By Jenny Nolan | The Detroit News
On Sept. 13, 1918, former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Maj. Gen. William Haan, commander of the Army’s 32nd Division then operating in France: “I most heartily congratulate you, my dear Sir, on the great work of your division. By George, your men have hit hard! Will you thank the division for me?”
The outfit whose exploits excited the admiration of the Roughriding hero of San Juan Hill was the National Guard division of Michigan and Wisconsin.
The unit won fame under three names: Officially it was the 32nd Division; to the people of Michigan and Wisconsin it was the Red Arrow Division, and to the French who fought alongside these mid-western Americans, they were known as “Les Terribles.”
From May to November of 1918 — nearly seven months — the division was under constant fire, with only 10 days rest. The Red Arrow fought on five fronts and took a leading role in three great offensives which met and vanquished 23 German divisions. The division suffered more than 14,000 casualties, captured more than 2,000 prisoners, never yielded a foot of ground to the enemy, and was the first American division to set foot on German soil.
The United States entered the war in 1917 on the side of Britain and France after German submarine warfare and its indiscriminate sinking of civilian ships had turned American public opinion, which previously favored isolation from Europe’s deep-rooted anomosities.
On April 6 war was declared against Germany and by June American troops had begun landing in France. In December Russia signed an armistice with Germany, ending the fighting on the Eastern Front, and freeing up the Kaiser’s troops to concentrate on the Western front in France and Belgium. The Western Front had been stalemated for nearly three and a half years. The opposing sides had dug themselves into trenches, and movement of the lines was measured in feet and inches.
During this time the 32nd Division, which had been formed July 18, 1917, of National Guard troops from Michigan and Wisconsin, was training at Camp MacArthur near Waco, Tex.
Shipped off to Europe to join the American Expeditionary Forces, the division established its headquarters near Langres, France on Feb. 24, 1918. Maj. Gen. Haan refused to accept the role of “feeder division” for his men, which meant the division would be used only to provide reinforcements and replacements for other units.
Haan went to Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, and convinced him that the 32nd Division would hold its own as a combat unit. After four weeks of training, and a renewed German offensive, the role of the 32nd was changed from a support role to a front line combat unit.
Britain and France had launched major offensives against the Germans in 1917, but had been unsuccessful in budging the German lines, sustaining huge losses. On May 18th, 1918, four battalions of the 32nd division were assigned to front line duty in Haute Alsace, relieving French troops decimated by an enemy offensive. In the division’s baptism of fire, 40 men were killed.
From the Alsace, the division went to the Marne district and pushed the Germans from the Ourcq River back to the Vesle River. The 32nd paid a terrible price in seven days of savage fighting for these 19 kilometers between the two rivers — 722 were killed, 992 severely injured, 618 gassed, 46 missing; 75 of the wounded later died.
From the Vesle, the division was sent to the Soissons front. There it came under the command of the renowned French Gen. Mangin, fighting between two of the best divisions in the French army — the Moroccans and the Foreign Legion. Together they took Juvigny. In the five-day battle against five German divisions, the 32nd suffered 2,848 casualties.
The Red Arrow moved on to the Verdun front and from there to the Argonne-Meuse sector. That battle lasted for 20 days. The Germans, after four years of trench warfare, were dug in and planned to stay put. They realized the importance of the position and were under orders to hold the line at all costs. They didn’t count on the ferocity of “Les Terribles.” The 32nd broke through the Hindenburg Line and moved on the Kriemhilde Stellung line. At 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 14, the Red Arrow broke through the maze of barbed wire and took the line of trenches and the Cote Dame de Marie, which was the key to all the defenses in the vicinity. For five more days the 32nd continued to advance under nearly constant machine gun and artillery fire. Those three weeks of fighting cost the division 5,950 casualties.
The 32nd Division met and vanquished 11 German divisions in the Argonne fighting, including the fearsome Prussian Guards, and the German Army’s 28th Division, known as the Kaiser’s Own.
The second week of November found the division fighting on the banks of the Meuse, with another major offensive planned for the morning of Nov. 11. H-hour was planned for 7 a.m. Just 10 minutes before they were to begin their attack, news came that the armistice had been signed. The attack was aborted, but the division had to endure heavy artillery fire from the enemy until the armistice went into effect at 11 a.m., sustaining a number of casualties in those last few hours.
On Dec. 1 the men of the 32nd crossed into German territory, and made their first headquarters on German soil at Helenenberg.
When the allied commander-in-chief came to select the three divisions that were to hold the bridgehead sector on the east bank of the Rhine, he picked the 32nd as one of the three, the only National Guard division to be so honored. The division crossed the Rhine on Friday, Dec. 13.
Detroit rejoiced on May 18, 1919, when thousands of the men of the 32nd arrived at the Michigan Central Railroad terminal, on their way to Fort Custer. The first would arrive at noon, and more throughout the day, with the last coming in on the midnight train. The next day, Monday, was proclaimed Red Arrow Day, and began with a parade of 4,000 members of the division down Lafayette.
As The Detroit News noted at the time, the reception did not start with a cheer: “The thousands who had crowded against the yard gates waiting for the column to form and march, turned with the swinging platoons in that mood which, because of a tightness in the throat, makes cheering impossible. These who marched on curb and sidewalk were too closely bound to the marchers for clamorous demonstration. Mothers marched and fathers and sisters marched, and girls, every one of them, with worshipful gaze on some khaki figure, some sun-browned face.”
The cheering began as the marchers came abreast of the wall of humanity waiting with the Liberty Band. Behind the marching troops, came trucks and cars with uniformed boys in wheelchairs, white-faced with pain, but smiling at the cheering crowds, at the confetti, at the pretty girls waving flags.
As the last platoon and the last touring car filled with soldiers from General Hospital 36 passed on, the ecstatic crowd closed in to follow the route from Lafayette to Wayne to Fort to Woodward to Canfield. General Haan, who led the men in France, was in the reviewing stand. Millions of flags waved the boys on.
Washington Boulevard, from Michigan Avenue to Grand Circus Park was turned into an open air ballroom. Two bands and an orchestra furnished the music, and Detroit in general, and the Red Cross in particular, furnished the girls. Cornmeal and wax were sprinkled over the asphalt. The dancing started in the afternoon and continued until it began to rain.
At midnight the revelers, silenced by the rain, began returning to their homes, remembering the boys who had been left behind in France.