Black WWI soldiers honoured in France
French battleground villages pay tribute to African-American soldiers who fought 90 years ago.
12 November 2008
SECHAULT - This World War I battleground village in northern France paid special tribute Tuesday to the "Harlem Hellfighters", the African-American soldiers who liberated it in 1918.
At 11h00, as France marked the end of the Great War, Sechault Mayor Didier Lange laid a wreath at the granite memorial honouring the 369th regiment from New York.
Lange then called for a moment of silence for "all the black American soldiers who died for France."
Built in 1997 by survivors of the New York-based regiment, the monument honours the men who fought alongside the French army in 1918 -- the so-called "coloured" regiments.
As many as 350,000 black US soldiers were sent to France after the United States joined the war in April 1917. Segregated in the US, they were placed in "coloured" regiments by white officers.
The French army suffered a shortage of soldiers from the spring of 1918, but they convinced American generals to provide additional troops, after initial opposition.
"For the US military command, blacks weren't to participate in the 'glory' of fighting," said Francois Cochet, professor of history at the University of Metz.
"They didn't want to see any coloured soldiers within their ranks so they lent them to the French army, who were less racist as they were used to having soldiers from their colonies," he said.
"The black American soldiers were quite surprised by the way they were treated. French racism was not as strong as American apartheid," he said.
The regiment was honoured by the French government for its acts of bravery, receiving the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d'Honneur.
The regiment included Lieutenant James Resse Europe, the only African-American officer to fight on the frontline.
Europe was also a prominent jazz musician and formed the "Hellfighters jazz band". Between battles, his group performed concerts to distract troops.
In Ardeuil, a village in the Ardennes, another monument stands in memory of those from another black regiment that fought in WWI.
Members of the 371st included Corporal Freddie Stowers, who once led his platoon in fighting against the Germans after all the white officers were killed. He later died from injuries.
He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1991, the highest military honour in the United States, becoming the only African-American who fought in World War I to receive military honours.
[AFP / Expatica]