Morale poster, preserved in Muskegon.
The ethnically mixed platoon became a staple of movies set during the War. The Allied Expeditionary Force of a century ago was as likely to use English as a second language, notes author Geoffrey Wawro.
A hundred years ago this week, on a bend of the Meuse River in northern France, Gen. John Pershing launched the final major Allied offensive against Germany, an assault that would bring an end to World War I two months later.The Ruling Class of the day was more than happy to let the foreigners do the fighting and the dying, although the Germans failed to turn their former countrymen against their new leaders.
Without American intervention, the war would have probably ended in a German victory, or sputtered to a stalemate, leaving the Germans in possession of much of France, Belgium and Russia. The victory, though, came at significant cost: In the Meuse-Argonne offensive, as the operation came to be known, the Americans alone suffered some 122,000 casualties, including 29,000 dead.
That more than a million Americans were fighting in a European war was surprising enough. But even more surprising was the men themselves: Pershing’s soldiers, known as the American Expeditionary Force, were in some units as likely to be foreign- as American-born.
Thanks to a wave of immigration, the United States had changed significantly at the turn of the 20th century, going from a nation whose white population was 60 percent British and 35 percent German at the start of the Civil War into a turbulent “melting pot” in time for the Great War: 11 percent British, 20 percent German, 30 percent Italian and Hispanic and 34 percent Slavic.
And so nearly a quarter of draftees in 1918 were foreigners, often recent arrivals. The Army’s 32nd Division, made up of National Guardsmen from Michigan and Wisconsin, was nicknamed the “Gemütlichkeit Division” — the German word means “coziness” — because it included so many German immigrants. Its rosters, one officer remarked, “sounded like Hindenburg’s staff.”The Red Arrow Division acquitted itself so well that, to this day, Wisconsin Highway 32 rates special signage. (Flatlanders from the Chicago area headed for or from Door County might see it without noticing it.)
The country was willing to buy into its immigrants, at least for the duration, and the immigrants were willing to buy into their new country, even at the risk of their own lives.
Even though the doughboys spoke 49 different languages, making training and command difficult, the immigrants fought as bravely and desperately as native-born Americans. Germans deployed against the United States 77th Division in the Argonne Forest, hearing the mix of voices from the other trench, assumed that they were fighting Italian troops who had been sent north to reinforce the French. They weren’t Italians; they were Americans, from Little Italy in Manhattan.Among those interred in France, my great-uncle John Kalbes, born Jan Kalbes in East Prussia.
The Germans were fascinated by the Americans they captured on the battlefield. The Germans had assumed that with all its immigrant soldiers the United States Army would shatter into demoralized ethnic pieces when pressured. “The majority of them are the sons of foreign parents,” a German staff circular reminded interrogators. But German hopes of disintegration were dashed on the battlefield. “These half-Americans express without hesitation purely native sentiments. Their quality is remarkable. They brim with naïve confidence,” the Germans despaired.
“Naïve confidence” is as fine a description of what it means to be American as any — a superiority complex born of transformative, class-blind opportunity: the opportunity sought by the men and women who flooded into America at the turn of the last century, just like those who arrive today and continue to see the military as an avenue for gaining citizenship and respect.
Americans wandering in our nation’s World War I cemeteries in France today will be struck by how many of those “foreign slackers” and “half-Americans” reside there. The unassimilated names on the gravestones — Ottavio Fiscalini, Aleksandr Skazhkows, Olaf Knutson — confirm that, through what Senator Lodge called the “unguarded gates of American citizenship,” passed thousands of men ready to die for America.
Apparently, though, there are fewer veterans in far northern Wisconsin, and the Kalbes-Seewald American Legion Post No. 280 has sold its legion hall and donated the proceeds for a war memorial in Coleman, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Member of Congress Mike Gallagher recognizes.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize the dedication of a new veterans memorial in the Village of Coleman, Wisconsin. Found within Lillian’s Park, the ‘‘All Veterans Memorial’’ honors veterans from every branch who have served in wars on behalf of our country. We will never know all the sacrifices our veterans have made, however this memorial will stand in recognition of their service and honor their example.The task for the living is to continue to give young people, including immigrants, a country they can buy into, as well as to buy into the success of those young people. More grandiose constructions, such as a world safe for democracy or a Liberal International Order: not so much.
The ‘‘All Veterans Memorial’’ was made possible by the generous support of American Legion Post 280 and the Coleman community. The Kalbes-Seewald American Legion Post sold their legion hall last fall and dedicated the proceeds to the construction of a memorial for the veterans of our armed forces, as well as POWs/MIA. The Village of Coleman has also enthusiastically supported the project and contributed generously to its development.