NY National Guard's 27th Division suffered 1st combat death on July 13, 1918.
On July 13, 1918 – 363 days after being mobilized for service in the World War— the New York National Guard’s 27th Division lost its first man in combat. Private Robert P. Friedman, 22, a New York City native assigned to Company A of the 102nd Engineer Regiment, died as the result of wounds suffered in a German Artillery barrage. A graduate of the City College of New York, a shell severed his spinal cord and he died within two hours of the attack, according to the August 1918 American Jewish Chronicle. Friedman would be the first of the 27th Division’s 1,791 Soldiers killed in action. Another 9,427 would be wounded before the war’s end in November 1918.
The last of the division’s Soldiers had arrived in Europe in late May and spent most of June being trained in British weapons and trench-fighting tactics by British troops. The last division troops had only just arrived in France a week prior on July 7.
In July the 27th moved up behind the British Second Army in the Flanders region of Belgium. They occupied the defenses of the East Poperhinghe Line, a backup to the main British trench line. The New Yorkers were four miles from the nearest German and in range of the German guns. The Poperhinghe line consisted of trenches, machine gun positions and fortifications. If the Germans broke through the main British and secondary British trench lines this series of positions would hold them up long enough for the British Army to counterattack.
While 40 of the 42 American divisions sent to France in 1917 and 1918 served in the American 1st and 2nd Armies under General John J. Pershing; the National Guard’s 27th and 30th divisions were “borrowed” by the British Army. Hit hard by the German Army’s “Kaiser Offensive” in March 1918, the British wanted more manpower and wanted it badly.The British agreed to provide the ships to bring ten American divisions to France. In return those divisions were to train in the British section of the front in Belgium and northern France, providing backup to British troops and then serve under British command. Pershing agreed, but after the men trained with the British, Pershing reneged on the deal.
Field Marshal Douglas Haig was not pleased and protested vehemently. To mollify Haig somewhat, Pershing agree to leave two National Guard divisions – New York’s 27th Division and the 30th Division, whose troops came from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee—under British command. The 50,000 men of the two divisions were organized as II Corps—the smallest American Army Corps—although they sometimes fought in separate British Corps and not as a unified American Corps.
The American’s swapped their M1917 made in the USA Enfield rifles for the British Army’s Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mark III rifle. The American version of the rifle fired different ammunition so it had to go. The 27th and 20th divisions were also equipped with the British Lewis light machine gun instead of the French-made Chauchat used by other American units. This was probably a good thing since the Chauchat was known and frequently criticized by Soldiers for jamming.
The American’s also started eating British rations. In general, the Doughboys were not happy about that either. The American ration called for larger portions of food along with milk, butter, candy, and cigarettes and plenty of coffee. The British ration was a little meat, cheese and tea instead of coffee. The British rations also featured the Maconochie Army Ration. The meal took its name from the British canning company that produced it. The can contained a stew of beef, potatoes, beans and onions and sometimes turnips.If eaten warm, the Soldiers recalled, it was palatable. But eaten cold in a trench is was a lump of fat with vegetables. It was also famous for “inducing very fragment flatulation,” according to one author. The New York Soldiers of the 27th Division were not pleased with the British rations.“The English rations were a mystery to the cooks,” according to the author of “A Narrative of Company A, 106th Machine Gun Battalion. The American cooks got used to opening tins of Maconochie stew, the book says “and became so adapt at opening them that it became a habit.”
But eventually, according to Mitchel Yockelson, author of the 2008 book “Borrowed Soldiers,” a history of the 27th and 30th Divisions, the Americans were given more food than the average British Soldier. Along with giving up their American rifles the 27th and 30th divisions also gave up their field artillery.
Each of divisions was supposed to have a field artillery brigade: the 52nd Brigade in the case of the 27th Division. Each brigade consisted of two 75 millimeter field artillery regiments of 24 guns each and a regiment of 24 155 millimeter howitzers. General Pershing was willing to give up American infantry brigades to help the British, but he wasn’t giving the British the American’s Army’s scarce artillery assets.
The artillery brigades of the 27th and 30th divisions were assigned elsewhere. The 52nd Brigade was assigned to the 33rd Division and then to the 79th Division. The American II Corps was supported by British and Australian artillery units instead. Pershing also decided that he wasn’t going to give Field Marshal Haig any more American Soldiers than he started with. While other American Army units in France were sent replacements to make up for casualties taken in battle, the 27th and 30th were not. The longer they fought, the fewer Soldiers they had.
Private Friedman would not be replaced.
As July turned into August the Americans waited for the British to commit them to battle. American units took their turn in the British front lines to get accustomed to combat. Some men were wounded and some killed and some distinguished themselves in combat. Major General O’ Ryan, the division commander, sent out information to officers about how to use British map coordinates, some very talented Soldiers in the ranks put on shows to pass the time for their fellow troops, and the Doughboys simply waited for their turn in the trenches. Their wait to go into the attack would eventually see them face German troops which had been preparing and digging in their defense for the last four years.
During the World War I centennial observance the Division of Military and Naval Affairs will be issuing press releases noting key dates which impacted New Yorker's based on information provided by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. More than 400,000 New Yorkers served in the military during World War I, more than any other state.