WWI Centennial: Central Powers In Collapse

Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain
Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 320th installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 26-OCTOBER 1, 1918: CENTRAL POWERS IN COLLAPSE

The surprise attack by the British Army on August 8, 1918, rued by German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff as “the black day of the Germany Army,” inaugurated a relentless series of blows by Allied armies, including a wide British advance from Flanders to the Somme as well as the American liberation of the St. Mihiel salient to the east. At first Ludendorff still clung to the hope that Germany might use occupied territory in Belgium and northern France as a bargaining chip for a negotiated peace—until a series of climactic events between September 26 and October 1, 1918 left no doubt that Germany and the other Central Powers were now truly in the midst of final, catastrophic collapse.

BREAKTHROUGH ON THE WESTERN FRONT

After months of preparation, on September 26, 1918 Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch unleashed the biggest coordinated strategic offensive of the war—and human history to that date—on the Western Front, sending Allied troops into action all along the line from the North Sea coast to Verdun, in many places against the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line. All told, the final offensive on the Western Front pitted Allied armies with a total strength of around 5 million men—including 1.7 million French, 1.5 million British, 1.2 million American, and 150,000 Belgian soldiers, although not all these forces were deployed at once—against about half that number of German defenders.

In the north, Foch had formed a new Flanders Army Group commanded by King Albert of Belgium, composed of the Belgian Army, the French Sixth Army, and the British Second Army, which would attack on both sides of Ypres. To the south, the rest of the British Expeditionary Force would launch an all-out push stretching from Lille to the Somme. To the southeast, the French Army would follow up the victories of July and August with an attack from the Somme to Champagne, and the American First Army would launch the eastern end offensive with its biggest action of the war so far, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Western Front, September 28, 1918
Erik Sass

The carefully staged offensive would unfold in several phases, with the Americans attacking first in the Meuse-Argonne region on September 26, followed by the British First and Third Armies attacking together towards Cambrai, scene of the short-lived Allied victory in November 1917, on September 27. Next, the Flanders Army Group would pounce on September 28, and finally, the British Fourth Army and French First Army would attack along the Somme on September 29. All these actions would see infantry assaults closely coordinated with artillery, air power, and tanks, showcasing the “combined arms” tactics that came to dominate 20th century warfare.

As usual, the Allies tried to enforce strict secrecy about the timing and location of the offensive, meaning hundreds of thousands of troops had to endure night marches to conceal their movements from enemy airplanes. William Bell, a British officer in charge of scavenging war materiel, wrote in his diary on September 26:

“It was a long time before I got accustomed to the noise of the traffic last night; for the sound of steady tramping of men, of the erratic purring of the motor-lorries, and of the clatter of the horses and mules, continued far into the night. And the traffic was still pouring northward in a never-ending torrent when I first became conscious this morning.”

AMERICANS LAUNCH MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE

The general offensive kicked off with the Franco-American assault in the Meuse-Argonne on September 26, 1918, which helped tie down German reserves, setting the stage for the British, Belgian, and French attacks further west. Although the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was a decisive victory for the Allies, it came at a very heavy cost in American blood, with 26,277 U.S. soldiers killed by the end of the battle on November 11. That makes it the bloodiest campaign U.S. history, prompting some contemporary observers and historians to criticize the American Expeditionary Force commander, John “Black Jack” Pershing, for being reckless with American lives in order to prove American fighting mettle to the Allies.

In fact, the Americans suffered from a number of handicaps. Because the Allies had agreed to prioritize transportation of American combat troops across the Atlantic, Pershing lacked the large staff needed to coordinate the movement of large numbers of troops, guns, and supplies. Unfortunately, Foch’s plan for the general offensive required the American First Army, numbering around 600,000 men, to move from the newly liberated St. Mihiel salient 60 miles west for the Argonne attack in just one week, resulting in widespread confusion and delays (once again, Pershing had agreed to rush the offensive to placate the Allies).

