New exhibit shines light on crucial role of American soldiers in WWI

  • New collection of images gives unique insight into United States’ entry into First World War
  • Photos show US soldiers’ journey to Europe, their training in France and vital contribution to the Allied Forces fighting on the Western Front
  • Images shine light on crucial role of the US Navy in defending trade, escorting merchant ships and hunting German U-boats
  • Collection part of an exhibition of wartime images found in University of Sheffield Library
The American Dreadnaught USS New York sailing down the East River US soldiers training at a French army camp

A new collection of images giving a unique insight into the United States’ entry into the First World War has been published by a researcher at the University of Sheffield.

From the soldiers’ journey to Europe, their arrival and training in France, to their vital contribution to the Allied Forces fighting both on the Western Front and at sea, the photos and illustrations tell the story of how more than a million American soldiers fought in Europe and played a crucial role in the defeat of Germany and its allies.

Compiled by Dr Jonathan Rayner from the University’s School of English, the images were originally captured and published by journalists working for the British wartime magazine, War Illustrated.

The collection gives an insight into the involvement of the US Navy with photos of ships such as the American Dreadnought USS New York, taken from Manhattan as she was sailing down the East River on her way to war.

Among the other ships featured are the Dreadnought USS Delaware, hailed at the time as ‘one of the monsters of the Navy’, which is shown as she anticipated a moment of action. USS Parker and USS Banham, two of America’s swiftest destroyers, can be seen steaming at full speed on a special military run, and officers are pictured on board Submarine Chasers, small craft only 40ft long that were vital in the battle against German U-boats that were threatening to starve Britain of vital supplies and into surrender.

A US subchaser that was vital in the battle against German U-boats Men of the 2nd Field Artillery of the New York National Guard

The images also show photos of some of the American troops that played a vital role in the defeat of German-led powers. Among the photos are the men of the 2nd Field Artillery of the New York National Guard practicing the daring horsemanship that made them famous across America, rifle drills by Marines aboard a ship of the US Atlantic Fleet and some of the senior officers in charge of co-ordinating US forces in Europe.

Photos from the collection have been used to create an exhibition of War Illustrated materials showing America’s entry into the war, which is on display in the USS Texas Museum in Houston.

Dr Jonathan Rayner from the University of Sheffield’s School of English, who also curated the exhibition, said: “The collection of images provides a fascinating new perspective into America’s involvement in the First World War. It features images and illustrations that accompanied reports by journalists who were reporting from the battlefields and seas across Europe for people who were back home in Britain.

“During the war, the War Illustrated magazine was hugely popular among people in Britain. In its early days it was sensationalist and patriotic in nature, but it became a more reliable and respected source of journalism with personal accounts of the war from its correspondents who were often on the frontline. It also published descriptions and illustrations to report events from the battlefield and ran comment pieces from writers and politicians reflecting on wartime events.”

An illustration of an American soldier writing a letter to his family back home An illustration of an American soldier at war

The exhibition was created by Dr Rayner in collaboration with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which is responsible for the museum ship, and USS Texas' curator Stephanie Croatt. Aside from the photos, the exhibit also provides a renewed insight into the hugely significant role that the US played in the war, particularly at sea.'

Dr Rayner added: “Despite having the largest naval force in the world, Britain’s Royal Navy still needed the assistance of its allies to win the war at sea. The United States Navy helped defend trade, escort merchant ships and hunt German U-boats. In addition to American shipyards building replacements for torpedoed merchant vessels, the United States Navy contributed submarine-hunting ships for the vital work of safeguarding trade between Britain and the US. When troop ships began ferrying the vast American armies to Europe, protection of sea lanes assumed even greater importance.

“In the First World War, both sides expected battle fleet engagements to decide not only control of the sea, but the entire war. Britain concentrated its battleships in a Grand Fleet based in Scotland to oppose the German High Seas Fleet. Upon America’s entry, Battleship Division 9, composed of the USS Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, New York, Texas and Wyoming, extended the Allied Forces’ superiority in battleship strength.

“The US Navy’s ships operated alongside British ships for a year without ever getting chance to engage the German fleet. Nonetheless, a close friendship grew between the US and Royal Navies from this co-operation. When King George V visited the fleet in July 1918, he welcomed the opportunity to see ‘the splendid ships of the United States in line with our own’. Additionally the British press gave the public an opportunity to appreciate the US Navy’s ‘monster’ ships in War Illustrated.”

The Commander in Chief of the American Forces in Europe, Major General John J. Pershing Some of the warships from the American Navy in WW1

The images from War Illustrated have been sourced from the War Illustrated Archive held in special collections at the University of Sheffield’s Library.

After curating the exhibition, Dr Rayner will be giving a series of talks to mark the end of the First World War Centenary. He will also be attending the remembrance service on Armistice Day on Sunday 11 November 2018 on board the USS Texas Museum in Houston.

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