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Was The ‘Rainbow’ Division Tarnished By Its Battlefield Behavior In World War I?

Was The ‘Rainbow’ Division Tarnished By Its Battlefield Behavior In World War I?

World War I began in Europe in 1914, however, the United States remained neutral until 6 April 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the joint resolution declaring that a state of war now existed between the United States of America and Imperial Germany. Three months later, in August 1917, U. S. National Guard units from twenty-six states and the District of Columbia united to form the 42nd Division of the United States Army. Douglas MacArthur, serving as Chief of Staff for the Division, commented that it “would stretch over the whole country like a rainbow.” In this manner, the 42nd became known as the “Rainbow Division.” It comprised four infantry regiments from New York, Ohio, Alabama, and Iowa. Men from many other states, among them New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Indiana, Michigan, Rhode Island, Maryland, California, South Carolina, Missouri, Connecticutt, Tennessee, New Jersey, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Oregon, and Pennsylvania also joined the division and became machine gunners, ambulance drivers, worked in field hospitals, or served in the military police.

The Southeastern Department commander recommended that the 4th Alabama Infantry be assigned to the 42nd. The commander of the 4th was Colonel William P. Screws, a former regular army officer who had served from 1910 to 1915 as the inspector-instructor for the Alabama National Guard. Screws was widely regarded as one of the major assets of the Alabama National Guard, and his reputation was likely a prominent factor in the selection of the 4th to join the 42nd. To upgrade the 4th Infantry to war strength, the transfer of the necessary numbers of enlisted men from other Alabama Guard units, including the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments and the 1st Alabama Cavalry.

On August 15 the War Department officially redesignated the 4th Alabama Infantry as the 167th Infantry Regiment, 84th Brigade, 42nd Division. The regiment comprised 3,622 enlisted troops and 55 enlisted medical staff for a total of 3,677men. The 1st Alabama Infantry had contributed 880 enlisted men to join the new 167th, the 2nd Alabama Infantry and the 1st Alabama Cavalry had provided enlisted men to bring the 167th to war strength, which was nominally 3,700 officers and men.

The Rainbow Division became one of the first sent to Europe in 1917 to support French troops in battles at Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel, the Verdun front, and Argonne. On 15 July 1918 the Division, acting as part of the 4th French Army, assisted in containing the final German offensive at the Battle of Champagne.

Let us set the scenario for the matter of alleged American battlefield atrocities on the part of the ‘Rainbow’ Division. On 15 July 1918, the Germans, in their final bid to end the war in their favor, launched a massive attack southward in the Champagne country of France. Although most of the defending troops were French, there were some units of the U.S. 42nd Division also involved in the defense and in the counter-attacks that ensued.

Concerning the battle participation of the U. S. 42nd (‘Rainbow’) Division in the Champagne-Marne Defensive battle of 15 July 1918, we read as follows in Donovan, America’s Master Spy, by Richard Dunlop:

“The regimental commanders [of the U. S. 42nd Division] were instructed to post only a few men in the first trench line, which would easily fall. Most were to be positioned in the second line, from which they were also expected to withdraw as the Germans swept ahead.”

“On July 15 at 12:04 a.m., the German artillery commenced one of the war’s most tremendous barrages. When at 4:30 a.m. the artillery stopped firing as suddenly as it had started, the silence over no-man’s-land was dreadful. The first Germans appeared wraithlike, running toward the American lines through the morning mist. Minenwerfers [large caliber German mortars] suddenly rained down on the defending Americana, and machine guns chattered death. The Americans who escaped the first charge scrambled back to the second line.”

“The Germans found themselves in full possession of the American first trenches; they thought they had won. They shouted, cheered and broke into song. Then the American barrage opened on the trenches. Since each piece of artillery had been carefully zeroed in on the trenches when they were still in American hands, the accuracy of the gunfire was uncanny. Some of the crack Prussian Guards still managed to reach the second line of trenches, but they too were repulsed, after bloody hand-to-hand encounters. The Germans broke off the attack.”

