WWI Centennial: First Passchendaele, Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 290th installment in the series.

October 12-18, 1917: First Passchendaele, Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic

The success of the “bite and hold” strategy employed by the British at the Third Battle of Ypres in September and early October 1917, which yielded incremental advances at the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde, fed hopes that a few more attacks would push the Germans off the Gheluvelt Plateau east of Ypres, threatening their railroad and communication network in Flanders and maybe even forcing them to withdraw from western Belgium altogether.

Western Front, October 12, 1917: First Battle of Passchendael
Erik Sass

In reality the plan was already beginning to unravel at the battle of Poelcapelle on October 9, 1917, due mostly to the arrival of autumn rains that once again turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, making it almost impossible to move up artillery, fresh troops, ammunition, and supplies – the key to the “hold” part of the strategy, which called for attackers to immediately dig in in order to rebuff enemy counterattacks. The immobility of British artillery also meant that in many cases German barbed wire entanglements remained intact. Nonetheless British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig believed (against the advice of Second Army commander Herbert Plumer) that the main objective, the high ground around the village of Passchendaele, was still within reach.

The result was the nightmarish First Battle of Passchendaele on October 12, 1917, which saw the I and II ANZAC corps of the British Second Army mount an increasingly desperate attempt to dislodge the German Fourth Army from its defensive positions around Passchendaele in order to seize Passchendaele Ridge, with supporting attacks by the British Fifth Army to the north – only to meet with almost total defeat.

“No One Could See Any Purpose In It”

The British employed the same tactics as in previous battles, especially the “creeping barrage,” in which field artillery created a moving wall of fire just in front of the advancing troops, forcing enemy troops to take cover until the attackers were upon them. Meanwhile pioneer units worked feverishly to build roads of duckboard planks across the muddiest areas behind the frontlines to facilitate movements of artillery and troops (below, troops carrying duckboards).

One British soldier, P. Hoole Jackson, described the lurid scenes as they marched to the front along roads constantly shelled by German artillery:

Up the other side of the road a slow procession of vehicles crawled, one behind the other: new guns going up to the positions, ammunition wagons full of shells, ambulances bound for the clearing stations, ration carts for the troops in line. Piccadilly could not have been more crowded, and over all these the German shells moaned and whined. Now and then a cart would have to pull round a heap of wreckage that had once been men, horses, and wagons. By the side of the road lay the stiffening carcases of horses and mules, and around, on every hand, the big guns crashed.

Conditions only worsened as they approached the frontlines:

On three sides was the arching Salient, marked out as though on a mighty map by the ring of flaming flashes from the German guns. A peninsula of death and terror. As we drew nearer to the Ridge, the howling in the sky grew more fierce. We had to pause while a shell dropped before us; rush on as one hurled down almost on top of us; dive for cover in the slimy ditch. All along the road were the skeletons of shattered trees… and over all was the livid light of the gun-flashes, which rose and fell like a fiery, ceaseless tide.

George F. Wear, an officer in the Royal Field Artillery, left a similar portrait of the battlefield around this time:

I doubt if anyone who has not experienced it can really have any idea of what the Salient was like during those “victories” of 1917. The bombardments of the Somme the year before were nothing to those around Ypres. Batteries jostled each other in the shell-marked waste of mud, barking and crashing night and day. There were no trees, no houses, no countryside, no shelter, no sun. Wet, grey skies hung over the blasted land, and in the mind a gloomy depression grew and spread. Trenches had disappeared. “Pill-boxes” and shell holes took their place. We never went up the line with a working party with any real expectation of returning, and there was no longer any sustaining feeling that all this slaughter was leading us to anything. No one could see any purpose in it.

The attack got off to a bad start with heavy rain on the night of October 11-12, followed by high winds in the pre-dawn hours; the Germans also unleashed a preemptive bombardment on the New Zealanders’ front line positions at 5 a.m., just before the planned time of the attack. At the same time the British preparatory bombardment and creeping barrage were rendered less effective by the deep mud, which muffled the impact of high explosive shells, again leaving German barbed wire intact in many places. Further German “counter-battery” fire exacted a heavy toll on British artillery, which was also vulnerable to mud and misfires. Jackson described the British field artillery in action, along with the horrible conditions:

The gunners were working stripped almost to the waist. The pound and crash of the noisy little guns was terrific, deafening. If a gun failed or was knocked out another was soon in its place. Mud and slime; a night in a shell hole that was little better than a hollow of ooze. There were no proper shell holes, no communication trenches. All around was the most desolate landscape of shell-harrowed land. Shell hole merged with shell hole; many were death traps in which the wounded slipped and died.