As always, conditions were miserable as well as dangerous, with unending rain and mud the commonest complaints of American soldiers during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. John Miller, an army dentist and medical officer wrote home:

“In all this time you live outdoors in all kinds of weather, and sometimes you get so damned wet and cold and miserable you wonder if anyone ever was warm enough to be comfortable and had enough to eat. You never build a fire because in the daytime the Germans would see the smoke and at night they’d see the light. And then Fritz comes over about every night in his bombing machines and drops bombs around in among your pup tents. You should hear those things land! When they strike a building there is just a cloud of dust and when that clears away there is just a big hole in the ground where the building was.”

The Americans enjoyed the advantage of thousands of trucks and other motor vehicles, but these presented issues of their own, including massive fuel consumption and inevitable breakdowns. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, described the huge nighttime movements in preparation for the attack, as well as large numbers of mechanical casualties, on September 24:

“By day the roads are pretty vacant and my car roared along unhampered. But by night there begins a tremendous flow of iron along the arteries of this front. Guns and shell trucks, tractors, horses dragging metal things, and the men bearing iron arms fill the roads and “proceed up.” By day the road is clear again, the only evidence of its night travail being wheels, broken gear, and every little while entire smashed trucks shoved into the ditch—casualties of the night.”

The Americans faced other problems, some of their own making. Pershing had just used his best divisions in the St. Mihiel Offensive, meaning the forces available for the Argonne offensive were inexperienced or tired. American divisions, roughly twice the size of European divisions, maneuvered awkwardly both behind the lines and in battle, with supply of food and fuel presenting special difficulties. The Americans also relied heavily on new communications technology, including telephones, telegraph, and wireless radio—by the end of the war the AEF’s network had grown to more than 100,000 miles of telephone and telegraph wire—but this proved vulnerable to enemy fire. U.S. forces were still mastering the art of battlefield signaling with flares, heliographs, and other traditional means. As a result, American units often became mixed up on the battlefield (click for archival footage of U.S. forces in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive).

On the plus side, however, the Americans were relatively well supplied with artillery and ammunition, including 700 tanks, by the French and British, thanks to Foch and the French commander Philippe Petain. With this huge numerical and material superiority, Pershing was confident his doughboys and devil dogs, armed with American fighting spirit, could break through the enemy’s strong sequential lines of defense, albeit with heavy casualties.

“IT CANNOT BE DESCRIBED, IT CAN ONLY BE FELT”

The battle opened at 2:30 a.m. on September 26, 1918 with another record-breaking barrage: 2417 guns fired 4 million shells over the course of the battle. One American soldier remembered the opening bombardment:

“We had two hours to wait. It was cold and damp, and I hugged the ground to keep from shivering. We were tired to the bone, but we could not sleep. Indeed, who wanted to sleep in such a scene as that. It cannot be described, it can only be felt. The big guns behind us were booming and lighting up the sky with their flashes, and the Boche was answering back, and we could hear the great missiles of death singing out over our heads in a multitude of monotones. Just before dawn the lesser guns opened up like the barking of many dogs, and then the whole world was filled as if with the noise of great machinery grinding out death.”

As Lieutenant Francis “Bud” Bradford remembered, “by 2 a.m. we were ready. A half hour’s tense wait. At 2:30 the barrage cut loose. For three hours a solid sheet of flame lit up all behind us. O God, O God, the poor devils on the other end.”

At 5:55 a.m. the first wave of men from nine American divisions went over the top, and made swift progress against scant opposition at first, as the Germans had wisely abandoned their frontline trenches. Resistance began to stiffen after the first several miles, however, including “strong points” consisting of heavily fortified machine gun nests in concrete emplacements. Subsequent waves of Americans followed. Bradford remembered their turn:

“At 8:30 we went over, a link in the grand attack. Another battalion was in the lead. About 10 the first morning, prisoners commenced to come in. They were an inspiring sight, to say the least. Shells were breaking through us, and every now and then machine guns flattened us to the ground, but we kept on without losses until the evening of the first day. We were lying in what had once been a town when five Boche planes swooped over us and dropped bombs into the company, killing two men and wounding a third.”

