In the fall of 1918, Maj. Gen. Clarence Edwards devised a plan to get his 26th “Yankee” Division, composed of National Guard troops from all the New England states, to be the first full division in France.
Edwards had his aide, Capt. A.L. Pendleton, visit the major ports in the Northeast looking for transports that could move his 28,000-man division to France. Pendleton found that there were transports available, but they were slated to carry the 42nd “Rainbow” Division. The 42nd Division, however, was not ready to go. The 26th, Pendleton assured the port authorities, was ready to go.
On Sept. 24, Maine’s 103rd Infantry received orders to strike its camp at Westfield, Massachusetts, and begin the journey to New York City. “Of course this information was to be kept under your hat,” Russell Adams of Rumford remembered, “but everybody knew about it.”
“We are packing up and getting to go again,” Madison’s Ralph Spaulding wrote to his sister. “This time I guess we will go to France for they have given us trench shoes and heavy clothes but don’t worry we will get there all right and by the time we get drilled ready to fight I think the war will be over.”
Ralph Moan from East Machias recalled that his 3rd Battalion arrived “into an out-of-the-way station at 2 a.m. At 4 a.m. we took the side-wheeler ferry boat ‘Grand Republic’ for Hoboken, New Jersey. We had to sign cards whom to notify in case of death.”
Beginning on Sept. 25, the battalions began to load onto their transports — many of them repurposed civilian liners. This little convoy assembled on Sept. 29 at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and after adding the rest of the transports of the division, set out across the ocean at sundown.
The remarkable sight must have stirred the souls of the men, but the whole affair was returned rapidly to reality when the band aboard the transport the Celtic struck up a song called “The Houn’ Dawg Rag,” and cheer after cheer erupted from the doughboys. They were headed “Over there.”
Once the last transports left Halifax, Edwards instructed that a telegram be sent to the War Department, informing them that the 26th Division was on its way to France. It was in this way that the New England division would be the first full U.S. Army division to reach France. While many of the men were accustomed to smaller boats, most had never been on board ships as large as those that now carried them over the tossing ocean.
Pvt. Frank Ronco in Waterville’s Company H related that, “We passed a ship in the Irish sea which was sunk 40 minutes later … we passed a floating mine which was only about 10 feet away from our ship. If we had struck that we might have hurt it a little.” One man from Bangor’s Company G recalled that the food on board their transport, the Saxonia, was so bad that the men called her the “Starvonia”: “Nothing but boiled pork and boiled rabbit, sometimes with the fur on it.”
“One should not worry about the safety of American troops going over,” wrote Sgt. George Dole of the 103rd Band, “because they are well convoyed and when they reach the submarine zone they are met by enough American and English craft to sink and chase away forty fleets of German submarines. … It was a wonderful sight to see such a fleet gliding over the deep and expansive body of water.”
The last day at sea, the ships hit a storm, as described by Dole: “Now when they tell about storms at sea, I’ll know what they mean. Wow!! We were hoping for a big storm at this stage of the journey and we sure did get one! It was a corker! The last entire night at sea we struck the biggest part of it. The wind was blowing a sixty-mile-an-hour gale and the waves were tremendous. Tubley Blakney and I stayed on deck until 3 a.m. watching the terrible waves and listening to the roaring wind — when I say roaring I do not mean whistling because the way it tore up that ocean was a fright.”
The ships safely reached Liverpool, England, on Oct. 9, and the ships began unloading. The Mainers had reached foreign soil and were one step closer to France and the war that awaited them.
First Lt. Jonathan Bratten is the Maine National Guard historian.