Robert Howard Gamble was born January 17, 1893 in Narberth, Pennsylvania, into a family which had contributed soldiers and officers to every war in America's history. Twenty-five years later, early in the morning of September 12, 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Robert Gamble would end his life charging a German machine-gun in the American attack at St. Mihiel. It was two months before the armistice concluding the War to End All Wars.
Gamble was an energetic, frolicsome youth. His great-niece recounted that as a teenager he often climbed a tree in the Gamble's Haverford, Pennsylvania backyard, to sneak a cigar. When his mother caught him, Mrs. Gamble used to scold her six foot three inch son: "you'll stunt your growth."
Gamble went to prep school at Andover where he was in the K.O.A. Society. He is listed as an alumnus of the Andover class of 1911, but actually left in 1910 with his studies incomplete, to enroll at Yale.
At Yale Gamble played on the soccer team all four years. His senior year his teammates voted him Captain. He was a member of Alpha Delta Phi, and evidently enjoyed fraternity life a little too much since he neglected his studies and lingered on the verge of expulsion.
His father Dr. Gamble called the President of the Philadelphia Gas Company, and asked for the toughest, most horrific summer job the company had. Dr. Gamble said he intended that his son would "learn what it is like to earn a living." Young Robert spent that summer humping radiators on his back, selling them door-to-door in Kensington, a stultifyingly hot, smelly, dangerous, remote section of Philadelphia.
The first evening Robert arrived home sweaty and exhausted and collapsed in a chair unable to speak, just as his mother came flowing downstairs, dressed for dinner.
"You will stand up when your mother enters the room," commanded his father, "And you will make conversation with her. You should ask what kind of day she's had."
The next semester Robert's performance at Yale improved considerably.
After graduation Gamble spent a summer in training at the Plattsburg Military Camp. Then he took a job in the freight office of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
After America's declaration of war in the Spring of 1917, on August 27, 1917 Gamble enlisted and entered Officers' Training Camp at Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. Upon completion of the course he was offered the choice of a billet as a 1st Lieutenant in the National Army, or as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Regular Army. He chose the latter expecting it would get him to France sooner.
Robert H.Gamble is listed in the Official History of the Fifth Division (from which much of the following chronology is drawn) as having joined Company A of the11th Infantry, 10th Brigade, 5th Division,U.S. Expeditionary Forces, in December 1917. It indicates he served with the Division at Anould, St. Die, and finally in the St. Mihiel Operation.
The Division began forming in November 1917 as part of an urgent military build-up precipitated by what writer James Hallas called "President Wilson's three years of hand-wringing neutrality and neglect of the nation's military."
On April 1, 1918 the Division was ordered to Europe. Lieutenant Gamble's 11th Infantry regiment sailed for Liverpool. According to the Division History "England was wild over American troops and hailed them unreservedly as the coming saviors of the Allied cause." By train they crossed to Southampton and from there "the rough Channel crossing was made to Le Havre."
The 11th Infantry arrived in France May 8th. "The atmosphere of France was a shock after the cheer of England. Everyone wore the funeral-air. Those days of April and May were grave and menacing to the French, for the Germans had launched their last great offensive that was to win or lose the war."
As each unit arrived, immediately they began intensive training in trench warfare under French instructors. Training was interrupted on May 18th, when the11th Infantry assembled on a field near Soulaines to receive the gift of its regimental standard. The Marquis de Dompiere, a descendent of the Duc de Rochambeau who fought in the American Revolutionary War (along with one of Gamble's forebears) gave a speech. The 11th Infantry received its official standard bearing the inscription "From the sons of the French champions of American liberty to the American champions for France and Humanity."
After an inspection in late May by General Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, the 5th Division was declared ready for the front.
Their first assignment was the Anould sector near Vosges, where the "only activities were patrolling and raiding by the infantry and occasional harassing fire by the artillery." Combat groups were amalgamated half French, half American. The trenches were settled and permanent, concrete reinforced, and pocked with deep subterranean dugout shelters. Positions had been stationary so long that "the camouflage was that of nature: observation posts, battery positions and machine gun nests were overgrown and hidden by moss, vines, and bushes." Each side had mapped out exactly the location of the others' roads and trenches and if any activity showed they "were promptly subjected to heavy shelling." Here the 5th Division took their first casualties when German artillery killed private Joseph Kanieski and wounded Captain M.W. Clark.
