History of the First Infantry Division

History of the 1st Infantry Division

The Fighting First

Colonel Robert R. McCormick, benefactor of the McCormick Foundation, Cantigny and the First Division Museum at Cantigny, was a World War I veteran of the First Division, today’s 1st Infantry Division, of the US Army. No institution save the Chicago Tribune was dearer to him.

Organized on June 8, 1917, for duty on the Western Front in World War I, this first permanent division in the regular Army has seen action in all American wars since 1917, except the Korean, and has performed magnificently in all of its service. Often the first unit of the Army to deploy and engage the enemy, the division has been characterized by an ability to learn systematically from experience and to distill this learning into techniques and methods to improve battlefield performance. Central to this learning has been the training of soldiers and the development of competent leaders at all levels. In the process the “Big Red One” (so called for the red numeral that has adorned its shoulder patch since 1918) has also been characterized by a remarkable esprit that has remained with the veterans long after their active service has ended. That human experience is an important part of the American national experience. The 1st Division’s contributions to this nation’s defense offer insights into the history of the Army and the United States.

Start your journey through the history of America’s most storied division—the Big Red One (or BRO, as it is also known). Follow along from World War I to the modern day. The men and women who served are our grandfathers, our fathers, our sons, our brothers, our sisters and our daughters. They come from all walks of life to do their duty for their country. Their story is the 1st Division’s story, and the 1st Division’s story is America’s story. The story of the Big Red One is our story.

History of the 1st Division

World War I

1917-1918: The 1st Infantry Division was literally America’s first division.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, it had no divisions. President Woodrow Wilson promised the Allies he would send “a division” to France immediately. Four infantry regiments (16th, 18th, 26th and 28th) and three artillery regiments (5th, 6th and 7th) were ordered from the Mexican border in Texas to Hoboken, NJ, to board transports for France. On June 8, 1917, Brigadier General William Sibert assumed command of them as the “First Expeditionary Division.” Organized as a “square” division of more than 28,000 men, the First Division was twice the size of either the Allied or German divisions on the Western Front.

The First Division won the first American victory in World War I at the Battle of Cantigny. Cantigny is a small village north of Paris, in the Picardy region of France. Held by the German Army, Cantigny formed a dangerous salient in the Allied lines. On May 28, 1918, the First Division attacked and defeated the German forces in the village and held it against repeated German counterattacks, despite suffering more than 1,000 casualties. The success raised the Allies’ morale, convinced the British and French that the Americans were capable of operating in independent fighting units, and disproved German propaganda about American incapacity. Cantigny also was the first significant use of modern, combined arms operations by the US Army. The division was supported by French air units, flame thrower teams, tanks and artillery. After the Battle of Cantigny, the First Division participated in the major battles of Soissons, St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. From May 1918 to the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the First Division suffered more than 20,000 casualties, including killed, wounded and missing. With commanders such as MG William Sibert, MG Robert L. Bullard and MG Charles P. Summerall, the First Division established a reputation for excellence and esprit de corps.

History of the 1st Division

Interwar Years

1918-1941: The Division was one of only four retained on active duty between 1919 and 1940.

After the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, the First Division led the American Army of Occupation across the Rhine River into Germany. Now known as the Big Red One from its distinctive shoulder patch, the Division occupied a bridgehead at Coblenz, Germany. In 1919 at Coblenz, the First Division soldiers established the Society of the First Division. The Society thrives today and hosts annual reunions of member First Division veterans. In the fall of 1919, the Division was the last American combat unit to return to the United States, where it marched in victory parades in New York City and Washington, DC.

The Division was one of only four retained on active duty between 1919 and 1940. Its headquarters was on Governor’s Island in New York harbor with the 16th Infantry Regiment. Its other units were scattered along the East Coast. In 1939, as war raged in Europe, the Big Red One was re-organized as a “triangular division” of three infantry regiments (the 16th, 18th and 26th) and redesignated as the 1st Infantry Division. It was the first Army division to undergo amphibious training.

History of the 1st Division

World War II

1941-1945: America entered World War II on December 7, 1941.

Commanded by MG Terry de la Mesa Allen, the 1st Division was the first American division sent to Europe, arriving in Great Britain in July 1942. The Big Red One led the invasion of French North Africa near Oran, Algeria, on November 8, 1942. Dispersed among British units as they fought their way east across Algeria into Tunisia, the Division learned hard lessons in combat against the Germans at the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Re-assembled under Allen’s command, the Big Red One scored the first American defeat of a German unit, the 10th Panzer Division, at the Battle of El Guettar in 1943. The division had become a battle-hardened unit.

