...The Negro Soldier as a Fighter
Unanimous Praise by Military Observers---Value of Negroes as Shock Troops---Discipline and Morale Under Fire---What the War Correspondents Said About Them---Comments by Foreign Military Observers ---Estimates by American and French Officers.
The Negro has always had the record of being a good soldier. General Pershing has been quoted as to the courage and valor of the colored troops. It may be well to quote here the testimony of four other distinguished Americans as to the faithful service of colored soldiers in other wars. Commodore Perry said after the Battle of Lake Erie: "They seemed to be absolutely insensible to danger." General Jackson asserted on the occasion of the Battle of New Orleans: "You surpassed my hopes. The nation shall applaud your valor." Speaking of the Negro in the Civil War, General Grant said: "The colored troops fought nobly." Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, reporting on the record of the Negro soldiers in the Spanish-American war, said: "No troops could behave better than the colored soldiers."
The reader will have noted that Negro combat units in their fighting overseas lived up to all the traditions of their race. They distinguished themselves by bravery, fortitude, and loyalty, and the records of the regiments of which they were a part compared favorably with any of those who went overseas. Whether in Flanders, in Champagne, in the Argonne Forest, in the Vosges, on the Meuse, or before Metz, it was the old story of indomitable courage, of willingness to go forward always, no matter bow murderous the opposing fire. There was the same valor and spirit displayed by them in every action, and they saw some of the most intense and critical fighting of the war.
The Negroes went into the World War with a spirit of the true soldier. They were determined to fight it out at the earliest possible moment. Sixteen Negro soldiers passing through Defiance, Ohio, were asked whether they were going to France.
"No, sir, I am not going to France" replied one of them, "I am going to Berlin and I may stop in France for a short time on the way. "
"What we are aiming to do," said a Negro officer, "is to push our way right on into Berlin without stopping, as we promised the folks at home we would do, and we don't intend to be long about it either."
"Heaven, Hell or Hoboken"
Soldiering for the Negro was a pleasant pastime as long as there were any Germans around. They, therefore, had for their watchword that of the Black Herald: "Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken by Christmas." They soon established themselves as being cool and reliable fighters in the front line. Both Americans and French report that if the Germans ever discovered who it was that held part of the line through the Argonne Forest when the Boche failed once to get through, they would have a decidedly-high respect for the American Negro infantry.
Their fighting spirit always ran high. They seemed to fear nothing. There is a story of a Negro soldier who was found sitting pensively in a field while shells were roaring overhead like invisible midair express trains.
"What are you thinking about, Buddy? Making your will? Are you wondering why you were nut enough to enlist?"
"No," said the doughboy gloomily, "I was wondering how I was ever nut enough to let a man hold me up in Chicago last spring. He only had a thirty-two."
Upon an occasion of a Negro regiment hammering its way through the German lines the brigade commander summoned the colonel of a Negro regiment before him and demanded to know in terse military fashion, why that colonel had not maintained better control over his troops, and why, above everything else, he had not "stopped" his men and kept them from passing beyond their appointed objectives, and, in fact, hacking their way through ahead of their own protective barrage.
" Stop them? " queried the Colonel. " Stop them? Hell, man, how could you expect me to stop them, when the whole German army couldn't do it?"
Because of these unusual feats in war the Germans soon began to regard the Negroes not with mere curiosity but with unusual fear. Early in the war the German army offered a reward of 400 marks for the capture alive of each Negro as an inducement to German soldiers to overcome the great fear and terror of the Negroes. A discharged German soldier reported that one evening on the front a scouting party consisting of 10 Germans including himself encountered two French Negroes. In a fight which followed, two of the scouting party were killed. One of the Negroes escaped, the other being taken prisoner. In the fight two of the Germans left their comrades and ran to the protection of their own trenches , but these, it was explained, were young soldiers and untrained. The reward of 400 marks subsequently was divided among the remaining six Germans for capturing the Negro.
