WWI Centennial: Last Christmas At War

Wellcome Collection, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0
Wellcome Collection, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 298th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

DECEMBER 25, 1917: LAST CHRISTMAS AT WAR

“Christmas was, of course, but a sorry season,” wrote Evelyn, Princess Blücher in Berlin, doubtless speaking for many across a war-torn continent, in her diary in January 1918. She added, “The days come and go, and we have already crossed the borderland and have left the gloom of the old year, only to enter the darkness of a new one. Every hour brings its fears, disappointments, and vague hopes, so that there is but little time for collecting one’s scattered ideas.” Her feelings reflected the general mood in Germany, judging from the testimony of Herbert Sulzbach, a German soldier on leave in Frankfurt. “The consequences of three and a half years of war are weighing heavily on the home country, and you see a great deal, in fact, a never-ending amount of distress," he wrote in his diary on January 12, 1918.

The Christmas of 1917, the fourth during the war (after Yuletides in 1914, 1915, and 1916) would also be the last—although no one could know that, or be able to foretell the epic events that would unfold before 1918 at last brought peace to a shattered world. Jack Martin, a British soldier deployed to Italy to help shore up Italian defenses after Caporetto, wrote in his diary on December 31, 1917:

Thus ends the year of grace 1917, a year of frightful agony and slaughter, of shattered hopes and broken lives; a year where humanity has sunk to incredible depths of inhumanity; a year that has brought tears to the eyes of the Recording Angel … Our souls have been scorched and seared by contact with hell and we yearn for the healing oil of peace.

While most ordinary people longed for peace, they expressed feelings of helplessness in the hands of fate and forces far larger than themselves. The war had long ago taken on a life of its own, defying human comprehension or control, and the end seemed to retreat further and further into an indefinite future. Vera Brittain, now approaching her third year as a volunteer nurse’s aid, recalled that by the beginning of 1918, “I no longer even wondered when the war would end, for I had grown incapable of visualizing the world or my own existence without it.”

RARE REPASTS

It’s worth noting that Christmas was still a time for joy and good cheer, at least for soldiers who were lucky enough to be “in billets” or on leave, where military authorities did their best to provide a traditional Christmas meal. This was easier for the Allies, as food was generally more plentiful in Britain and France than in the Central Powers, where the Allied “starvation blockade” and disruptions to agriculture and transportation were taking a heavy toll. (By the end of the war it is estimated that around 400,000 Germans had died from malnutrition or starvation.)

John Tucker, a British soldier, described festivities with plenty of food and alcohol (which, however, left him with a week-long hangover):

As the officers’ servants were taking their mess-cart to the large YMCA canteen at Arras for their Christmas supplies, we persuaded them to bring us two cases of port wine, some Vermouth, and to lend us a dozen glass tumblers. The cooks did an excellent job and conjured up a large roast dinner of turkey, vegetables, and Christmas pudding. Every man was given a small Bible from the Queen. These came in useful later as cigarette papers. We also managed to get a few Dutch cigars. We settled down at our table after dinner, with tumblers full of port, plenty of bread, cheese, and pickles, and naturally all got very jolly.

Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described their Christmas repast near Ypres: “A whole pig had been roasted and there were potatoes, onions, Brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding, apples, oranges, dates, nuts, cigarettes, and a double rum issue. During this orgy musical selections were given on a portable Decca gramophone.” (Below, a New Zealand commander carves the Christmas turkey).


National Library of New Zealand, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

The holiday was even more bountiful for American troops, who benefited from the country’s vast breadbasket as well as the government’s determination to keep soldiers (and therefore their voting relations at home) as comfortable and happy as possible. And, of course, concerned family members also lavished gifts on soldiers with care packages. Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier with the Rainbow Division in France, wrote in his diary, “Mumsey and Maude sent me heaps. God bless ‘em both. Lordy, but I’m happy. Had a scrumptious dinner, duck, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, jam, pickles, slaw, doughnuts, peach pie, cake, figs, and coffee. Then they passed out chocolate, cigarettes and cigars. I’m so full I’m in misery.”

