British buttons and French bayonets: Rainbow Division Soldiers got ready for war in the winter of 1918
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY (02/22/2018) (readMedia)-- -During the World War I centennial observance, the New York National Guard and New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs will issue press releases noting key dates which impacted New Yorkers, based on information and artifacts provided by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.--
As February 1918 began the National Guardsmen of 26 states who made up the Army's 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division in World War I were under tremendous pressure to quickly learn how to fight in the trenches that ran from Switzerland to the English Channel.
The French Army had suffered terribly in 1917 and wanted "Les Americains" in the fight as soon as possible. In their training areas in Rolampont, American Soldiers began learning how to throw grenades, use machine guns and clear trenches from veteran French instructors.
But for New York National Guard Soldiers of the 165th Infantry, previously known as the 69th New York, the biggest issue for a few days were the buttons on their uniforms.
The regiment's new commander, Col. John Barker, found that his men's uniforms were falling apart. He appealed to the Army Expeditionary Force for new uniforms.
"It wasn't that we didn't have equipment in France," noted Sgt. Richard O'Neill a member of the 69th from New York City, in the Stephen Harris book "Duffy's War".
"They just had trouble getting it to us, that's all. But how the boys did suffer," O'Neill said.
Because the American supply system wasn't fully established, the only uniforms that could be found quickly came from the British Army.
The 69th Infantry had been the New York National Guard's Irish Regiment, and the Irishmen of the regiment were mainly immigrants who hated almost everything English. The glittering brass buttons on the new uniforms had the crown of the British monarchy on them and the Irishmen of the 69th were appalled at being asked to wear them when they arrived on Jan. 25.
"Now the men born in Ireland were really steamed," Stephen Harris quotes Pvt. Al Ettinger as saying. "They didn't like the idea of wearing anything made in England and they refused to wear the new uniforms. For them, those buttons were the hated symbol of their former oppressors."
The regiment was in a state of near rebellion, noted Father Francis Duffy, the regimental chaplain. The Soldiers of H Company were ready to burn the hated uniforms in a bonfire, according to the Stephen Harris account.
Duffy "calmed the rebels down with a great speech on how their indiscipline would shame the regiment, and how we had to prove in this war that the Irish volunteers were the best fighters in the American Army and that could not be demonstrated around a bonfire," according to Harris.
The issue was resolved for the troops when officers told the Soldiers to cut the U.S. Army buttons off their old uniforms to replace the British buttons on the new ones.
Barker, a Regular Army officer, hadn't understood the anger of his men until Duffy explained the "Irishness" of the regiment to him.
"We are all volunteers for this war," Duffy recalled telling Barker in his autobiography "Father Duffy's Story". "If you put our fellow in line alongside a bunch of Tommies (the nickname for English Soldiers) they would only fight harder to show the English who are the better men."
"There are Soldiers with us who left Ireland to avoid service in the British Army. But as soon as we got into the war, the men, though not yet citizens, volunteered to fight under the Stars and Stripes," Duffy added.
With the uniform issue resolved, the 165th Infantry Regiment got down to training like the rest of the division.
The training was challenging to all the division units as troops learned to master French machine guns, artillery, and train hundreds of newly arriving replacements from the states.
Rainbow engineers from the 117th Engineers, originally from North and South Carolina, had worked tirelessly to improve conditions during the division's time at the training area near Rolampont. The regiment built 80 barracks, 70 horse stables, 18 bath units, pigeon lofts, latrines and reworked electrical and water systems for the thousands of Doughboys now preparing for combat.
The engineers then went on to conduct their combat training at night, providing classes for officers and NCOs or small-arms ranges, marches and drill.
French instructors were on hand to provide standardized training for trench warfare, but division leaders had to ensure that the operational tactics and concepts of General John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, were applied as well.
Pershing believed in the primacy of the combat infantryman. His training guidance stated "The rifle and bayonet are the principal weapons of the infantry Soldier. He will be trained to a high degree of skill as a marksman...An aggressive spirit must be developed until the Soldier feels himself, as a bayonet fighter, invincible in battle."
The Rainbow Soldiers would have to balance that emphasis with French lessons on the combined efforts of artillery, aviation, armor and most importantly, the machine gun on maneuver warfare.
Training with the French also meant individual schools for NCOs and officers.
Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, the famed poet assigned to the 165th Infantry Intelligence Section for the 1st Battalion Headquarters, like many other qualified NCOs, was offered a commission through the Officer Candidate School but declined the offer. He told a friend in a letter that he would rather remain a sergeant in the old Irish Fighting 69th than be an officer.
"I am having an absolutely heavenly time since I joined the intelligence section," Kilmer wrote to his mother and published in the Harris book. "I wouldn't change places with any Soldiers of any rank in any outfit. This suits me better than any job I ever had in civil life."
Kilmer knew that OCS would be three months of training and new officers were frequently reassigned to other regiments. He would not leave his regiment.
As training progressed, pressure from French allies to rush these new troops into the trenches was evident and Rainbow Soldiers were eager to prove themselves.
Strategically, General John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces struggled to keep an American Army intact and independent for the upcoming battles that would determine the outcome of WWI.
But initially, AEF Doughboys such as those in the Rainbow Division would fight alongside the French.
On February 12, the AEF issued the alert order for the Rainbow Division to begin its movement to the French trenches at Luneville for its first combat exposure and practical experience before taking its full place in the line as an American division.
The plan would place one regiment with each division of the French VII Corps, then holding a sixteen-mile front.
Once with the French, divisional and brigade commanders would lose tactical control of their men, conducting the duties of inspection, coordination and normal administration while many senior staff officers continued professional education and training for their roles ahead.
The division would close in Luneville between 17 and 21 February. The Rainbow Soldiers were as ready as they were going to be.
By February 27, 1918, troops of the 42nd Division would enter the front line trenches for their first combat experience and their first combat deaths.