Texans confront the horrors of ‘The Great War’

The “Tough ’Ombres” of the Ninetieth Infantry Division saw action for the first time on the bloody battlefields of France on Sept. 12, 1918.

The Great War (no one imagined there might be a second) has all but faded from the national memory.  Ask most Americans what they know about World War I, and they may mumble something about trench warfare, the Lusitania and the Treaty of Versailles.

Teddy Roosevelt split the Republican vote in 1912 with his Bull Moose candidacy, enabling Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the presidential election with only 45 percent.  But support for the former college professor gradually grew due in large part to his hands-off policy toward the European war, which broke out in August 1914.

Wilson described the horrific hostilities as “a distant event, terrible and tragic, but one which does not concern us closely.”  Most Americans, Texans included, agreed and backed the president’s subsequent position that the United States “must be neutral in fact as well as name…we must be impartial in thought as well as action.”

Not even the May 1915 sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania with the loss of 128 American lives changed Wilson’s mind or public opinion.  More than ever, the majority of Americans wanted nothing to do with the “old world” bloodbath, and they reelected Wilson to a second term in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war.”

Three months later in January 1917, the Germans declared open season on all ships on the high seas, and two months after that, Berlin was caught red-handed trying to stir up trouble south of the border.  The Zimmerman Telegraph, published in newspapers across the country, contained a bizarre scheme to entice Mexico into attacking the southwestern U.S. with the promise of regaining the land lost in the Mexican War.

Texans suddenly had a stake in the dangerous game and also a score to settle.  That was the Lone Star State the Huns were talking about giving back to Mexico!  The U.S. declared war on Apr. 6, 1917, and thousands of young Texans eagerly answered Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Four months later, the Ninetieth Division was activated at Camp Travis outside San Antonio.  Most of the junior officers were native Texans, who had recently received their commissions at a training center in nearby Leon Springs.  The initial wave of recruits, most from Texas and Oklahoma, arrived in early September.

Geography determined a soldier’s combat unit.  Men from western and eastern Oklahoma were assigned to the 357th and 358th Infantry of the 179th “Oklahoma Brigade.”  North and West Texans filled the ranks of the 359th Infantry, while those from South and East Texas made up the 180th “Texas Brigade.”  Given the composition of the division, it was natural the “T-O” insignia and nickname “Tough ’Ombres” were adopted.

After almost a year of rigorous training, the 26,000-strong Ninetieth Division left Texas for Europe during the summer of 1918.   With the catchy ditty “Over There” ringing in their ears, the untested doughboys landed in France itching for action.

  The “Tough ’Ombres” entered the fray in mid-September in pursuit of the retreating Germans, who were falling back to their presumably impregnable Siegfried Line.  In four days of fierce fighting, the Ninetieth sustained 2,000 casualties, a third of those in the 358th Infantry alone.

The Texans and their Okie comrades were part of a million-man American army, which took part in the decisive Battle of the Meuse-Argonne.  With their backs to the wall, the desperate Germans threw everything they had at the advancing Allies, including chemical weapons.

Chris Emmett, a writer and historian from Rusk, recorded his encounter with the silent scourge:  “A gurgling sound came from above me (and) someone called, ‘Gas!’  I sniffed the air and failing to smell anything, continued to climb.  Then my nostrils tingled.  A stinging sensation pricked my nose and throat, and I thought I would strangle.”

The four-year stalemate that cost ten million lives was over in six weeks.  The Ninetieth Division crossed the Meuse River in northern France not far from the German border on Nov. 19, 1918 two days before the armistice was announced.

Emmett heard the wonderful news in a Paris hospital, where he was recovering from the corrosive effects of mustard gas.  “I sat upon a bench to watch excited men fall into marching lines.  Some hobbled on crutches.  Some carried their crutches under (their) arms.  Some threw away these appendages and stamped off without a limp.”

Five thousand Texans, many “Tough ’Ombres,” never came home.  For the dead as well as the living, forever haunted by their combat ordeal, Emmett felt compelled to strip “the war to end all wars” of its romantic candy coating.

In a letter to a friend he wrote, “Imagine yourself relegated to the Middle Ages, surrounded by the hordes of old, by soldiers, by guns, by all the man-killing machinations conveyed by the evil mind of man, and put these in mud, shoe-top deep, with a lowering sky, and you have a faint conception of France.”

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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