“To Donovan’s [Colonel William J. Donovan, commanding officer of the 165th Infantry Regiment, from New York] disgust, the Germans resorted to subterfuge. Four Germans, each with a Red Cross emblazoned on his arm, carried a stretcher up to the lines held by the 165th. When they were close, they yanked a blanket from the stretcher to reveal a machine gun, with which they opened fire. The Americans shot them dead. Still another group tried to infiltrate the American lines one night wearing French uniforms. They too were shot. All told, some breakthroughs were made, but the Germans had been halted by the Americans. The Americans had not been defeated as the French battle plans had expected they would be. After three days of battle, the Germans began

to pull back.” 1

On 18 August 1918 the following cablegram was received at American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) headquarters, Chaumont, France:

“”A F August 18, 1918.

Commanding General, 42nd Division, Bourmont.

Following received from Washington:

“For Nolan. Condemned Associated Press Dispatch from London received by Cable Censor ‘0055 Monday Baumans Amsterdam accusation that soldier[s’] of 42nd American line Division enraged at losses suffered 15/7 near Rheims killed same evening 150 German prisoners is made by Wolff Bureau on “Creditable authority” and accordingly displayed in Saturday’s German papers’. Dispatch held for assumed inaccuracy. Investigate and report.” Make immediate investigation and report by wire this office. By direction.


4.55 P.M. “” 2

A “Condemned Associated Press Dispatch…” is assumed to be an AP dispatch which was intercepted by the “Cable Censor” and deemed unfit for forwarding (if sent from F&F) or transmission (if originating in London) and thus was condemned. This action would also presumably be taken if the origin of the telegram or cablegram was thought to be spurious or even sent under false pretenses. The original copy of this message was most probably burned with the “Confidential waste” at AEF HQ Chaumont.

Pershing and his staff at Chaumont did everything possible to control the press and the AEF staff would quickly ‘condemn’ sources from reporters and reports that were not run through General Pershing’s staff.

Regarding the day the telegram was received by AEF HQ on August 18, 1918, this would have been on a Sunday. “0055 Monday” in the telegram would refer to 12 August 1918. The telegram was received shortly after the Champagne-Marne Defensive Campaign, and while the U. S. 42nd Division was fighting in the Marne Salient during July and August of 1918. The “Wolff Bureau” was the Wolff Telegraph Agency in Berlin, a semi-official German new agency in 1918.

The G-2 (Intelligence Officer) of AEF Headquarters, Brigadier General Dennis E. Nolan took prompt action to investigate the alleged murder of German prisoners of war on 15 July 1918 during the Champagne-Marne Defensive Campaign. Nolan directed Major General Charles T. Menoher, commander of the U. S. 42nd Division to undertake an immediate investigation of the charge. The investigation was made on 20 August 1918 at the station of the U. S. 42nd Division, AEF, Bourmont, France.

The U.S. 42nd Division was composed of troops from Alabama, Ohio, Iowa, and New York. The troops that had contact with the German Army on 15 July 1918 were:

2nd Battalion, 165th Infantry Regiment (New York); 3rd Battalion, 166th Infantry Regiment (Ohio); 2nd Battalion, 167th Infantry Regiment (formerly 4th Alabama), and Companies E and F of the 168th Infantry Regiment (Iowa).

The force of the investigation fell on the 2nd Battalion, 165th Infantry, the 3rd Battalion of the 168th, 2nd Battalion, 167th, and Companies E and F of the 168th.

According to the “Report of investigation of reported killing of German prisoners of war,” from the Division Inspector and to the Commanding General, 42nd Division, AEF, sworn testimony was taken from a total of thirty-eight officers of the 42nd Division, and particularly from officers whose troops were so stationed as to come into contact with the Germans in the Champagne battle of 15 July 1918. Twenty-three officers gave sworn testimony and fifteen company-grade officers were required to give depositions. The testimony was uniformly a denial that any atrocities were committed during the fighting that day of 15 July 1918.

