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Source: Stadsarchief Waregem

The U.S. in Flanders during the First World War

by Dominiek Dendooven - 01/20/12
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After the German Empire had announced an unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States declared war against the Central Powers on 6 April 1917. However, the United States had played an important role in the war effort even before this date both internationally, more specifically in the field of diplomacy, and closer to the front line. As it was the major neutral power both the allies and the central powers tried to get the Americans ‘on their side’. For the Germans it was more a matter of trying not to offend the US. The report drafted by James Bryce, former British Ambassador in Washington, on the German atrocities perpetrated in Belgium, and the repeated protests against the brutal occupation uttered by Brand-Whitlock, the American Ambassador in Brussels, had generated considerable sympathy for invaded Belgium in the United States public opinion. This was demonstrated amongst others in the emergency aid which the Americans shipped to Belgium in bulk. The Commission for Relief in Belgium effectively ensured that the Belgians living in the occupied region did not starve. Until April 1917 many Americans: journalists, relief workers and diplomats, resided in the occupied country. Americans had also been active on the other side of the front line before 1917. The American Field Service was created in 1914, as a voluntary ambulance service that provided services to the allied forces. After the war the organization evolved to become the well-known cultural exchange programme AFS. The American Red Cross was active in providing aid to refugees and civilians behind the front. Many individual Americans crossed the Northern border to serve in the Canadian army: some were looking for adventure, others were genuinely committed and indignant. For instance, you can read on the grave of Leland Wingate Fernald, buried as a Canadian soldier in Lijssenthoek British Military Cemetery in Poperinge, that this subject of the United States volunteered because he was outraged by the sinking of the Lusitania, the ocean liner torpedoed by a German submarine on 7 May 1915, causing the death of 1200 mainly civilian passengers.
The famous neurosurgeon of Harvard University, Harvey Cushing, also came to Europe in 1915 to work in an American hospital near Paris. After a lengthy stay in the US, he arrived at the British field hospitals in the vicinity of Poperinge in May 1917. There he witnessed the whole Third Battle of Ypres, and ultimately joined the American Expeditionary Force in June 1918. His outstanding diary ‘From a Surgeon's Journal’ is a compendium of excellent observations, comments and medical dilemmas.

Americans in Flanders

It was the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force as from June 1917 that tipped the balance in favour of the allied forces towards the middle of 1918. The main American sector was, however, the Meuse-Argonne region in the North East of France. American troops were only present on Belgian territory during the last months of the war. The four American divisions, 40,000 men in all, who fought in Flanders, had only arrived in Europe in June and July 1918. The 27th and 30th division had already experienced their baptism of fire in July at the front to the South of Ypres, between the Ypres-Comines railway line and Dikkebus Lake for the 30th and from Dikkebus Lake to Kemmel for the 27th. The soldiers of the latter division mainly originated from New York State in the East of the United States. The 30th division was made up of Southerners from North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Both divisions remained near Ypres until 4 September1918. They only faced heavier fighting in the last days when the front line had shifted slightly to the East.

The 37th and 91st division reinforced a French army division on 30 October 1918 between the rivers Lys and Scheldt. One of the last phases of the Final Offensive was launched the following day and the Americans were used as ‘shock troops’. They attacked in the direction of the Scheldt between Waregem and Kruishoutem. As fighting took place in a virtually undisturbed landscape between hedges and (inhabited) farms, the defending Germans had many advantages and the Americans suffered heavy losses, particularly in the Spitaalsbossen (Spitaals Woods), not far from the present day American military cemetery Flanders’ Field in Waregem. After the initial shock German resistance waned and the 91st division was able to liberate Oudenaarde without too many problems on 2 November. The next phase of the offensive was scheduled for 10 November, when they crossed the Scheldt and took up position on the hills on the other side of the river. There, in the ‘Flemish Ardennes’, the American 37th and 91st Division experienced their Armistice the next day just as they were preparing for the next ‘push’. The 37th division originated from Ohio, the 91st division was also called the Wild West Division as it included men from the Western states California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. In Kemmel and Oudenaarde there are monuments for the American divisions, whereas the Flanders’ Field Cemetery in Waregem, the smallest American military cemetery in Europe, commemorates their 368 dead and 43 missing soldiers on Belgian territory.