German Fear of Colored Troops
How the Germans feared the colored American soldiers is indicated by Mr. Tyler in his report of a conversation with two American aviators, Lieut. V. H. Burgin of Atlanta and Lieut. A. L. Clark of Boston. Both had been forced to descend behind the German lines and had been held as prisoners of war for two months. Writing from Brest, where these airmen were waiting for transport home, Mr. Tyler said:
"The interesting part of these intrepid American airmen's narrative of their fight, capture and imprisonment, to colored people, is that while they were captured at different points, and imprisoned at widely separated prisons, both state that when brought before the German military intelligence department and questioned as to the American force in France, one of the first questions asked of them, and which the Germans seemed most concerned about, was bow many colored troops the Americans had over here. Lieut. Burgin, of Atlanta, said he told them there were 13,000,000 American colored troops in France. He stated that this not only surprised the Germans, but appeared to depress them, 'For,' he added, 'the Germans have a holy fear of colored troops and their knives wielded with skill and dexterity.' He stated that this information made a tremendous impression on the Germans, although he admitted he did not know, at the time, how many colored troops were in France, but thought it was best to exaggerate rather than underestimate the strength of our forces when questioned by the enemy.
"Lieut. Clark, the Boston aviator, also said that the leading question put to him by the German military intelligence officers was: ,How many Negro troops have the Americans got over here? He stated that not knowing, he was frank. in telling them that he did not know, but that he believed there were several millions. He, too, stated that this information regarding the force of colored troops in France, given to the German officers who questioned him, greatly depressed them.
"It was a fact patent to every American officer and soldier who had had contact with German soldiers, that they had a mortal fear of colored soldiers. This fear had been occasioned by two things. First, before the American colored soldiers had been put on the battle front the Germans had encountered the fierce fighting Senegalese and Algerians, fighting with the French, who took no prisoners, and who were prone to cut off the ears and other parts of a German's anatomy before dispatching him into eternity. Then again, later, they had encountered the 372nd, 371st, 370th and 369th colored regiments, the first colored Americans to arrive in France, and who were brigaded and fought with the French. The Germans had learned that the American colored soldier, while not brutal like the Senegalese and Algerians, were even harder,, more scientific and more dangerous fighters. They were men who fought with precision---fought like trained veterans---were good in trench warfare, in raids, or in attack-any way they were ordered to fight, while the Senegalese and Algerians were best in attack---being dashing, whirlwind fighters in attacks, or as shock troops."
Efficiency of Colored Fighters
Major L'Esperance of the 369th regiment has borne testimony to the efficiency of his men. . Says Major L'Esperance: "The heaviest fighting was on September 26, 1918, when we went into action with twenty officers and 700 men in our battalion in the morning and at the close we bad seven officers and 150 men left. Our boys advanced steadily like seasoned veterans and never lost a foot of ground they had taken or let a prisoner escape. "
The testimony of Colonel William Hayward of the 369th has already been quoted to the same general effect. Colonel T. A. Roberts, who commanded the 370th referred to in the foregoing chapters, says: "I have been commended for the fighting qualities and general bearing of the men who were actually over the Belgian border when the Armistice was signed, and one of my battalions was the most advanced unit of the French army with which we were cooperating at the time."
As the New York Times said upon the return of these gallant soldiers from France:
"The American Negro troops in France never failed to share the glory of battle with the French, or with their white American comrades.
"In all that makes the soldier, bravery, intelligence, endurance, and, particularly, good nature under hardship and privation, the Negro soldier excels. He is never downhearted, and usually he is gay and full of humor. No American army would be complete without the familiar and historic Negro troops."
In the war of wars in which the Negro has participated it remained for the American Negro to be represented by a full division, with all the military units thereof. The band of the 350th Field Artillery Regiment appeared in Nancy for a concert, and this was the first information to reach the inhabitants that the only brigade of Negro artillery ever organized had been defending Nancy by holding the Marbache sector south of Metz. This organization came up behind the line about a month before the end of hostilities. It was so eager to get into the fray that the men drew some of the guns into position by hand. The brigade participated in the taking of Forêt de Frehaut. It was the accurate fire of these colored artillerymen which reduced the resistance and enabled the infantry to capture the position without great loss. It was said by a war correspondent at the front that if Emperor William in the weeks preceding September, 1918, had been on his historic observation post at Mount Fauson, where he saw the fighting before Verdun in 1916, he would have seen the American Negro soldiers holding a portion of the trenches in the Foret de Hesse. The unanimous opinion of French military observers, with whom four regiments of colored troops served, as well as of their commanders who have been quoted (both Northern men Southern men) was that the colored soldier met every test of service.
