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Home : News : News Features
NEWS | Nov. 7, 2018

History: National Guard assisted WWI allies in ending war

By National Guard Bureau Historical Services

ARLINGTON, Va. - At 11 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time on Nov. 11, 1918 ("the eleventh hour of the eleventh month"), an Armistice took place between the Allied and Central powers across all battle zones. It marked the beginning of the steps that would bring the First World War to an end.

The efforts of the National Guard were pivotal to Allied success in obtaining this goal of ending the bloody and futile war. The Guard engaged in combat for the first time ever with the official name of "National Guard."

In the War, forces fought alongside them from both the active-duty component, and the foreign partners. These united efforts incorporated into a means to halt the German advance that had recently menaced France and the entire Allied effort on the Western front.

From the point at which Gen. John J. Pershing and the entirety of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) arrived in France in 1917, strategy dictated organizing an American Army under American command as soon as possible.

However, the severity of losses experienced by French and British armies prior to American arrival in Europe revealed an urgent necessity that separated some forces and linked other units from the other nations' commanders. This did not always sit well with Pershing, something demonstrated in other combat encounters in France. This included the first armed exchange in summer 1918, which began in a benign fashion after training and maneuver exercises.

Four companies from Illinois' 131st and 132nd Infantry Regiment, Companies C and E, as well as A and G, respectively, aided Australian 4th and 11th Brigades at the Battle of Hamel on July 4, 1918, and swiftly overran German positions in two hours. The encounter marked the first occasion that the United States and Australia fought together in combat. The Independence Day victory also marked the first action meriting the Medal of Honor from a National Guard member, Cpl. Thomas A. Pope.

The Battle of Hamel denoted a change in fortune for Allied hopes dampened by German advances in spring 1918. About 10 days later, Champagne-Marne marked the first successful Allied defense against German movement with a counterattack that ended in July, 1918. Another campaign came first in July 1918. Central to its success along with the 3rd Infantry Division, were the 26th, 28th, and 42nd Divisions, whose effort was also aided by the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the "Harlem Hellfighters" who fought among three French armies in just over four days. This action showed what the collective brawn of the AEF could accomplish.

The breach of the "Hindenburg line" also hastened the War's end. The 27th "Empire" Division, composed mostly of New York Guard members, and the 30th "Old Hickory" Division, hailing from Tennessee and the Carolinas, provided much of the strength needed to punch through by Sept. 29 in what would become known as the Somme Offensive. Other Guard campaign participation included the Oise-Aisne, Aisne-Marne, and Ypres-Lys offensives that pushed Allied operations into Germany and Belgium.

These operations all solidified into strategic maneuvers that opened an opportunity for a final blow, designed to have German forces fighting in France capitulate in fall 1918. This took place with the Meuse-Argonne offensive that started on Sept. 26. It included elements of 11 National Guard divisions at one point or another during the 47-day battle fought through the 11th of November. Overall, this proved to be the most costly offensive in U.S. combat history in terms of casualties lost, with over 110,000 casualties.

Valorous actions proved characteristic for Guard Soldiers in these final campaigns of the War. The 30th Division earned more Medals of Honor than any other Army division, 12, mostly for their work in the Hindenburg operations.

While the formal end of the War came through diplomatic talks that started in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles, the end of war required Allied forces to serve occupation duty, including the National Guard units previously serving in combat operations. This included the 26th "Yankee" Division from New England; the 28th "Keystone" Division; the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division from Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as the as well as the 35th Division from Kansas and Missouri.

German High Command also recognized the prowess of Guard fighting units in its post-war evaluation of the performance of American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in 1919. It rated eight U.S. divisions as "superior or excellent." Among these were National Guard divisions: the 26th, 28th, 32nd, 33rd, 37th and 42nd (respectively; the Yankee, Keystone, Red Arrow, Prairie, Buckeye and Rainbow) Divisions.

The National Guard provided exemplary service to the AEF, despite many obstacles from the time of the declaration of war in April 1917, the mobilization process, and training multiple divisions and sending most of them overseas to Europe. Using the framework of the modern 20th century organization, the National Guard incorporated its men and units into a larger, more potent U.S. Army. Rigorous training in a series of stateside camps, many of which still operate today, constant adaptation, and sheer will propelled these men to achieve victory. In all, 18 divisions served in the 19 months since the U.S. entered the conflict.

A total of 17 divisions and one provisional division that contained the segregated Soldiers from the 369th, 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments served; however, not all divisions fought in Europe due to the war ending when it did. Be it the "Harlem Hellfighters," the only unit to go to Europe under their state colors; Pennsylvania's "Men of Iron" fighting throughout the Alsace-Lorraine countryside; the "Sunshine" Division from California and the western United States filling critical places as "Depot Divisions;" detached units from the 39th "Dixie" Division, or the famed "Rainbow Division" that fought under Douglas Macarthur, representing 26 states and the District of Columbia - the combination of all National Guard and all of its combat elements involved proved crucial to Allied victory.