According to the same report, “All the officers state that no German prisoners were killed by American troops nor were any mistreated; not did any officer hear anything to that effect. On the contrary the prisoners were treated well, the wounded cared for and carefully transported to the rear and the prisoners given food, drink and cigarettes. In at least one case a wounded prisoner was carried while one of our wounded officers walked.” 3

The “CONCLUSION” of the report states: “That the statements contained in the telegram set forth in Paragraph II of this report are false and without any foundation in fact. That all prisoners taken by troops of the 42nd Division were turned over immediately to the French military authorities, and that, therefore, no troops of the 42nd Division had access to them other than those whose statements are covered by this report.” 4

The “RECOMMENDATION” of the report states: “That no further action be taken.” The findings were forwarded to AEF Headquarters and there the matter was dropped. 5

An unknown German newspaper purportedly published in Berlin, Germany, on Saturday, 17 August 1918 allegedly printed an article alleging that 150 wounded and captured German soldiers were summarily killed by soldiers of the U. S. 42nd Division on 15 July 1918. There were five newspapers published in Berlin on the date of Saturday, 17 August 1918: Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Deutsche Tageszeitung Germania, Neues Preussische Zeitung, Nordeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Vossiche Zeitung. Searches of the mentioned German newspapers have been made by several historians. No atrocity articles have ever been located in these German papers.

In James J. Cooke’s book, The Rainbow Division in the Great War, we read:

“”The Rainbows also had developed a very real hatred for the Germans. During the German bombardment on 15 July 1918, the doctors and nurses moved what wounded they could to a dugout, and the once callow Lieutenant van Dolsen recoiled in horror at what he saw”:

“Well we got down into the dug out and my dear mother such a shamble I never hope to see again. A long black tunnel lighted just a little by candles, our poor wounded shocked boys there on litters in the dark, eight of them half under ether just as they had come off the tables their legs only half amputated, surgeons trying to finish and check blood in the dark, the floor soaked with blood, the hospital above us a wreck, three patients killed and one blown out of bed with his head off. Believe me I will never forgive the bastards as long as I live.”

Editor’s note: Lt. van Dolsen, being an officer, was able to ‘censor’ his own letters, otherwise this type of comment would never have reached the home front. Van Dolsen’s letter to his aunt, Occupation Forces, Germany, 19 February 1919, MHIA. See also Stewart, Rainbow Bright, 70-71.

“One Alabama private who was in the thickest of the fighting on 15 July wrote to his mother, “All of you can cheer up and wear a smile for I’m a little hero now. I got two of the rascals and finished killing a wounded with my bayonet that might have gotten well had I not finished him…I couldn’t be satisfied at killing them, how could I have mercy on such low life rascals as they are?”

“A good bit of this hatred resulted from the Germans approaching American lines dressed in French uniforms taken from the dead in the first line sacrifice trench.”

“The hand-to-hand fighting was especially severe for the Alabamians and New Yorkers, and many of their comrades were killed or wounded in the fighting for the second defense line and in the counter-attacks that followed. Adding to the confusion was the occasional round of friendly artillery fire that fell short and hit the Americans as they repulsed the enemy.”

“The Alabama defense and decisive counter-attacks on 15 July was praised by all, and established the 167th Regiment as the best fighting regiment within the division.”

“There had always been rumors of units of the 42nd Division taking no prisoners. Major William J. Donovan, in May of 1918, described to his wife the possibility of the Alabamians’ of the 167th Infantry Regiment capturing and killing two Germans, and he ended his letter stating, “They [the 167th] wander all over the landscape shooting at everything.”

“Elmer Sherwood, the Hoosier gunner, reported the story that the Alabamians attacked a German trench with Bowie knives. “They cleaned up on the enemy,

Sherwood recalled, “but it is no surprise to any of us, because they are a wild bunch, not knowing what fear is.”

While in Germany on occupation duty with the Rainbow, Lieutenant van Dolsen wrote to his aunt back in Washington, DC, that the Alabams “did not take many prisoners, but I do not blame them for that.”

