First in War: World War I

During World War I, the First Division fought across France in five noteworthy battles and offensives, establishing its identity as a tough combat unit and playing an important role in the Allied victory.

Setting the Stage

Upon entering the World War I gallery-section you will see a timeline spanning from 1914 highlighting the events that put World War I in motion, to 1917 when the Big Red One deployed to France. Three soldiers—an American, Frenchman and German—in period uniforms and weapons are also interpreted in this space.

The First Division's First Battle

Turn the corner from the timeline and begin exploring one of those battles in the war-torn French village of Cantigny. Cantigny was the First Division’s initial battle and the first major American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) victory of the war. Captured by the Germans in March of 1918 the First Division was ordered to take it back, which it did in May of 1918.


Chicago Tribune owner Robert R. McCormick served in the First Division, and at the Battle of Cantigny, and was so impacted by his service that he renamed his family estate Cantigny, now Cantigny Park.

Exhibit Highlight: Schneider Tank

As you exit the village of Cantigny find yourself walking underneath a Schneider tank negotiating the battlefield as you enter into a section of the Allied trench and bunker network. Soon after World War I began, huge armies found themselves in battles that have been called “the race to the sea,” which evolved into a stalemate and eventual trench warfare.

Soldiers remained mired in the trenches throughout the war. Trenches were horrible places. Cramped, crowded, muddy and rat infested, they extended in vast networks for hundreds of miles across Western Europe. Soldiers lived in them for days or weeks at a time and shells fired from enemy artillery could rain down day or night. There will be plenty to learn about life in the trenches as you walk through FDM’s open-air tunnel.

Allied Battles and Offensives

Walking through the bunker you will learn about the key role the First Division played in the Allied battles and offensives. The First Division fought and helped win other tough, critical battles at Soissons, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne. By November 1918, the Allied offensive had forced the Germans to sign an armistice ending the fighting and requiring German forces to withdraw to Germany. The First Division followed and occupied Germany until after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was signed in June. You will learn about the occupational duty of the First Division until it redeployed to the U.S. in August 1919.

Latest Additions

This exhibit now interprets the contributions of women who served as nurses, Red Cross, YMCA and YWCA workers and more, and those Americans, then called, “hyphenated Americans” such as Jewish, Native, Asian, German Hispanic, Irish and/or Italian Americans, all of whom supported or served in the First Division.