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Chosen Few:


The Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps



By Chris Oakley


Part 2




Summary: In Part 1 of this series we traced the establishment of the Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps and their efforts to overcome anti-German prejudice, the beginning of their combat training in preparation for service in Europe, and their departure for the Western Front in January of 1917. In this chapter we’ll witness the DAF’s baptism of fire shortly after their arrival on the Western Front and look at their integration into the mainstream US Army after the United States entered World War I in April of 1917.


British general Sir Douglas Haig wasn’t quite sure what to make of the motley collection of foreigners disembarking from a freighter ship at the port of Cherbourg on a cold Tuesday morning in January of 1917. They spoke with German accents, yet they were carrying American passports and telling Haig’s field commanders that they had come from across the Atlantic to fight for the Allied cause. Not until one of the general’s aides showed him a newspaper clipping did Haig realize that he was meeting members of the Deutsche-Amerikaner Freikorps. By then, word of the German-American volunteer militia that was taking up arms to rid Europe and their ancestral homeland of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s tyranny had been circulating throughout much of England and France, to the point where at least one major British newspaper was starting to print editorials questioning the bias against ethnic Germans common in many corners of British society.

For that matter, Haig’s colleagues on the French general staff were also slowly beginning to recognize the military and propaganda value of the DAF. They sensed that the volunteer unit’s very existence could serve as a powerful repudiation of the Kaiser’s claim to having all the German people behind him; on a more practical level, the DAF could provide desperately needed additional manpower for the Allied armies on the Western Front. When the 1st Belgian-American Infantry Brigade came to Cherbourg just a few days after the DAF’s arrival, the Allied general staffs started to feel a touch of confidence that it might be possible to end the stalemate on the Western Front before the autumn rains.

With that in mind, both the DAF and the 1st Belgian-American Infantry Brigade were dispatched to the Allied lines in early February of 1917 with orders to strike at one of the weakest sections of the German right flank along the Western Front. The Imperial German Army troops stationed in those sections were shocked and horrified when they first encountered the DAF in combat; in their eyes the men who wore the DAF uniform were traitors to their ancestral homeland and mortal enemies of the Second Reich. General Erich von Falkenhayn, the head of the Imperial general staff, was so incensed by the mere fact of the unit’s existence that he issued an order to his Western Front field commanders instructing them to have any DAF troops they captured executed on the spot.

As it turned out, they needed no directive to tell them to carry out such executions; many Imperial Army soldiers and officers were as a matter of habit already shooting or hanging captured DAF personnel. At least one infantry colonel offered a recommendation to the Imperial Army officers’ school to any ordinary soldier who killed five or more DAF troops. Kaiser Wilhelm’s war minister proposed awarding the Iron Cross to every Imperial soldier who succeeded in eliminating an entire DAF platoon.

Yet neither German bounties nor the disapproval of isolationists back in America could dissuade young German-American men from becoming DAF recruits. Even Woodrow Wilson, a onetime skeptic in regard to the DAF concept, was changing his tune and slowly coming to appreciate the unit’s value; when the United States officially became a combatant in the First World War in April of 1917, Wilson met with Secretary of War  Newton D. Baker to discuss what would need to be done to transfer the DAF to the jurisdiction of the regular U.S. Army. Two months later, the DAF was formally integrated into Gen. John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force and re-designated the 22nd Infantry Division. As for the 1st Belgian-American Infantry Brigade, it became simply "the Belgian Brigade" and was absorbed into the 25th Infantry Division in July of 1917. From that point on, both units would be at the forefront of American operations on the Western Front until the end of the First World War.


In the meantime, the camp which had once served as the DAF’s training ground during the early months of its existence was evolving into an unofficial collective homestead for the wives and families of DAF soliders. People from neighboring towns pitched in to assist the families in the settlement process; letters came from as far away as New York City offering support to the people working to transform the erstwhile military outpost into a bona fide town. By early August of 1917 an attorney had been retained from Chicago to assist the camp’s residents in drafting the preliminary text for a formal town charter, and in mid-September of that same year the former training ground was officially incorporated as the town of New Berlin, Wisconsin.

In January of 1918, the New Berlin town council passed a budget bill providing for the expansion of the town’s police force, public school system, and fire department; that same month the town’s first permanent public library opened its doors and ground was broken for construction on a new 10,000-seat stadium to house the town’s amateur baseball team. By now word of New Berlin’s establishment had spread like a brushfire throughout the larger German-American community, and the town fathers wanted to be ready to handle the expected surge of new residents coming to settle in New Berlin.

Two months later, New Berlin’s first daily English-language newspaper, the New Berlin Sentinel, printed its inaugural edition. Not surprisingly, much of the newspaper’s print space was devoted to reports of the 22nd Infantry Division’s exploits on the Western Front or roll calls of 22nd Infantry soldiers killed in action; ten percent of the Sentinel’s monthly revenue went into a special charity fund to provide economic aid for the families of the fallen. After the end of the war, the paper’s archives would turn out to be a highly valuable  resource for scholars researching the history of New Berlin and the 22nd Infantry.

The stockade which had formerly housed detainees who’d been court-martialed by the DAF for infractions of discipline was converted into the New Berlin City Jail in April of 1918. Some of the men who were discharged from the 22nd Infantry after their tour of duty was up would find new work as members of the jail’s guard detachment; these men would prove particularly effective in maintaining order behind the jail’s walls.1 In the meantime, those still wearing the uniform of the 22nd were about to take part in one of the most important battles in American military history-- not to mention the entire First World War. The 22nd would be joining the US Marines, the 2nd and 3rd Divisions the US Army, the French 6th Army, and elements of the British IX Corps in confronting five German divisions at a spot called Belleau Wood....


To Be Continued



[1] In fact, to this day New Berlin City Jail maintains the distinction of being the only detention facility in the state of Wisconsin that has never had a riot or escape attempt.

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