Men of the 369th US Infantry Regiment after entering French service; note the French-issued helmets.
April 8 1918, Auve–General Pershing had insisted on keeping the American Expeditionary Force together as a distinct American fighting force. This was increasingly difficult to demand with the German offensive on the Western Front, especially since American forces in France were not yet large enough to conduct independent operations. The French and British needed troops now, and Pershing could do little with most of his troops except relieve the French in quiet sectors.
Pershing’s insistence on keeping all American forces together did not, however, extend to the black troops in the segregated US Army. Among them were the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment in March. Although Pershing presumably had no problem with black soldiers per se (his nickname, “Black Jack,” coming from his command of black troops in the 1890s), the question of how to use black troops in the front lines, where they would have to rely on the full cooperation of white units on either side, was a difficult one. Hamilton Fish III, a New York patrician, served as one of the regiment’s white officers, wrote:
The French were crying out for U.S. regiments to go into the French Army. So I guess Pershing figured he could kill two birds with one stone–solve the problem on what to do with us and give something to Foch. From then on we spent our entire service in the French Army. Oh officially we were still the 369th U.S. Infantry, but to all intent and purposes we were francais.
Noble Sissle, serving in the regiment’s band, recalled:
We were fully equipped with French rifles and French helmets. Our wagons, our rations, our machine guns and everything pertaining to the equipment of the regiment for trench warfare was supplied by the French Army.
While they were perturbed that their own army had essentially abandoned them, service with the French had its advantages. French troops were far less racist than the Americans, especially after having served alongside African troops for the past several years. The transfer also meant they would be serving in combat, as they had hoped, not on labor duty (the fate of many of their black comrades in the US Army). On April 8, the 369th began to move into the front lines on the Aisne, ready to serve. at first, as a reserve to the French in that sector. A few days later, they began their first rotations in the front-line trenches themselves. The 369th would ultimately serve more time on the front line than any other American regiment in the war–and would suffer more casualties as well.
Today in 1917: German Submarine Drowns Prisoners
Today in 1916: British Capture First Fokker with Synchronization Gear
Today in 1915: Mass Deportations of Armenians Begin
Sources include: Stephen L. Harris, Harlem’s Hell Fighters.