To the veteran German soldiers serving on the frontlines during the First World War, they’d have faced scores of Allied troops in a variety of uniforms. Those who fought from the opening days of the war would have seen the French Army’s transition from dark blue jackets and red trousers to a horizon blue uniform, and some may have encountered not only British but Canadian, Australian, and even Russian and Indian troops. They’d likely have even seen French colonial troops from North and Sub-Saharan African soldiers.
But then in the late spring of 1918, they met fresh soldiers from America—and while these men wore the standard U.S. Army wool combat tunics, their equipment, small arms, and notably helmets were all French. They also fought under French command. These men of the 93rd Infantry Division had been assigned to French Army divisions as its commanders were desperate for men to bolster their ranks.
Another factor was that the main American Expeditionary Force (AEF) refused to have the African-American soldiers of the 93rd serve in combat. The four regiments/two brigades that made up the division were from segregated units, and originally the plan was to send them to France to serve labor units—which were badly needed at the time. Germany was mounting an offensive and new trench lines needed to be dug and supplies off-loaded from trains and onto trucks. However, there was an outcry from a number of prominent African-American leaders who made the Army reconsider its decision.
Having the 93rd fight under French command allowed the troops to go into combat, while still satisfying those AEF officers. An irony was that the commander of the AEF, General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing had earned his nickname and reputation as an officer in the 10th Cavalry Regiment, then still a black “Buffalo Soldier” regiment that had fought with distinction during the Spanish-American War. Pershing was an early supporter of having “colored” soldiers in the military, but he was still forced to bow to the political expediency of the day.
The French Army, which had bled white over four years of fighting, had no such qualms about employing the black troops in combat. Moreover, it is important to note that the British Army already had several American divisions under its command by that point, so the African-American troops weren’t simply handed off. Had those brave men of the 93rd not fought under French command, it is likely another American unit would have.
The 369th “Harlem Hellfighters”
Arguably one of the most famous American units to see service in the First World War was the 369th Infantry Regiment, which earned the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The unit was initially organized in the summer of 1913 following the passage of New York state legislation that authorized the formation of a black National Guard regiment.
It was originally raised as the 15th Infantry Regiment.
The New York National Guard was called into federal service in July 1917, three months after war was declared on Germany, and it was ordered to France, arriving only in December 1917. By that time the 15th was redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment, and attached to the French Army for training. Assigned to the 161st Infantry Division, the American unit took part in major operations in Champagne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Champagne, and Alsace campaigns. It initially stopped the German advances and then took part in the Allied counteroffensive that finally broke the German Army. The troops spent 191 days in the front-line trenches, and for its action, the 369th was cited 11 times for bravery and it was decorated with the French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star for service during the Meuse-Argonne campaign.
The regiment actually earned three nicknames during its time in France. In addition to “Harlem Hellfighters,” it was also known as “Men of Bronze,” and the “Black Watch.”
It left another mark on the people of France and much of Europe. The 369th regimental band played throughout the continent during and after the war, and it has been credited with introducing American jazz music to Europe.
After the war, the 369th Infantry Regiment underwent several reorganizations, but today’s New York National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 369th Sustainment Brigade can trace its origins to the Harlem Hellfighters.
The 370th “Black Devils”
Though it was designated the 370th Infantry Regiment when it prepared to ship out to France in 1917, this unit’s history actually began nearly two decades earlier. It was initially organized in 1895 as the 9th Battalion Infantry, and the all-black National Guard unit was then redesignated as the 8th Illinois Infantry in 1898.
During the Spanish-American War, it made history for its all-African-American command, and was the only regiment in the nation at the time to be commanded by African-American officers. After federal service in that war, it was called back again in 1916 to serve on the Mexican border as revolutionaries under Pancho Villa had been conducting raids into the United States.
Redesignated as the 370th, the unit was assigned to the 93rd Division and arrived in France in April 1918. As with the 369th, it was attached to the French Army for training. Assigned to the French 59th Division, it took part in the Oise-Aisne offensive where the Germans abandoned their defensive lines. The unit again had the distinction of being the only black regiment completely staffed with black officers. For its actions during the war, members received 21 Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, and 68 Croix de Guerre.
After World War I, the regiment reorganized and is known today as the Illinois National Guard’s 178th Infantry. Its service in France is memorialized by the Victory Monument in Bronzeville, Chicago.
The 371st Infantry Regiment
This regiment was organized in August 1917 at Camp Jackson, South Carolina as the 1st Provisional Infantry Regiment. It was made up almost entirely of draftees, and as with the other three regiments, the 371st was transferred to French command.
The unit took part in the French efforts to counter the German Champagne–Marne offensive in July, and then in the Allied Meuse–Argonne offensive. The 371st remained in the line for more than three months, holding first the Avocourt and later the Verrières subsectors northwest of Verdun.
For its role in the fighting, one of the unit’s officers received French Légion d’Honneur, while another 22 officers and men received the Distinguished Service Cross (United States), and 123 officers and men received the French Croix de Guerre. In 1991, Corporal Freddie Stowers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart for his actions in the assault on Côte 188 on September 29, 1918.
The 372nd Infantry Regiment
A number of National Guard units from Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia that had been organized in the 1880s made up the 372nd Infantry Regiment, which was reorganized as a segregated regiment in 1917.
Upon its arrival to France, the 372nd was also attached to French Army divisions for training before being assigned to the battle-hardened French 157th “Red Hand” Infantry Division. Fighting alongside the French veteran troops, the 372nd took part in the Meuse-Argonne, Lorraine, and Alsace campaigns. Members of the 372nd regiment had a distinguished record of never surrendering or retreating in combat, while the unit’s participation in the Meuse-Argonne advance played a decisive role in ending the war when its troops took more than 600 prisoners and secured large quantities of German engineering supplies and artillery ammunition.
For its actions during the Meuse-Argonne, the regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm.
Although the regiment was deactivated after the war, the 372nd’s legacy lives on with the Ohio National Guard’s 237th Support Battalion and the District of Columbia’s 372nd Military Police Battalion.
The 93rd Infantry Deactivation and Reactivation
As soldiers of the 93rd Infantry Division were issued with French Model 1915 “Adrian” steel helmets, the division acquired the nickname “Casques Bleus” (Blue Helmets). Its shoulder patch was a blue French helmet on a black background to commemorate its service with the French Army during the German spring offensive, and subsequent Allied counter-offensives that subsequently defeated the German Army, ending the war.
In 1919, the division was deactivated.
Reactivated again, with the “colored” infantry designation on May 15, 1942, it shipped overseas in 1944. Most of the division saw service in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War, but its regiments were primarily used as construction units and in defensive operations, although some took part in combat operations on Bougainville Island, New Guinea.
The 93rd Infantry Division was deactivated again in 1946, although as noted, several of its units are carried on through the Army National Guard.