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In 1917, ‘Rainbow Division’ Celebrated Christmas in France

December 19, 2017

LATHAM, N.Y., Dec. 19, 2017 — In December 1917, the soldiers of the National Guard’s 42nd Division were all in France, waiting for training in the trench warfare that defined World War I in Europe.

The division’s 27,000 troops had started moving to France in October from Camp Albert Mills on Long Island. The last elements of the 26-state division — the 168th Infantry Regiment from Iowa — had reached France at the end of November.

The 42nd Division had been formed by taking National Guard units from 26 states and combining them into a division that stretched across the country, “like a rainbow,” in the words of the division chief of staff, Army Col. Douglas MacArthur.

The largest elements were four regiments from Ohio, Iowa, Alabama and New York, which were organized in two brigades of two regiments and supporting units.

The New York National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment, renowned as the “Fighting 69th” had been renamed the 165th Infantry Regiment.

Christmas in France

By Christmas, the division’s elements were located in a number of villages northeast of the city of Chaumont, about 190 miles east of Paris. The men had hiked there from Vaucouleurs, where they had originally been deposited by train.

The 165th Infantry Regiment celebrated Christmas in the village of Grand. Father Francis Duffy, the regiment’s famous chaplain, celebrated a joint American-French mass on Christmas Eve.

According to Army Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, a poet and editor, “the regimental colors were in the chancel, flanked by the tricolor. The 69th was present, and some French soldier-violinists. A choir of French women sang hymns in their own language, the American soldiers sang a few in English, and French and American [voices] joined in the universal Latin of ‘Venite, Adoremus Dominum.”

On Christmas Day the men ate turkey, chicken, carrots, cranberries, mashed potatoes, bread pudding, nuts, figs and coffee. The Army, wrote Cpl. Martin Hogan “was a first-rate caterer.”

The Iowa National Guard’s 168th Infantry Regiment hosted 400 French children at a Christmas celebration in the village of Rimaucourt. Two American soldiers dressed as Santa Claus gave presents to the French children and a French band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The children received dolls, horns and balloons, recalled Lt. Hugh S. Thompson in his book, “Trench Knives and Mustard Gas.”

The 168th didn’t eat as well as the 165th on Christmas day, according to Thompson. “Scrawny turkeys and a few nuts were added to the usual rough menu,” he recalled.

The Ohio National Guard’s 166th Infantry Regiment was reviewed by Army Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, just before Christmas. On Christmas they enjoyed music from the regimental band and a good meal.

The ‘Valley Forge Hike’

While Christmas 1917 was a good one for most of the Rainbow Division, the next week went down in the division’s memory as the “Valley Forge Hike.”

It was 30-40 miles from where the division’s troops had celebrated Christmas to the town of Rolampont, where the Army’s Seventh Training Area had been established.

Today, you can drive the route in an hour. In 1917 it took the soldiers four days to get there.

The march was miserable, according to the 1919 book, “The Story of the Rainbow Division.”

The soldiers had “scarcely any shoes except what they had on their feet, there was no surplus supply to speak of. Some of the men had no overcoats.”

They walked into a mountain snowstorm. In some places the snow was 3-4 feet deep. Soldiers’ shoes wore out. Some marched almost barefoot, and there were bloody trails in the snow.

Thompson recalled that the men in his unit were issued hobnailed boots: the soles were held by heavy nails. The problem, he said, was that the nails got cold and the men’s feet froze.

“Bleak expanses of icy geography appeared and vanished in monotonous fields between villages,” he said. “Legs ached, pack straps cut into shoulders unmercifully. Men fell out, exhausted.”

At night, the men huddled in the barns and haylofts of the French villages to keep warm.

The mule- and horse-drawn supply wagons got stuck on the icy roads and men had to move their best animals from wagon to wagon to get them unstuck, Duffy recalled.

Stretched Thin

For three days, the men in the 165th Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion had no food, Kilmer said, and when rations caught up to the men they got coffee and a bacon sandwich, or a raw potato and bread.

“The hike made Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow look like a Fifth Avenue parade,” one New York officer remembered later.

“The men plowed over the hills and [through] the snow, enduring hardships which are not pleasant to remember,” wrote Reppy Alison, the author of a book about the 1st Battalion, 166th Infantry Regiment.

Medics reported cases of mumps and pneumonia as the temperatures dropped below zero. Hundreds of men fell out — at least 700, including 200 of the New Yorkers — but most made it to Rolampont.

As the 165th Infantry Regiment arrived, the regimental band struck up “In the Good Old Summer Time.”

By New Year’s Day the division’s elements had all arrived in Rolampont, and along with a new year they got a new commander.

Army Maj. Gen. William A. Mann, the former head of the Militia Bureau, the equivalent of today’s Chief of today’s National Guard Bureau, had taken command of the division at Camp Mills.

But, at age 63, Mann couldn’t meet the physical standards for officers established by Pershing.

Mann was replaced by 55-year-old Army Brig. Gen. Charles T. Menoher.

As 1918 began, Menoher and the soldiers of the Rainbow Division began gearing up to go into the trenches. After completing a demanding training regimen led by the British and French armies, the division would spend 264 days in combat before the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918.