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Elements of the First Infantry Division come ashore at Omaha Beach.
First Division Museum

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The history behind Call of Duty: WWII

The story of the United States’ oldest infantry division

Sledgehammer Games’ Call of Duty: WWII is out today and reviews and impressions are already starting to drift in. The game is a return to a setting that made the franchise famous and one that it hasn’t visited in nearly a decade. But this isn’t just another opportunity to tell old war stories starring “the greatest generation.” There is an added layer of responsibility here, embedded deep within the game’s narrative.

Call of Duty: WWII is told from the perspective of a young enlisted man in the United States Army’s First Infantry Division, an active duty unit that turns 100 this year.

That means the First Division is our nation’s oldest infantry division. It is both the precursor to and the model for every infantry division that our nation has put in the field since the turn of the last century. Its troops have served continuously since World War I, and are actively serving in theaters around the world today.

The seriousness necessary to tell part of the First Division’s history was on display when I spoke with Sledgehammer at this year’s E3 in Los Angeles.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Tolga Kart, the senior development director on the game’s single-player campaign. “Somebody asked me before if that’s a blessing or a curse. It’s a blessing, in that we get to touch the lives of millions of players who haven’t been exposed to this before.”

To find out more, Polygon reached out to Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Ill., a unique facility nestled in Chicago’s sleepy western suburbs. Notably, it’s the estate of the late Robert R. McCormick, a retired Colonel in the First Division and the architect of the Chicago Tribune’s media empire. Cantigny is also home to the First Division Museum.

We spoke to Dr. Paul H. Herbert, executive director at the museum and himself a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, to discuss the history of The Big Red One.

A large green tank behind a spray dark red fall leaves. It’s named Snoopy, and a profile of Charles Shultz’s iconic character is painted on the side of the turret.
The M48 Patton main battle tank, from the First Infantry Division’s Cold War era. One of 11 vehicles in the First Division Museum’s tank garden at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Ill.
First Division Museum

Paradigm shift

“A division is a thoroughly modern concept,” Herbert told Polygon. “It's a 20th century military concept, and one that has survived into the 21st century, and it reflects the industrial revolution of the 20th century.”

Prior to the creation of the First Infantry Division in June, 1917, the U.S. Army was divided into regiments. These were groups of about 1,000 men each, armed mostly with rifles and supplemented with cavalry troops on horseback. Command and control was established in an almost medieval fashion, with flags and trumpets ringing out to tell those troops where to go.

The First Infantry Division, by contrast, was far larger. At its inception it had more than 18,000 men. But, apart from its size, it structure itself was unique.

The First Division was the U.S. Army’s first, true “combined arms” force. At its core were thousands of traditional infantrymen, but fighting alongside them was a dedicated artillery support element, an air support element, a communications and a transportation element.

For the first time in its history, the U.S. Army put under the command of a single officer everything needed to conduct modern warfare autonomously. The challenge was getting a fighting force that large working together, often across long distances and beyond the range of a trumpet’s blast.

“The fundamental challenge,” Herbert said, “is that you're trying to synchronize how the infantry regiments interact with the artillery regiments.”

In WWI, canons were no longer “direct fire” weapons. Artillery pieces of the day had such a long range that crews no longer needed to be able to see the enemy they were firing at. Instead, howitzers and other large guns were placed further back, behind the main lines, where they lobbed massive volleys at the enemy in order to soften them up in advance of an infantry charge. It was an entirely new way of fighting, and coordination and timing were key.

American troops, led by an officer, go “over the top” with a French tank in support behind them.
Members of the 26th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division training with French tanks in Breteuil, France. Known as the “Blue Spaders,” the 26th was Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s unit during World War I and played a key role in the Battle of Cantigny. Photo taken on May 11, 1918.
First Division Museum

Over the top

The First Division’s first test came on May 28, 1918 near the small town of Cantigny, France.

“I often tell modern officers to look closely at this first battle in the history of the division,” Herbert said, “You can actually look at the orders given to the First Division. If you were to hand that document to an Army officer today, they would look at it and understand it exactly. I think if you handed it to [Civil War general] Ulysses S. Grant, he'd be very perplexed. He wouldn't know exactly what you were talking about.”

