Top Nav

firstthreeThe First Three

Propaganda campaigns need heroes. Sadly, after America entered the Great War, it did not take long for it to receive its first martyrs.

General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, sailed to St. Nazaire, France with the 1st Division in June 1917. The soldiers of the 1st Division, later known as “Pershing’s Darlings,” were trained in trench warfare tactics and the use of 75mm French artillery guns by the French army. Five months after arriving in France in late October 1917, the U.S. Army was at the front, holding the line in Lorraine.

On November 2, 1917, the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division relieved a French regiment in a supposedly quiet section of the front. The forty-six men of the 16th Infantry’s Company F spread themselves across one hundred yards of trench, separated from the Germans by only five hundred yards of no-man’s land. They had been in the trenches only a few hours when the enemy initiated their assault on the unsuspecting Americans. At 3am on November 3, 1917, the Germans launched an attack on the top of a hill three kilometers northeast of the village of Bathelemont-les-Bauzemont, France. Over two hundred seasoned German soldiers were a part of the near hour-long “box assault” on the 16th Infantry Regiment. According to Corporal Frank Coffman of Company F, “…the Germans turned loose on our comparatively small position what the French observers afterwards declared to be the most intense bombardment they had ever witnessed. Sixteen batteries of ninety-six guns varying in size from one-pounders to six-inch, threw over in forty-five minutes, according to French estimates, several thousand shells.”

With odds of 10 to 1 in the enemy’s favor, the German artillery attack came at them from the left, right and rear of Company F’s position—cutting them off from reinforcements or retreat. The attack claimed the first American lives of the conflict. Eleven men from Company F were taken prisoner, five were left wounded, and three were killed. Those first three were Corporal James B. Gresham, Private Merle D. Hay, and Private Thomas F. Enright.

Although their deaths had occurred on November 3, 1917, the news of the first three did not reach the United States until November 5th. The death of these three men strengthened America’s tenacity. Posters using their images, like Kidder’s “The First Three” for the Red Cross War Fund Week, helped spike the sale of war bonds.

The three fallen comrades were initially buried together in France with a marker bearing the inscription, “Here lie the first soldiers of the illustrious Republic of the Unites States who fell on French soil for justice and liberty.” In the summer of 1921, Hay, Enright and Gresham were exhumed from the French cemetery and transported back to the United States.

About the First Three

Born in 1896, Private Merle D. Hay was 21 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in May of 1917. It is widely believed that Private Hay was actually the first American to die that fateful November day. Private Hoyt Decker reported seeing Merle Hay battling two German soldiers with a bayonet. He was found face down in the mud with a .45 caliber pistol in his hand. The watch that his mother had given him had stopped at 2:40 a.m.

Private Thomas Francis Enright was born on May 8, 1887 in Bloomfield, PA. He was the first child of his Irish immigrant parents born in the United States. Enright enlisted in the army in 1909 and saw action in China, the Philippines, and in Mexico in both the Vera Cruz landings and the 1916 punitive expedition in pursuit of Pancho Villa. Private Enright was killed as he resisted being taken captive.

Corporal James B. Gresham was born August 23, 1893 in McLean County, Kentucky. On April 23, 1914, he enlisted in the army having already seen service in the punitive expedition in Mexico. Corporal Gresham apparently mistook the attackers for allies and was heard shouting, “Don’t shoot, I’m an American.” According to different accounts, the German soldier either replied, “It’s Americans that we’re looking for” or “I’m shooting every damned thing in sight tonight.” He died instantly from a shot at close range at his guard post.


Keilers, John. U.S. Army Military Institute, Army Heritage and Education Center.http:/

Duncan-Clark, S.J. History’s Great War: A Pictorial Narrative. E.T. Townsend, 1918.

Connors, Michael. “The Next Page: Finding Private Enright.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 11, 2007. Accessed February 10, 2009.

Find A Grave Memorial. “Thomas Francis Enright (1887-1917).” http//

Mead, Gary. The Doughboys: America and the First World War. Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.

Vogt, Michael W. “Private Merle D. Hay Gives His Life.” Iowa Pathways. Accessed February 10, 2009.

Tri-State Homepage. “First WWI Casualty Called Evansville Home.” Accessed February 10, 2009.



144A “The First Three!” by Kidder, 1917, Red Cross, 20.5×27.5


Mead, Gary. The Doughboys: America and the First World War. Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.

Arts of the Great War Collection