AMERICANS AT WAR AND AT SEA

Christmas at war was a new experience for most Americans, following the country’s entry into the conflict in April 1917. Like their European peers, ordinary American soldiers found the holiday an occasion for reflection. William Russel, an American soldier in the transport section of the U.S. Army Air Force in France, wrote home the day after Christmas, “It is the first Christmas that I have ever been separated from those whom I love, and instead of being a day of festivity, it has changed to a day of thought, and one that will linger in my memory for years, if I am spared.” Later, he noted, “Christmas and New Years have passed, and I must confess it is a sort of relief to have them over. Although both were happy days in so far as the hospitality and very kind treatment by friends went, yet there was an indescribable lonesomeness which made them strange.” (Below, volunteers fill stockings at a U.S. Army hospital in France).


National Library of Medicine, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

While Christmas was a time for contemplation, the war remained an enigma with undeniable but sometimes inexpressible significance for humanity and the individual’s inner life. Julia Stimson, an American volunteering as a nurse in France, wrote home in December 1917:

Oh I wish I could tell you what all this is meaning, as I see it. Maybe some day I can, for every day I am seeing things more clearly, but as yet I can’t write it all down—after a while perhaps. We talk about it, from time to time, some of us, every once in a while, and oh, dear people, no greater thing can ever come into any one’s life than this chance of ours—to get away from little things and self and to know what the things of the Spirit are, and what true values really are.

In 1917 thousands of Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, spent the holiday at sea aboard ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, rendered even more unusual and nerve-wracking by the constant threat of U-boat attack. In fact U-boats sank 400,000 tons of shipping in December 1917 alone—a decrease from earlier in 1917, thanks to the Allies’ adoption of convoy tactics as well as the vigilance of destroyers armed with depth charges.


Erik Sass

By the end of 1917 the shipping struggle was finally starting to turn in the Allies’ favor, due in large part to the massive production of American shipyards, which churned out millions of tons of new shipping. However, net losses from U-boat attacks continued through the first quarter of 1918, and from the perspective of the British Admiralty, the end of 1917 was one of the most perilous moments of the war. For ordinary British and French people, the continuing losses during this period resulted in shortages and rising prices for things like sugar and tobacco.


Erik Sass

Even when Allied convoys made it through unscathed, the experience of crossing the Atlantic under constant threat was unique and unforgettable for American soldiers. Morris Dargan, a railway engineer from Oregon, wrote to his sister describing safety measures on board:

You have asked me whether or not we saw any submarines. No, we didn’t see any, but all through the submarine zone we wore life preservers at all times. We wore them at meals, on the deck, in the hold and in bed. We had lifeboat drill a couple of times each day and were not allowed to throw anything overboard, lest a “sub” would sight it and follow our trail. We were not permitted to talk loudly or to smoke on deck after night, etc.

As always, travelers were impressed by the majesty of the sea, tempered by the menace below the waves. Daniel Poling, a Christian lecturer and temperance advocate en route to the Western Front to observe conditions and speak to troops at YMCA canteens, recalled his winter crossing:

The great liner had reached the danger zone. She drove ahead through the night with ports closed and not a signal showing. Under the stars, both fore and aft, marines watched in silence by the guns. Each man wore or had by him a life-preserver, and there was silence on the deck. Quietly I stood by the rail, and watched the waves break into spray against the mighty vessel’s bow. The phosphorescent glow bathed the sea in wondrous light all about; only the stars and the weird illumination of the waves battled the darkness; there was no moon. It was hard to realize that out there somewhere silent watchers waited to do us hurt.