At 5:25 a.m. the ANZAC troops started going over the top, but German machine gunners protected by concrete fortifications, or pillboxes, exacted a heavy toll on the advancing troops (above, evacuating a wounded soldier). Although the attackers reached the first objective in many places, many were forced to retire by heavy German fire; this in turn left gaps in the British frontline, leaving the flanks of neighboring units exposed to German counterattacks and forcing them to withdraw as well. By the afternoon of October 12 it was clear that the attack had failed.

Once again the attackers paid a heavy price in blood for negligible gains, in conditions that many participants described as the worst they had seen in the war so far. In one day the Second Battle of Passchendaele resulted in around 4,200 Australian casualties, 2,800 casualties in the New Zealand Division, and 10,000 casualties in the British Fifth Army. The British could take some comfort in the fact that the Germans also suffered steep losses. However German chief strategist General Erich Ludendorff, encouraged by the defensive victory and anticipating more inclement weather, ordered the Fourth Army to dig in and hold the Passchendaele Ridge, setting the stage for the Second Battle of Passchendaele – the final phase of the Third Battle of Ypres.

As elsewhere in the First World War, the unending bloodshed and climate of constant danger combined to produce a pronounced fatalistic attitude among troops on both sides of no-man’s-land. Wear, the British artillery officer, remembered:

I had all sorts of escapes; in fact they were so frequent that I got into a strange frame of mind, and became careless. It seemed as if I couldn’t bother to try and avoid unnecessary danger. The only matters of importance were whether they rations would come up promptly and if the bottle of whisky I had ordered would be there. It was for me the worst part of the War. Even now it looms like a gigantic nightmare in the back of my mind.

Meanwhile the total destruction of the Flanders landscape proceeded apace. Charles Biddle, an American pilot with the volunteer Escadrille Lafayette, noted in his diary on October 16, 1917 (below, an aerial view of the village of Passchendaele before and after the battle):

You can trace the advance by the slow changing of green fields and woods into a blasted wilderness which shows a mud brown color from the air. Fields become a mass of shell holes filled with water and a wood turns from an expanse of green foliage into a few shattered and leafless trunks… It is the same way with the little Belgian towns. By degrees they are obliterated until their sites are only distinguishable by a smudge a trifle darker in color than the brown of the torn fields which once surrounded them.

The Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic Ocean

After declaring war in April 1917 and implementing the draft in June, the U.S. government was eager to show the Allies that its contribution to the war effort would be more than financial support or a mere symbolic demonstration. The arrival in France of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, accompanied by around 100 officers and enlisted men, in June 1917, marked the beginning of the buildup – at first gradual, then increasingly rapid – of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, which would number around two million by the end of the war and play a decisive role in defeating Germany.

One of the first big American units to arrive in Europe was the 42nd Division, better known as the Rainbow Division because it included men from 26 states and the District of Columbia. Created at the suggestion of Major Douglas MacArthur, who was soon promoted to colonel, the division was 28,000 strong with its full complement (American divisions were around twice the strength of European divisions), all drawn from state militias. After being activated in August 1917, the Rainbow Division troops received crash course training to form it into a cohesive unit, then was immediately dispatched to France, where it received additional training in trench warfare before joining Allied troops in the frontline.

Elmer Sherwood, a soldier in the Rainbow Division, described troops traveling from their camp in Long Island to board the ships for France – including the President Lincoln and President Grant – in New York City in his diary on October 18, 1917:

We arose at three o’clock this morning and in two hours were marching with full pack and rifle to the station where we entrained for the river docks where ferry boats carried us up the river, to the piers, where the big ocean liners flying the U.S. flag were waiting to carry us to foreign soil. All day long thousands of Sammies [soldiers] who were to make the voyage were arriving and going up the gangplank in single file. Each of us was given a slip of paper on which was printed the deck compartment and bunk each was to occupy and where to eat and wash.

Like the millions of American troops who would follow them, for most of the militiamen and volunteers of the Rainbow Division the voyage to France was their first journey outside the United States. On that note many viewed the war as an exciting adventure, but unsurprisingly they also suffered from homesickness and anxiety. Another soldier in the Division, Vernon Kniptash, described his feelings on leaving New York Harbor – and America – in his diary entry on October 18, 1917:

It’s night now and I can see the New York skyline from the upper deck. Every window ablaze and a million windows, the most wonderful sight I’ve seen since I left home. The boat is slipping away and the Statue of Liberty is getting fainter and fainter. It sure makes a fellow feel funny under these conditions. How many of us will get to see that statue when this war ends? The boys were unusually silent, and all were thinking of the same thought, I guess. All is blackness now and the states are “somewhere out there.” I’ve been blue at times, but never as blue as I am right now.