On July 10, 1943, the 1st Infantry Division participated in its second amphibious operation during the invasion of Sicily. 7th Army commander Lieutenant General George S. Patton had declared, “I want those sons-of-bitches. I won’t go without them!” Backed by naval gunfire, the division beat back assaults on their beach head by Italian formations and then the German Hermann Goering Panzer Division. The division fought across the center of Sicily to confront the Germans at the Battle of Troina. Private James W. Reese became the first division soldier of the war to earn the Medal of Honor.

After the liberation of Sicily, General Eisenhower selected the 1st Infantry Division for Operation Overlord, the cross-channel invasion of France. MG Clarence R. Huebner, who had served with the division in World War I, became the new commanding general. He instituted a rigorous training regimen to prepare the division for its greatest challenge so far.

The 1st Infantry Division returned to Great Britain in November 1943. Reinforced with two regiments of the 29th Infantry Division, the 1st Division led Force O in the assault on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. It encountered a hailstorm of intense fire from the German defenses. Through incredible acts of individual bravery, initiative and leadership, the 1st Infantry Division overcame the enemy forces and penetrated well inland. The division then fought through the hedgerows of Normandy, fought through the breakout and fought through the rapid Allied advance across northern France against the retreating German Army.

By September 1944, the 1st Infantry Division had reached the German frontier and breached the vaunted Siegfried Line. The division then led the attack to isolate and seize the city of Aachen, the first German city to fall to the Allied armies. The Fighting First faced equally tough combat in the dark Huertgen Forest, the frozen winter wastelands holding the northern shoulder at Butgenbach, Belgium; in the Battle of the Bulge; and the final push into and across central Germany.

By the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945, the 1st Infantry Division had reached Czechoslovakia, where it liberated a Nazi labor camp at Falkenau. The Big Red One was a veteran of three amphibious assaults in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. It had fought in deserts, mountains, plains and cities, in extreme heat and cold, against every kind of opponent. With 16 Medal of Honor recipients, the Fighting First ended the war with a record unequalled by any other American division.

History of the 1st Division

Early Cold War

1945-1965: The 1st Infantry Division was the only American combat force in occupied Germany until 1950.

With the Army’s demobilization after World War II, the 1st Infantry Division was the only American combat force in occupied Germany until 1950. It provided a stabilizing influence for the rebuilding of Germany and held the line against any possible Soviet threat to Western Europe. The Big Red One stayed in Germany until 1955, when it was the first division rotated back to the United States in Operation Gyroscope. The division made its new base at Fort Riley, Kansas. It remained there for ten years, reorganizing first as a “Pentomic” division and then a three-brigade “ROAD” division more like the “Triangular” structure of World War II.

History of the 1st Division


1965-1970: The 1st Infantry Division was one of the first two divisions sent to defend the Republic of Vietnam in 1965.

For five years the Big Red One fought main force Viet Cong (VC) and regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in the jungles northwest of Saigon. It suppressed enemy infiltration along the Highway 13 corridor to Cambodia and sought to clear the enemy from its bases in the heavy jungle of the Iron Triangle and near the Michelin Plantation. The Division made innovative use of air mobile operations, fire bases, combined arms operations and civic action. It helped take the fight back to the enemy in the wake of the 1968 Tet Offensive, an intense combat environment in which even the commanding general would be a casualty. On September 13, 1968, division commanding general MG Keith L. Ware and his aides were killed in action when their helicopter was shot down near Loc Ninh. With the 1969 policy of pacification and Vietnamization, the 1st Infantry Division returned to the United States in 1970 to its former home at Fort Riley, Kansas.

History of the 1st Division

Late Cold War

1970-1991: From 1970 to 1991, the 1st Infantry Division remained at Ft. Riley as a mechanized infantry division. 

Its third brigade was stationed in West Germany as the 1st Infantry Division (Forward). These components participated in an incredibly demanding transformation of the Army—from a draft to a volunteer army, and then through several evolutions of doctrinal, training and equipment modernization. The Big Red One was first to send a brigade to train at the new National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. The division and division (Forward) participated annually in REFORGER, the biggest deployment and maneuver exercise in Europe. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Fighting First soldiers knew that they had played a critical role in ending the gravest sustained threat to American security in its history.

