African-American Sacrifice in the Killing Fields of France

SÉCHAULT, France — The modest granite monument at the entrance to Séchault, a village in eastern France, commemorates the sacrifice of the United States 369th Infantry Regiment, African-Americans who came from Harlem to fight in the last months of World War I. A single word in brackets, “Colored,” alludes to the official name of the New York National Guard unit from which the soldiers were drawn.

They were the Black warriors of the segregated American armed forces. Denied a send-off parade in New York before shipping out in 1917, assigned to the French Army because their own countrymen refused to fight alongside them, they gave their lives in such numbers during 191 days of continuous combat that they earned for their bravery the moniker “Harlem Hellfighters.”

It appears that this nickname was given the unit by their German enemy, who called them “Höllenkämpfer.” But it took the U.S. Army more than a century to adopt it as the official special designation for the 369th Infantry Regiment, a distinction approved by the Army only last September and announced this year by the New York National Guard on the eve of Black History Month.

It has been a long road from this quiet corner of France to such recognition.

Behind the monument, in the pale winter sunlight, a patchwork of fertile fields extends to the horizon. Some of the most blood-soaked earth in Europe now offers a scene of undulating tranquillity. Wheat, beets and hops grow where American, French and German lives were extinguished, too young.

Narrow roads wind between forgotten villages of the Champagne-Ardenne region, their church spires beckoning, their deserted streets emptied by the steady exodus of commerce and young people to bigger towns.

Here, in scenes of unutterable and now scarcely imaginable carnage, as soldiers poured “over the top” from their trenches, the 2,000 troops of the 369th suffered some of the worst casualties of any American regiment, with about 144 dead and almost 1,000 wounded in the Meuse-Argonne offensive of September-November 1918 alone.

“We have a small ceremony every Nov. 11, Armistice Day, but otherwise there are very few visitors,” said René Salez, the recently elected mayor of the village of about 60 inhabitants, as we stood one recent afternoon near the monument to the 169th Regiment. “There are not many road signs to Séchault. The only ceremonies in our church are funerals. But I have a few ideas for a revival once the pandemic ends.”

For their bravery in capturing Séchault from the Germans on Sept. 29, 1918, and for other combat action, the regiment was awarded France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre, soon after the war. It was also given to many individual soldiers in the unit for their gallantry. In his 1936 memoir, “From Harlem to the Rhine,” Arthur W. Little described casualties in his unit as “hideous and continuous,” with “hundreds of innocent men” driven to their deaths.

French honor came before American for these Black patriots of the 369th demanding only equal treatment.

Mr. Salez, 66, a man of engaging energy and a ready smile, dreams of a hikers’ trail connecting the monument — a reproduction of which stands in Harlem — to another, forgotten on a hilltop about a mile away.

Topped by the tattered remnants of an American flag, this second memorial is lichen-stained and shell-damaged from World War II. It is inscribed on its four sides with the names of the dead from the 371st Infantry Regiment, another African-American unit that fought here in 1918.

“I should have cleaned it,” Mr. Salez said after we trudged over a muddy field to get to the other monument. We gazed across the countryside, and he pointed to the wood along which he would like his imagined trail to continue to the site of a former field hospital. “It will be easier once my project is completed.”

The Hellfighters were composed mostly of New Yorkers who lobbied hard to persuade Gov. Charles Whitman to form the all-Black unit in 1916, a year before the United States entered World War I.

As reported by Erick Trickey in Smithsonian Magazine, Governor Whitman named William Hayward, his former campaign manager and a Nebraska National Guard colonel, as commander of these “porters, doormen or elevator operators, some teachers, night watchmen or mailmen,” who wanted to fight for the nation that segregated them.

Slurs were hurled at the unit, which originated as the “15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment,” during combat training in Spartanburg, S.C., a stronghold of the Jim Crow South.

Further insult followed in France. The unit, after doing menial work on arrival in December 1917, was barred from integration with other American troops and assigned to the 16th Division of the French Army, which accepted the soldiers without hesitation.

As Mr. Hayward would write of Gen. John Pershing, the commander of American Expeditionary Forces, in a letter quoted by Smithsonian, “Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”

France took the orphan in.

At a time when France’s universalist social model, which refuses to quantify or categorize citizens by race or religion, is often criticized in the United States as little more than a camouflage for discrimination against Muslims or people of color, the story of the 369th is a reminder that prejudice knows no boundaries. Not for nothing did Black American writers and artists — including Richard Wright, Josephine Baker and James Baldwin — find in France a freedom that they felt denied in the United States.

In a recent article, “The Illusion of a France in Black and White,” in Le Monde, Philippe Bernard wrote that there can be “no question of denying the racial discrimination that aggravates social injustice.” At the same time, he argued, “enclosing anyone in the fixed identity of ‘colonized’ or ‘Black’ or ‘oppressed’” tends to “deepen fractures rather than reduce them.”

The 369th Regiment broke barriers. Its marching band, formed under the bandleader James Reese Europe, brought new jazz rhythms to France. His song “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” speaks of the terror of trench warfare: “Down, hug the ground, close as you can, don’t stand, creep and crawl, follow me, that’s all.”

Having been denied a send-off, the surviving troops paraded victoriously up Fifth Avenue and on to Harlem on their return in 1919. They were returning heroes. But the glory was short-lived, as was the breakthrough.

Pvt. Henry Johnson, who had shown extraordinary bravery in battle, disappeared from view after accusing white soldiers of racism in March 1919 and died destitute a decade later. He was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015.

As I made my way through the streets of Séchault, I thought of a Black Vietnam vet, Jerome Wilson, whom I met last year in Georgia. He told me about being about to deploy to Vietnam in 1968 and having to go in the back door of a Dairy Queen to get a burger, and then, in military uniform, having to enter the bus taking him to Fort Benning through the back door.

“I was going to fight for my country, maybe die, and I was only good enough for the back doors,” he said. That was a half-century after the sacrifice of the 369th Regiment, which returned to find segregation intact.

Mr. Salez took me to the German cemetery on the other side of the village, where the remains of 6,454 German soldiers killed in World War I lie, more than half of them never identified. Gray crosses, in rows, stretched away under oak trees.

Among the crosses were a dozen stone slabs, resembling stela. I approached and saw that they were engraved with the Star of David and the names of German Jewish soldiers — Siegfried Grunewald, Jakob Guggenheim, Julius Kahn — who fought and died as German patriots a couple of decades before their country would decide to send its Jews to the gas chambers of the death camps.

The lessons of Séchault in patriotic sacrifice and injustice are many and varied. On the oak trees in the cemetery I noticed that bird houses were affixed: death and life in a single place and, despite everything, it seemed, some glimmer of hope.

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