Once at sea, however, their moods seemed to improve. On October 22, 1917, as the Lincoln was carried along by the tropical Gulf Stream, Kniptash wrote:

The weather is so warm that it’s almost unbearable. I was on guard tonight and I enjoyed every minute of it. On land during my second shift I usually have to pinch myself to keep awake, but tonight I was wide awake and enjoyed salty breezes and [the] big moon to the limit. Early in the evening four old sailors formed a quartette and sang silhouetted against that big yellow moon. It was just like a stage setting. I’m seeing the things I used to read about in books and it’s all like a dream to me. I’m always afraid someone will come along and wake me.

Sherwood also found the voyage across the Atlantic exhilarating, at least at first, writing in his diary on October 19, 1917:

I had planned all my life to make a voyage across the sea, but I little thought it would be under the conditions existing now… Here on the top of the ship I lie between my blankets in silence. All have gone to their bunks except some like myself who prefer to lie on deck. What an opportunity for one to think. He cannot help it. The great waves dash against the sides of the ship but one does not notice them for their monotony. I can realize now why so many boys leave their homes to seek adventure on the high seas…

Of course the sense of adventure was tempered by the ever-present threat of U-boat attacks, which increased as the convoy approached Europe (although no ships were sunk on this journey). On October 27, 1917, Kniptash wrote:

The Captain gave us orders to sleep in our clothes tonight. That means everything but blouse and gun. All these articles want to be where a fellow can reach them and put them on without the loss of a second. The Capt. said to expect a call at any time now. It means we are right in the center of the war zone and all the chance in the world of taking a nice cold bath before morning.

As they approached France the troops, almost all young men in their late teens and early 20s, received a stern warning from their commanding officer, as described by Kniptash on October 30, 1917:

The Captain assembled the battery and gave the boys a heart-to-heart talk. He said that all indications seemed to be that we reach port tomorrow. He talked about the women in this town [St. Nazaire] and the chances the men were taking in case they had sexual intercourse. He said that the women that hung around the camps were all diseased and that the soldiers in case they should contract the disease could not receive the proper medical attention and stood a good chance of ruining their lives…. I promised myself that I’d return to the States in just the good condition I left them… I think the training Mumsey gave me will make me walk the straight and narrow over here.

Plenty of troops in the Rainbow Division disregarded this advice, as reflected in high rates of sexually transmitted disease, but many men were simply happy to have a few moments of female companionship – especially if the women in question happened to be Americans too. Marjorie Crocker, an American volunteering as a Red Cross nurse, described meeting American soldiers, all volunteers from the New York Telephone company and Western Union, laying telephone wires for General Pershing’s new headquarters, in provincial France:

… we heard English-speaking voices calling us, and on turning saw several American soldiers. We waved vigorously and went on, but were stopped by two of them running up and taking off their hats, offering their hands, and saying, “Do you folks speak English?” On our replying that we did, they let a yell, and calling their pals announced that they had “caught ‘em, and you bet they can talk the lingo!”… They were nice men, and they were so pitifully glad to hear some English!

See the previous installment or all entries.

Civil War Cannonballs Found on South Carolina Beach in Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian

ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images
ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images

Hurricane Dorian skimmed the United States' East Coast last week, creating a trail of damage residents are still dealing with. But it wasn't just trash and debris the storm surges left behind: As WCSC reports, two cannonballs dating back to the Civil War were discovered on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the aftermath of the storm.

Aaron Lattin and his girlfriend Alba were walking on the beach on September 6 when they saw what looked like rocks nestled in the sand. As they examined them more closely, they realized they had found something much more special. The weathered objects were actually cannonballs that have likely been buried in the area for more than 150 years.

Incredibly, this isn't the first time Civil War cannonballs have been discovered on Folly Beach following a hurricane: In 2016, Hurricane Matthew unearthed 16 of them. Folly Island was used as a Union base a century and a half ago, and items leftover from the artillery battery built there are still scattered around the shoreline. The couple behind this latest discovery believes there are more waiting to be found.

Old cannonballs may look like cool artifacts to treasure hunters, but they should still be treated with caution. Police and bombs disposal technicians were called to the scene at Folly Beach to confirm the cannonballs were no longer functional.

[h/t WCSC]

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

Johnson may or may not have felt like a hero, though he certainly was. But he must have also felt something else—a sense of confusion. A man of color, he had been dispatched to a segregated regiment, where he received paltry combat training and was assigned menial tasks like unloading trucks. Even his homecoming parade was split up according to race. Henry Johnson, decorated virtually head to toe in French military honors, returned to a country that considered him both hero and a second-class citizen.

 

Though officers would later verify much of Johnson’s account of that night in the woods, his early life is harder to pin down. It has been reported that Johnson himself wasn’t quite sure when he was born. No one appeared to have kept a close eye on his birth certificate, which came out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The official U.S. Army website honoring Johnson’s service lists an approximate birth date of July 15, 1892. Other research indicates he could have been born as early as 1887 or as late as 1897.

