THE HERITAGE OF THE GREAT WAR
After a fight: the 15th New York Regiment. Note the French helmets.
The 15th New York Regiment was the most famous American unit
World War I was a turning point in black American history. The small number of blacks moving out of the South after 1877 increased enormously as war industries and the decline of European immigration combined to produce demands for labor in Northern cities. The coming together of a large number of blacks in urban cities, the exposure of some blacks to European whites who did not hold the same racial attitude as American whites, and the war propaganda to make the world safe for democracy all combined to raise the hopes, dreams, and aspiration of blacks in America.
When American troops started arriving on the Western Front in France, four regiments belonging to the 93rd Division arrived ahead of their Brigade and Division staff (A WW I division consisted of two brigades each with two regiments, plus an artillery brigade) were the first to arrive. The French had been asking the United States for troops, so Gen. Pershing gave these four regiments to the French, saying that he wanted them back when the 93rd Division was formed. The French never gave them back, and the 93rd Division was never formed.
One of the units, the 369th Infantry Regiment (Harlem Hellfighters) received 11 unit citations from the French and was the first unit to reach the Rhine in 1918. The 369th Regimental Band conducted by James Reese Europe and Noble Sissle is credited with the introduction of American Jazz into Europe. For more on the exploits of the 369th see:Badger, Reid. A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe. . Little, Arthur W. From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York's Colored Volunteers. Miles, William, & Robinson, Nancy K. Men of Bronze. Video recording.
When the 369th Infantry arrived in France on New Year's Day 1918, it was the first African-American combat unit to set foot on French soil. The Regimental Band, under the direction of James Reese Europe, entertained troops and citizens in every city they visited and was received with great enthusiasm. Noble Sissle said at the time that the "Jazz germ" hit France, and it spread everywhere they went. It should be noted that these bandsmen also had to fight as Infantry since no one needed music during periods of combat. At the left members of the Hell Fighters Band pose with their battered instruments.
The British Army had been training American units as they arrived in France in 1917 and 1918, but when the 92nd Division arrived the British refused to train them. Gen Pershing protested to the British Gen. Haig, "These Negroes are American citizens. I cannot and will not discriminate against them." But to avoid making an issue of the case, the War Department scheduled the 92nd for training with the French. The French were delighted to work with the 92nd and asked to have them attached to the French Army. The War Department refused, and after training, the 92th the moved on to participate heroically in the September 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Black Jack Pershing has this to say in his book, My Experiences in the World War:
"Cables from the War Department about this time stated that the colored people were being told that Negro soldiers in France were always placed in the most dangerous positions, were being sacrificed to save white troops, and were often left on the field to die without medical attention. It was not difficult to guess the origin of this sort of propaganda. As a matter of fact, none of these troops had been in line except in quiet sectors. Those I had recently seen were in fine spirits and seemed keen for active service. The only colored combat troops in France were those of the 92d Division, then in a quiet sector in the Vosges, and the four infantry regiments of the 93d, each of which was attached to a French division. Several individuals in these units serving with the French had already received the Croix de Guerre for conduct in raids.
My earlier service with colored troops in the Regular Army had left a favorable impression on my mind. In the field on the frontier and elsewhere they were reliable and courageous, and the old 10th Cavalry (colored), with which I served in Cuba, made an enviable record there. Under capable white officers and with sufficient training, Negro soldiers have always acquitted themselves creditably. When told of these rumors, the colored troops were indignant, and later they did everything possible to counteract such false reports. It was gratifying to learn shortly afterward that Congress had passed very positive legislation against that sort of propaganda.
The following paragraph from a cable sent at the time is pertinent:
' June 20, 1918.
Exploit of two colored infantrymen some weeks ago in repelling much larger German patrol, killing and wounding several Germans and winning Croix de Guerre by their gallantry, has roused fine spirit of emulation among colored troops, all of whom are looking forward to more active service. Only regret expressed by colored troops is that they are not given more dangerous work to do. They are especially amused at the stories being circulated that the American colored troops are placed in the most dangerous positions and all are desirous of having more active service than has been permitted them so far."
Most blacks were drafted. The most single famous black unit was the 15th New York, of which it is said that it had more days up front than any other American unit. These units, most of them, had white officers.
Guthrie: Were there any black officers, including any black West Point graduates during that period?
Coffman: Yes, there were. At that point there were three regular army black line officers in the army officer corps of 5,000. One of them, Charles Young, of Lexington, was a West Pointer and a lieutenant colonel.
All three had excellent service. Benjamin O. Davis, who was a captain when we went to war, became the first black general in the American Army in 1940. During World War I, however, there was an effort to keep them out of it. Young was retired and Davis spent the war in the Philippines. None of the four black regular regiments got to France. The draftee units went and some of the National Guard units. They were formed into two divisions. One division, the 92nd, had a considerable number of black officers who had gone to the officer training camps in 1917 or who had been NCO's in the regular army. Most of the company grade officers, lieutenants and captains were black and a few were field grade in the 92nd. The 93rd never existed as a division.
The four infantry regiments served throughout the war with the French. They were simply attached to the French, wore French helmets, and had the French rations. They even had the French rifles, and they did very good service. They were decorated with the Croix de Guerre.
Pershing, who got his name "Blackjack" because of service with the 10th Cavalry, one of the black regular regiments, believed, as did virtually all whites, that black troops are good only if led by white officers. There was an incident in the Meuse Argonne where a black regiment of the 92nd Division had a difficult time. They were told they were going to attack a lightly defended area that hadn't been fortified much, which was later found not to be true. This incident was always set as an example that the blacks don't fight well.
The regiment did have real problems there, but I don't think you could say that was unique. Many of the white regiments had problems also. But that regiment's experience in the Argonne was used for years, into the 1950s, to malign blacks as combat troops.