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Text: Copyright Prosper Keating - Originally published in PARADIS Magazine
Superb original Artwork: Gerry Embleton
Photos: Reproduced by kind permission of the NARA, Washington

Around 01:00 hrs on May 14th 1918 in the Afrique sub-sector of the French front line, on the slopes of the Aisne river valley by the edge of the Argonne Forest, a 7.92mm Mauser bullet smacked into one of the sandbags forming a firing slot in the parapet of Observation Post 29, out in no-man’s land, some eighty metres ahead of the main front line.

  Private Henry Johnson swore under his breath as he ducked back behind the parapet. He worked the bolt of his three-shot Berthier M1907 rifle, chambered a round, and listened. His comrade, Private Needham Roberts, a preacher’s son from Trenton, New Jersey, was already braced against the opposite wall of the post, his Berthier at the ready. The seconds ticked by slowly as each man concentrated on the silence beyond the wire, listening hard for the small sounds that an enemy raiding party might make as they approached through the marsh and reeds. Johnson checked the time on the watch that his squad commander Corporal London had issued him and put it carefully back in his pocket. It would not do to lose or break that watch because the quartermaster would take it out of his pay.

Shifting his French-issue helmet back on his head, he peered out through the firing slot. Johnson’s firing slot covered a north-easterly arc of observation. Roberts peered though his slot, which covered the north-westerly arc. The moon was almost full that night, casting its metallic light over the ground to the front of the sentry post, creating shadows that might conceal a lurking sniper.

Above: February 12
th 1919, abroad the S.S. France: despite the painful wounds that would prevent him from returning to work as a railroad porter, Sgt Johnson displays his famous smile and the medal that marked him out as America’s top five heroes of the Great War.

The marshy floor of the observation post sucked at the duckboards under a man’s weight.  Thin tree branches expertly woven into a latticework by some French countryman-turned-soldier supported the damp chest-deep earthen walls of the trench crowned by a semi-oval sandbag parapet with several slots, or windows, through which the occupants could observe a 180° arc of no-man’s land. The slots also served as firing positions. Around the OP, some ten metres out, were a couple of lines of rusty barbed wire, strung on pickets, running back towards the French front lines, about eighty yards away on the crest of the river valley.

 OP 29 had a grandiose name: 29° Groupe de Combat, but in reality was no more than a rat-infested hole, fortified with sandbags, situated on a low knoll on the west side of the Aisne valley, big enough to hold a section of eight men. Across the valley, about a third of a mile away, was the German front line.  In front of OP 29, the ground fell away towards a band of the sort of waist-high bull grass that grows on marshy ground, and beyond the grass, the tree-line defining the river banks. Between the front line and OP 29 was another post, known as 28° Group de Combat, connected to the front line by a shallow communications trench. There was no such cover for the final leg to OP 29 but the approach lay more or less in dead ground, shielded to some extent from the German lines by the knoll and the ground falling gently away on either side. However, German snipers had a habit of crawling out into no-man’s land to take shots at anyone they saw so anyone moving between OPs 28 and 29 had to keep low…or run very fast.

Black Rattlers line up for inspection just after being issued with French helmets, equipment and weapons, which they wear with their American uniforms. They would shortly move into the front line after a brief training period…

Although he could not see anything, he knew the Fritzie sonofabitch who had taken a shot at him was close by, out there in the night just beyond the barbed wire. Rolling back against the trench wall, he took out his notebook and pencil, licked the end, and started noting the time and nature of the enemy contact. Johnson and Roberts had the watch from midnight to 04:00 hrs and were responsible for sounding the alarm in the event of a German attack. They were keeping the boys safe from the “Bush” Germans, that being the way most black Americans of the 369th pronounced boche, the derogatory term for the enemy. They also referred to the enemy as Fritzies or Dutchmen.

Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were part of a five-man patrol, led by Corporal Allen London, assigned to stand guard that night by their platoon commander, 1st Lieutenant Richardson Pratt. Johnson was glad he had been able to persuade Cpl London not to give the two new boys the dog watch. Fritzie snipers had been shooting at them that evening and Johnson had told London he needed men on the job who knew their rifles because the Fritzies were up to something. London had laughed, telling him it was his imagination, but he had taken the southern boys back with him all the same. Not that Johnson had anything against southern boys. He was from the south himself. But many of the old hands resented the southern Negroes being dumped on their unit by a high command that did not seem to know or care that there was a gulf of difference between northern city niggers and southern field niggers.

Henry Johnson’s wife Edna called him Bill. “Bill ain’t big or nothing like that but he can go some!”, she told a visiting newspaperman back home in Albany, New York, when they came calling to the Johnson house at 23 Monroe Street to ask her about the first American to win France’s highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, the War Cross with Palm, for his actions in the early hours of May 14th 1918 in a lonely observation post out in no-man’s land while serving as a Private with Company C, 1st Battalion, 369th United States Infantry Regiment, under the command of the French 4th Army.   

