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.
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.”
“ . . . 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.
NO greater LOVE
LAY DOWN one’s life
for his FRIENDS.”
This July is replete with significant milestones in our family.
My great uncle celebrated his 99th birthday two weeks ago. He has led a remarkable life. His love of funny stories and anecdotes has entertained us for decades. Thankfully, I’ve been around to hear many of them, and I’ve even recorded some on video.
He was a mere toddler when his uncle, Leslie Darling, went off to France to fight the Hun1 after America became entangled in the First World War. His uncle, Private Darling, died in late July of 1918, succumbing to a wound from a German machine gun crew he encountered near Épieds, France.2
“ . . . 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.”
I should probably be there in person, in France, for the 100th anniversary in 2018.
1. Hun was a derogatory word used to describe the Germans during both world wars.
2. Leslie Warren Darling died either July 28 or 30, 1918. I would suspect the 28th is the correct date, since a letter is signed noting the day and details. A book compiled by the unit chaplain lists the 30th, but this is most likely a mistake.
Yesterday, Memorial Day, I went with my nephews, niece and sister to visit The Museum of Flight.
“He became a prisoner of war for a short time after being shot down over enemy territory. On December 22nd, 1972, while attacking a target in vicinity of Hanoi, Bill’s aircraft was shot down after an assumed lucky shot to an engine gearbox. After a valiant escape and evasion lasting a few days, including a near rescue by a HH-53C “Jolly Green Giant” while under heavy ground fire, Bill Wilson and his crewmate Bob Sponeybarger become POWs. They were repatriated on March 29th, 1973.”
Amazingly, there is an audio recording of radio communication between Bill and his rescuers, made during the operation.
We then went on to tour the place, which has numerous exhibits, first stopping at the cafe for a bite to eat. While they were eating, I toured through the main area, where there are many planes and helicopters on display.
Some hang from the ceiling, others are placed on the ground. There seem to be hundreds of them. The museum could easily take up an entire day. It closes early, at five, so we only had a few hours.
Thankfully, my nephews like playing the flight simulator in the World War I area, otherwise I might have missed it. Since my great-great uncle served in the AEF and is buried in France, I have a particular interest in the First World War.
I’ve heard of Civil and Revolutionary War re-enactors, but not World War I, until today. A newspaper in Wisconsin has the details and a few photos.