Remembering When the National Guard Occupied Germany

Army Maj. Gen. Clement Alexander Finley Flagler, commander of the 42nd Division, arrives at the command post of the 167th Infantry Regiment in Sinzig, Germany, during the division’s march to the Rhine for occupation duties, Dec. 18, 1918. (U.S. Army Signal Corps photo)
Army Maj. Gen. Clement Alexander Finley Flagler, commander of the 42nd Division, arrives at the command post of the 167th Infantry Regiment in Sinzig, Germany, during the division’s march to the Rhine for occupation duties, Dec. 18, 1918. (U.S. Army Signal Corps photo)

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – In just 24 hours, the warm welcome for New York National Guard Soldiers serving in the Allied Army of Occupation shifted 180 degrees.

New York Doughboys marching into Germany in November 1918, just 10 days after the armistice of World War I, were treated as liberators as they passed through Arlon, Belgium. 

In Arlon on November 21-22, "liquor flowed free, and many a rugged Soldier was kissed more than he had ever dared to dream," wrote James Cook in his 1994 "The Rainbow Division in the Great War."

After four years of German occupation, the Doughboys arriving in Belgium were welcomed as liberators.

But the mood of the local civilians changed dramatically the next day.

Arriving in Buschdorf, Luxemburg, on Nov. 23, American Soldiers of the 42nd Division met with a very different populace as they moved closer to the German border. Luxemburg had been neutral in WWI but was occupied by German forces and much of the population sympathized with Germany.

"We have our suspicions as to the degree of neutrality practiced by the people," wrote Leslie Langille in his 1933 "Men of the Rainbow." "They are a suspicious-looking lot, and seem to resent our being there."

By the end of November the Doughboys were on the Rhine and entered Germany itself on Dec. 1.

Those initial suspicions and resentment would change over time as German civilians and American Soldiers came to know each other better. But in the first days and weeks following the armistice, uncertainty created tension on both sides.

On Nov. 11, 1918 the Harlem Hellfighters of New York’s former 15th Infantry Regiment, redesignated as the 369th Infantry, were recovering from their battle losses in the Argonne. 

The African-American regiment had lost 172 killed and 679 wounded, nearly one quarter of the regiment, and was recovering since the unit had withdrawn from the battlefield on Oct. 14, gathering replacements.

But the French had one more mission for the 369th Infantry. Under the command of the French 161st Division, the Hellfighters moved from their position near Belfort, France, into Germany on Nov. 17 to serve as an occupation force. 

The regiment marched for two weeks, claiming to be the first American force to reach the Rhine on Nov. 30 for occupation duties. 

"It is perhaps one of the most glorious epochs in the history of the race, since the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, that the race, represented by three regiments - crack fighting regiment - and a field artillery unit, was engaged in the last battle of the war; that the race was among the first of the Allied troops to go over the top and set foot on German soil after more than four years' courageous fighting," wrote Ralph W. Tyler, the only accredited African-American correspondent serving with the Hellfighters and the all-black 93rd Division.

"As the first American unit of the army of occupation to march into Germany they captured the towns of Blodelsheim, Pessenheim, and Balgau," wrote Charles Halston Williams in his 1923 "The Negro Soldier in World War: The Human Side." "The Germans, who called them blutlustige schwartze manner (bloodthirsty black men), feared the 369th as strongly as the French praised their feats on the battlefield."

The 369th Infantry served as an occupation force along the Rhine in Germany for nearly two weeks until relieved on December 12.

The occupying troops, however, became an oddity to the German civilians in their midst. 

"Negro Soldiers were a source of terror to the Germans throughout the war, and objects of great curiosity to the German people afterwards," wrote W. Allison Sweeney in his 1919 "History of the American Negro in the Great World War."

"Crowds assembled whenever Negro Soldiers stopped in the streets."

By mid-December, the Hellfighters were going home. They moved to their port of embarkation near Le Mans on New Year’s Eve for 1919 and sailed for New York on Feb. 2.

Having fought for the allies overseas, the Soldiers were encouraged to continue their fight for greater civil rights at home, said Capt. Hamilton Fish, one of the 369th officers in his 1991 autobiography "Hamilton Fish: Memoir of an American Patriot."

Fish told his men "You have fought and died for freedom and democracy. Now, you should go back home to the United States and continue to fight for your own freedom and democracy."

Other New York Soldiers had longer stays in Germany.

The National Guard’s 42nd "Rainbow" Division also moved into Germany. The unit received its nickname as the Rainbow Division based on its National Guard units that spanned the country.

