The British and French governments made the arrival of American engineers their top priority after the United States joined "The Great War" in April 1917. The Americans responded quickly. By the end of August 1917, nine newly organized engineer railway regiments, recruited largely from workers on the nation's private railroads, together with the engineer regiment of the 1st Division, had crossed the Atlantic and arrived in France. Several of the railway regiments were assigned initially to British or French military formations. It was while serving with the British southwest of Cambrai, France, on September 5, 1917, that Sergeant Matthew Calderwood and Private William Branigan of the 11th Engineers were wounded by artillery fire, thus becoming the first casualties in any U.S. Army unit serving at the front in Europe.
The thousands of engineer troops that served in France in 1917 and 1918 contributed both to front-line and rear-support efforts. The combat engineers constructed bridges, roads, and narrow-gauge railroads at or immediately behind the front. The forestry troops of the 20th Engineers produced roughly 200 million feet of lumber in France. Other engineer troops enlarged French port facilities, constructed more than 20 million square feet of storage space, and built 800 miles of standard-gauge rail lines, plus an equal distance in yards and storage tracks. The technically trained engineers organized the first U.S. Army tank units and developed chemical warfare munitions and defensive equipment. So important were these pursuits that in 1918 the War Department created a separate Tank Corps and a Chemical Warfare Service, the latter headed initially by an engineer officer.
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