The Bridge of Ships

“Well here we are; I suppose you will say where? Im sorry but Im afraid it will be going against orders to mention it in this letter. I can say one thing though and I mean every word of it. Im feeling great. In fact I never felt better in my life. Ever since I last saw you Ive been feeling the same. All the boys are in the best of spirits.” Letter from Sam Avery, 10/12/17

The Great War of 1914-1918 involved a magnitude of sea warfare not seen for a century and which introduced the first widespread use of submarines as a new strategic weapon focused on the destruction of enemy commerce.  After formally declaring war with Germany in April 1917, the United States was challenged with organizing the greatest sea lift of soldiers and supplies in history up until that time in order to effectively fight in Europe. Never before had American military might been projected so far from home for so long and on such a scale.

The Department of the Navy took primary responsibility for organizing the overseas troop transport known at the “Bridge of Ships” which was accomplished by assembling a large collection of passenger liners, borrowed British ships and seized enemy vessels to help carry more than 2 million men and 7.5 million tons of cargo across the Atlantic. A massive domestic shipbuilding effort by the Emergency Fleet Corporation also produced nearly 1 million tons of new ships to replenish losses at sea.

Noank, Connecticut Shipyard 1917

Because of the constant threat of German submarines, the ships were armed and organized into convoys. The convoy system successfully protected all American shipping enroute to France, although some vessels were sunk while returning to the United States. At the end of the war, the Navy once again transported forces back to the United Status using any available ships.

As the map above illustrates, American troops embarked and sailed for France from 6 ports in the United States and 4 ports in Canada, with New York handling 75% of the men. European ports of debarkation were numerous and split the number of arriving troops between England and France. Liverpool was the busiest, handling more than 800,000 troops. Sam’s journey took him from Hoboken, New Jersey to Halifax, Nova Scotia to Liverpool, England and then finally to Le Havre, France.

Somewhere At Sea: Fleet Enroute to France

The voyage up the coast to Halifax where the convoy assembled on September 29 was uneventful. The convoy numbered 9 or 10 ships and began sailing eastward after dark on September 30 in order to conceal its departure. No submarines were encountered during the 9 day voyage across the North Atlantic, and on October 7 the convoy was met by a flotilla of submarine chasers from England which guided and guarded the way into Liverpool. Landfall was sighted on October 8 and the convoy passed the lighthouse at the mouth of Liverpool Harbor at mid-day on October 9. The 103rd troops including the 1st and 2nd Battalions and Headquarters completed debarkation at Liverpool by October 10 and then entrained for Bordon.

U.S. Troops on the Docks at Liverpool

The train trip from Liverpool to Bordon was made in passenger coaches with  the troops going into Oxney Camp, Bordon Haunts near Kingsley where they were billeted in tents. The customary English weather was bad, consisting of rain and mud. In addition, the rationing of food and housing was difficult during this interim period on the move. The troops then traveled again by rail to Southampton where Sam Avery and Hdq. Co. crossed the English Channel on the night of October 20 aboard fast channel boats to Le Havre, France. At Le Havre were located large British Army rest camps and also prison camps where Sam had his first glimpse of the enemy. The American troops spent less than 24 hours at Le Havre; each unit moved out the night following its arrival on French troop trains pulling boxcars that accomodated 8 horses or 40 men {Cheveau 8/Hommes 40}. This train trip lasted 1 1/2 days, terminating at Liffol-le-Grand which was reached on the second morning after leaving Le Havre.

S.S. Saxonia

First Sergeant Sam Avery and men of the 103rd Infantry including Headquarters Company made passage “Over There” on the Cunard Line’s S.S. Saxonia which was a twin-screw 14,281 ton ship featuring one funnel and four masts, capable of speeds up to 15 knots. Built by John Brown & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, she was launched in 1899 and owned by the Cunard Steamship Co. On board were accomodations for 164 1st Class, 200 2nd Class and 1,600 3rd Class passengers.

In 1914 the S.S. Saxonia served as a Canadian Government Transport and also as a prisoner-of-war ship at London from 1914-15. She returned to commercial service in March, 1917 and had made three voyages from Liverpool to New York when she was contracted to carry American troops to Europe in September, 1917. After the Armistice, the S.S. Saxonia continued in commercial service until she was finally scrapped in 1925.

U.S.S. America

Private First Class Sam Avery and 7,2oo other officers and men of the 26th Division made passage from Brest, France back to the United States aboard the U.S. Navy’s troop transport USS America (ID-3006), returning to the Port of Boston in early April, 1919. The America had been originally launched in 1905 as the S.S. Amerika and was operated by the Hamburg America Line of Germany as a passenger liner between Hamburg and New York. In April, 1912 the Amerika had telegraphed wireless messages about icebergs in the same area where RMS Titanic would strike one and sink less than 24 hours later.

Upon the entry of the United States into the war, the S.S. Amerika was seized at the Port of Boston and placed under control of the United States Shipping Board before being transferred to the U.S. Navy for use as a troop transport. While in service for the U.S. Navy, the America transported nearly 40,000 troops to France. After the Armistice, the America returned more than 50,000 troops back home from Europe. In 1920 the America was assigned to the United States Mail Steamship Comany, and later to the United States Lines, for which she sailed the North Atlantic once again as a passenger liner from Bremen to New York. She was finally scrapped in 1957 after seeing final service as an American transport ship during World War II.

Read Soldier’s Mail from Somewhere at Sea here.


Ship Builder’s Badge, 1918

Published on September 19, 2008 at 4:38 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You are performing a service by making this information public. I would hope that people not only get information from it, but also an understanding of war.

  2. A great help with a history paper at CGSC! The information about logistics is invaluable!!

  3. Hi Major:
    Thanks so much for your service. I’m glad to hear I could be of help. If you need any specific source citations please let me know & I will get them to you. Some of the sources on the Bibliography Page were hard to track down.

    Best Regards,

  4. My father, Pvt. John Nill Troxell, arrived in Liverpool in October of 1917. He was scheduled to sail from America on the HMS Otronto (which ran aground and sunk in northern England) but was put on the next ship after the Otronto sailed from America. How can I find the name of his troop ship?
    Thanks for your good work, Richard Troxell

  5. Hi World War 1 letters,
    I hope you can help me, I would like to use the image you have on your page entitled ‘US troops on the docks at Liverpool’ in an exhibition – could someone contact me asap to discuss this please?

    thank you

  6. Hello
    Great site – I am currently looking into the American troops who passed through here in Liverpool during WWI. Do you have any further information? Where did you get the image of troops on the docks at Liverpool?
    best wishes

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