Tag Archives: France

One hundred years ago, in December of 1917, American National Guard soldiers prepped for war.

42nd Infantry Division's 1917

In December of 1917 the soldiers of the 42nd Division, all previously serving in National Guard units, were in France, waiting for training.

Among the men was my great grandmother’s brother, huddling for warmth with the thousands of fellow American soldiers in France, preparing to go to war.

The division’s 27,000 troops had started moving from Camp Albert Mills — often shortened to just Camp Mills — on Long Island to France in October. The last elements of the 26-state division — the 168th Infantry Regiment from Iowa, which included my great grandmother’s young brother Leslie — had reached France at the end of November.

The 42nd Division had been formed by taking National Guard units from 26 states and combining them into a division that stretched across the country “like a rainbow” in the words of the division chief of staff, Colonel Douglas MacArthur.

The largest elements were four regiments from Ohio, Iowa, Alabama and New York organized in two brigades of two regiments and supporting units.

By Christmas 1917 the division’s elements were located in a number of villages northeast of the city of Chaumont, about 190 miles east of Paris. The men had hiked there from Vaucouleurs where they had originally been deposited by train.

The 168th Infantry, from the Iowa National Guard, hosted 400 French children at a Christmas celebration in the village of Rimaucourt, where they had been stationed since November. Two American soldiers dressed like Santa Claus gave presents to the French children and a French band played the Star Spangled Banner. The kids received dolls, horns and balloons, Lt. Hugh S. Thompson recalled in his memoir Trench Knives and Mustard Gas.

The 168th didn’t eat as well as the 165th on Christmas day, according to Thompson. “Scrawny turkeys and a few nuts were added to the usual rough menu,” he recalled.

While Christmas 1917 was a good one for most soldiers of the Rainbow Division, the next week went down in the division’s memory as “The Valley Forge Hike.”

It was 30 to 40 miles from where the division’s troops had celebrated Christmas to the town of Rolampont, the location of the U.S. Army’s Seventh Training Area.

Today you can drive the route in an hour. In 1917 it took the soldiers four days on foot. The march was miserable, according to the book The Story of the Rainbow Division.

The soldiers had “scarcely any shoes except what they had on their feet, there was no surplus supply to speak of. Some of the men had no overcoats.”

The men walked into a mountain snowstorm. In some places the snow was three to four feet deep. Soldier’s shoes wore out. Some marched almost barefoot. Some left behind bloody trails in the snow.

Lt. Thompson recalled that the men in his unit were issued hobnailed boot: the soles were held by heavy nails. The problem, he said, was that the nails got cold and the men’s feet froze too.

“Bleak expanses of icey geography appeared and vanished in monotonous fields between villages,” he recalled. “Legs ached, pack straps cut into shoulders, unmercifully men fell out, exhausted.”

At night the men huddled in the barns and haylofts of the French villages to keep warm.

The mule and horse drawn supply wagons got stuck on the icy roads and men had to move their best animals from wagon to wagon to get them unstuck, Father Duffy recalled.

For three days the men in the 165th Infantry Regiment’s Third battalion had no food, according to Kilmer, and when rations caught up to the men they got coffee and a bacon sandwich, or raw potatoes and bread.

“The hike made Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow look like a Fifth Avenue Parade,” one New York officer remembered later.

“The men plowed over the hills and thru the snow, enduring hardships which are not pleasant to remember,” wrote Reppy Alison, the author of a book about the 1st Battalion 166th Infantry.

Medics reported cases of mumps and pneumonia as the temperatures dropped below zero. Hundreds of men fell out– 700 at least and 200 of the New Yorkers–but most made it to Rolampont.

As the 165th Infantry arrived, the regimental band struck up “In the Good old Summertime”.

By New Year’s Day the division’s elements had arrived in Rolampont, and along with a new year they got a new commander.

Major General William Mann, the former head of the Militia Bureau, the equivalent of today’s Chief of the National Guard Bureau, had taken command of the division at Camp Mills.

But Mann, who was 63 in 1917, couldn’t meet the physical standards for officer laid down by General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces.

He was replaced by 55-year old Brig. Gen. Charles T. Menoher.

As 1918 began Menoher and the soldiers of the Rainbow division began gearing up to go to go into the trenches.

ajh

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Next year is a big centenary. It’s the 100th year of America getting dragged into the First World War.

2018-World-War-I-American-Veterans-Centennial-Silver-Dollar-DesignsSure, technically the war started in 1917. But gearing up for war took time, and though American soldiers arrived on the Western Front by June, combat didn’t start in earnest for the Americans until 1918. A series of silver coins is being released in commemoration.

ajh

“It was one of the few occasions on which the bayonet was decisively used.”

Douglas MacArthur wrote the following about July 26, 1918, the day one of my great grandmother’s brothers was dropped by German machine gun fire. He was hurried to a field hospital, the 165th, which was attached to the 165th regiment of Ohio, where he died days later.

“…the 167th Alabama assisted by the left flank of the 168th Iowa had stormed and captured the Croix Rouge Farm in a manner which for its gallantry I do not believe has been surpassed in military history. It was one of the few occasions on which the bayonet was decisively used.”

ajh

At one point, the world witnessed fifty thousand deaths a day in World War I, totaling seventeen million by its end.

“ . . . the Great War, as it was initially called, sucked up lives at rate of almost 50,000 a day at one point. The Germans committed atrocities against civilians in Belgium, and reduced the Cathedral of Arras to rubble. The soil of Northern France, pockmarked with war craters, is all one big burial ground for lost souls — the graveyards you see, 410 military cemeteries, and the graveyards you don’t see.

When the war ended, after 17 million deaths worldwide, a headline in Britain’s Daily Mirror proclaimed: ‘Democracy Triumphs Over the Last of the Autocrats.’”

My great-great uncle was one of those 17 million.

ajh

Iconic. Bravery. Friendship. Touching.

AF26108 Townsend

I have been looking through some imagery created by the talented artists of the AEF, the American Expeditionary Forces, during the nastiness that was the First World War, and I came across this one, a new favorite, of a soldier carrying his wounded buddy. A sketch by Harry Everett Townsend using charcoal on paper, it hangs in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum.

ajh

‘Right Up My French Alley’

418916Mom and one of her cousins were writing on Facebook today. The cousin was eating something French.

“Mmmgood french food..right up my French alley..”

My mother added a bit about the family history, ending her comment with a smile emoticon. She probably knows more about emoticons than I do.

“You are so right! 1/8th French from great grandma Poteet!”

Their conversation prompted me to lookup the name on the Google, leading me to two men: one named Francis Poteet and the other named Jerry.

Francis was from England and was recorded as living in Maryland in 1667.

Jerry Poteet is more recent. He was a master of an eclectic and hybrid form of martial art fighting called Jeet Kune Do who learned from Bruce Lee.

The name Poteet is thought to be of French origin. The named is associated with early 18th century Maryland and later with North Carolina and South Carolina.

“If it is French, it is probably a Huguenot name. It may be an altered form of French Petit, or possibly of French Pottet, which is from a diminutive of pot ‘pot’, in any of several senses: a metonymic occupational name for a potter, a nickname for a market trader, or a nickname for a rotund individual.”

ajh

Ninety Seven Years Ago

Ninety seven years ago yesterday, my great grandmother’s younger brother Leslie died from wounds in France while serving on the Western Front during the First World War. He had been cut down by German machine gun fire four days before and taken to a makeshift field hospital, what had been what’s called a sanitary train, a place where the wounded and sick were tended by medics and nurses. Maybe I’ll get a chance to visit his resting place and the area of operations in France on the 100th anniversary in 2018.

AJH