Infantry, Part I: Regular Army / The First World War

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CMH 60-3: Infantry, Part I: Regular Army

John K. Mahon and Romana Danysh
The First World War
U.S. Army Center for Military History publication
  • The First World War

  • A full ten months ahead of the formal entry of the United States into World War I, the National Defense Act of 3 June 1916 erected the framework on which to expand the military establishment if conflict should come. At the time, there were thirty-one regiments of Regular infantry, counting the Puerto Rico Regiment of two battalions, plus thirteen battalions of Philippine Scouts. In addition, the National Guard contained around 110 regiments of infantry.
  • The National Defense Act raised the authorized size of the Army from 100,000 to 175,000, and provided that the increase be made in five annual increments, beginning 1 July 1916. The first increment included seven new infantry regiments, the 31st through the 37th. The 31st was organized in the Philippines, the 32nd in Hawaii, the 33rd in the Canal Zone, and the other four were organized in the continental United States. All seven of them expanded from cadres supplied by specified existing regiments. As soon as the United States entered the war, twenty-seven new infantry regiments were constituted and organized by the transfer of cadres from the other thirty-seven. When this process was completed, the Regular infantry comprised sixty-five regiments, seventeen more than ever before in American history.
  • The National Defense Act recognized four elements in the land forces: the Regular Army, the National Guard, the Reserve Corps, and in wartime the Volunteer Army. Once the nation actually went to war, the character of the latter element changed, for volunteering was scrapped except in the Regular Army and in the National Guard. The Volunteer Army became the National Army, which was raised by conscription. All in all, the wartime Army contained 297 infantry regiments of one kind or another and 165 machine gun battalions classed as infantry.
  • Infantry regiments and machine gun battalions together totaled 462 in World War I, a figure which is dwarfed by the 1,700-plus infantry units that served in the Civil War. One of the reasons for the contrast was the fact that regiments had increased three times in size; but the chief reason was that the units of the later war remained to the end, while those of the earlier one came and went.
  • The War Department came 11 July 1917 set up a system by which infantry units were to be designated. The designating numbers for all segments of the Regular Army began with 1. Regiments ran from 1 through 100, but these slots were never all filled. Just sixty-five Regular infantry regiments, in twenty divisions, came into being, and the higher numbers allocated to the Regulars were finally used by National Army units. No 66th was raised, but during July, August, and September 1918, the 67th through the 90th were organized around cadres from the first sixty-four. None of them (67th-90th) reached the theater of war. The numbers reserved for infantry regiments of the National Guard began at 101 and ran to 300, those for the National Army began with 301. Actually, the Guard regiments never used the numbers beyond 168, nor the National Army those past 388. The 376th through 378th, 381st, 382nd, 385th, and 386th never came into being.
  • Late in the conflict, on 7 August 1918, the distinction between National Guard, Reserve Corps, Regular Army, and National Army was legally abrogated and all four elements were fused into one organization, the United States Army. This was the first time in American history that career soldiers, citizen soldiers, and drafted men of the infantry found themselves on the same legal basis.
  • Three years of observation of the war in Europe had convinced the General Staff that American tables of organization were obsolete. Accordingly, a series of changes in them began. The first one altered the existing triangular division, containing elements grouped by threes, to a square one. In this change, the three brigades of a division and the three regiments of a brigade gave way to two of each. The final result was a much larger division and brigade than any used by the nations of Europe. At the time of the armistice on 11 November 1918, an American division contained 28,105 men, nearly twice the number in European units. Firepower in both division and brigade was greatly augmented.
  • In the transition from triangular to square divisions, and in the consequent alteration of regiments and battalions, the elements of the National Guard were seriously dislocated. Since out of the 367,223 enlisted men of the Guard originally inducted, 242,000 (66 percent) were infantrymen, it was believed necessary to break up many infantry units. As a result, old regiments and other units were consolidated and broken up, thereby losing their identity and their proud state designations.