“The New York regiment was also known for fierce fighting and taking few prisoners on the battlefield. This issue of battlefield atrocities by the U. S. 42nd Division would again surface after the severe fighting at Croix Rouge Farm, in the Marne Salient, where the soldiers from Alabama and Iowa were heavily engaged at close quarters with a determined enemy.” 6

J. Phelps Harding, 2nd Lt., 165th Regiment, U. S. 42nd Division, AEF, wrote a letter home to his folks on 22 September 1918. His letter states, in part:

“I’m glad I had a chance to join the 165th-it’s a man’s outfit, and it has done fine work over here. One of the German prisoners, who met us here and at Chateau-Thierry, but did not realize we were at both places, said that America had only two good divisions – the 42nd and the Rainbow. He didn’t know they were one and the same. I won’t ask for any better men than the Irish in the 69th (165th). They are a hard hitting, dare devil bunch, very religious, afraid of nothing, and sworn enemies of the Boche. The regiment lost heavily at Chateau-Thierry – my company alone had 110 wounded and 36 killed outright – and every man has a ‘buddy’ to avenge. Lord help the Boche who gets in the way of the ‘old 69th.’ We are told to treat prisoners as approved by the war-that-was, when soldiers were less barbarous than they are now. After every action we see or hear of mutilation of our men – and there’s many a German who suffers for every one American so treated. I don’t mean he is mutilated – no American stoops that low – but I do mean that he grows daisies where, if his colleagues had been a bit more human, he might have been getting a good rest in an American prison camp.

Now I’ll really stop – perhaps I should have stopped before writing this last paragraph, but it’s said, so it stands.” 7

Editor’s note: As an officer Phelps was privileged to censor his own writing. An enlisted man, however, concerned about censorship, might have hesitated to write that ‘after every action’ soldiers found ‘mutilation of our men’ or to suggest that American soldiers killed German prisoners in reprisal. Boche is the French derogatory slang term for German soldiers during World War I.

In defense of the ‘Rainbow’ Division’s behavior on the battlefield, here is a letter I received in 1997 from Clark Jarrett, grandson of Paul Jarrett, a lieutenant in the 166th Infantry Regiment. Clark Jarrett telephoned his grandfather (at his age of 101 years) and transcribed his father’s conversation:

“”I appreciated your letter very much. I did as you requested…I called my grandfather the night after I received your letter. We had a very good phone call. I read him your exact words and took notes during our conversation. Here is what he had to say:

“I never saw or heard of anything about atrocities in the Rainbow. I can say that the 165th (New York) was not prepared to go to the front when the entire division was ready. I heard personally that the “165th was not fit for service.” They were considered playboys, not soldiers. My regiment, the 166th, served with the 165th as the 83rd Brigade. At the Second Battle of the Marne (Battle of the Champagne) I was informed by messenger that I should be aware of my left flank, as the Germans had entered the trenches of the 165th. I put my binoculars to my eyes and I saw that there was trench fighting going on down to my left. Thank God that the Germans did not break through. But I was aware that they might at any moment. After that, the 165th performed as well as any other unit in the Rainbow.

As for the 167th Alabama…the only time I every saw or heard of anything unusual was at Camp Mills, Long Island, New York, when we were in training to go to Europe. One night, we were called out to separate the 167th from a Negro unit. Apparently the white soldiers really got upset that black soldiers were in the division. Anyway, we had to part the two units…but I didn’t see any specific violence. I heard that there was a pretty good fight going before we got there. It was the 167th I was going to help when I got my knee fractured during the fighting at the Ourcq River.””

I hope this will give you another piece of the puzzle, David. I quizzed him really hard about the facts. He, as you know, has a wonderful memory, and will not [I repeat] not, go along with anything, nor any memory of someone else just to satisfy that person. He will tell it just exactly the way it was.”” 8

“On the fourth day, when the 69th and the Alabama continued to hold, the French general [Gouraud] said, “Well, I guess there is nothing for me to do but fight the war out where the New York Irish want to fight it.” 9

Author of The Last Hero, Wild Bill Donovan, Anthony Cave Brown, tells us:

“And, Donovan was to admit, the Micks took no prisoners. “The men, “he wrote,” when they saw the Germans with red crosses on one sleeve and serving machine guns against us, firing until the last minute, then cowardly throwing up their hands and crying “Kamerad,” became just lustful for German blood. I do not blame them.” Later when WJD [William J. Donovan] was required to sit in judgement on the German officers’ corps for its conduct in World War II, he recalled this incident, realized that if World War I had gone the wrong way, he might have been arrested for having committed war crimes, and he refused to prosecute.” 10

