A CHRISTMAS IN FRANCE
In the summer of 1914 a great war began in Europe. On one side were
Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, and Turkey, countries in the central part
of Europe. Against them were Russia, Serbia, France, Belgium, Great
Britain, Italy, Rumania, and Portugal.
As the war went on, Germany tried to destroy all the commerce of Great
Britain, so the people could not get food. The German submarines -
boats which can run under the surface of the water - were sent out to
sink ships going to England. The United States told the Germans that
they must not sink American ships; but sometimes they did, and a number
of Americans were killed.
Finally President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare that the
United States was at war with Germany. This was done on the sixth of
April, 1917. Of course there was great excitement everywhere. People
knew that many young men would be sent across the Atlantic Ocean to
help fight the German army.
Soon after the war with Germany began, the United States government
decided to send a division of National Guard troops to Europe. This was
called the Forty-second Division, but it soon came to be known as the
Rainbow Division, because it contained regiments from many parts of the
At this time the three National Guard regiments of Iowa had just
returned to their homes from the Mexican Border, where they had been
doing guard duty. They had not been home long, however, before they
received orders to assemble at Des Moines.
The Third Iowa Regiment had been chosen to represent the State in the
Rainbow Division. As there were not enough men in this regiment,
several hundred were taken from the First and Second Regiments to give
the Third Iowa a war strength of 3600 men. In August, 1917, the Third
Iowa was made a part of the United States Army. It was then called the
168th United States Infantry.
The 168th Infantry joined the others which belonged to the Rainbow
Division at Camp Mills in September. They did not stay there long. The
Rainbow Division was one of the first sent to France. On December 9,
1917, the men of the 168th Infantry arrived at the port of Le Havre,
France. The weather was cold and rainy. Three days later the Iowa boys
were sent to a little French village called Rimaucourt. How strange
everything seemed to the men from Iowa. They could not understand the
people, for everyone in the village spoke French.
The soldiers had to live in barns and attics or anywhere they could
find shelter from the cold. There were tiny stoves in some of the
rooms, but there was not much wood, so the men were often cold. They
even had to eat their meals outdoors. The French people, however, were
kind to the soldiers who had come so far to help them, and the men were
But Christmas was coming. The soldiers thought of their homes back in
Iowa. They could not go back to see the Christmas trees or to get their
presents. They were cold and sometimes hungry. What were they to do?
They talked it over among themselves and decided that it would be great
fun to have a Christmas tree for the little French children in the
You see the fathers of most of the children had been fighting since
1914. Many of them had been killed. Food was very high and they did not
have any money to buy toys or candy. The Iowa soldiers planned to
surprise these little French children. They invited them all to a
celebration on Christmas Eve.
How the men worked! They asked the cure, or priest, in the village if
they might have the program in the little stone church. They were
afraid the German aviators might see the lights on the tree and drop
bombs on them if they had it out-of-doors. The priest was very glad to
let them use the church.
They had to have a tree. They went to the lady who owned a
beautiful home or chateau near Rimaucourt and asked if she would give
them a tree from her park. She said they might have one.
Of course a Christmas tree must have lights. So the men of the Signal
Corps, who take care of such things as lights, radios, and telegraph
wires for the army, fixed the lights. They put colored bulbs all over
But a Christmas tree needs something besides lights. There should be
presents. There were not many toys in Rimaucourt and not much candy.
But Chaplin Winfred T. Robb, after much searching, found both toys and
candy. There had to be a lot, too, for there were two hundred children
in Rimaucourt and as many more were expected from near-by villages.
Christmas Eve came. More than four hundred French children crowded into
the little church. There was the tall tree ablaze with lights. The band
played. How excited the children were. They were almost afraid of the
tall American soldiers who could not talk to them in French. But up in
front were two Santa Clauses. The children were told to go up to them
and get their presents. They were very polite and said merci, which was
the French for "thank you."
The old priest repeated a prayer and tried to thank the American
soldiers in English for being so kind to the French children. Then the
band played the "Star Spangled Banner" and the children started for
home, laughing and tooting their new horns. In the streets the snow was
The next day was Christmas. The soldiers were disappointed because the
mail did not reach Rimaucourt. Most of all they wanted to hear how
their people were back in Iowa. It was clear and cold. One thing
pleased them. There were turkeys for dinner, with English walnuts,
apples, and figs, besides the things they usually had.
Perhaps you would like to know what happened to the men of the 168th
Infantry after this Christmas celebration. For a while they were kept
in training camps. Then in February, 1918, they were taken to the front
and put in charge of some trenches. These trenches were deep ditches
which helped protect the men from the German shells and bullets. Beyond
them were others in which were German soldiers. Between the two lines
were fences and networks of barbed wire so the men could not cross to
capture the enemy trenches.
For months the men of the 168th Infantry fought the men of the German
army. Many of the Iowa boys were killed. Many others were wounded and
sick. Some of them were sent home. And then on the eleventh of
November, 1918, which you know as Armistice Day, the day agreed upon
with the Germans, the fighting stopped. After that the Iowa soldiers
did not have to live in the muddy trenches or see their friends killed
by the shells.
They hoped that they would be sent home to Iowa very soon, but the war
was not yet over. The American army was sent to Germany. They were to
stay there until the terms of peace could be decided. There was no
fighting, but again the men of the 168th Infantry had to make long
marches in the cold. Their shoes wore out, and the new supply did not
reach them until they were nearly at the end of their march. The Iowa
regiment, however, was soon settled for the winter in a number of
German villages along the Rhine River. There they spent their second
Christmas away from Iowa.
They stayed here until April, 1919. Then they were sent to Brest,
France, where they boarded a great steamship, the Leviathan, which
carried nearly 12,000 soldiers. Soon they were back in New York, and on
May 14th, the 168th Infantry reached Des Moines. The day was clear and
warm as the men in full equipment marched through the streets to the
The old Third Iowa had returned, but not all the men came back. More
than half of the men who had left Des Moines in the spring of 1917 had
been killed in battle, died of disease, or been so badly wounded that
they were sent to the hospitals. Many things had happened to the
regiment since the Christmas Eve in Rimaucourt in 1917.
The men in this regiment were not the only ones from Iowa in the World
War. More than 113,000 Iowa men served in the United States army, navy,
and marine corps. One of the first American soldiers killed in battle
was Merle Hay of Glidden, Iowa. During the period of the war more than
two thousand soldiers and sailors from Iowa were killed in battle or
died from disease.
Near Des Moines the War Department established Camp Dodge, named for
General Grenville M. Dodge. Here thousands of men from many states were
trained for war service overseas. These soldiers lived in large
unpainted frame buildings, called barracks. Not far away was Fort Des
Moines, which had been established in 1901. This was first used for a
training camp, but was soon used as an army hospital.