At the Battle of Cantigny, a German force had occupied a small hill and was using it as an observation post to spot allied troop concentrations. An artillery group attached to the First Division was able to maneuver into position and bombard the German guns, driving them off. With those guns silenced, U.S. infantrymen made the final assault behind a rolling barrage of artillery fire carefully timed to keep pace with their advance. Once they overtook the German position, the Americans were able to fight off multiple counterattacks with the support of additional French artillery, aircraft and armored support.

It was a relatively small battle, to be sure, but it proved to their European allies that the Americans knew how to fight.

“Put yourself in the shoes of the officers planning it,” Herbert said. “All that stuff — the tanks, the airplanes, the machine guns — that is the dazzling, high-technology of their time. It is as unfamiliar to them as nanotechnologies and cyberwar and all of those sorts of things are to the current generation of officers. It's really a watershed moment.

“And the division fights well. It succeeds at Cantigny and it succeeds in the rest of its battles in World War I, as do the other 48 divisions we sent to France.”

Herbert pointed to many prominent figures in the First Division from this time. Among them is Robert Bullard, the unit’s second commanding general and its leader during the battle at Cantigny. Below him was a brilliant operations officer named George C. Marshall, who would go on to be the chief of staff of the U.S. Army and the architect of the Marshall Plan which was instrumental in rebuilding Europe after World War II.

Another influential commander in the First Division at the time was Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt Jr., son of the original “Rough Rider” — president Theodore Roosevelt. Herbert describes him as a man with true affection for those who served under him.

It was Roosevelt Jr. who commanded the First Division’s 26th Infantry Regiment at Cantigny, and who helped to repulse the first of several German counterattacks that day in 1918.

It would be the same Roosevelt Jr. who would rejoin the First Division at the outset of WWII.

Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and his command vehicle, a jeep nick named “Rough Rider.” This photograph was taken in Italy, Jan. 1944.
First Division Museum

Torch, Husky and Overlord

When the First Infantry Division was sent off to fight in WWII, Herbert said that it was a dramatically more powerful fighting force. Much of that was simply due to the improvements made to weaponry since WWI. The First Division had larger artillery pieces, more machine guns and was fully motorized, meaning that every single soldier could be driven into battle. That made the First Division faster and more deadly than ever before.

Another key change was the implementation of tactical radios.

“The communications in World War I were principally via telephone,” Herbert said. “You would lay down physical wires across the battlefields, from command post to command to post ... and that's how you would coordinate. They would also use runners.

“It was very, very difficult to get information from one point to another, and it was very, very difficult to coordinate quickly, to be agile. Everything changed when the First Division went wireless.”

An excerpt from the operational orders given to the commanders of the First Infantry Division in advance of the invasion of Sicily. It includes hand-written notes. This is part of the extensive electronic catalog available as part of the digital archives at the First Division Museum.
First Division Museum

Perhaps most important of all, though, was the fact that some of the men giving the orders on those radios were the very same ones who had led the First Division in battle nearly a generation before.

“The thing that stays the same is the spirit of the division,” Herbert said. “There was enough of that memory of The Fighting First left over from World War I, embedded in [the unit]. It either physically showed up, embodied by the men who led the First Division, or it was reignited ... by the leadership that commanded the division in World War II.”

Key to the early success of the First Division was its commanding officer, two-star general Terry Allen. Herbert said he was a “cocky, colorful iconoclast of an officer.” Below him was the equally colorful one-star general Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

Under Allen and Roosevelt, the First Division was one of the very first to see combat in WWII. It played an integral part in Operation Torch (the Allied invasion of North Africa) and Operation Husky (the Allied invasion of Sicily). Herbert said that, at the time, the First Division’s combat record was so prolific and its leadership so outspoken that general Omar Bradley reportedly scoffed that “the First Division thinks that the United States Army consists of the First Division and eight million replacements.”