  • A typical example of the dislocation took place in the infantry elements of the state of Massachusetts. The old 2nd Infantry was fortunate enough to remain intact under a new number as the 104th Infantry. The three other regiments, however, provided men for three infantry regiments (the 101st, 102nd, and 103rd) as well as for the 101st Engineer Train, the 101st Supply Train, the 101st Train Headquarters and Military Police, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Pioneer Infantry.
  • Several of the newly constituted regiments of pioneer infantry drew their personnel from the breakup of National Guard units. Resembling standard infantry regiments only in size (3,551 men) , they were in reality a labor force used primarily to repair roads and bridges. Thirtyseven regiments were organized in all, the 1st through the 6th, 51st through 65th, and 801st through 816th. National Guard personnel went into the 1st through the 59th regiments and drafted men into the 60th through the 65th. The outfits in the 800 series were formed of Negro personnel in 1918 to relieve the 1st through the 61st regiments, so that the latter could reorganize for service as combat infantry.
  • Regimental organization underwent some changes, but the National Defense Act forbade increasing the number of companies in a regiment beyond fifteen. Among the fifteen, a headquarters, a supply, and a machine gun company received permanent status for the first time. In any case, the changes reflected the requirements of trench warfare in Europe. Hence, an infantry regiment jumped from 2,002 to 3,720 enlisted men with an even larger increase in firepower.
  • The increase in size resulted from the need for deep formations in both attack and defense. In the attack, two battalions abreast might make up the first wave and the companies within them would be arranged also in depth. Behind the attack wave would come a support wave, perhaps the third battalion, and behind it would be elements withdrawn from the three battalions operating as a reserve. Likewise, successive positions in depth were the standard formation in defense. Such formations to be adequate required large regiments. As had been the case since the War with Spain, infantry regiments contained three battalions of four companies each.
  • At the root of the organizational changes listed, and others that took place, were the demands of weapons. The machine gun led the list. The necessity to develop a proper organizational framework for the best use of that lethal arm raised a thorny problem, a problem which was heightened by the great increase in the number of guns. In May 1917 there was but one machine gun company for each infantry regiment, while by July the number had risen to one per battalion. The ideal arrangement, after July, was to include three machine gun companies in every infantry regiment. Unfortunately, this could not be done-because of the way the National Defense Act was worded-without cutting some rifle companies out of the regiment. Accordingly, it was necessary to create machine gun battalions that were elements of brigades and divisions, leaving just one company organic to infantry regiments. In numbering, the machine gun battalions followed the general rule. Battalions of Regular divisions and brigades were given numbers from 1 through 60; those of the National Guard from 101 through 151; and those of the National Army from 301 through 366. Since the 6th, 46th, 352nd through 357th, 361st, 362nd, 364th, and 365th were not organized, there was a total of 165 active infantry machine gun battalions during World War I. These units had to be put together from diverse segments of others that were broken up, hence their histories have not been passed down to modern outfits except in the National Guard.
  • The brigade battalions of machine guns contained three companies, while the division battalion was at first organized with four. This made a very awkward arrangement since machine gun companies had to be drawn from three sources-regiment, brigade, and division-in order to work with infantry battalions. Although the arrangement remained awkward throughout the war, and brigade and divisional battalions continued to exist, the division machine gun battalion was finally reduced to two companies. These were motorized and used as a highly mobile element of the divisional reserve.
  • It was easier to alter organization in order to include machine guns than it was to supply these weapons. Although machine guns had been included in American arms since 1862, World War I expanded their use so much that manufacturers in the United States could not at first supply enough of them. As a result, American doughboys employed Chauchat automatic rifles and Hotchkiss heavy machine guns made in France, as well as some British and American Vickers machine guns. The new American .30caliber heavy machine guns and automatic rifles invented by John M. Browning were not used against the enemy at all until September 1918, only a few weeks before the armistice.