Rev. D. Leroy Ferguson, Chaplain in the United States Army, writing from France, is quoted as saying: "The colored soldier here is making a great record in France, and the officers and French people with whom I have talked praise his worth and work. The same bravery and courage and skill that characterized his efforts in other wars in America and Mexico are shown here in an excellent way. They are enduring the hardships and the suffering with smiles; their deportment is good; and whether it is unloading the great cargoes, digging the roads or on the firing line, the black soldier is equal to any. When the history of the war is written our soldiers will have their names written large with honors, and though here in France for victory, they all want to and expect to return to the good old U. S. A. With all her faults we love her still---our wives, our sweethearts, families and our homes. I am proud to be able to contribute something to the war. "
Comparison with European Soldiers
The European war gave colored American soldiers the first opportunity for comparison of their mettle with the best soldiers of Germany, Great Britain and France; and unanimous testimony is more or less to the effect that they were able to hold their own in courage, endurance and aggressiveness without whimper or complaint. Colored Americans are proud of the following two paragraphs which appeared in The Stars and Stripes, the organ of the American troops in France:
"The farthest north at 11 o'clock (when the armistice went into effect) on the front of the two armies was held at the extreme American left, up Sedan way, by the troops of the 77th New York Division. The farthest east---the nearest to the Rhine---was held by those New York soldiers who used to make up the 'old 15th New York' and have long been brigaded with the French. They were in Alsace and their line ran through Thann and across the railway that leads to Colmar.
"Probably the hardest fighting by any Americans in the final hour was that which engaged the troops of the 28th, 92d, 81st, and 7th Divisions of the Second American Army. It was no mild thing, that last flare of the battle, and the order to cease firing did not reach the men in the front line until the last moment, when the runners sped with it from foxhole to foxhole."
The gratifying thing is that there should be recorded in the official organ of the American Expeditionary Forces a reference to the fact that colored troops were nearest the Rhine of all American troops, as, indeed, they were later the first of all Allied troops to reach the Rhine, and that the 92d Division---their Division---was engaged "in the hardest fighting of the last hour of the war."
The Brooklyn Standard Union epitomizes in an editorial expression the general opinion which obtains as to the fighting quality of the colored American troops sent overseas to fight "for democracy" during the world war:
"Of the American Negro soldiers it has been frequently said since we have been fighting in France, that they are decidedly the most cheerful troops who have spilt blood in this war, and as highly courageous as any who have shouldered guns. This is not an exaggerated tribute, for the testimony of the Allies, and, of course of General Pershing and other white officers bears out this estimate, while the War Department at Washington has. abundant proof, in the way of records, showing the bravery of these boys.
"Some of those who recognized the extremely sociable and good natured qualities of the Negro questioned his ability as a fighter. They feared he would not stand up well in a bayonet charge, or in an advance upon singing machine guns, or where shells from the big cannon were bursting and rocking the earth. But that was a superficial view. Under his smile and ready laugh or grin the colored man has the qualities of a fighter---coolness, patience, steadfastness, optimism, pluck and, of course, courage. All these have been brought out in recent months, and honors have fallen upon him in France in a manner that is cause for national pride.
"In every department of the army, from wireless telegraphy to the sanitary squad, the Negro has played his part and played it conscientiously, and it is gratifying to know that this city has contributed a very large number of Negro fighters to the nation's army, for the percentage of volunteers here has been high. Easy to mold to the requirements of discipline, happy under any and all circumstances, he is an exemplary soldier. 'On the charge he sees red, as the fighter should, and in rest billets or even in the trench he seldom loses his cheerful outlook upon life."