Although everyone was delighted with the arrival of the Americans, their customs and habits were not equally appreciated by everyone. Eric Hiscock, a young Brit in the Royal Fusilliers remembers them as follows:

’They marched through our village in columns of three, held their rifles like Boy Scouts presenting arms with their broomsticks, and spoke what sounded like a foreign language. ’’When we get at those cocksucking mother-fuckers”, boasted many of them, and no one in the 26th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers had heard such expressions before, nor knew what they meant. Their discipline seemed just as odd, with officers and rankers clapping each other on the back, and drinking together in the local estaminets. They fraternised with local girls in a way we could never have achieved nor have imagined, mainly with the help of their wallets. The Yank exuded francs, and were paid more for one day’s soldiering than we got in a week, and no one in our village believed for a moment that they would be fit to fight if they were asked to do so.’

The American divisions who fought in Flanders were almost exclusively white. The American Expeditionary Force had a strict segregation policy with separate units for whites and blacks. The more than 200,000 black soldiers, one tenth of the total AEF, were not considered able by their superiors: only one fifth of them was actually deployed at the front (as opposed to two thirds of the white soldiers), the others worked behind the front or in the inland ports. The Afro-Americans who were deployed at the front, mainly served in the 92nd division that remained in France. Another black unit, however, the 370th Infantry Regiment from Illinois, belonged to a French Brigade that fought near the French-Belgian border in November 1918. Thus the small village of Petite Chapelle in the South of the Province Namur is the only Belgian place to have been liberated by black Americans on 10-11 November 1918. It is quite likely that after the Armistice a number of Afro-American units were temporarily present in Belgium.

Native Americans on the Western Front

Another important group is the American Indians: over 13,000 Native Americans served in the American army during the First World War, almost one third of all adult male American Indians. Between two thousand and four thousand left for Europe with the A.E.F. The hope for the settlement of ancient claims and full civil rights appears to have been one of the reasons why so many Indians joined up; this hope was fulfilled in the post-war years in respect of civil rights. Virtually all tribes were represented but their involvement varied considerably. The largest group came from the state Oklahoma. As opposed to the Afro-Americans the American natives were not segregated but where barracked with the white units. Because of the prevailing stereotypes about his assumed combativeness, the Indian was rated higher as a soldier than the Afro-American, and therefore he experienced less discrimination. Some smaller units were exclusively made up of American Indians. Remarkably moccasins were a part of their uniform. The First World War had a certain influence on the life of the native people in the US. Not only were they subsequently granted civil rights but the war was and is still occasionally referred to in their ceremonies and dances. For instance, since 1917 the Lakota Indians (‘Sioux’), have referred to the Germans in their traditional battle songs, by calling them ‘iya sica’ (the ‘bad speakers’ or ‘those who speak in an odd way’). On the negative side some tribes lost even more grounds to the state during the war.
There is little doubt that American Indians also fought in Belgium, more specifically in the 91st Division that originated from the (Mid-)West of the United States.

Flemings in the American Army

As had been the case in Canada emigrated Flemings also joined the American army. One such remarkable example is the Van den Broeck family from Sint-Niklaas. Of the nine children in the family of clog maker Jan Van den Broeck five boys and two girls emigrated to the United states shortly before the First World War. When war broke out the two boys who had stayed in Belgium, Leon and Frans, were mobilized. Shortly later, probably in September 1914, the brothers Emiel and Jozef left Chicago to return to Europe and become Belgian volunteers. When the United States declared war on the Central Powers on 6 April 1917, the brothers Henri, Charles and August and sister Henriette joined the American army. The latter as a multilingual telephone operator. Thus eight children of a single family from Sint-Niklaas served on the Western Front: four as Belgians and four as Americans. And all eight of them survived the war.

For more information email us at 2014-18@flandershouse.org.