When President Wilson sent then Major General John Pershing to France in 1917, he sent him with clear orders. The United States of America was to enter the war alongside the Allied Powers of France, Great Britain, Russian and Belgium – but as an independent power, fighting under the American flag. The immediate challenge he faced was how to recruit, train, deploy, and put into combat a force large enough to tip the tide of war in favor of the Allies without too much delay, and without losing America's national identity on the front.
America and its Allies in 1917
The day the United States declared war, the regular Army consisted of just over 130,000 soldiers. The last time the country had to field a fighting force of millions was a half century earlier, during the Civil War. Little of the doctrine, training, supplies, weapons, and ammunition had changed much since Grant and American industry was largely unprepared to make up the difference. To complicate matters further, the Navy lacked the tonnage necessary to transport millions of American Doughboys across the Atlantic. What shipping was available was under constant threat of German U-boats.
Meanwhile, in what likely seemed a world away, the Allied Powers weren’t faring well. Russia, fighting at home and abroad, had just put down a revolt in its capital and was on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. Morale across the front was low, with almost half of the French divisions beginning to mutiny, defying orders by refusing to go on the offensive. French casualties had surpassed 3 million, with Britain having suffered another 2 million of its own. Prime Minister David Lloyd George had begun withholding reinforcements from Field Marshall Douglas Haig for fear of the Marshall’s tactics and his apparent disregard for the number of casualties suffered under his command. Many historians believe the entrance of the United States, not yet a global power but an untapped source of manpower, was what turned the tide of the war. Ultimately, the injection of millions of American Doughboys on the front so late in the war served as the single greatest factor that brought about Germany’s defeat 18 months later.
The eventual Allied victory however, was far from conceivable in April 1917. While the Allies welcomed Pershing and his troops, they feared their new partner would be unable to put a sizeable enough fighting force into the field in enough time to turn around what appeared to be an inevitable defeat. In the views of many, American divisions were unnecessary, but American manpower was critical.
This belief led to a persistent push by the Allied Powers for the amalgamation of American soldiers into French and British units at the company level. The idea was simple. America had the manpower, but the Allies had the experience, weapons, equipment, and commanders. The fastest way to get American forces to the front was to have them serve inside French and British units, under Allied commanders.
The United States vehemently resisted amalgamation for several reasons. First, there was the issue of post-war negotiations. President Wilson wanted to ensure the United States had an equal seat at the peace table. If American was to shed blood to save the free world, then America would be an active architect in how the free world looked after the war. Without an American sector on the front, it was unlikely the British and French elite would consider the United States an equal partner in the war effort, denying Wilson that role.
Second, there were practical language and cultural barriers, particularly between the American Doughboy and French soldier. Communication is a key component of any battle strategy and the risk of having orders misunderstood would be costly.
Third, General Pershing recognized the war had stalled to a near stalemate, due in large part to trench warfare and a doctrine that supported a war of position over a war of fire and maneuver. He saw the return of mobility on the battlefield as the only viable option to ending the war, and he wanted an American Army to test that theory.
These reasons aside, it was likely American pride that most encouraged Pershing to resist amalgamation. To place the lives of American men in the hands of foreign leaders was unconscionable. If America was to fight on the front, it would do so as a unique and distinct fighting force, led by American commanders, and marching under the Stars and Stripes.
That is, in most cases.
The Harlem Hellfighters
The 369th Infantry Regiment was by every measure one of the most accomplished military units fielded by the United States in World War I. It was one of the first units to arrive in France, spent more time in combat than any other American unit, and was one of the most decorated American outfits of the war. Today, their record stands on its own, and any commander would be lucky to have at his or her disposal a fighting force as tightknit, proficient, and lethal as the 369th. However, a century ago, while Pershing was resisting widespread efforts to amalgamate American soldiers into allied units, he offered the 369th to the French. The Harlem Hellfighters, as they’d come to be known, served most of the war under a foreign flag.
The Harlem Hellfighters were a segregated African American unit, largely consisting of volunteers from New York. Like nearly every man or women of color in 1917, the men of the 369th faced extreme racism both at home, and abroad. At home, African Americans faced widespread discrimination, with nearly every effort being made to disenfranchise millions of black voters and limit their ability to find work, get an education, or even find housing. Abroad, they were trained for combat, but often put to work in the supply and services division, due in part to institutionalized racism and in part to the outright refusal of white soldiers to serve in the same trench as their African American countrymen.
For more information about segregation and racism in the early 20th century, visit the Library of Congress’s digital exhibit on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 here.
General Black Jack Pershing, so nicknamed for his admiration for, and service with the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Calvary Regiment in the Midwest and again during the Spanish-American war, was faced with a dilemma. While often lauded as being a man ahead of his time with regard to his views on integration and civil rights within the Armed Forces, Pershing was a soldier serving in a segregated Army. The French were asking for troops, and he had a trained unit many white Americans were unwilling to serve alongside. In early 1918, he made the infamous decision to assign the Harlem Hellfighters to the French. Perhaps General Pershing saw this as an opportunity to provide the 369th with the chance to serve away from the bigotry of American politics.
It should be noted that the 369th was not the only unit to serve under a foreign commander. It was common throughout the war to temporarily OPCON (or give operational control of) a unit to an allied commander. On more than one occasion, American forces were temporarily assigned to French and British units, while allied outfits were likewise assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.). However, the 369th was the only unit to serve its entire combat tour under a foreign commander.
No matter the reason, the regiment’s service on the front was extraordinary by any standard. Two Medals of Honor, several Distinguished Service Crosses, and over 170 French Croix de Guerre were awarded to the men of the 369th. In his account of the regiment’s history in Europe in 1918, former Battalion Commander Arthur Little emphasized that in 191 days under fire, the regiment had never lost a foot of ground.
For more information on the history of the Harlem Hellfighters in France, visit the History Channel’s website.
The French Army, by all accounts, was proud to serve alongside the Harlem Hellfighters. Several memoirs written by both American and French soldiers paint a picture of mutual respect and admiration without regard for race. This was likely a product of a deep desire for American reinforcements (which must have come as a relief to the embattled French) coupled with the fact that French soldiers were often exposed to men and women of different races and ethnicities in the colonies. Seeing a man of color on the front might not have been common, but it certainly wasn’t unheard of. Any doubts the French had about the Harlem Hellfighters, a nickname given to the 369th by their German enemies for their tenacity and resolve under fire, were soon forgotten.