Marines advance at Meuse-Argonne, WWI
U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After a rapid initial advance, however, disorganization and lack of experience began to take a toll, as American units became hopelessly jumbled. One officer lamented, “The failure of liaison and all mechanical means of communication cost the lives of many brave men in the front lines in the course of the battle.” He recalled:

“Whole battalions, led by commanders with a poor sense of direction, wandered from their proper line of advance, sometimes to bring up in another division’s sector or to find themselves moving southward. Battalions lost their companies and platoons escaped from their companies … Many platoons went their own way the entire forenoon without having seen another American unit or without having any sort of idea where they were. The constant effort to seek contact with the flanks of adjacent units became a more engrossing occupation even than dealing with the enemy.”

The consequences were deadly, according to the same observer, who witnessed an entire battalion mowed down while advancing against enemy trenches that were still intact:

“From every direction, German machine-gun fire assaulted them. Many of them crumbled at once. The second wave—which included me—lay waiting to follow them, horrified by their dying screams … The next few minutes were among the worst of the war for me as we lay helpless to aid, listening to our friends being torn to pieces by gunfire.”

Soldiers resting during Meuse-Argonne offensive, WWI
U.S. Army Signal Corps, National Archives and Records Administration, U.S. Army Reserve // Public Domain

Unfortunately, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the Americans’ eagerness to prove themselves resulted in mistakes that cost the lives of Allied troops as well (above, American troops from the 77th Division resting on October 15, 1918 during the continuing offensive). W.H. Downing, an Australian soldier, angrily recalled their surprise at discovering that the Americans preceding them had actually advanced too far ahead, leaving the Germans to reoccupy trenches again behind them:

“Two of its companies, finding no one at the place where they expected to ‘leap-frog’ the Americans, went on, thinking the latter to be a little farther ahead … They had walked into a trap. The Germans had waited until they were inside, and had closed the exits. But they found that entrapping Australians was like shutting their hand on a thistle. Nevertheless, by the time our men had cut their way out, they had lost two-thirds of their number, and this was before their part in the battle had begun. At length, pushing through the desultory fire, we entered Bellicourt. It was full of Americans. What had occurred was now apparent. Following the custom of most troops with more spirit than experience, they had gone as far as their feet would take them, and in their impetuous haste had neglected either to throw bombs down the dugouts or to capture their occupants. Consequently, the enemy came out of the earth and cut them off.”

Despite these setbacks the Americans made steady progress, paying for every yard they advanced with blood. Bradford recalled hard, uneven fighting in the days to come:

“For two days we chased the Germans across five miles of devastated territory, through rain and mud and hunger. Now we moved steadily forward, now we were held up, now we were exploring enemy works, now digging in against counterattack. The evening of the second day the battle lagged. Our artillery could not keep pace with us. The resistance was stiffening.”

At the same time, Americans were fighting in spots all along the Western Front, with U.S. divisions fighting alongside European comrades in the French Army and British Expeditionary Force as the Allied attack unfolded along hundreds of miles of no man’s land, piercing the legendary Hindenburg Line in multiple places (more archival footage of American forces in action here). Everywhere the devastation of war left an indelible impression on Americans, many still relatively new to the conflict’s horrors. In the west, Kenneth Gow, an American soldier, recalled advancing behind the retreating Germans near the Somme battlefield in a letter home:

“The country is wrecked. Once beautiful cities are just heaps of brick and debris, not a living thing to be seen, even the trees all shot off, leaving nothing but stumps, which look like ghosts in the moonlight. The graveyards are turned upside down by terrific shell-fire. The ground is covered with all the signs of a great battle—smashed guns of every calibre, wrecked tanks, dead horses, and here and there a dead Boche overlooked by the burying parties.”