It is interesting to note that, during the fighting along the Ourcq River, and after the Champagne-Marne Defensive Campaign, the U. S. 42nd Division evidently again became involved with the matter of battlefield atrocities. We read as follows in Anthony Cave Brown’s book entitled, The Last Hero, Wild Bill Donovan:

“In the fighting the Micks again began to kill their prisoners, and Donovan recorded: “Out of the 25 I was able to save only 2 prisoners, the men killed

all the rest.” 11

Editor’s comment: “Micks” is an ethnic slang expression for the Irish-Americans. Once again we have the situation where an officer in the AEF is able to write just about any comment at all to the home folks. One speculates as to what the average enlisted soldier would have written, had he been permitted to do so. Major General William J. Donovan, commander of the 165th (formerly 69th ) Infantry Regiment during World War I, was later to become the founder of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and “father” of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Going back to the 167th Infantry Regiment (formerly 4th Alabama), Professor James J. Cooke, author of The Rainbow Division in the Great War, informs the author that:

“The matter of the atrocities concerned mainly the 167th Infantry and I was very concerned with it because of the investigation conducted by the HQ, AEF. There had been problems with the 167th being very aggressive in combat. But, when I searched for references in German papers, like you, I found none. It appeared that HQ got their information from reporters who simply heard rumors, etc. I do believe, however, that HQ was well aware of the hard fighting tendencies of units like the 167th and wanted to investigate quickly. I included the investigation mainly because it was HQ that ordered it done rather than from any German or poor sources. That is as far as I got when doing the Rainbow book. I did indeed research AEF records in RG 120 at National Archives II, especially the JAG [Judge Advocate General] and G2 [Intelligence] records, but found, like you, a brick wall as far as the origins of the reported atrocities. By the way, when I ran across “condemned” sources it was usually for reporters and reports that were not run through Pershing’s staff. As you know Pershing and his staff at Chaumont did everything possible to control the press.” 12

The soldiers of the 4th Alabama National Guard Regiment (167th of the U. S. 42nd Division) seem to have been a rather different ‘breed of cat.’ Many of them were backwoodsmen, avid hunters and crack rifle shots. It is said that many of them brought their personal Bowie knives over to France and that they used them in battle. 13

In a letter to the home folks, Ambulance Corps driver George Ruckle wrote, in part: “The Germans call us barbarians, they don’t like the way we fight. When the boys go over the top or make raids they generally throw away their rifles and go to it with trench knives, sawed off shotguns, bare fists and hand grenades, and the Bosch doesn’t like that kind of fighting. The boys from Alabama are particularly expert with knives and they usually go over hollering like fiends-so I don’t blame the Germans for being afraid of them.” 14

A young officer in the 42nd Division, made the observation in a letter home in early 1918 that, “the Alabamans, a rough, quick-tempered lot, always spoiling for a fight, lost their tempers.” This comment was made in regards to an altercation between the men from Alabama and the French civilians.

Could the old adage that, “where there is smoke, there must be fire” apply here?

In placing all of these pieces of evidence of alleged battlefield atrocities committed by the U. S. 42nd Division on the scales of justice, how does it all weigh out? In the opinion of this historian, the ‘Rainbow’ Division probably stands guilty of some extremely aggressive battlefield behavior during World War I. It is also my distinct impression that the investigation conducted by AEF HQ was a total whitewash.

Americans are loathe to accept the idea that their soldiery, in any war, either enjoy killing their enemies or are capable of committing war crimes of any sort and specifically battlefield atrocities against enemy soldiers or civilians. Americans are always so shocked and horrified whenever their soldiers act (or react) like anyone else in the world, as if “our boys” occupy a moral high ground unique on the planet. But, if one is to be true to historical fact, one must accept the idea that American soldiers have not always behaved honorably on the battlefield. There is ample testimony to this effect from World War I, World War II, Korea, (e.g., the incident at the tunnel at No Gun Ri in 1950, where a number of civilians were allegedly massacred by American soldiers) Vietnam (e.g., the Mylai incident, where Vietnamese civilians were allegedly massacred under the command of Lt. William Calley), and from Iraq, where all too frequently some of our fighting forces are accused of having shot unarmed prisoners, or having tortured them in prison.