French Wanted Colored Troops
Assigned to the French High Commission in the city of Washington during the war were two distinguished Frenchmen, Colonel Edouard Requin and Major L. P. DeMontal. These gentlemen often called at the office of the author to make, inquiry as to when additional combat troops were to be sent to France. They spoke in terms of gratitude of the services of the S. O. S. men but their eagerness always manifested was that the War Department should decide to send over increasingly large numbers of colored combat troops, for, as they both stated, every report that reached them from France spoke of the wonderful courage and coolness of the colored American troops, who made a wonderful impression upon the French population both civil and military and as will have been noted from the praise and commendation of high French officers, they won the respect of those military representatives of the French army. The courage of these colored American troops was always in evidence; their cool headedness and bravery under fire as well as their desire to engage in the aforesaid engagements went to demonstrate that the colored soldiers were unsurpassed as fighters. The Germans had little or no respect for the fighting ability of these soldiers until they encountered them in several hand-to-hand combats.
The Bulletin of the Armies issued by the French government after the completion of every drive in which the allied armies participated, gives some of the most amazing records of heroism in the history of wars. The Algerian and Senegalese soldiers gained favor continuously as fighters of the first rank. The records of these soldiers were heralded on the European continent as incomparable achievements of bravery, and upon every occasion when they paraded the streets preparatory to leaving for the first line trenches, storms of applause greeted them from every roadside and tavern, and upon one occasion when these black troops returned to the city of Paris, after having been engaged in a vigorous drive against the Germans at Verdun, every soldier was bedecked with a shower of flowers tendered him by French women, who wept bitterly as they viewed the wounded Negroes limp through the Paris thoroughfares.
One of the most remarkable feats recorded in the Bulletin was the work performed by a corporal of a French infantry regiment, Louis Hermitte, a Senegalese. After a German attack in December, 1917, he went out of the trench and drove back the enemy by hurling hand grenades. He dug himself into a little corner quite close to the German line and stayed there for several days. He received a military medal.
Heroism of French Negroes
The black troops of France won many honors and proved themselves unafraid of suffering. One page in the Bulletin was devoted to the mention of five cases of Algerian and Senegalese soldiers, men born in a hot climate and quite unused to frost and snow, who remained at their posts under fire and fought bravely, though all of them were terribly frostbitten---so badly in two cases that both legs had to be amputated. In two other cases the men lost a leg each. One of these men endured the agony of frostbite and of terrific German attacks for nineteen consecutive days and finally fell when his ammunition gave out. Still another, with hands and feet frozen, fought with such fury that he captured several machine guns and single handed brought back sixty German prisoners. These feats of heroism have crowned several of the men with the Croix de Guerre honors, but these honors are not received with a vainglorious boast on the part of the soldiers. It is one of the highest honors that a soldier can receive from the government.
Hard fighting in close quarters calls for a greater measure of athletic ability and superior physical strength and endurance. This the Senegalese seem to possess to a greater degree than any other allied body. In every single close battle with the German they proved themselves masters of the situation and slaughtered their opponents unmercifully. In one instance Corporal Hamilde Annonetti was badly gassed, but continued work until his lungs were overcrowded with the vapor. He was taken to the relief station and begged to go back to the firing line to finish his attack. After being temporarily relieved he escaped from the hospital and dragged himself back two miles over the bullet riddled ground and renewed his attack, killing, it is claimed, five or more Germans who were manning a machine gun. He was picked up by the ambulance corps with both legs shot away.
The high state of discipline and the morale which existed in the 92d (colored) Division was the subject of a great deal of comment from all of the allied officers who had the opportunity to view the troops who composed this command, and is attested by the remarks of General Pershing relative to discipline and morale addressed to the 92d Division at Le Mans, France, just previous to their departure for the United States, when he said:
"The 92d Division has been, without a doubt, a great success, and I desire to commend both the officers and men for the high state of discipline and the excellent morale which has existed in this command during its entire stay in France."
Brig. Gen. W. H. Hay, of the 184th Brigade, 92d Division, said:
"I have been with colored troops for 25 years, and I have never seen better soldiers than the drafted men who composed this division." Capt. Willis, of the 365th Infantry, said: "These men are the best disciplined and best saluting soldiers that I have ever seen." An officer en route between Camp Meade and Washington, D. C., on or about February 26, 1919, said, "You just have to give it to these colored troops; they have come back with the stuff; there has been absolutely no slump in their discipline and saluting, but I notice that the white troops have slumped considerably."
Chapter XX. With Our Soldiers in France
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