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Lt. James Reese Europe: The World Catches Jazz Fever, Compliments of the U.S. Army

Combat training didn’t last long for the 15th, since, as it turned out, their mere presence nearly brought the white population of Spartanburg to insurrection. They were hastily put aboard a  steamship and sent to France. But once in France, instead of being sent to the front, the regiment was put to work as laborers. When Hayward objected and asked to be sent into combat, he was told that it was actually forbidden to put a black regiment into a white division. They would either be sent back home until a black division could be formed up or loaned to the French army, which had few scruples about letting non-white troops die in combat. Hayward immediately chose the latter and in early March, 1918, the 15th New York Army National Guard Regiment found themselves renamed the 369th Regiment and incorporated into the 16th Division of the Fourth French Army.

369th National Guard Regiment Band

The famous band of the 369th National Guard Regiment plays for soldiers on leave from the trenches of the Western Front, ca. 1918. Lt. James Reese Europe led the band, but also served in combat. National Archives photo

After a month of training in French weapons and trench warfare tactics, the 369th took over a 4 ½ kilometer sector of the French line between the Argonne and the River Aisne. With the recent halting of fighting on the Eastern Front following the Brest-Litovsk peace agreement, the French expected a new German offensive would begin against them shortly. Their own troops had already been bled white, but having the Americans there, fresh and eager to fight, helped bolster them. The weeks passed, but instead of a major offensive, there were continual artillery barrages followed by probing attacks by German raiding parties on isolated American outposts. But each time the Germans attacked, they were savagely driven back, sometimes by only one or two Americans. On one famous occasion, two black soldiers, Pvts. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, fought off twenty-four Germans using only rifle butts and a bolo knife. For this, both were awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Jazz fever was taking over the French, just as it would soon take over the rest of Europe. For a world that had already seen all order and convention ripped to pieces and replaced with the murderous absurdity that was World War I, Jazz seemed to make the most perfect sense.

By now the 369th was becoming a famous fighting regiment. Lt. Jim Europe had also gained a fighting reputation for leading patrols and raids into no man’s land. Whenever they were taken off the line, he’d compose new tunes about front line combat and the band would give concerts in hospitals, rest camps and in villages. Jazz fever was taking over the French, just as it would soon take over the rest of Europe. For a world that had already seen all order and convention ripped to pieces and replaced with the murderous absurdity that was World War I, Jazz seemed to make the most perfect sense.

Lt. James Reese Europe

Lt. James Reese Europe the band leader of the 369th National Guard Regiment was the only African-American officer in the unit. National Archives photo

On June 6, 1918, the 369th were moved to Chateau Thierry to support the French advance. As they approached the German lines, the enemy counterattacked. The French commander gave the order “Retire! Retire! (retreat!)” But the officers and men pretended not to understand the order. The fighting was bloody, but ultimately the Germans were driven back.

The much-awaited German offensive finally began in July over a fifty-mile front that stretched from Verdun to Rheims. Within two days, it had become clear that it had failed. The French counterattacked, and the 369th played a key role in driving the Germans from their strongholds.

On September 25, the great Allied offensive began, designed to drive the Germans from the Meuse-Argonne area north of Verdun. It proved to be a costly battle for the Allies. Even though the Germans were seriously demoralized at this point, they still fought hard, inflicting more than 120,000 casualties on the American forces. For the 369th, assigned to drive the Germans from an area known as the Sechault, the toll was particularly heavy. Within five days they went from twenty officers and seven hundred men to seven officers and just one hundred and fifty men. By this point, they had, by their own accounts, practically ceased to exist as a unit. Even so, they had to hold on the Sechault. Early in October, the Germans counterattacked, and for forty-eight hours the 369th was forced to endure continuous machine gun fire. Somehow they managed to hold on until the Germans finally withdrew and the 369th was relieved and sent to the rear.

Newspapers and magazines which up to then only wrote about blacks as good-natured simpletons, now spoke of them with pride and respect.

A month later, an armistice was declared and the war was over. But the French Army had one last assignment for the men from Harlem. As a sign of the high regard in which the French held them, the 369th were the first to enter the Rhineland, to witness the German army’s withdrawal from the territories they’d taken from France during the Franco-Prussian War. A few days later, a company of black American doughboys stood on the western bank of the Rhine, the first Allied soldiers to do so.

With the fighting finally over, Lt. Jim Europe and the 369th band went back to doing what they did best. They began a series of concerts all over France. A one-night gig in Paris ended up lasting two weeks. They even played at the palace of Versailles. It seemed everywhere they played, whether palaces, villages, army camps, or city squares, the French always went crazy. Their reputation back home had also grown. Newspapers and magazines which up to then only wrote about blacks as good-natured simpletons, now spoke of them with pride and respect.

369th National Guard Regiment

The band of the 369th National Guard Regiment marches with pride through Harlem during their victory parade up Fifth Ave. in New York City, Feb. 17, 1919. National Archives photo

As the men of the 369th marched up Fifth Ave. and into Harlem, the faces of the cheering throngs changed from mostly white to black. But they knew they’d proven themselves as soldiers and men and American patriots, and because of this the world would never be the same again. It surely must have been on Jim Europe’s mind. He was the man of the hour. Jazz was the music everyone in America wanted to hear. He and his band had a lush recording contract with Pathe and a string of well-paying concert engagements which would stretch on for months to come. The Jazz Age had begun, and James Reese Europe was leading the charge.

But other than igniting it, James Reese Europe’s role in the Jazz Age turned out to be at best marginal. He’d survived a record 191 days in combat only to be stabbed to death by a crazed drummer three months after coming home. In the era’s wild frenzy, Europe was immediately forgotten by everyone except those who had played or fought alongside him.

The Jazz Age would continue through the 1920s until the great Stock Market Crash of 1929.  But other than igniting it, James Reese Europe’s role in the Jazz Age turned out to be at best marginal. He’d survived a record 191 days in combat only to be stabbed to death by a crazed drummer three months after coming home. In the era’s wild frenzy, Europe was immediately forgotten by everyone except those who had played or fought alongside him. The great advances in civil rights which the soldiers of the 369th imagined were just around the corner, quickly vanished, without James Reese Europe to help lead them to it. Those would not come until the 1960s, by which time most were either dead or very old men.

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Brendan McNally is a journalist and writer specializing in defense and aerospace. Brendan began his career...