To the north, Guy Bowerman Jr., an American volunteer ambulance driver, described the spectacular scene of battle surrounding Ypres in the pre-dawn hours of the combined multinational assault by Belgian, French, British (and American troops on September 28, 1918:

“The country is perfectly flat and as we were stopped in the center of a semi-circle of trenches we could see clearly what was perhaps the most awe-inspiring and splendid spectacle which we shall ever be privileged to see. “Arrives” and “departs”; red, white, and green star shells shooting at all angles across the blue-gray horizon; a munition dump burning with a huge dull red glow which was reflected in a patch of high-hung pinkish dawn clouds, and all these [kaleidoscopic] colors blazing forth among a terrible, soul-shivering roar as the thousand guns sent their shells screeching towards the lines where they fell with a terrifying sickening ‘crump’ burning a bright hole in the night, and added their smoke to the haze which made the rising sun blood red. We were rudely awakened from our trance (for such sights as these have rare hypnotic power) by a shell which came screaming towards us and as we threw ourselves flat exploded nearby sending a shower of dirt and small stones upon us.”

Later Bowerman added:

“The terrain is without doubt the most desolate, God-forsaken portion of this Earth. A veritable no man’s land 15 miles wide filled with shell holes, water, blackened tree stumps, and demolished concrete blockhouses. Across this waste there is but one path—a sickening pretense of a road which winds its shell-holed, muddy, splashy way past caved-in trenches, water-filled gun emplacements, and huge mine holes which resemble volcanic lakes.”

As shocking as the experience of battle was for American troops, the Allied onslaught was even more demoralizing for German soldiers and civilians, leaving no doubt that Germany was staring defeat in the face. However, social coercion and the threat of punishment would keep the machinery of war going for a few more weeks. Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat, wrote in her diary during a visit to Munich on September 29, 1918:

“Today I noticed an especially scared look on the faces of those around me, and on my inquiring what had happened they told me that the Allied troops have made another combined offensive and have managed in places to break through the Hindenburg line … And yet, with ruin starting at them on all sides, there are still people here who continue to protest that everything stands well, and that anyone who spreads a report to the contrary will be punished with five years’ imprisonment with hard labor.”

BULGARIA ASKS FOR PEACE

The massive, coordinated Allied offensive on the Western Front was just one of several crippling blows against the Central Powers during the pivotal days of late September and early October. In a surprising development, one of the most crushing defeats came in the long-neglected Balkan front, in the Macedonian mountains north of the Greek city of Salonika, where a combined Allied attack resulted in the collapse of the threadbare Bulgarian Army and Bulgaria suing for peace terms.

Europe, September 1918
Erik Sass

Following the disastrous fire that destroyed most of Salonika in August 1917, the Allies repaired port facilities and supply lines while French commander Franchet d’Espèrey carefully conserved his manpower, benefiting from Greece’s entry into the war on the Allied side. By September 1918 d’Espèrey’s multinational Army of the Orient included six French divisions, six Serbian divisions, four British divisions, nine Greek divisions, and one Italian division. The beleaguered Bulgarians, who had never really recovered from the disastrous Second Balkan War, were further depleted by demands from Germany and Austria-Hungary to carry out garrison duty in conquered enemy territories like Serbia, Albania, and Romania.

Beginning on September 15, 1918, 700,000 Allied troops mounted a concerted offensive in Macedonia ranging from Monastir to the Vardar River Valley, followed by a combined British, Serbian, and Greek attack that captured Lake Doiran on September 17 and 18. A last-minute plan by German and Bulgarian commanders to stage a withdrawal and surprise counterattack against the Allies quickly unraveled, as the withdrawing Bulgarian and German forces refused to stop retreating and fight, turning the feint into a rout.

