ST. ALBANS — On April 6, 1917 the U.S. declared war on Germany. That same day, citizens of St. Albans and neighboring towns filled the city’s streets to say good-bye to the 45 members of a local National Guard unit known as the Machine Gun Unit, 18 of whom were high school students.
Harry Webber, an Englishman who had emigrated to Vermont, was the unofficial recruiter for the unit. With most locals joining Company B, the longstanding National Guard unit headquartered at the armory, he decided St. Albans’ championship football team would be a good source of recruits.
According to a 1928 article in American Legion Monthly by Marquis James, the boys had been told that if war broke out, they would likely be sent to the Mexican border to replace regular army officers. Once there, they would patrol on motorcycles. “Every boy with a new motorcycle and the whole Mexican border to ride on. That was the ticket,” wrote James.
It wasn’t to be. The Machine Gun Unit was made part of the 26th Division, the Yankee Division, made up of National Guard units from across New England. The French called the unit the “Phalanx of Aces,” while WW I veterans referred to it as “the Sacrifice Division.”
As the name suggests, not all of those who went over with the 26th returned.
But first the Machine Gun Unit went to Fort Ethan Allen.
The average age of the unit was just 22, and its captain, Edward F. Smith, son of former Governor Edward Curtis Smith, was just 24.
Keeping all of that youthful exuberance in check was a challenge, according to James. “Their pranks had their officers in a cold sweat more than once. They appropriated the mules from the picket lines for joy rides. They marched out of the mess hall, refusing to eat… The chow, they said, was unfit for men of the line.”
While the unit was at Fort Ethan Allen, two more students from St. Albans showed up. Donald Miles, a sophomore, wanted to sign up, as did Clair Regan, who was initially refused for being underweight. “Regan made two other unavailing trips to the examiners. Before starting on a fourth trip he ate a dozen bananas and made weight,” James wrote.
Their parents sought to get the boys, who were only 14 and 15 years old, released. But the high school principal discouraged them. According to James, the principal told the parents, “I know those two boys. They will run off again. Isn’t it better to let them stay with their own crowd?”
Smith was transferred to the staff of Col. Joseph Dickman, who would himself be promoted to Major General and lead the Third Army at the Second Battle of the Marne and the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, in which the boys of the Machine Gun Unit would fight.
With Smith’s departure Lt. Joseph Evarts of St. Albans took command. He would lead the unit through some of the bloodiest battles in France and return home before succumbing to the effects of German gas attacks.
The Machine Gun Unit returned to St. Albans for three days before departing for France from Montreal. They arrived in France on Oct. 6, 1917, where French veterans began training the Americans in the harsh realities of trench warfare. Along with the rest of the 26th, the men from St. Albans joined the line of French troops at Chemin des Dames, an area that was relatively quiet.
Several battles followed, but Company D, which the St. Albans boys were part of, was not in the thick of the battle until June 16. James, a veteran himself, describes the scene as follows: “After a night of clashes between patrols, random machine gunning and miscellaneous excitement the Germans dropped a wicked barrage upon the ruins of Xivray-Marvoison [Ed. note: Xivray was a French town along the front]. Company D held a good share of Xivray-Marvoison. At the first crack of dawn, the German infantry in three parallel columns threw itself upon the Yank positions… The boy machine gunners were going to get the brunt of the attack. Captain Evarts glided from crew to crew. The guns were well set for enfilading fire. The gray German silhouettes showed through the mist and the gunners let them have it… The dead piled up before the emplacements. The attack failed.”
A year after the battle, the Messenger noted that Xivray had become known throughout St. Albans because of the number of local men who fought there.
One of those soldiers described the battle to the Messenger, stating, “The Boche tried to sneak up behind us. They were six or seven hundred strong, and had reserves behind them ready to come up… This was out in No Man’s Land since we were holding a sacrifice post, and the Germans came in formation so that one American took them in the dark for an American patrol.”
The Germans made it within 32 feet of the American line before they were detected. Once the Americans opened fire, the Germans “pulled out just as fast as they could go,” the veteran told the Messenger.
One American machine gun position was taken by the Germans, only to be retaken by the troops from St. Albans. Four local men were wounded in the process: Sgt. Leo N. Deslauriers, Sgt. Arthur Jones, Sgt. Charles Ladue, and Pvt. Harold Little.
Evarts was cited for bravery, along with Deslauriers and 13 others. Among them were five of the high school students recruited by Webber.
More than 30 local men were wounded.
Xivray may have been their first major taste of battle, but it was not their last.
The St. Albans boys, as the Messenger called them, were at the Second Battle of the Marne, the turning point in the war, where 250,000 American troops helped defeat a German attack at the cost of 30,000 American lives.
Eight St. Albans men were cited for bravery after Marne, including Clair Regan.
They would also fight at St. Mihiel and other key battles.
By Nov. 10, just 51 members of the Company D’s complement of 172 were still fighting, 18 remained of the 45 men who had departed St. Albans on April 6, 1917. Just eight of the 20 high school boys were still at the front. The rest had been wounded or killed.
Walter Finn, cited for bravery at Xivray, was killed at Ormond Farm. Eugene Laurier, who also received a citation at Xivray, was dying of wounds from a gas attack. Elmer Brackett, Clair Regan, and Leon Gennette were in the hospital with wounds.
On the morning of Nov. 11, what remained of Company D prepared for battle, but the order to attack never came. “A bare-headed lieutenant, greatly excited, ran along the front shouting not to advance as the war would be over in 30 minutes,” James wrote. “Company D thought the lieutenant was crazy. But in 30 minutes exactly, the artillery on both sides stopped, and a patch of German heads popped from the position Company D had prepared to assault. With war out of the way D Company set up a bowl for breakfast.”
Throughout the war, the Messenger followed closely the actions abroad of Company D and the Machine Gun Unit, along with other local men deployed overseas. In total, 1,076 Franklin County men joined the military during the war, 61 were killed and 88 wounded.
Many of the survivors of the Machine Gun Unit remained in St. Albans, some even recruited and trained more young men for the National Guard.
Charles E. Shannon became the foremen at the Messenger’s printing plant and Simon Godfrey a reporter.
Donald Miles, John Bushey and Eugene Finn, Harry Webber, and, of course, Edward Smith, worked for the Central Vermont Railroad.
Clair Regan became a florist.