With the division was the New York City-based 165th Infantry Regiment, the former 69th Infantry of Irish Civil War lineage from the New York National Guard.

The Rainbow was one of nine combat divisions, prepared to keep the peace but renew offensive operations if the peace talks failed, a real concern in the winter of 1918-19.

The division was reorganizing after its fight in the Argonne offensive and received its orders November 13 to begin its march on Germany the same day as the Harlem Hellfighters, Nov. 17.

The route took the Doughboys through occupied France, Belgium, Luxembourg and finally Germany as the American force followed the withdrawal of the defeated German forces.

The withdrawing Germans did so in good order, as noted by a Third Occupation Army Intelligence Summary on Nov. 22, 1918 stating that German troops "were in good humor, singing marching songs and joking together. The officers seemed to have the troops well in hand. Troops marched in good order. A German officer orders a break in the line to let the American cars pass. The troops have not harmed the civilian population in any way, and only petty thefts have been reported." 

The march of the occupation force also drew much attention from the French leadership.

"Our march to Germany started at Harricourt Depot, Ardennes, France, and terminated at Neuenahr, Germany," recorded Pfc. Charles Corneille, assigned to the 150th Field Artillery. "During this march we were reviewed by President Poincare of France at Montmedy on November 20, 1918."

The Rainbow Soldiers were welcomed as liberators in Belgium, after four years of German occupation. The Americans were celebrated in every town they passed through.

"Cafes and private homes are jammed with our fellows, and bottles are dug out of their hiding places, covered with dust cobwebs and age, and many toasts are drunk to their health," Langille wrote.

The regiments also made their presence known, approaching new towns, whether it was the 167th Alabama regiment playing "Dixie" on their march or the 165th New York Irish playing "Garry Owen" as they entered each village or town.

"The civilian reception of the Doughboys became decidedly cooler as they entered Germany," wrote Alexander Barnes in 2010 for Army History Magazine’s "Representative of a Victorious People: Doughboy Watch on the Rhine."

"Once the German border had been crossed, however, the march took on a different tone altogether. Victory flags and pretty girls waving from the windows of the liberated towns of France and Luxemburg gave way to shuttered windows and deserted streets." 

Again, the Americans were more a curiosity to the German people than a conqueror.

"All along the way the villagers ran out to see the Americans go by, some just to stand and stare incredulously, some to wave hospitably as if in promise of the welcome ahead," wrote the Stars and Stripes newspaper about the occupation of Coblenz, Dec. 13, 1918.

The 42nd Division sector of occupation was between Coblenz and Bonn, along the west side of the Rhine. Rainbow Soldiers arrived in their respective towns on Dec. 15.

Over time, German relations with the American Doughboys warmed in spite of efforts to keep barriers between them.

Fraternization with locals was a significant concern for the Third Army leadership. Troops were reminded that German civilians, including women and children, should be avoided.

For most of the American Soldiers, it was an impossible task.

"Civilians hold grudges, but Soldiers do not; at least Soldiers who do the actual fighting," Father Duffy said in his 1919 autobiography "Father Duffy’s Story." Duffy himself met and befriended a German Catholic Chaplain who had served on the Eastern Front during the war. The two met and talked about their experiences often.

Once the German locals realized that the Rainbow Soldiers would treat them with respect and kindness, the two populations grew closer.

"A spirit of trustfulness and respect springs up between the German people and the American Soldiers, and the high command is powerless to break it up, even if they tried," Langille wrote.

But the higher command’s concern over fraternization focused mainly on preventing the biggest threat to occupying armies since ancient times: venereal disease.

"Venereal disease reappeared in the Rainbow Division with a vengeance," Cooke noted. The area of occupation for the division was known as a resort area in Germany, and prostitutes from nearby Cologne or Bonn flocked to the area to earn a living off the garrison Soldiers. Military Police soon began enforcing checkpoints at train stations, reviewing identification papers of women traveling into the unit’s area of operations.

Cordial relations with local Germans was not considered the problem for occupation Soldiers.

"Germany was clean, unscarred by the war, full of food, filled with charming frauleins and hospitable people," Cook wrote in his history of the division. "No sooner were the troops billeted than they found themselves in the local bars and restaurants, making the acquaintance of the local girls."

The New York Soldiers of the Rainbow Division found themselves in Remagen, supervising and reporting on the conditions of the city, including maintaining law and order, arrests, food supplies for the population or other matters of concern for civilian administration.

The 42nd Division Soldiers were relieved of occupation duties April 1 and began preparations to return home. The 165th was on its way back to New York City.

In its turn, the Rainbow Division was returning home.

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