On September 24, 1918 the Bulgarians officially asked for an armistice, followed by another request on September 26. But they were rebuffed by d’Espèrey, who was determined to liberate Serbian land by arms and hold Bulgarian territory as insurance for good behavior. Finally, d’Espèrey signed an armistice declaration on September 29, as Allied forces led by French cavalry occupied Uskub (today Skopje, the capital of Macedonia) close on the heels of the retreating Bulgarians and Germans. One French cavalry officer recalled the chaotic scenes in the multiethnic, multilingual city:

“There were clouds, however, which did not follow the rising fog. They were smoke clouds caused by fires burning in the city’s Turkish district, in the Greek district, in the Serbian, and even in the Bulgarian district … Cypresses, set ablaze by the flames from nearby houses, were burning like giant torches. Ammunition dumps were exploding, shooting up huge red and black flames. The railroad station was aflame too. As expected, our attack fully surprised the enemy, whose troops were retreating in disorder and kept shooting in a haphazard manner from the northern and western ridges.”

Despite the violence and destruction, the city’s Serbian inhabitants were glad to see the Allied liberators:

“The city’s leader met us at the entrance, behind a white flag and accompanied by French and Italian soldiers. The latter had escaped from Bulgarian prisoner camps, and had been hidden and fed by the local population. Both the Serbian notables and the soldiers were shouting enthusiastically. The population’s emotion was deeply moving; the women kept kissing our hands while crying with joy.”

Bulgaria’s imminent surrender struck a dire blow to the Central Powers’ strategic position. The small Balkan kingdom had long been the only geographic corridor connecting Germany and Austria-Hungary in Central Europe with the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. With Bulgaria out of the game, it would become much more difficult for Germany to continue supplying the Turks with war materiel—just as the Allies finally threatened to penetrate the Turkish homeland in Anatolia.

ARABS LIBERATE DAMASCUS

The British and Arab victory at Megiddo, when British cavalry from the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and camel-mounted warriors from the rebel Arab Army encircled and destroyed the remaining Turkish armies in Palestine, left the way open to Damascus, the legendary capital of medieval Muslim caliphates. The British, recent conquerors of Baghdad, Gaza, and Jerusalem, hoped to add another ancient entrepot to their list of conquests—but for political reasons they allowed irregular forces loyal to the Arab Army commander Prince Feisal and his advisor, the pro-Arab British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, the honor of liberating the city.

With the remnants of Turkish forces in Palestine beating a hasty retreat north, Arab rebels in the city raised the flag of the “independent Syria” as British cavalry entered Damascus on October 1, 1918, putting the Allies within striking distance of the Turkish homeland in Anatolia. The fall of the fabled city was yet another heavy symbolic blow to the Central Powers, making it clear that the Ottoman Empire, too, was on its last legs (though perhaps not as badly off as Austria-Hungary, already in the advanced stages of disintegration).

There was no government in the liberated city, which also still held around 15,000 Turkish and German soldiers who had deserted, or were too wounded or ill to move and were left behind in the retreat, making the city a dangerous, chaotic place. Lawrence described the spectacular scenes that greeted him as he approached the newly liberated city on October 1, 1918:

“As the Germans left Damascus they fired at the dumps and ammunition stores, so that every few minutes we were jangled by explosions, whose first shock set the sky white with flame. At each such roar the Earth seemed to shake; we would lift our eyes to the north and see the pale sky prick out suddenly in sheaves of yellow points, as the shells thrown to terrific heights from each bursting magazine, in their turn burst like clustered rockets. I turned to Stirling and muttered ‘Damascus is burning,’ sick to think of the great town in ashes as the price of freedom.”

Fortunately, the damage inflicted by the retreating Turks and Germans on the historic city was far less than they feared:

“When dawn came we drove to the head of the ridge, which stood over the oasis of the city, afraid to look north for the ruins we expected. But, instead of ruins, the silent gardens stood blurred green with river mist, in whose setting shimmered the city, beautiful as ever, like a pearl in the morning sun … A galloping horseman checked at our head-cloths in the car, with a merry salutation, holding out a bunch of yellow grapes. ‘Good news! Damascus salutes you.’”

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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