Last night I had the pleasure of watching a preview of the upcoming video game, Battlefield 1. The game is set in 1918 during the final year of World War I. For most people, not much is known about World War I. Unlike World War II, there were no well known evil dictators, flashy battles, or decisive victors.
Despite it’s unpopular history, it is the origin of a few of the most deadliest battles in modern military history including the Battle of Somme, the Spring Offensive, and the Hundred Days Offensive. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive in particular is known as America’s most deadliest battle to date.
A big reason for the lack of interest in WW1 is the battle style. While WW2 saw much movement, daring offensives, and a clear objective (i.e. the end of Nazism), WW1 was a war of attrition and patience. Battles lasted years with little to no gains and inexperience combat leaders would result in the death of millions through outdated and ill advised battle tactics.
Battlefield 1 is looking to change the narrative by highlighting the heroic efforts of a war lost to history. One such group being highlighted are the Harlem Hell Fighters. The Harlem Hell Fighters were an all-black Infantry Regiment that would serve the longest deployment of any unit in World War 1. "The nickname “Hell Fighters” was given to them by the Germans due to their toughness and that they never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy.“
GDN Fact: Benjamin O. Davis Sr. served in the Harlem Hell Figher unit. His son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. would later go on to be the commanding officer of the Tuskegee Airmen.
In an infantry known for its toughness, Henry Johnson was the toughest of them all. Johnson’s story begins on the battlefield of Argonne Forest on May 14th, 1918. According to wikipedia, and the History channel, Henry Johnson "fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier while experiencing 21 wounds.” An estimated 30 Germans participated in the attack before retreating. This act would later earn Johnson the the nickname “Black Death”.
Before the War, America had promised that no American unit would be led by a foreign officer. These orders did not include the only all black regiment and thus resulted in Johnson being the first American awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest award for bravery. Former President Theodore Roosevelt’s son would later call Henry Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I.
Despite his successes and wartime fame, Johnson would return home to a racially divided nation. Appearing one evening in St. Louis to deliver a tale of racial harmony in the trenches, Johnson revealed “the abuse which black soldiers had suffered, such as white soldiers refusing to share trenches with blacks.” This would be his undoing, blacklisting him from speaking engagements.
Henry Johnson would die at the age of 36 penniless and forgotten. The United States would not reward Johnson for his bravery until 1996.