Not everyone was headed to Europe. Josephine Therese, an American singer returning to America in December 1917 after being interned in Germany for thirteen months, described her Christmastime voyage back to the U.S., which managed to have some exciting incidents even though no U-boats attacked the ship:

We took the safest possible course, swinging in a wide circle northward, which carried us close to Greenland, and the voyage was uninterrupted by Prussian sea perils and otherwise uneventful, except for a few minor incidents, such as a knife duel between two Bulgarians in the steerage, which ended by one throwing the other overboard, never to be seen again … Despite this tragedy, we arrived with the same number of passengers … for a baby was born en route—also in steerage.

Though spending Christmas aboard ship was certainly novel, most people who found themselves at sea on the holiday were not eager to repeat the experience. Briggs Adams, an American soldier crossing the Atlantic, noted that the common affliction of seasickness made it hard to spread holiday cheer:

The day before Christmas it began to get pretty rough, and that night the ship rolled so that it was impossible to sleep a wink, for it was a continual fight to keep from rolling out of the bunk. Half the ship was sick [on] Christmas. They decorated the dining room up a bit with paper and flags, but it only made the absence of Christmas greens the more noticeable. There wasn’t one Christmasy thing the whole day … never again will I spend Christmas on the sea.

ENCOUNTERING HORROR

Of course, the ocean voyage was only the beginning of the new experiences facing American soldiers and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of war. Like their European counterparts before them, their first encounters with death and destruction at the front would be etched in their memories forever, although later these horrors became commonplace and routine. Preston Gibson, an American serving in the ambulance corps, wrote home about the scenes around first-aid posts near the Aisne in November 1917:

Near one called Bascule, about half-a-mile from the third line, we found a great number of dead piled up in the road—horses and men. Some of the bodies had to be pulled off the road in order to make it clear for traffic. Besides the bodies that were lying stretched in different positions, some with their heads off, some with chests torn and ripped open, I saw two mounds of dead Chasseurs at Ferme Hemeret, about 15 or 20 in each mound, one body piled on top of the other. Some lay as if in slumber; the faces of others were contorted by the great agony they had passed through; others were in most grotesque positions.

Sudden, sweeping personal losses were a regular part of life in wartime, as Americans were discovering. Coningsby Dawson, an American who had volunteered in the Canadian Army, wrote home in November 1917:

Last week I met one of my gunners on leave. He was standing on the island in Piccadilly Circus. I learnt from him that every officer who was with me at the battery when I was wounded has since been wiped out. Even some who joined since have been done for … Among the killed is poor S., the one who was my best friend in France. You remember that he had a young wife and his first baby was born in February. He used to carry the list of all the people I wanted written to if I were killed, and I had promised to do the same for him … All this was told me casually in the heart of London’s pleasure with the taxis and buses streaming by.

Though French and British troops were more familiar with conditions at the front and somewhat inured to the awful sights, the death and destruction never ceased to horrify even the most hardened soldiers (below, British troops on the Ancre, early 1918). John Jackson, a British soldier, described shell-holes behind the front in December 1917:

These holes were often 10 or 12 feet deep and full up at this time with dirty, slimy water. At the bottom of them in many cases could be seen the bodies of dead men and mules, together with parts of ammunition wagons, the whole creating a stench that was rotten, and sickening.


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Francis Buckley, a British soldier, recorded similar scenes near Passchendaele, Belgium, in mid-December 1917:

The shell-holes were often full of German dead—I counted nearly 100 within a quarter of a mile of Dan Cottages. And on the forward wooden tracks used by our transport, the ground reeked like a slaughter-house. Fragments of everything just swept off the tracks. The limbs and bodies of the pack-mules lying sometimes in heaps, sometimes at intervals, all along the route.

Conditions at the front often required regular contact with corpses. After recovering from his holiday hangover, the British soldier Tucker described the sickening but very common state of trenches near Cambrai, recently the scene of a short-lived British success with a surprise attack by tanks:

Often there was a soft, rubbery feeling under foot similar to standing on an inflated mattress; this would indicate a dead body in the bottom of the trench, having been trampled deeper in the mud by the feet of perhaps hundreds of men passing over it. Sometimes an arm or leg would be protruding. No one had time or inclination to do anything about this. It soon became a common experience and accepted with indifference.