History of the 1st Division

Desert Shield/Storm

1990-1991: Under the command of MG Thomas Rhame, the 1st Infantry Division (Mech) deployed over 12,000 troops.

In response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, an American-led coalition assembled its forces in Saudi Arabia in Operation Desert Shield. Under the command of MG Thomas Rhame, the 1st Infantry Division (Mech) deployed over 12,000 troops. On February 24, 1991, the Big Red One was the spearhead that pierced the Iraqi defenses. This action allowed the Coalition armored forces to penetrate deep into Iraq and cut off the escape route of the fleeing Iraqi army. In 100 hours of ground combat, the Division destroyed more than 500 tanks and captured more than 11,400 Iraqi prisoners or war.

History of the 1st Division


1991-1996: On March 8th, 1991, the 1st Division (Forward) was deactivated.

Later that year the entire division returned to Fort Riley. By the spring of 1996, however, as part of a post-Cold War reorganization of the Army, the 1st Infantry Division headquarters and two brigades were transferred from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Wurzburg, Germany, while the third brigade remained at Fort Riley.

History of the 1st Division

The Balkans

1996-1997: The Big Red One played a major role in the stabilization of war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In the late 1990s, the 1st Infantry Division took on the new challenge of peace-keeping under the sequential commands of Major Generals Montgomery Meigs, David Grange and John Abizaid. The Big Red One played a major role in the stabilization of war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. On November 10, 1996, the division took command of Task Force Eagle there. Its mission was to cover the safe withdrawal of the 1st Armor Division back to Germany and to enforce the Dayton Accords. The Big Red One, in turn, handed Task Force Eagle back to the returning 1st Armored Division on October 22, 1997.

1999-2000: The 1st Infantry Division became part of Task Force Sabre in Macedonia.

In 1999, the 1st Infantry Division became part of Task Force Sabre in Macedonia, and then deployed to Kosovo as part of Task Force Falcon. There, the Division established Base Camps Monteith and Bondsteel, both named after 1st Infantry Division Medal of Honor recipients. In June 2000, the Big Red One handed over its responsibilities to the 1st Armored Division and returned to Germany.

History of the 1st Division

War on Terror

2003-2006: For nearly 100 years, in many missions all over the world, the 1st Division and its soldiers have remained true to their motto.

In January 2003, the 1st Division formed Headquarters, Armed Forces-Turkey to prepare a route through Turkey into northern Iraq for the 4th Infantry Division. When Turkey denied access to US troops, ARFOR-T closed down. The 4th Infantry Division entered Iraq through Kuwait, but the preparations had diverted the attention of the Iraqi regime.

In April 2003, Task Force 1-63 Armor of the Big Red One was airlifted into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in the largest combat airlift of heavy armor forces in Army history. Attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 1-63 Armor secured the northern oilfields and assisted the local Kurdish forces. This Big Red One unit returned to Germany in February 2004.

In September 2003, the 1st Brigade Combat Team deployed to Iraq. This Fighting First unit was first attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, and then to the 1st Marine Division. The 1st Brigade Combat Team conducted combat operations in the Sunni Triangle, trained Iraqi National Guard forces and secured and supported many civil aid projects. The 1st Brigade returned to Fort Riley in September 2004.

In February 2004, the 1st Infantry Division arrived in Iraq from Germany as Task Force Danger. Composed of division headquarters, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Brigades and support units, the 1st Infantry Division also had attached units of the 30th Brigade Combat Team (North Carolina Army National Guard) and units of the 25th Infantry Division (Light). Task Force Danger’s area of operation included the hostile Sunni Triangle. The Big Red One conducted combat operations against insurgents while training Iraqi government forces and rebuilding the local infrastructure, allowing the first free elections in Iraqi history in January, 2005. Task Force Danger returned to Germany in February 2005.

In August, 2006, the Big Red One returned again to Fort Riley, where it has a threefold mission: to complete its transformation to the Army’s new modular structure based on brigade combat teams; to deploy components to Operation Iraqi Freedom; and to train all transition training teams being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq to train the indigenous security forces of those new democracies.

For nearly 100 years, in many missions all over the world, the 1st Division and its soldiers have remained true to their motto:

“No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great – Duty First!”