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VER HULST: Red Arrow Division displayed courage without fear in Great War

• Nov 24, 2017 at 2:00 PM

This time of year, many people reflect on their lives and think of all the things they are thankful for. Things such as family, friends and a stable job are always at the top of the list.

The brave men and women who have served in our military should be on our minds, as well. The sacrifices they have made to protect our values and way of life are worth being thankful for.

One-hundred years ago this month, men from Grand Haven’s National Guard post were in Waco, Texas, training for war. The United States had declared war on Germany and had entered World War I, which had been raging in Europe since the summer of 1914.

At Fort MacArthur in Waco, the men from Grand Haven’s Company F received training in marching, weaponry and trench warfare in order to prepare for the bloodiest war the world had seen. It was also here that Company F was combined with Muskegon’s Company G to form Company L of the 126th Infantry in the 32nd Division of the U.S. Army. Although a few of these men had served during the Pancho Villa Expedition during the 1916 Border War with Mexico, nothing could prepare them for what they would see in the trenches.

In February 1918, the 126th Infantry was aboard the SS President Grant in Hoboken, New Jersey, with orders to sail to France. The men got their first scare when the ship’s alarms blared and signaled to all on board that a submarine was spotted. The ship’s gunners unleashed a flurry of bullets at what was thought to be a periscope from a German submarine, but turned out to simply be a lone barrel floating at sea. This false alarm was no doubt a stark reminder to those onboard that they were truly risking their lives.

Without further incidents, the SS President Grant arrived in Brest, France, on March 4.

Once in France, the 32nd Division would go on to serve in some of the most pivotal battles of the war. It was during the Second Battle of the Marne where the 32nd Division faced poison gas and artillery for the first time. As they approached the front lines, they saw the holes left from artillery shells filled with the liquid remains of mustard gas. The Germans had used gas so extensively that the French and American soldiers’ uniforms became discolored and all water had to be boiled before drinking.

While on the front lines, they also faced shelling from enemy artillery that would last for hours on end. One man said, “Our present situation made all realize that we were now under fire in one of the great battles of the war, but still inexperienced in facing bayonets and bullets from rifles and machine guns. The vision of this ordeal caused all to hope that our courage would remain steadfast in the trial soon to come, and not a few silent battles, of mind over body, was fought as we lay in these woods.”

However, the fiercest fighting would come later as part of the Meusse-Argonne Offensive that helped end the war for good.

In September 1918, the writing was on the wall. The German forces were on the run and their last chance at turning the war around was regrouping at a set of fortifications along the Hindenburg Line. From Sept. 30 through Oct. 20, the 32nd Division fought through fortified machine gun nests, artillery and poison gas.

After fighting the desperate and entrenched German troops, the Hindenburg Line was finally broken and the 32nd Division had earned a new nickname: “The Red Arrow Division.” The red arrow represented breaking through enemy lines, and the name has stuck ever since.

With the German Army in full retreat, an Armistice was signed on Nov. 11. The Great War was over.

By the time the Armistice was signed, more than 40 million soldiers and civilians had lost their lives. If it had not been for the United States entering the war, the total lives lost could have been much higher. The bravery of the Americans that served during World War I should not be forgotten.

In January, the Tri-Cities Historical Museum will be opening a new exhibit about the courageous men who served in the Red Arrow division during World War I. The exhibit is titled “Courage Without Fear,” and is taken from the 126th Infantry’s motto, “Courage Sans Peur.” Featuring quotes from the men who served in the trenches and details of the battles they took part in, “Courage Without Fear” will showcase the bravery displayed by the servicemen from the Tri-Cities during the Great War.

“Courage Without Fear” opens Jan. 5. The Tri-Cities Historical Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10-5, and 12-5 on Saturdays and Sundays. More information can be found at www.tri-citiesmuseum.org or by calling 616-842-0700.

Mike VerHulst is the exhibits facilitator for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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