Right: Henry Johnson

Born in 1899 to a dirt-poor black family in Virginia, Henry Johnson grew up fast in North Carolina, living a “hand-to-mouth” existence, as Theodore Roosevelt Jr’s 1928 book, Rank and File; True Stories of the Great War (C. Scribner’s Sons, New York 1928) described it. Roosevelt, himself a highly decorated First World War veteran who would win a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honour on Utah Beach on June 6th 1944, listed Johnson as one of the top five American heroes of the First World War.

Migrating north like so many poor southern rural blacks, Henry Johnson came to Albany, New York, in his early teens where he found work at Union Station on Broadway as a redcap, as the porters hauling baggage and mailbags were known. Just 5’ 4” tall and weighing in at 130 lbs, but as strong as an ox from baggage handling and shovelling coal, Henry Johnson was good-looking, dressed sharply and charmed workmates and neighbours alike with his sense of humour, huge smile and a laid back southern accent that belied his can-do attitude to life. He met Edna, a minister’s daughter sometimes known as Minnie, when he was just eighteen and they moved into 23 Monroe Street, close to Union Station. They had the first of three children and married not long before he enlisted in the 15th New York Infantry Regiment (National Guard) on June 5th 1917 at the Marcy Avenue Armoury in Brooklyn, following America’s entry into the war.

  The 369th had arrived in France as the 15th New York Infantry Regiment (National Guard), an African-American unit authorised in 1913 by the state legislature and raised in Harlem but not formally established until June 1916 because of opposition from white conservatives fearful of “arming niggers” and, worse, training them in military tactics at a time of appalling racial unrest across the United States. In line with segregationist policies, all senior officers were white, with a mixture of white and black company grade officers, and all non-commissioned and enlisted men were black.

Formed by the famous bandleader and jazzman, James Reece Europe, the 15th’s regimental band was composed of Harlem ragtime and jazz musicians; in addition to bringing a swing to marching music some three decades before Glenn Miller did it, Lieutenant Europe’s band is generally credited with introducing jazz to Europe. The musicians were all combattants too. Jim Europe, who commanded the Machine Gun Platoon in France, is said to have been the first African-American officer of The Great War to enter a front line trench. Before returning to the United States, where Jim Europe would be stabbed to death in a row by one of his bandsmen, perhaps suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Harlem Hell Fighters’ band made recordings of some of their tunes, which survive to this day.

The 15th was the first African-American unit to be sent overseas after America declared war on Germany in 1917. The “Black Rattlers”, as the men of the 15th were nicknamed,  were a headache for the American High Command as none of the divisional commanders wanted them, either because of crude racism or because they questioned the military aptitude of black soldiers. The commander of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division is said to have told the Rattlers’ commander, Colonel William Hayward, that black was “…not a colour of the rainbow”.

When the Rattlers arrived in France, they were disarmed and put to work in the port of Saint-Nazaire, labouring on construction sites and unloading ships; a slap in the face for men who had enlisted as American soldiers to serve their country. The problem was finally solved after several months by the American Commander-in-Chief, General John “Black Jack” Pershing; he lent the Rattlers to the French. Colonel Hayward remarked caustically at the time, “Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away”.

The French were nonetheless very pleased to have them. The 15th was posted in mid-March 1918 to the French 4th Army, holding a fifty-kilometre stretch of the line running through the Champagne region from Reims to the Argonne Forest in anticipation of a major German offensive. Redesignated the 369th United States Infantry Regiment, or 369° Régiment d’Infanterie US, as the French called them, the Rattlers were issued with French weapons, field equipment and helmets but retained their doughboy uniforms, giving them a unique look.

After a brief training period, the Rattlers moved up to the front on April 12th 1918, occupying a 5 ½ kilometre section of the line in the Bois d’Hauzy, in the “Afrique” sub-sector between the village of Ville-sur-Tourbe and the west bank of the Aisne river, just by the Argonne Forest. Each of the regiment’s battalions would initially spend ten days in the line, in rotation, to acquaint the men with life at the front. At one point, the Rattlers were the only troops between the Germans and Paris.

Around 20km from east to west and running approximately 70km north to south, from the Belgian border to Verdun, the Argonne Forest is a rugged place, a huge prehistoric wilderness of forested hills reaching as high as 300m, with deep valleys and cliff-faced ravines, carpeted with a thick forest filled with dense brush. The front lines had not shifted much since 1914 and the Germans had fortified the Argonne with the usual bunkers and camouflaged machine gun positions. The valleys and ravines were strewn with all sorts of man-made obstacles. No-man’s land belonged to the Germans as the French tended not to provoke unnecessary fighting. Indeed, until the Rattlers arrived, the French command had gotten into the habit of sending units in need of rest and recuperation to the Argonne because it was considered a quiet sector of the front.

