African-American Sacrifice in the Killing Fields of France

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tags: military history, African American history, World War 1

SÉCHAULT, France — The modest granite monument at the entrance to Séchault, a village in eastern France, commemorates the sacrifice of the United States 369th Infantry Regiment, African-Americans who came from Harlem to fight in the last months of World War I. A single word in brackets, “Colored,” alludes to the official name of the New York National Guard unit from which the soldiers were drawn.

They were the Black warriors of the segregated American armed forces. Denied a send-off parade in New York before shipping out in 1917, assigned to the French Army because their own countrymen refused to fight alongside them, they gave their lives in such numbers during 191 days of continuous combat that they earned for their bravery the moniker “Harlem Hellfighters.”

It appears that this nickname was given the unit by their German enemy, who called them “Höllenkämpfer.” But it took the U.S. Army more than a century to adopt it as the official special designation for the 369th Infantry Regiment, a distinction approved by the Army only last September and announced this year by the New York National Guard on the eve of Black History Month.

It has been a long road from this quiet corner of France to such recognition.

Behind the monument, in the pale winter sunlight, a patchwork of fertile fields extends to the horizon. Some of the most blood-soaked earth in Europe now offers a scene of undulating tranquillity. Wheat, beets and hops grow where American, French and German lives were extinguished, too young.

Narrow roads wind between forgotten villages of the Champagne-Ardenne region, their church spires beckoning, their deserted streets emptied by the steady exodus of commerce and young people to bigger towns.

Here, in scenes of unutterable and now scarcely imaginable carnage, as soldiers poured “over the top” from their trenches, the 2,000 troops of the 369th suffered some of the worst casualties of any American regiment, with about 144 dead and almost 1,000 wounded in the Meuse-Argonne offensive of September-November 1918 alone.

“We have a small ceremony every Nov. 11, Armistice Day, but otherwise there are very few visitors,” said René Salez, the recently elected mayor of the village of about 60 inhabitants, as we stood one recent afternoon near the monument to the 369th Regiment. “There are not many road signs to Séchault. The only ceremonies in our church are funerals. But I have a few ideas for a revival once the pandemic ends.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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