On 18 October, 1917, the first battalions from the 1st Division (US) left their training camps around Gondrecourt for the front at Sommerville, France. As part of their training, the American units would relieve the French 18th Division in the trenches. The “trench rotation” was a complicated night relief in place, and was old hat for French and British units after three years, but new for Americans unused to the realities of modern war on the Western Front.
The Sommerville sector was considered a quiet part of the front and used to rest and recuperate tired veteran units, or ease new ones into the war. The American battalions, with their attached machine guns and support units, would spend three days in the second line French trenches to familiarize themselves with the sector, then occupy the first line trenches for a week. As part of the training, these ten day rotations were done under French officers. American officers maintained command of companies and platoons, while French officers and staffs controlled the battalions and brigades, as the American counterparts watched and learned. The American 1st Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment entered the French second line trenches on 21 October 1917, and the first shell fired in anger by American artillery during the First World War was shot the next morning in support by Battery C, 6th US Artillery. Three days later, the battalion entered the first line trenches opposite the German army across No Man’s Land.
The Germans knew something was going on and planned to find out during the next rotation. On the night of 2 November, just as the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry was settling into their muddy trenches after relieving the 1st Battalion, the Germans raided for prisoners. They isolated the targeted American sector with artillery and Sturmtruppen (specially trained German assault troops, or “Stormtroopers”) flooded the trenches of F Company. The Germans killed three, wounded four, and took ten prisoners back to their lines. Those soldiers were the first American casualties of World War One.
The Americans wouldn’t be surprised again. Another raid two weeks later was beaten back with heavy casualties. By the beginning of December all of the 1st Division’s battalions had rotated through the trenches and were trucked back to Gondrecourt to finish training. Their stint in the trenches wasn’t long, but it was long enough to let the surprised Germans know the United States was now truly in the war.