  • Of all the weapons an infantryman handled, his rifle changed the least. For supply reasons, the British Enfield became standard. It did not differ very much from the Springfield Model 1903, which the soldier knew. Likewise, the bayonet of the Enfield, a knife seventeen inches long, resembled the one it temporarily replaced. In short, the standard rifle required no changes in the organization of units, but its power, coupled with that of other weapons, enforced changes. in fighting formations.
  • Trench warfare brought with it a pressing need for weapons that were decisive in close combat. Out of this need came hand grenades, rifle grenades, and more extensive use of pistols and revolvers. Such short-range fireweapons tended to supersede cold steel and rifle butts as the tools of shock action, but American doctrine considered proficiency with the bayonet as still indispensable because it gave confidence and aggressiveness to foot soldiers.
  • In addition to the weapons that infantrymen handled as individuals, there were two served by crews. One, also a creature of trench warfare, was the Stokes mortar, which could lob projectiles into enemy trenches and shell holes. Another was the one-pounder cannon, an antitank and antimachine gun piece. These two weapons were placed together in a platoon of the headquarters company of every infantry regiment.
  • The weapons mentioned above, coupled with artillery, gas, tanks, and aircraft, dictated the minor tactics of infantry and slaughtered the troops of commanders who failed to heed their dictates. Indeed, machine guns are credited with having created the war of position and the accompanying stalemates which prevailed during 1915, 1916, and 1917. General John J. Pershing carried this interpretation farther. He said that trench warfare had caused the belligerents in Europe to embrace a faulty doctrine. They placed too great a reliance on artillery and on mechanical aids. Pershing insisted, in contrast, that the basis of a sound army remained, as it had always been, a sturdy infantry. Accordingly, he required that American foot soldiers be trained primarily for open warfare, and only incidentally for duty in the trenches.
  • As already noted, depth was necessary to infantry formations. In the attack this meant successive waves of men; in defense, numerous positions, staggered irregularly one behind the other. Thus, all units from division down to platoon were organized to give the required depth within their respective sectors. The war confirmed the trend toward refining the organization of infantry units. Squads and platoons proved to be indispensable in twentieth century combat. Frequently the outcome of a fight depended on the integrity of those elements since they, and they alone, could be controlled personally by their leaders when under very heavy fire.
  • In addition to being organized to give depth, units at all levels were formed to give effect to the new weapons and to avoid losses from them in the hands of the enemy. It has been noted that the expanding use of machine guns required reorganizations which reached from divisions down to companies. The other weapons exacted changes, but they were not quite as widely disseminated. For example, infantry mortars and one-pounder guns found a place in the headquarters companies of regiments. Hand grenades, rifle grenades, and automatic rifles caused many changes in the organization of companies and their components. The question as to their best arrangement was never definitely settled during the war. All were included in a rifle company, but sometimes the automatic riflemen were formed together, as were the grenadiers and rifle grenadiers, other times they were scattered among the squads. As late as November 1918, in the Meuse-Argonne campaign, the specialists stayed together in combat groups, but the trend was toward dispersion so that every squad contained at least one automatic rifleman, one good grenade thrower, and one rifle grenadier.
  • Whatever the organization, extended order became necessary in combat. Men could not bunch up and live. Therefore, close formations had to break up when they came within artillery range. Approach to the enemy resulted in a progressive extension, and this in turn threw a greater burden on the commanders of platoons and squads. Small units of men inched themselves forward, taking advantage of shell holes and other cover.
  • It remains to mention briefly two allies of infantrymen that virtually revolutionized their combat methods. The first was the motor truck, which gave foot soldiers greater mobility than they had ever before had. The second was a miscellany of signal equipment. This helped the infantry to operate with some degree of co-ordination on huge battlefields where arm signals could no longer be seen and noise drowned out the human voice. It aided in making foot troops an effective instrument of the will of the commander, and served to rectify, at least a little, the disorganization that resulted from the necessity for soldiers to disperse widely in order to survive.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).