Trial By Fire

By Carlos Pulido posted November 23, 2018

There was much confusion about what to do with the black soldiers once they arrived in France. During the first two months of 1918 an intense exchange of telegrams between General John Pershing (commander of the American Expeditionary Forces) and General John Biddle (Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army) debated what to do with the black combat troops of the newly created 93rd division. At First, Pershing intended on allocating the "colored" troops to the Services of Supply, however, since the 93rd had been organized and trained with the understanding that it would be combat infantry, the idea of serving as support troops generated resentments from both black and white officers of the 93rd Division.

Later in February, Biddle replied with more bad news for the 93rd, stating that they should not be sent into combat, as they were an incomplete unit without their own artillery, engineers and signal corps elements, his telegram also stated that it was not planned for the division to ever be completed. While the debate between Pershing and Biddle continued, more black combat regiments began to arrive in France. General Pershing contacted the War Department about what to do with the men, and Washington responded that the 93rd existed as a division only on paper, and that it would only contain four infantry regiments. Pershing had promised the French for several months a fresh supply of infantry regiments, and the prospect of having four unaffiliated regiments seemed like the perfect solution for both the French and U.S. armies. 

Pershing transferred these four regiments to the French Army; as a result the French were delighted to receive American regiments into their divisions as reinforcements, since they had suffered heavy casualties over the previous three years. With the integration of the 93rd Division's regiments into French units came a series of organizational difficulties, as French equipment was different from what the Americans were accustomed to. Their weapons, food and rations had to be replaced by French equivalents, and in some cases the daily ration of two liters of wine resulted in numerous cases of drunkenness. Even with these minor logistical difficulties, the treatment received by African-American troops from the French began to worry American officials. The French were friendly and tolerant to the black troops, and this conduct shocked many white Americans as they worried that "colored" people would demand equality of rights on their return home. 

On March 1st, 1918, the former 15th New York National Guard was designated the 369th Infantry Regiment and assigned to the 93rd Division. They trained under French officers and went to the Main de Massiges, a part of the French line that offered the greatest danger as well as the greatest opportunity for training in trench warfare and raiding. After two weeks' experience in the trenches the 369th was sent into in the Bois d'Hauze, Champagne, where the regiment repelled German attacks and counter-attacked to gain possession of German trenches. The 369th became famous for being the regiment that never lost a man captured, a trench, or a foot of ground; despite having less training than any American unit before going into action, it saw the first and longest service of any American regiment as part of a foreign army. The men of the 369th became known among the French and Germans as “Hell Fighters” for their tenacity in the battlefield and were awarded honors like the Croix de Guerre for exceptional gallantry in action.

Another of many "colored" regiments that performed admirably in France was the 367th Infantry regiment. While training at Camp Upton, near New York City, the regiment caught the attention of the metropolitan press for having a large number of black officers, 97 in total, who were all graduates of the Fort Des Moines Officers' Training Camp. A Southern officer and West Point graduate born in Louisiana, Colonel James A. Moss, led the 367th.  Under his leadership the regiment made a notable record in France and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for holding the Germans at bay near Metz, while allowing for another regiment to retreat to safety. The success of the 367th proved that it was possible for a white man born and bred in the South to learn to appreciate the real worth of African-American soldiers, and to treat them with a full measure of respect, opportunity, and credit.