After moving to New York as a teenager, Johnson took on an assortment of odd jobs; he was a chauffeur and a soda mixer, among other occupations. Depending on the account, he was living in Albany working either in a coal yard or as a railway porter when he opened a newspaper in the spring of 1917 and read that the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was accepting enlistees. The regiment was comprised entirely of black soldiers.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform
Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Johnson showed up on June 5, 1917, weighing a slight 130 pounds and standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Assigned to Company C of the 15th—which later became known as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment—he was quickly dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, where he trained along with the rest of the segregated unit. Though minorities had served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, they often lacked support from officials and got inferior training compared to their white counterparts. At Camp Wadsworth, Johnson was said to have been used primarily as labor, unloading supplies and digging latrines. If there was one bright spot during this time, it was that he married his wife, Georgina Edna Jackson, that September.

Johnson and the 369th were sent to France on January 1, 1918. There they continued laboring, which frustrated their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Hayward lobbied his superiors to give his men a chance in combat. Since France was experiencing a shortage of men, the 369th—which later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because many of their members had come from Harlem in New York City—joined the 161st Division of the French Army, even wearing the jackets and helmets of the foreign military.

To the French, Johnson and his fellow soldiers were a welcome solution to their lack of manpower. Sent to the front lines in March 1918, Johnson and the others learned enough French to understand commands from superiors. They were armed with rifles and held on to the bolo knives used by the U.S. Army. The imposing 14-inch blades weighed more than a pound and had much of their weight running along the back, giving them a cleaving action similar to a machete. Johnson would soon be glad he had such a weapon on his waist.

Along with Needham Roberts—a man from Trenton, New Jersey—Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson and Roberts were given the late shift, on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. It would be a night neither he nor Roberts would ever forget.

As their shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching. The soldiers were young and inexperienced, and Johnson felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. He stayed put and surveyed the area while Roberts went to rest in a trench. Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized they were surrounded, and urged Roberts to run for help. But Roberts didn't get far before he decided to come back and help, and was soon hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.

Still conscious, Roberts handed Johnson grenades to toss. When those ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.

After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head. But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man. More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.

An illustration depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers
An illustration by artist Charles Alston depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers. The artwork was used by the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) to inspire American soldiers during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At one point, Johnson noticed the Germans had grabbed Roberts and were attempting to haul him away. He intervened, stabbing more soldiers, including one in the ribs.

The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled. Johnson was given medical attention. So was Roberts. Both lived.

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle. German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood. Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others. Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six, with Johnson injuring 32 men. After all the fighting, Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

The nicknames came fast. The bridge was declared “the Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson himself was given the unofficial label “the Black Death” and the official rank of sergeant. He was headed back home.

 

Before they departed, the French honored Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest awards for valor. They were the first two Americans to receive it. Johnson’s was amended with the addition of the Gold Palm, intended to signify extraordinary valor.

It was an honor, though one that came with a heavy price. Johnson later estimated he had been shot five times, the bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and even his head. A scar stretched over his lip. A bayonet had been plunged into his torso—twice. He had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot. In all, Johnson endured 21 injuries as a result of his defiant stand against the Germans.

Back home, he convalesced as the country sang his praises. Often, such reports of his bravery took pains to note he was a man of color. "When proudly speaking of fighting races we must not overlook the American Negro," read an editorial in the New York Evening Telegram. Other times, Johnson found himself in the peculiar position of being celebrated while simultaneously being reminded of his purportedly inferior status. The parade that honored the Harlem Hellfighters in February 1919 ran for seven miles, with Johnson leading the procession in an open-topped cab. But the Hellfighters could not march with their white counterparts.

Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918
Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unfortunately, Johnson’s postwar life remains as murky as his earliest years. He reportedly received disability payments from the government as well as medical care, but it’s unknown to what extent that supported him or how badly his injuries kept him from employment opportunities. (He did ask for, and received, as much as $100 per minute during speaking engagements in cities such as St. Louis—well over $1000 in today's money.) An attempt was made by the Albany Afro-American Association to raise money to build him a home as a way of expressing gratitude for his service, but it’s unclear whether the effort was successful. On July 1, 1929, Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996.

For years, it was unclear what became of Johnson's remains. In 2002, when the historians at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs researched his service at the behest of his descendants (though it was later discovered they were mistaken and not actually related to Johnson), the historians determined Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With confirmation of the gravesite, Johnson also became eligible for and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. And every June 5, Albany celebrates Henry Johnson Day in acknowledgement of the day he enlisted. The city also gives out a Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service for those making contributions in the area.

Those honors joined the Croix de Guerre, which Johnson was said to have worn with humility. He sometimes needed to be prodded into discussing his act of bravery, as if it were of no major consequence. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “[I] just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."

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