Dieterich WWI

A group of soldiers from Dieterich train with a Lewis machine gun.

By Herb Meeker

News Report Staff

A century ago, the village of Dieterich was about to make history as the United States ramped up its role in World War I.

Machine Gun Company G of the Fourth Illinois National Guard Regiment was organized in Dieterich for combat in France against the German Army. Dieterich’s contribution to the war effort would set a historic record.

“Dieterich, Illinois, was the smallest town in the entire United States that supplied a company to the U.S. Army,” said Kip Johnson, a Dieterich High School history teacher and history researcher, during his lecture on the machine gun company’s history.

Most of the Dieterich company of about 100 men came from the Dieterich community, while some came from Newton or Effingham. The unit was formally organized in May 1917. For some of the soldiers, this was not their first military service. They had been part of the American expedition sent in 1916 to protect the Mexican border against Mexican revolutionaries and bandits, including some led by Pancho Villa.

“They went down to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. They stayed in Texas while the fighting went on in Mexico,” Johnson said of Dieterich’s connection to that military adventure.

By 1918, Company G was getting ready for the voyage to France. They had completed training in Dieterich, including marching on the streets of their hometown. Johnson showed images from a Company G archive that showed the soldiers posing with their sweethearts, or eating apples.

“They trained for 40 days here. They camped out on land that is today’s Liberty Park,” Johnson said.

The soldiers went on trains to Camp Logan, Texas, for advanced training as a machine gun company. Photographs showed a multi-storied wood barracks where they first stayed, but that soon changed.

“They then went into pup tents. I guess the Army didn’t want them used to the comforts of home,” Johnson said.

In addition, they learned to produce their own sanitary system for the camp by digging latrines.

There was an image of a group of soldiers working a Lewis machine gun. It was a weapon that could be laid on the ground and leveled with a bipod attachment. Bullets were fed through a drum-shaped magazine, which might hold 70 or more rounds.

Machine gun units were barely existent in the U.S. Army before 1917, as many officers considered the rifle and bayonet as superior weapons for infantry. But machine guns had become a vital weapon in trench warfare as European armies fought the deadly strategy of attrition. A group of machine guns could defend a sector of the front line more effectively than soldiers armed with bolt-action rifles carrying only five rounds in a magazine.

“One machine gun was worth 100 infantrymen during World War I,” wrote George T. Raach in “Withering Fire,” a book about the machine gun units in the American Army during the First World War. Firepower had replaced the old tactics. European armies by 1917 had hundreds of machine gun companies for each division. The American Army was playing catchup on training and equipping machine gun units as it prepared to enter the war.

The soldiers in Company G had to be able to load and maintain their machine guns. Some of the guns were water-cooled to prevent the overheating of the barrel. Sometimes, the coolant came from shell hole water or urine from the soldiers.

The machine gun companies had to carry a variety of equipment, including shovels, axes and other items for preparing their machine gun positions on the battlefield. The guns and equipment might be hauled in carts pulled by mules or horses and possibly motorized trucks.

Johnson showed a photograph of a soldier with a boot on the running board of a truck. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a photo of those trucks,” Johnson said. How much Company G soldiers used the trucks is not clear whether in training or in France.

After all the training, the Dieterich machine gun company traveled to Hoboken, New Jersey, before shipping to France aboard the troop ship Agamemnon. The accommodations were not all that luxurious as Johnson showed a photograph of a triple-decked bunk bed with rope holding the bedding.

“It wasn’t that good, but better than sleeping on the floor,” Johnson noted.

He showed a photo of the bizarre zig-zag paint job on the ship, which created a camouflage effect on the high seas to protect American convoys from attacks by German submarines.

Landing in Brest, France, on May 28, the troops started a series of marches to different posts en route to the front. A soldier’s diary, read by Johnson, kept track of the kilometers marched from camp to camp. There was also training for travel in the French railroad boxcars referred as 40&8.

“That was because they could either carry 40 soldiers or eight horses. They couldn’t carry both,” Johnson said.

The troops were admonished by a major to stay on the track of good behavior regarding the female population of France. “Be good boys,” the major ordered.

There were gas mask drills. World War I was the first major war where poison gases were used on a massive scale. Troops had to be prepared to use their masks against Chlorine and Mustard gas attacks. Men suffocated if unprepared or suffered terrible damage to their lungs or lost their sight from these chemical attacks.

“Those gas masks usually had cotton filtering. The cotton had to be wet to be effective. So some soldiers might soak the cotton in urine to keep them effective,” Johnson said.

The soliders would turn in their brimmed campaign hats for steel helmets. Company G would travel across France for several weeks before it would end up near a combat area near the Somme River, where tens of thousands of British troops had been cut down by German machine guns in a single day two years before. Soon they were in Flanders “sleeping in shell holes surrounded by dead Germans and Tommys (British troops).”

There would be memories of an assault on a patch of blackberries and a chance to stay in a French home near Verdun, the site the deadliest battle of the First World War in 1915-16. There were times of rest with cookies and cigarettes served by the YMCA. And the diary also mentions troops feeling safe enough to swim in a canal.

Finally, there was hope of the war ending before the year was out with an officer predicting the soldiers could be home by Christmas.

On September 25, they went to the front line north of Verdun and joined the “last drive” of the war. After a great barrage involving thousands of cannons, the soldiers from Dieterich moved forward with the American forces. The German Army was beaten and falling back. Some of the Germans were starving in the trenches.

There would be American and Allied casualties as the offensive rolled up the German lines. Fortunately, Company G returned with all its soldiers. Then on November 11 came the orders to cease firing. The war was over.

The memories of Company G live on in Dieterich. Liberty Memorial Park was first dedicated to them. Now, a memorial wall recognizes all veterans of the community. The soldier’s old campground is now part of the community park.

Their efforts that took them across an ocean into a global war will be recognized during the 125th anniversary celebration later this year in Dieterich. In fact, some of the soldiers from Company G were around when the village was dedicated.