In coming down to the year of 2005, we have Marine Corps Lt. General James N. Mattis, known as “Mad Dog Mattis” to the troops he led in Afganistan and Iraq, publicly stating that “It’s a lot of fun to fight, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up front with you. I like brawling.” The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Mike Hagee said, in part, “While I understand that some people may take issue with the comments made by him, I also know he intended to reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war.” 15

The murder of surrendering prisoners is not unique to World War I. That has been a barbarous practice in all wars. However, one aspect of World War I fighting has been perhaps neglected; perhaps the murder of surrendering prisoners was more common in that brutal war than we would like to believe.

While brave, kindly and charitable acts also characterized World War I, we should not forget that it also produced its share of battlefield atrocities. A certain de-sensitization about the value of human life may be necessary to cope in the stress of performing a job that requires killing, a cold mentality that must be kept on the battlefield.

Perhaps the best tribute to fighting ability of the Guardsmen of the Rainbow Division came from their enemies. In a study made in post-war days, the German High Command considered eight American divisions especially effective; six of those were those of the much maligned “militia” or National Guard! When the German soldiers were asked which American combat division they most feared and respected, the reply was always, “the 42nd”, and “the Rainbow.” For some reason the Germans never made the distinction. 16

Editor’s note: On German opinion of the 42nd Div., see e.g., The United States Army in the World War, XI, 410, 412-13; Thomas, History of the A.E.F., 221.

George Pattullo, a World War I correspondent for the periodical Saturday Evening Post, and accredited to American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France in 1918, wrote as follows in his article entitled, “The Inside Story of the A.E.F.,” May 6, 1921:

“Just as it is impossible for an individual to view his family’s relations with outsiders impartially, so it is beyond the capacity of nationals of one country to see anything except their own side in dealing with other nations. The tendency to attribute base motives and double dealing to a rival is universal; on the other hand, everything that one’s own country does is great and noble and of pure purpose. And of course an enemy is always a scoundrel.

The extremes to which this sort of thinking will drive people are often laughable. I remember two nice old ladies from New England stopping a returned war correspondent on Fifth Avenue to question him about certain stories they had heard of war prisoners in German hands.

“Was it true that the Germans prodded prisoners with bayonets and kicked them, too, to make them walk faster?”

“Well, war’s a tough game,” answered the correspondent who was a bit fed up with

the whole business.

“It’s dog eat dog, and every army has men in it who go in for rough stuff.

You have to, in a fight!”

“Oh!” gasped the ladies, all aflutter, “But not our boys!

They’re too noble.” 18

Howard V. O’Brien, an AEF officer stationed in Paris, wrote an illuminating statement in his 1918 diary:

“Acquaintance growing up among different regions of U.S. Oregon reg’t and

outfit from Boston on same ship. Mass. boys at first dubious of “wild” Westerners-which had highest percentage of college men and generally bien élevé of any outfit I’ve seen. Most refractory bunch yet encountered, from Alabama. Pistol toters. G.O. [general order] ruled rods out. After that, all scrapping Marquis of Queensberry, and several good lickings helped.” 19

Victor L. Hicken, in his book The American Fighting Man, states:

“As far as the fear of the German soldier for the American soldier in 1917

was concerned, there is some basis for this contention. A French officer, observing the Yanks, wrote: “He arrived a born soldier….I think the Germans are afraid of him.” Rumor spread behind the German lines that it didn’t pay to fight well against the Americans; for they seldom allowed the Germans to surrender after putting up a stiff fight. One American regimental history, that of the “Rainbow Division,” substantiates this possibility by claiming that its men “fought to kill,” and that few prisoners were usually taken. Indeed, the facts on the “Rainbow Division” show that, for the amount of fighting the division did, very few prisoners were taken.” 20

A German is reported to have said:

“I did not meet the Americans on the battlefields but I have talked with German soldiers who did. These soldiers were against the Rainbow Division near Verdun and said they don’t want such fighting as they encountered there. The Americans were always advancing and acted more like wild men than soldiers.” 21

In Americans in Battle, we read:

“An historian of the Rainbow Division admits that its men fought to kill, an admission borne out by the mere 1,317 prisoners taken by the division.” 22