bear insignia of American units. Beneath the inscription THE NAMES RECORDED ON THESE WALLS ARE THOSE OF AMERICAN SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT IN THIS REGION WHO SLEEP IN UNKNOWN GRAVES, the walls bear the names of 333 missing soldiers.

 

The chapel was designed by architect George Howe (1886-1955) of Philadelphia, who had served in the U.S. Army during the war. He also designed the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building, built in 1930, which was the first international-style skyscraper in the U.S. The Somme American site was dedicated on May 30th, 1937.

Soon after the U. S. entered the war the French and the British began to lobby for the use of American soldiers to fill out their depleted formations. After three years of indecisive warfare, both allies were critically short of men, not just infantry and artillery but laborers and technical troops like engineers and signals as well.

Before departing for Europe in late May 1917, President Wilson’s directive to General John J. Pershing was to cooperate and give aid to the Allies as the situation in the field dictated, but

 “The underlying idea must be kept in view that the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved. The fundamental rule is subject to such minor exceptions in particular circumstances as your judgment may approve.”

As U.S. Army and Marine units trickled into France in 1917, maintaining the cohesiveness of the American Expeditionary Force (“AEF”) became Pershing’s prime challenge. In his post-war memoir he wrote about the Allies’ pressure to split up his command:

“The French continually argued that we would contribute more to the Allied cause by helping to strengthen French and British units than by building up an independent army of our own, and the British were not far behind in their efforts along this line. Knowing this attitude, it was necessary to be on the lookout to avoid commitments to suggestions that might eventually involve the question of amalgamation.”

The plan was for the Americans to receive additional instruction from French or British advisers and then take over trench lines in quiet sectors to gain practical experience. Upon arrival in country ten AEF divisions were allocated to the British for training.

As the arrivals accelerated and the pressure to mount attacks increased, this regimen was shortened. Later the Supreme Allied Commander, French General Ferdinand Foch, ordered the diversion of all of the American divisions assigned to the British sector over to the French sector, which he believed to be in greater crisis.

King George V with the 30th Division

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force (“BEF”) immediately protested the decision and in the end was permitted to retain two of the American divisions – the 27th and the 30th, both of which were already in the British line south of Ypres. For operational purposes these two were made the U.S. II Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. George W. Read, and became known as “The Borrowed Soldiers”.

There were important differences between British divisions and American ones. Foremost was their comparative size: an American division had nearly three times the number of men. Thus the two American divisions had the combat power of six of their BEF counterparts.

Also, unlike in the BEF, American divisions were completely self-contained, with their own artillery, engineers and logistics train. To reduce confusion the artillery were removed from the command of the 27th and 30th Divisions, and since they were entirely equipped with French guns, making shell supply much more difficult, these units were sent over to the AEF to be corps artillery.

30th Division at the Bellicourt Tunnel

II Corps was attached to the ANZAC Corps, commanded by the Australian Lt. Gen. Sir John Monash, a part of the BEF Fourth Army under Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson.

BEF planners slotted II Corps to spearhead the assault on the Hindenburg Line on September 29th. Meeting fierce resistance the Americans surged relentlessly forward through four trench lines and broke the Siegfriedstellung at the eastern end of the Bellicourt Tunnel, a magnificent achievement, although just to the east at the Riqueval Bridge the British 46th (North Midlands) Division had also broken through.

Both of these American divisions were made up of National Guardsmen, the 27th from New York and the 30th from North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.  In this battle the 27th Division lost 1,545 killed and 5,328 wounded and the 30th Division lost 1,237 killed and 7,178 wounded. The 107th regiment of the 27th division lost 535 killed and 1,383 wounded, the greatest loss by an American regiment in a single action.

Nine Medals of Honor were awarded for heroic acts during this fight. Two of these recipients are buried in Somme American Cemetery: 1st Lieut. William Turner of the 105th Infantry, 27th Division and Cpl. Thomas O’Shea, 107th Infantry, 27th Division.

 

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official living in Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and has memberships in the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Indian Military Historical Society and the Salonika Campaign Society.