“Over the Top” Experiences of Texan Mexicans in the WWI Trenches

Today’s post is an excerpt from “Towards a History of Mexican American Participation in World War I, Part I,” by National Archives volunteers Victoria-María MacDonald and Emma Taylor, found on our sister blog, the Text Message.

When the United States declared war in 1917, entering World War I, the U.S. military force barely numbered 100,000 men – mostly concentrated in the state-level National Guard Units. Among the hundreds of thousands of men who registered for the first round of the draft that year were immigrants from all corners of the world, particularly Europe.

Historian Nancy Ford recounts how the War Department was “shocked” to discover that approximately one-fourth of the draftees were either illiterate in their native language and/or functionally illiterate in English. War Department rules required volunteers or conscripts to read or write English in order to serve. In response, the War Department created the Foreign-speaking Soldier Subsection (FSS) in January of 1918 to quickly devise a means to  teach recruits basic English and engage in Americanization programs.

In Americans All!:  Foreign-born Soldiers in World War I, Ford details how a successful English language curriculum developed at Fort Gordon, Georgia, was exported to several camps as “the Gordon Plan.” Most soldiers only received three months of training, resulting in many achieving only functional literacy. An indication that the brief training was insufficient is evident in the personal account of Private Pablo Cortez, Company M, 141st Infantry, which combines broken Spanish and some phonetic English (National Archives Identifier 77419692).

Transcription and translation of Private Cortez’s letter proved challenging as revealed below:transcription

At the other end of the literacy spectrum is the well-written and lengthy account below of Sargent Miguel Barrera of Company B, 141st Infantry (National Archives Identifier 77419026). A native of Laredo, Texas, this non-commissioned officer was placed in command of B Company with little experience.

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Barrera exemplifies the concerns of both the Allies and General John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief General of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), that troops had not had enough time to train either in the United States or once in Europe. He honestly described feeling “green,” and naive to the realities of war. The Tejano’s account is one of brutal German fire in the Champagne Sector of the Meuse-Argonne offensive between October 6th and October 28th, 1918. He acknowledged:

“we were al [sic] green men and being the first time under fire, we didn’t know what to do, but any how we took the front line, the G.I. can were falling all along the line of course being my first night and there [sic] were falling about 2 & 300 yds away from where I was. I didn’t pay much attention to the G.I. can, but my God when the G.I. cans begin to burst about 10 and 25 yds from where my Hole was, then I begin to get scared, and started to pray and I ask one of my men if he was afraid of the G.I. cans and he said, no, not much as long as they don’t hit in my hole, so then I didn’t have much chance to tell him I was afraid of the G.I. cans….”

(The G.I. cans were named because these German artillery shells were made of galvanized iron.)

Sgt. Barrera gathered courage from one of his men, but he castigated himself for being so eager to go over the top:

“of course that was one thing that I was anxious to do, to go over the top. I wanted to know what it look like going over the top. I wanted to know the experience of doing it. Oh. what a poor Green man wants to do. I wanted to hear a Barrage, Oh I wanted to do whole lot of thing that I didn’t know.”

When Barrera finally did go over the top and crossed no man’s land he exclaimed, “I could hear and see the dust of the machine gun bullets hitting all around me and at the same time my comrades falling all around me, and when we reach our objective and we dug our holes and there where [were] only 8 men left of our bunch, we stayed in our holes all surrounded by machine guns and snippers [sic].” Ship transport passenger lists indicate that he sailed home from France alive despite the Sargent’s harrowing experience crossing no man’s land and going over the top at least twice.

Not all enlistees saw combat. Richard Faulkner in Pershing’s Crusaders, discusses the hard and unsung work of noncombatant personnel who engaged in the “labor intensive” job of “moving, feeding, supplying, paying, healing, and administering a two-million-man army in France”.1 Although often disparaged by combat soldiers because of their distance and safety from the front lines, hundreds of thousands of men were essential to allow combatants to perform.

In a simple account with clear penmanship, Sgt. Joe Benavides (National Archives Identifier 77419086) notes, “Though I didn’t get into action I performed the duties of a mess Sgt feeding the men and taking Chow to them while they were in action.”

Account of Sgt. Joe Benavides, 141st Inf. HQ Co. 36th Division
Account of Sgt. Joe Benavides, 141st Inf. HQ Co. 36th Division

These handwritten accounts of Mexican Texans during some of their most intense moments capture the range of their feelings from anticipatory excitement to fear of death. The dates of the essays in October and November 1918 indicate they were written immediately or soon after combat. Compared to memories recalled later, such as oral histories or autobiographies, the authenticity of the essays render them valuable primary sources.

 


 

This post is an excerpt from “Towards a History of Mexican American Participation in World War I, Part I,” part one of a two-part series written by National Archives volunteers Victoria-María MacDonald and Emma Taylor on our sister blog, the Text Message.

MacDonald and Taylor write: The centennial anniversary of American involvement in World War I permits a closer look at the diverse racial and ethnic groups who participated in the Great War. In this blog post, we are attempting to reveal how the construction of social and military histories of Mexican Americans, particularly from Texas, called “Tejanos,” can be built through the examination of Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Record Group 120. Documents from diverse NARA collections, such as draft registration cards, the federal census, and even maps, further contribute diverse perspectives and triangulation to soldier experiences and backgrounds.

Read more about their research and path to unearthing and bringing forward these narratives in “Towards a History of Mexican American Participation in World War I, Part I.”

 


Resources – General

Faulkner, Richard S.  Pershing’s Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I. University Press of Kansas. Lawrence. 2017

Ford, Nancy Gentile. Americans All! Foreign-born Soldiers in World War I. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001.


[1] Faulkner, Richard S. Pershing’s Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I. University Press of Kansas. Lawrence. 2017, pp 350-351

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