“Send the Alabamians: World War I Fighters in the Rainbow Division”
Author: Nimrod Frazer, with a Foreword by Edwin C. Bridges
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $34.95 (Hardback)
On May 9, 1919, the 167th Infantry Regiment, the Alabama regiment, of the 42nd Division returned from Europe in triumph. They were to be mustered out in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, but their three special troop trains stopped for celebrations in Huntsville, Decatur, Anniston, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile.
The parades were gigantic. The celebration on May 12th, in Montgomery, where the regiment, previously a National Guard unit, the 4th Alabama, had been mobilized, was enormous. Thousands turned out. The crowd extended over a mile. Frazer asserts “Montgomery had never had such a triumphant parade, nor has it seen such a thing since.”
The regiment had suffered 616 dead or missing but had made a reputation as ferocious fighters. They earned the nicknames “Alabama Wildcats “and “Alabama Wildmen.”
The chapter describing these celebrations is entitled “Return of the Immortals” but in the 100 years since, WWI has faded in Americans’ memories. This is in fact the primary motivation for Nimrod Frazer’s meticulously researched history of the 167th. And, to Frazer, it is not ancient history: his father, Will Frazer, fought with the 167th.
The unit served in the Mexican border war under General Pershing in what appears as a kind of warm-up. The Alabamians, mainly country boys, fought with distinction but, left at leisure, were unruly. General Edward H. Plummer supplied Frazer’s title when he remarked, “In time of war, send me all the Alabamians you can get, but in time of peace, for Lord’s sake, send them to somebody else.”
They reinforced their reputation as wildmen in France. Frazer writes that they were “sometimes a bit unrefined, especially when bored….” (John Berryman would suggest these fellows had few “inner resources.”) Of course, they had little leisure time.
Frazer describes their movements in France from arriving in November of 1917, taking their places in the trenches in February of 1918, and fighting in the battles of Baccarat, Champagne-Marne and, most ferociously, the battle of Croix Rouge farm, called by the soldiers Red Cross farm, right on into Germany. In this series of battles, especially, the U.S. forces changed the nature of the war.
For over three years it had been trench warfare, artillery barrages, patrols in no-man’s-land, rain, mud and disease. General Pershing meant to change all this. The plan was mobile warfare: attack and keep attacking. This was costly, enormously so.
The descriptions of killed and wounded read like reports of Civil War battles. But the Germans were exhausted and it was feared that they would be reinforced by troops from the east, now that Russia had made a separate peace. Time was of the essence.
Devotees of military history will especially appreciate Frazer’s detailed descriptions of each battle, hour by hour in some cases.
But the narrative is enlivened by the many quotes from soldiers’ letters home and the utterly new experiences these boys, most of whom had never been anywhere, went through on the personal level.
The Alabamians’ division, the 42nd, was known as the Rainbow Division because it was made up of soldiers from all over, especially New Yorkers, Yankees they had been brought up to hate.
During the rare lulls there were temptations, women and wine, of course, and the officers had a time keeping the men free from venereal disease. It was France, and war, however brutal, can be broadening.
The men found French ways fascinating.
The French, for their part, found the Americans tall, large, vigorous. By comparison this was so, but the French would have been interested to learn that at the initial regimental physical exams, 30% were rejected for having hookworm, being underweight, or having venereal diseases, bad teeth, tuberculosis, or heart disease.
We only sent the ones who passed, and the author suggests most of these soldiers had never been so well paid, fed, clothed or shod as they were in the U.S. Army.
There is a fine Foreword by Edwin C. Bridges and Frazer has included an extremely useful chronology of WWI and a complete list, by company, of Alabamians who served, complete with home town. Surely thousands of Alabamians will take a peek to see the family name proudly listed there.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”