Tens of thousands of women volunteering as nurses in field hospitals as well as larger convalescent centers at home also directly experienced the horrors of war, treating badly wounded and dying men. Still serving as a V.A.D. in France, Brittain wrote home on December 5, 1917:

We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago; there are 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case—to say nothing of 10 cases—of mustard gas in its early stages—could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard- colored suppurating blisters, with blinded eyes—sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently—all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke … and yet people persist in saying that God made the war, when there are such inventions of the Devil about.

THE SPECTER OF DISEASE

Disease was a common killer from the beginning of the war, with typhus, dysentery, malaria, and gas gangrene killing hundreds of thousands and incapacitating millions more across Europe, the Middle East, and other theaters of war. Over the course of the war typhus, carried by ubiquitous body lice, killed 200,000 people in Serbia alone, out of a total population of 3 million, as well as 60,000 Habsburg prisoners of war. During the Russian Civil War, just beginning, typhus would kill an estimated 3 million people from 1918-1922.

But even these losses would pale in comparison to the scourge nature would unleash on the world in 1918-1920, in the form of the highly contagious and breathtakingly deadly influenza epidemic. Although it became known a the “Spanish flu” due to reports of the high death toll in neutral Spain, where the press was free from wartime censorship, the flu was a global pandemic that killed anywhere from 50 to 100 million people—more than the war’s own total of around 20 million.

The flu was a natural phenomenon, but wartime conditions undoubtedly played a major role in enabling its spread, and may also have made it more deadly. Throwing together millions of soldiers—most of them young men who had never been far from home and therefore lacked immunity to new diseases—in cold, drafty barracks and tents, with primitive communal canteens, latrines and showers, provided perfect breeding grounds for the flu as well as other diseases. The movement of millions of human beings around the world also provided an ideal vector for the virus to reach distant populations. And bringing together large numbers of people from different places may have enabled several flu viruses to swap DNA and become even more dangerous (the flu epidemic actually unfolded in two main stages, the second far more lethal).

As 1917 drew to a close, no one could have predicted the unprecedented global flu epidemic about to scour the planet, but many observers noted the sharp uptick in communicable disease around this time. Already, during the American Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico, army doctors recorded outbreak of a mysterious ailment causing severe bronchitis in troops stationed in northern Mexico and along the southwestern border region; some of these troops later returned to Fort Riley, Kansas—site of the first recorded flu outbreak in March 1918.


Erik Sass

There’s no way to know whether the two events were linked, but there’s little doubt that all the conditions for an epidemic were in place, including food and fuel shortages in Europe which left people physically weakened and cold (below, snow at Hooge, Belgium, on New Year’s Day). Although better off than their counterparts in the Central Powers, Allied soldiers and civilians often went hungry too, due to shortages and supply disruptions. Martin, the British soldier in Italy, wrote on December 10, 1917:

The rations are so short that the cooks have to be most careful in issuing them—as long as every man gets the same there can be no complaint … Before allowing any plate to be removed we demand to know if any one has any objection; thus we avoid the possibility of any subsequent criticism or complaint … We cannot say that we are suffering actual starvation but most assuredly we know the pangs of continual hunger. For breakfast we get a plate of porridge or a slice of bacon, for dinner, bully stew but no potatoes and once or twice we have had boiled rice.


Archives New Zealand, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

In Paris in January 1918, Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer born in France, noted that in the city, “Deaths from pneumonia have occurred by dozens daily.” On the other side of the Atlantic, the winter of 1917-1918 was one of the coldest on record in North America, blanketing even southern camps in snow and freezing rain. On December 1, 1917, August P. Gardner, a former congressman from Massachusetts and the son-in-law of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, wrote to Joseph P. Tumulty, a secretary to President Wilson, about conditions at Camp Wheeler, Georgia:

