Looking over the playing fields at Fort Niagara State Park, it is hard to imagine that 100 years ago those fields were used for a different purpose: training young New Yorkers headed off to the ‘Great War.’
In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, ending 2-1/2 years of neutrality. This was not an easy decision for President Wilson, but many factors influenced his decision. There was unrest in Russia and German U-boats were indiscriminately sinking US merchant ships. In addition, it was discovered that Germany had secretly offered to help Mexico recover land lost during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) if Mexico would ally with Germany and declare war on the United States (Mexico did not take up this offer). With all this in mind, Wilson declared war on Germany.
When war was declared, the United States was not ready. The Army was small, with under 100,000 professionally trained soldiers, many of whom had never been on the battlefield. Sixteen nations had armies larger than the United States. With the declaration, the Army needed both enlisted men and officers to help defend United States’ interests and allies France, Belgium, and Great Britain.
As the United States inched towards war, Army officials were looking for places to train officers through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). One of the places that was chosen to train officers was Fort Niagara, an army training post at the mouth of the Niagara River in Youngstown, New York. When Wilson declared war, Fort Niagara was training troops headed to Panama or to minor conflicts along the Mexican border.
The Army planned two ROTC trainings at Fort Niagara in 1917, one from May through August, and the second from August through November. Each session would train men on field sanitation and hygiene, care of arms and equipment, drilling, military courtesies, and the realities of trench warfare. The chief training officer was Colonel John W. Heavey.
Because housing for the trainees was in short supply, the camp quartermaster hired day laborers to build nine 20’ x 300’ barracks and four mess halls during the month of April. The buildings were completed before the first class of ROTC trainees arrived. Telephone and electrical systems were also installed throughout the training facilities in April.
The first officer class consisted of 2,500 young men from Pennsylvania, including some from wealthy Philadelphia families. Local newspapers noted that a few of the officer candidates “know more about the different brands of face powder than they do about gunpowder.”
The second class consisted primarily of New Yorkers, many of which were from Buffalo. These “typical Americans, clean-cut, upstanding fellows, the kind that make fighters” were lucky enough to have a concert by Nora Bayes (Eleanora Sara Goldberg) just after their training started. Ms. Bayes was a popular actress, singer, and comedian of the time who co-wrote Shine on, Harvest Moon with her husband Jack Norworth.
Bayes’ concert was a brief reprieve from the daily 16-hour training. Each day the trainees had inspections, signal practice, mapmaking, long marches, mock battles and marksmanship, and trench construction. The trenches were dug on the Fort Niagara Beach. Military ceremonies marked the end of the training, with the ‘graduates’ learning which regiment they were assigned in the American Expeditionary Forces. American Expeditionary Forces troops were also known as ‘doughboys.’
After the second ROTC training, the fort became training grounds for 1,772 Polish-American soldiers who were part of the Polish Blue Army. They trained at Fort Niagara from December 1917 through February 1918 before joining the Western Front.
After the war, Fort Niagara served as the home of the US Army 28th Infantry Regiment until the regiment was relocated to Fort Jackson, South Carolina in 1940.
Blog adapted from: Emerson, Robert, Clean Cut, Upstanding Fellows: Fort Niagara’s ROTC Training Camps, 1917 March 2017 Fortress Niagara, p 5 – 15.
Wikipedia United States in World War I
Buffalo Evening News, September 25, 1917
Special thanks to the staff at Old Fort Niagara for their assistance with this post.