Marching (or Slogging) through France, 1918

Corporal Willie H. McCune arrived in France as an 18-year-old tenderfoot soldier from Alabama in November 1917. To better understand his experience while there, I researched several books and websites that recreated the movements of the 167th Infantry, part of the 42nd Rainbow Division stationed on the Western Front in World War I.

I had no idea that the 42nd Rainbow Division played a significant role in the outcome of the war until I began reading more about it. For a broad look at the Rainbow’s engagements in France, see The Story of the Rainbow Division by Raymond S. Tompkins, published 1919, available online at https://archive.org/details/storyofrainbowdi00tomprich. In the appendix are two letters written to the division by Major General Charles T. Menoher, U.S.A., reviewing and commending the engagements of the 42nd.

There’s a historical timeline of the 167th Infantry Regiment (4th Alabama) at the website for the U.S. Army Center of Military History at http://www.history.army.mil/html/forcestruc/lineages/branches/inf/0167in.htm. It gives a history of the regiment beginning with its formation in 1836.

For archival images of Alabama troops during World War I, visit the Alabama Department of Archives and History, http://digital.archives.alabama.gov/cdm/search/collection/photo/searchterm/World%20War%2C%201914-1918/field/subjec/mode/exact/conn/and/order/nosort.

A very informative book that traces the 167th Infantry’s movements from America to France is Alabama’s Own in France by William H. Amerine, published in 1919, and available free online through Google Books. Look in Appendix C at the infantry’s roster of names, and you’ll find Willie McCune in Company I on p. 389. This book offers a very real, detailed account of the infantry’s daily activities and includes many photos.

I had been scrolling, reading and scanning through the 489-page book when I reached Appendix A, titled Regimental Scrap Book. I was looking for any mention of Company I and on p. 321 I saw this:

That Colonel William P. Screws is the idol of his regiment, as well as their ‘ideal’ of everything that a man and soldier should be, is a fact that is borne out by every man in his command whose conversation never fails to include an expression of their love and esteem and admiration of ‘The Colonel’.

Thirteen men had been quoted, including:

Willie McCune, Columbus, Ga., in all fights but one: ‘The Colonel is sure a good man’. 1

I’m not embarrassed to say that I burst into tears when I saw his name. I had been hoping against hope that he might be mentioned in the book.

For some specific details of the regiment’s action at the Battle of Croix Rouge Farm, you might want to visit an excellent website called Croix Rouge Farm Memorial Foundation, http://croixrougefarm.org/history-167th/. Croix Rouge was part of the Aisne-Marne offensive, one of five in France where the Division faced the Germans for a total of 164 days in combat. 2  Other fronts where they saw action were the Lorraine Sector, Champagne-Marne, Saint-Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne. General Douglas MacArthur was Rainbow Chief of Staff at the time. The website gives very detailed descriptions of the Croix Rouge battle and a small glimpse of what Granddaddy Bill might have faced as a 19-year-old soldier in a brutal battle in July 1918.

This battle contributed to the reputation of the ‘Alabamas’ among many of their French comrades and German enemies as brave, fearsome fighters. From what I’ve read in some books and websites, there seemed to be a love-hate relationship with the Alabama boys. They were ridiculed for their boisterous Southernisms and highly respected for their tenacious fighting skills. This was a vicious war fought in the trenches with mustard gas assaults, and sometimes limited artillery support, and these young men endured unimaginable hardships. Often they went without food, or dry, clean uniforms, or decent shoes. They were riddled with body lice. Many died from disease. At times they were under constant artillery fire and assaults for extended periods of time with extreme marching conditions through cold rains, ankle-deep mud, dense woods, or steep, hilly terrains, carrying heavy packs of supplies and equipment. But, much worse, they witnessed the ugly truth of war as their comrades were killed and injured around them every day.

As one example, during the third attack of the Croix Rouge battle, Company I suffered 30 men killed, including its commanding officer First Lt. John Powell, and 100 wounded. By the following morning, losses in the 167th infantry had reduced it from three battalions to only two. A total of 162 officers and men from the 167th died and were buried where they fell. Many had fought hand-to-hand with bayonets. The men endured three days and nights of continual marching and fighting with no sleep, minimal food, and a heavy, cold rain. 3  This was just one of many similar experiences during their service in France.

In 2014, Send the Alabamians: World War I Fighters in the Rainbow Division by Nimrod Frazer, whose father Will Frazer fought in Company D, was published by the University of Alabama Press. I recently bought a copy and highly recommend it for the extensive research and accounts of the infantry’s engagements. A few years earlier, Frazer had commissioned the building of a bronze statue of a soldier carrying a fallen comrade to commemorate the Battle of the Croix Rouge Farm and in memory of his father and fellow comrades. It was unveiled in a ceremony on 12 Nov 2011 in Fere-en-Tarenois, France, where it overlooks the field where so many American and French soldiers lost their lives. I’ve already pointed you to the website.

Meuse-Argonne Offensive Map, 1918
Meuse-Argonne Offensive Map, 1918

The Division’s last offensive was the Argonne Drive from September to November, 1918. The 167th Infantry were key fighters in breaking through the Germans’ Hindenburg Line and reaching the Meuse River. Company I was among those led by Capt. Thomas H. Fallaw of Opelika in a successful assault. 4 The Germans were retreating and the end of the war was near.

I reviewed several general WWI history books and found no mention of the 167th Infantry and minimal mention of the 42nd Rainbow Division. I’m definitely not a WWI scholar, but understand that the U.S. entered the war in its last days, fought only a few months, and suffered very high casualties, allegedly from poor military tactical maneuvers. German troop morale had become very low, and the large numbers of fresh American troops coming to France’s defense pushed it even lower. The closest praise I found for the 42nd division was vague and didn’t name it:

The AEF [American Expeditionary Force] fought bravely for the most part, but it never matured into an effective independent force. Ironically, some of the best combat service came from American divisions temporarily assigned to allied forces, especially those attached to the French 6th and 10th armies during the Aisne-Marne offensive of July-August 1918… ”   5

Regardless, the American military’s entrance into the war was of great significance to the Allies’ victory. After the armistice was signed on 11 Nov 1918, the 42nd Rainbow Division was honored to be selected as part of the Army of Occupation and began its march to Germany.

Next – Alabamians in Germany

  1. Amerine, William H., Alabama’s Own in France, Google edition (New York: Eaton & Gettinger, 1919), 321.
  2.  World War I and Alabama’s Rainbow Division, (http://www.archives.alabama.gov/…Word_War_I_and_Alabama_Reg: accessed 5 Feb 2016).
  3.  Croix Rouge Farm Memorial Foundation, “The Battle of Croix Rouge,” (http://www.http://croixrougefarm.org/history-battle/: accessed 5 Feb 2016).
  4.  Amerine, William H., Alabama’s Own in France, 196.
  5. Strachan, Hew, editor, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 252.

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