There have been 100 deaths from pneumonia and 11 deaths from other causes at this camp. Of this number 96 have occurred within the last three weeks. To my mind the explanation is fairly simple. The following are the conditions as I see them: Between October 16th and 30th, we received about 10,000 drafted men from Camp Gordon, Camp Pike, and Camp Jackson. With the exception of about 3000 from Camp Pike, they came without overcoats, in cotton outer garments, and cotton underclothes; some without blouses. None of them had had experience in sleeping out-of-doors and none were accustomed to camping out … Being from rural areas, many had never had measles, and this disease spread rapidly. Better soil in which to sow the seeds of pneumonia could not be imagined. The Base Hospital at Camp Wheeler is calculated for 500 patients, and over three times this number of sick men were of necessity thrust upon it.

Similarly, Paul Elliott Green wrote home from Camp Sevier, South Carolina, on November 22, 1917, “We are quarantined for an indefinite time on account of measles, pneumonia, and meningitis. Many poor boys have died, as many as six in one night.” And Kenneth Gow, an officer in training in Camp Wadsworth, wrote home on December 14, 1917:

The thermometer has remained in the vicinity of 6 degrees since the first of the week, and we have about 8 inches of snow on the ground. It is impossible to keep warm. Everything is frozen up, and we have to melt snow for water to wash in. On Tuesday afternoon the regiment was suddenly ordered out on an inspection evening parade by some Regular Army inspecting officers. We stood for an hour shivering in a blinding snowstorm from the North, with a biting wind driving the snow into our eyes and ears.

THE LOOMING RECKONING

Even while unaware of the impending natural disaster, the Allies had plenty to fear as 1918 dawned. Italy’s defeat at Caporetto and Russia’s withdrawal from the war opened the way for Germany to transfer around a million men to the Western Front, where they would unleash a titanic assault in the spring in an attempt to settle the war before large numbers of American troops began to arrive in Europe. No one could predict the shape or direction of the German attack, but there was no question—it was coming, and the final result would depend in large part on how quickly America could ride to the rescue.

Mildred Aldrich, an American retiree living in a village outside Paris, confided in a letter home, “I don’t deny that I study the map today with a nervous dread of what is before us on the road.” Morris Dargan, the railway engineer from Oregon, warned in a letter home that “next spring … will mark the most momentous hours of the whole war.” Russel, the American soldier serving in the air force supply corps in France, noted, “The French are so down to bone and sinew, and have so little physical strength left … of course, there is great anxiety as to what the late winter and early spring may bring.” And Katharine Morse, an American volunteering in canteens for soldiers, noted disturbing talk that France was all but beaten:

And underneath all this runs another rumor, still darker, still more disquieting. The French, the gallant French, they say, are "laying down.” They are ready to make peace at any price. They are played out, sick to death of it all! “Forty-two months in the trenches!” cried a sergeant en permission last night; “It is enough! I am through. Let the Americans do it!” And this feeling, they tell us, is widespread. The people see our soldiers day after day, in the training camps, inactive. “What are they here for?” they are asking. “Why don’t they fight? Are they going to wait until it is all over?”

On the other side, the recent victories in Russia and Italy held out the hope that all the sacrifices might not be in vain after all. Adolf Hitler, then a regimental messenger on the Western Front, later wrote in Mein Kampf:

Towards the end of 1917 it seemed as if we had got over the worst phases of moral depression after the front. After the Russian collapse the whole army recovered its courage and hope, and we were gradually becoming more and more convinced that the struggle would end in our favor … The Italian collapse in the autumn of 1917 had a wonderful effect; for this victory proved that it was possible to break through another front besides the Russian.

But the Germans were in a race against time, and not just because of the prospect of American troops starting to arrive in force. They also faced growing anger on the home front, due to the murderous toll of the war, which by the beginning of 1918 had claimed the lives of around 1.3 million soldiers, and the terrible privations faced by civilians, increasingly blamed on the German government and military as well as the enemy. In her final diary entry of 1917, Blücher noted with unease, “If the war continues much longer the people will follow Russia’s example and take the matter into their own hands.”

This would be the year of reckoning.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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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