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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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1.1 African-American soldiers and the First World War

Described image
Figure 1 An American propaganda poster from 1918 (by Charles Gustrine)

African-American soldiers served in every military conflict since the founding of the USA, and the First World War was no exception. Around 400,000 enlisted or were drafted into the US army. By the end of the conflict, around 200,000 African-Americans had gone overseas, others supported the war effort in military camps in the USA. As American historian Chad Williams describes, ‘they entered a racist army’.

The “race question” informed the thinking of white politicians and military officials and dictated their actions in regard to black servicemen. Black men were excluded from the marines and limited to only menial positions in the navy. War planners deemed racial segregation, just as in civilian life, the most logical and efficient method of managing the presence of African Americans in the army.

(Williams, 2010, p. 6)

The first American troops arrived in France in June 1917, including some African-Americans. Of those African-American troops who made it to France, most (some 80 per cent) ended up in non-combative support roles, particularly working in the Service of Supply (SOS) section of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France. As David Olusoga shows, African-Americans were disproportionately represented in these support roles, making up 30 per cent of the SOS but less than 10 per cent of all draftees (Olusoga, 2014, p. 338). These support roles consisted in the main of supplying materials, transport routes and support for others at the front, working long hours in gruelling conditions and all weathers – a far cry from the image presented in Figure 1.

The main reason why some African-American soldiers finally ended up in fighting roles, rather than serving in these supply roles (as the General Staff initially only wanted them to), was pressure from African-American public opinion back home, coupled with demands from the French to have additional troops join the French army.

Two all-Black divisions, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions (Colored), were despatched to Europe and some of their members were allowed to fight. The 93rd Division included four infantry regiments, including the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ (of whom more below), and the 370th Infantry Regiment, known as the ‘Black Devils’ – both names coined by German soldiers. However, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, was unsure how best to use them. As David Olusoga explains:

…the two black divisions were a political inconvenience, against which there existed considerable hostility among white troops and officers. Pershing was warned that white US troops would find it “distasteful” to serve alongside African Americans, and that the orders of African-American officers were unlikely to be obeyed by them. White soldiers were already refusing to salute African Americans of superior rank.

(Olusoga, 2014, pp. 342–3)

Rather than being incorporated into the AEF, these ‘all-coloured’ units were assigned to the French Army. ‘Loaning’ African-American troops to the French helped to get around the problem of the US Army wanting to fight independently from the French while the French Army asked for reinforcements from the Americans. The French Army was already multiracial and included soldiers from the French empire; its leaders readily incorporated the African-American units. Being excluded from the American forces for which they had volunteered must have been crushing to African-Americans who had heeded their country’s call to arms. For Pershing, it was the perfect solution.