Despite a lack of preparedness, the United States officially entered the Great War in April of 1917, providing support to our allies with troops which were desperately needed at the front lines.
The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), led by General Pershing, desperately needed training before they were deployed to the battlefields of France. The first wave of the AEF arrived in France by June of 1917, with their first involvement in the conflict occurring late in October 1917.
The first two companies from Reading to answer the call of duty were Company A and Company I, who left the city in late August 1917 to be stationed in France.. However, this Reading contingent did not see France until December 1917 and did not make it to the trenches until March of 1918 as part of the 42 Division (Company I).
Whatever training our boys received prior to embarking to France could have hardly prepared them for the horrors that trench warfare presented to the soldiers. The Berks History Center’s Museum collection helps to tell the story of their challenging experiences. Pictured above, these artifacts were some of the basic necessities of life in the trenches including: a complete mess kit with the name “Marks” carved into each utensil and the lid, a gas mask in a canvas bag, a gas mask container, a complete shaving kit and a trench checkers kit. Looking at each item paints a picture of life fighting in the Great War.
The first Reading casualty in the Great War occurred on November 20th, when Charles S Rissmiller, of 1321 Moss Street, who served in the field artillery with the AEF in France under General Pershing, was killed when a shell exploded near his station. When news reached his mother Clara Rissmiller at her residence at 1240 Clover Street on November 27th, Mayor Edward H Filbert ordered all flags to be flown at half mast for ten days in honor of the city’s first casualty.
Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.