Pushing his notebook back into the breast pocket of his tunic, Henry Johnson slipped the pencil into one of his ammo pouches for safe-keeping and took a swig of cold coffee from his canteen. Some of the boys kept wine in their canteens, a habit picked up from their French comrades. But coffee was better on a night watch, better even than water, because it kept a man awake. Across the OP, Needham Roberts had taken off his helmet and was rubbing his scalp as he continued to look out into the void. Johnson edged up to his slot and, keeping well back, peered into the night.

Right: Needham Roberts

There! Something was moving in the grass, out there, beyond the wire. Johnson sighted his Berthier; first pressure on the trigger. Just a small cloud crossing the moon, its shadow playing tricks on his mind. The minutes passed slowly. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Roberts spin around with his rifle ready. The platoon sergeant, Roy Thompson, slipped over the back of the post, landing on the duckboard with a loud squelch from the sodden ground. “What’s the matter, men? You scared?”. “No,” said Johnson, “I ain’t scared, but there’s liable to be some tall scrappin’ ‘round this post tonight! Them Dutchmen are up to something”. Thompson grinned and moved back out the way he had come, into the night, on his inspection of the company positions.     

Henry Johnson was more right than he might have wanted to be. Sometime around 22:00 hrs, a raiding party of about thirty men, led by a leutnant who spoke English with a New York accent, had slipped out of the German lines further up the valley and made their way quietly down into the woods bordering the river. They were probably experienced trench-raiders from the elite Sturm-Bataillon 3, whose tasks included snatching prisoners from the Allied lines for intelligence purposes. There were many men from Saxon Jäger or light infantry regiments in Storm Battalion 3. The Germans were used to the Africans of the French Colonial Army but these American blacks were as yet an unknown quantity so they dispatched the raiders to bring some back for interrogation.

The trench-raiders forded the river and moved to a Forming-Up Point or FUP in the woods below OP 29. The French were used to such raids and were in the habit of withdrawing their men from the OPs at night. But the Germans had noticed that these new arrivals did not vacate the OPs after sundown. Sometime just after midnight, a French officer had come to Johnson and Roberts to order them back to the front line proper as enemy activity was expected that night. Johnson had drawn himself up to his full 5’ 4” and replied, “Lieutenant, I am an American and I never retreat, sir!”

At the FUP, the leutnant and his sergeant or feldwebel counted each man in as they arrived in single file, three metres apart. They had already split into two groups, one to raid the OP and grab the occupants, the other to provide covering fire if needed. A couple of men were also detached to guard the FUP, where weapons and equipment not deemed essential for the raiding phase would be left as the two squads moved off to the objective.

As the leutnant checked his men, the feldwebel sent a sharpshooter up the hill toward OP 29, to test the defences. His job was not to kill anyone in the OP but to provoke a reaction by which the strength of the enemy in the OP could be judged. If a section of infantry happened to be in there and opened up into the darkness with their rifles, the raiders would beat a quiet retreat back to their lines or, perhaps, move towards an alternative objective. This is why Henry Johnson heard that 7.92 mm Mauser round smacking into the sandbag inches from his face. Had he not heard it, it would have been because he was dead.

At the FUP, the men detailed for the snatch stacked their Mauser G98 rifles and any superfluous equipment, taking only 9mm Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” and Luger PO8 pistols, “potato-masher” stick grenades, little cast iron egg grenades with the two-second fuses favoured by stormtroopers, field-made stun grenades and wire-cutters. They did not bring any of the improvised close combat weapons favoured by trench raiders on all sides, like maces-and-chains with spiked balls, axes, clubs with iron spikes and choppers modelled on butchers’ cleavers. Killing the enemy was not their goal; they were after prisoners.

As the covering party checked their rifles and the clips of ammunition in their leather belt pouches, making sure there was no mud or grit to cause a jam at a crucial moment, the snatch squad lined up in front of the leutnant and jumped up and down to ensure that nothing clinked or rattled around in their pockets and pouches. They checked one another’s faces and where the sweat of the move to the FUP had caused their burnt cork blacking to run they touched the camouflage up with burnt wine corks.

Up the hill in the bull grass beyond the trees, the sniper noted the lack of reaction indicating a small enemy strength in the objective, slipped backwards on his belly, rolled off to one side into dead ground for cover and moved back to report. It might have taken him fifteen minutes to get back to the FUP. Ten minutes after that, the stormtroopers moved out, leaving a couple of men guarding the equipment.

To continue to the 2nd part of the narrative click HERE