A picture from this time shows a grinning Lt. Gamble in front of his dugout with his gas mask hanging around his neck, standing jauntily propped against a cane whittled with a viper spiraling toward the handle.
Discovering that there were new and presumably gullible troops in the area, the Germans bombarded the Americans with propaganda. It had no discernible effect. According to the Division History "several weeks' occupation of the trenches, with constant patrolling of No Man's Land and frequent sharp encounters with the enemy, benefited the Division. The men had developed esprit-de-corps and their morale was high."
Lt. Gamble's letters home about this time indicate a cheerful self-confidence. On July 8, 1918 he penciled a note reassuring his mother that things were quiet, and that with little to do he was getting the opportunity to learn "the habits and worth of each one of my men." "It doesn't take long here," he said. He also reported that he wasn't getting much sleep in his dugout, not because of the Germans but because of nightly raids on his supply of bacon, by rats.
On July 11th 1918 Lt. Gamble described duty in the trenches in another letter to his sister Eleanor Gamble [James] known affectionately as "Nell:"
There isn't a bit more news of interest to write about from here--because I have been located in this little two by four dugout for the last ten days and haven't seen anything of the world except a glimpse now and then of the sky through the trees. I'm awake all night and get what sleep I can during the day time which often isn't very much. We have had fine weather up until yesterday when it started in to rain and has been raining ever since in such a way that it doesn't look like it knows how to stop. The result is everything is full of mud and we are all pretty well soaked. [After commenting on a spate of weddings back home, Lt. Gamble's letter teases]: "[y]ou needn't fear about me and les belles filles over here as I haven't seen one for over a month and don't expect to anymore because from now on as I think we will be in parts where they don't dwell for the rest of our time. There is one over in America that I think a great deal of and one of these days I will tell you all about her. Now don't get excited because there isn't any cause to and you can rest assured that all the future Mrs. Rbt. G.'s will be the best in the U.S.A."
The letter also recounts a recent mission: "I don't know whether I told the family of my experience at riding horseback over here or not. Anyway one afternoon I had to ride about ten miles out and reconnoiter a road and then return and make a report. I managed to do it but you can bet I made the old nag take it easy. Because I found when he started to trot I would always be coming down as he was coming up and it wasn't too pleasant."
While an upbeat letter overall, there is a hint of somber foreboding. "Tell Dad that from time to time I am going to send back money and find that there is little use for it over here and a little goes a long way. Do whenever any comes either put it away or use it as he sees fit--first of all I want him to pay my insurance premiums out of it. I want him to do this now and also take out whatever I owe him."
Gamble's letter concludes:
Well little Nell, I see I'm getting to the bottom of this page and as paper is scarce and there isn't much news that I can write about I think I will stop. Write more often as letters from home are the most looked for and most appreciated thing a soldier in France can have. Goodness and loads of love to all the family and remember me to all the newlyweds etc.
PS. You all will probably get an avalanche of letters about this time but its just because siting alone in a dugout isn't much fun and it takes you away from present conditions RHG
After they were relieved at Vosges the 5th Division was next ordered to St. Die with the 11th Infantry Regiment sent to Ban-de-Sapt. Here, on August 17th their first attack occurred, against a German salient (bulge in the lines) at Frapelle. H-hour was 4:00a.m. The Division History suggests "[e]vidently the enemy was prepared for the attack, for his counter-barrage came down upon the departure trench at exactly 4:06a.m. and caught the second, third and fourth waves. With considerable losses the troops passed through the heavy and accurate barrage toward their objectives."
Although the American assault at Frapelle succeeded, over the next three days the Germans retaliated with a massive bombardment saturating the newly-won territory with high explosive and salvos of mustard gas. "The wooded areas, overgrown with thick underbrush and filled with depressions were drenched with fumes," and despite precautions men were gassed "when reliefs and working parties had to pass through the deep ravines and valleys leading across what had been No Man's Land, which were full of mustard gas all the time."
"Frapelle was the first operation of any kind that the Division had engaged in, and the men went through it splendidly, like veteran troops. They had advanced undaunted in the face of an intense and accurate barrage and then remained in the new positions subjected for three days and nights to constant artillery fire and continuous danger from gas. The casualties were rather severe, amounting to sixteen percent of the troops engaged."
The Germans who had previously viewed the raw American troops with skepticism, paid them the compliment of nicknaming them "Teufelhunden" [Devil-dogs].