IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
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 country.
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 cheerful.
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 village.
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 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 the tree.
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 falling softly.
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 capitol grounds.
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.
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