After Sicily, Herbert said, the First Division was handed over to general Clarence Huebner, himself a veteran of the 1918 Battle of Cantigny.

“Huebner fought with the 28th infantry regiment in World War I,” Herbert said. “He fought in all of the big battles of World War I, and all of them as part of the First Division. He is the polar opposite of Terry Allen. He is a professional soldier. Exacting. A real disciplinarian.

“He knows his business backwards and forwards. He was a non-commissioned officer for 10 years prior to World War I. He's not spit and polish, but instead he’d say, ‘Let’s train their asses off and train them some more. If they bitch, that's simply a sign of good morale. So send them back out and make them bitch some more.’”

Herbert credits Huebner’s attention to detail with the First Division’s excellent performance in the D-Day landings, where The Big Red One was first ashore at Omaha Beach.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. died of a heart attack during Operation Overlord on July 12, 1944 in Normandy, France. He is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. His headstone stands alongside 9,387 others, overlooking the very spot where the First Division landed on D-Day at Omaha Beach.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

The rest of the story

The D-Day landings and the invasion of Normandy are stories that have been told and re-told over the last 70-plus years, and play a large role in the narrative campaign of Call of Duty: WWII. But the story of the First Division doesn’t end there.

The unit fought bravely all through the Allied campaign, and was among the first to push across the Rhine river into the heart of Germany. In fact, according to Herbert, the First Division lost more men in the last four months of WWII than it did in the six months following the invasion of Normandy, including the D-Day landings and the Battle of the Bulge.

Not only was the First Division there when the European campaign started, they were also there when it ended. When the order to cease fire came on May 8, 1945, the First Division was actually in the middle of an attack.

“These guys literally walked from Omaha Beach in France all the way into Czechoslovakia,” Herbert said. “They fought every single day, with the exception of about two weeks right after a battle in the Hurtgen Forest.

“There are other divisions that could claim the same thing. Take the 101st Airborne Division. But it went in and out. Every time it fought, it went back to England and rested for a few weeks and got ready for the next parachute jump. But not the First Division.”

Late in the war, the First Division also played a key role in liberating multiple slave labor camps, freeing many prisoners from Nazis.

“On May 8, it’s a fighting force,” Herbert said. “On May 9, it's not pulling any triggers. Instead, it's trying to care for tens of thousands of displaced persons, refugees, and concentration camp victims.”

After WWII, the First Division went on to fight in Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. Its complete operational history is too long for a feature story, or even an entire book. That’s why the First Division Museum recently opened a new wing, thanks in part to a $25 million renovation of Cantigny Park. These new resources help Herbert and the rest of the staff tell the story of the modern First Division. They include a replica of a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

The newly modernized wing of the First Division Museum highlights the recent history of the unit, which is still an active force involved in combat and peacekeeping missions around the world.
First Division Museum

Part of Herbert’s mission as executive director at the First Division Museum is helping visitors understand the ongoing role of The Big Red One in the modern world. When I interviewed him in April of this year, shortly after the announcement of Call of Duty: WWII, he went out of his way to call out the various elements of the unit that were currently deployed overseas.

“Divisions today are being used completely differently than they were used in World War II, the Cold War or in Vietnam,” Herbert said. “They don't deploy as a division, but as brigade combat teams. These are smaller parts of divisions and they're farmed out to wherever they're needed around the world.

“As you and I are talking here, the headquarters of the First Infantry Division is in Baghdad, running the military assistance program to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense as the Iraqis try to take on ISIS. That's where its commanding general is, that's where his staff is and that's what they're doing. The aviation brigade of the First Infantry Division just got home last week from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan where they were doing combat air assault operations against the Taliban and ISIS on almost a daily basis.

“You could go around the world today,” Herbert said, “to almost every hot spot that's in the newspaper and stop and visit the First Infantry Division.”

So when fans of the Call of Duty franchise dig into this latest installment, they won’t just be stepping into the shoes of their grandparents and great grandparents. They’ll be taking on the role of the predecessors of modern-day troops serving their country today.

The First Division makes its home at Fort Riley, in Kansas. You can learn more at its website.

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