September 4, 2003

The Melting Pot Division

Reader Ethan Hahn asked rather wistfully if I was going to write any more on the US in WWI. I feel bad for having left off the project. The problem is that much of what is happening (yes I know using the Present Tense is weird, but that's my mood) is too vast and terrifying for me to feel adequate to write about. Hundreds of thousands of my countrymen are attacking enemies who are dug into the intricate and many-layered defenses of the Western Front�that's too big for me to handle. We worry now about several hundred soldiers dying in Iraq, but in a First World War attack, a brigade could lose that many in a minute or two.

But I can work around the edges, and find interesting stories. I picked up a favorite book, The Doughboys, by Lawrence Stallings. He didn't fail to get me started on something...

Men of 77th Division filling canteens
Men of the 77th Division filling canteens near the River Vesle

THE UNITED STATES IN WORLD WAR ONE #10: The Melting Pot Division

If you doubt that America is and was "something new under the sun," take a look at the 77th Division in 1918. It was called the Liberty Division, and also the Melting Pot Division. They were from New York City, and chose the Statue of Liberty for their patch. 42 languages were spoken by its men. Its gamblers played Stuss, Fan Tan and Piquet, along with Craps and Poker. They said the division had every sort of person except country boys who could find their way around in the dark. "Gangs of New York?" Of course, and General Robert Alexander actually suggested to his officers that they encourage the gang spirit. The division song included the lines:

Thirty dollars every month, deducting twenty-nine
Oh, the army, the army, the democratic army.
The Jews, the Wops, and the Dutch and Irish cops
They're all in the army now!
Its first 3 Distinguished Service Crosses went to Captain Herman Stadie, born in Germany, Private Abraham Herschkovitz, born in a Jewish ghetto in Bessarabia, and Sergeant Sing Kee, born in San Francisco! In their recent attack on the River Vesle, Sergeant Kee was one of a 30-man message post in the village of Mont Notre Dame. The other 29 men were killed or wounded, a fact he didn't think worth reporting. He continued alone for 24 hours, and all messages got through. (In WWI, runners, messengers, were extremely important. Technology had expanded the size of the battlefield enormously, but had not yet provided portable radios.)

One interesting thing is that a lot of the doughboys spoke German. If we fought a war with Spain today, the situation would be similar. Germans were the largest of our many immigrant groups, and there were then over 100 newspapers published in German in the US. (Most of those papers shut down or switched to English because of the war.)

Like the United States itself, the Liberty Division was a conglomeration that tended to draw the contempt of "older and wiser" countries. It seemed to them like little more than an ad hoc collection of refugees. In fact, like its nation, it was a brutally effective new combination. In time of need it could instantly generate remarkable leaders from out of the ranks, an ability it will demonstrate to the fullest next month, when some of its companies form the fabled "Lost Battalion," during the grim Meuse-Argonne campaign.

Right now, in August and September 1918, American 1st and 3rd Corps are fighting under French General Ferdinand Foch in the cluster of battles and offensives called the Second Battle of the Marne. Nine doughboy divisions (equivalent in size to perhaps twenty French or British divisions) will suffer 50,00 casualties. The 77th, part of Ligget's 1st Corps, will help drive the Germans back to the Aisne, erasing the deep salient they had achieved in their Spring offensive. Belleau Wood was the farthest tip of that salient, and that fight, back in June, was the beginning of what the 77th Division is now helping to finish.

The ever-increasing numbers and experience of the Americans has now put General Pershing in a position to demand what he has long wanted�an independent American army with its own sector of the front to cover. However, since we have been strong supporters of a unified allied command, and since that effort has finally led to General Foch being named Supreme Allied Commander, Pershing is in no position to decline whatever task is assigned to the new First Army. What he gets is hair-raising. The Americans, as he has requested, will drive the Germans from the Saint-Mihiel Salient, attacking September 12. Then the entire 1st Army will drag itself and a million tons of ammunition and supplies 60 miles over wretched country roads for an all-out attack on the Meuse-Argonne sector...on September 26!

Posted by John Weidner at September 4, 2003 7:33 PM
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