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Iowa, the “Rainbow” Division and the Great War

The officers knew first, of course, but they couldn’t tell their troops. Not right away.

Soldiers of the 42nd Division, 168th Infantry passing through Victory Arch in parade that ended at the Iowa State Capitol. Des Moines, Iowa. May 1919.

Five months earlier, their eager, adventure-loving young men had enlisted in the National Guard of Iowa in the days and weeks following America’s entry into the Great War, on April 6, 1917.

They had poured in from small towns and larger cities, buoyed by a solemn conviction that service to country was a privilege as much a duty. At training camp, they competed for months over who would be called first to fight an enemy that “had outraged and trampled under foot the sacred rights of all humanity,” according to a collection of Iowans’ first-person accounts that a writer named Winfred Robb published in 1919 under the title “The Price of Our Heritage.”

Later, in July, the soldiers had traveled to the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines to camp under the old amphitheater and in Machinery Hall, where federal officers drafted them into service by proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson. They received their smallpox vaccinations and typhoid shots. They were ready to fight.

By mid-August, the officers were buzzing with news about their overseas assignments and finally received permission to share it with the rank-and-file troops. The Third Iowa Infantry, along with select troops from the First and Second Iowa, would become the new 168th Infantry and join National Guard units from 25 other states and the District of Columbia to form the new 42nd “Rainbow” Division.

168th soldiers in front line positions. Courtesy of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum.

The “Rainbow” moniker came from none other than Douglas MacArthur, then a major, who said the “the 42nd Division stretched like a Rainbow from one end of America to the other.” He was subsequently promoted to colonel as the division chief of staff (and, later, became a five-star general). The new Rainbow Division triggered an outpouring of national pride across the country — America wasn’t just sending its “regular” military to war; it was sending its sons from north and south and east and west as a “Rainbow” of hope to make the world safe for democracy.

On Sept. 9, with thousands of friends gathered to see them off, the 168th Infantry boarded a train and started eastward with “something gripping our throats, which we could not swallow, struggling to hold back the teardrops from our eyes,” according to Robb’s account. “We stood upon the back of the train and watched the crowd of folks who came to see us off become a blur and then indistinct in the distance. Our journey had begun.”

The Rainbow Division brings an attitude to France

After a long ocean voyage interrupted by mechanical and logistical issues, the Rainbow Division finally arrived in France. Their reception couldn’t have been worse. Bitter cold and unheated shelter made them miserable, and an outbreak of scarlet fever, spinal meningitis and measles turned their suffering from bad to worse. About two dozen soldiers died before they reached the battlefields.

Soldiers go ‘over the top’ with grenade bags. Courtesy of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum.

Before engaging the enemy, the Americans trained for several weeks with their French counterparts, “who, I do not think had a very high opinion up to this time of the American’s fighting ability,” according to Robb, “for they knew we were not well trained when we began our first experience in battle.”

Still, the men carried on. In February 1918 they found themselves in a town called Luneville, where they brought an attitude to France.

The town was quiet. There had been no fighting there since 1914, when the Germans had reached Rambervillers, destroyed the villages and withdrawn — the rolling, wooded countryside in Lorraine was far too beautiful to be a battlefield. And by tacit agreement, both Germans and French had been sparing the villages; neither side used gas, and shots were seldom heard during the daytime.

That changed when the Rainbow Division showed up.

Soon enough, they snuck into their trenches one day without arousing the Germans and took a position over No Man’s Land, the space between enemy lines. Shortly, a group of Germans came out of their trenches to wash some clothes in a shell-hole — in full sight of the new combatants.

168th Infantry in Des Moines Victory Parade May 15, 1919. Courtesy of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum.

It wasn’t unusual. The Germans had washed clothes in that shell-hole before without incident. On their side, the French had peacefully smoked their pipes in the evening on top of their trenches. It was one of the benefits of their agreement.

But a few soldiers with the Rainbow Division had other ideas. Shots were fired, Germans scattered back to their trenches and all hell broke loose among the French officers, who berated the Americans for the faux pas and feared a reprisal.

“What the hell?” one of the Americans said later. “I came out here to kill (Germans), not to sit here and watch ’em wash clothes.”

But the irate French officers were right. At 4 a.m. on March 5, the Germans came over the trenches, and the Rainbow Division had its first taste of battle.

Proving themselves in battle

The young Iowans from the 168th were green and horribly scared, but they were the most alert and desperate bunch of soldiers in the world.

The German raid focused on a little group of ruined brick buildings just north of Badonvillers, known as Le Chamois Farm. The 168th Infantry from Iowa was holding it at the junction of two valleys, an ideal place to sneak upon, but a death trap if properly defended.

Dumb-founded and frustrated by the resistance, the Germans rushed the trenches. It did not go well for them. As dawn broke through the mist and smoke, one officer and 18 men of the Rainbow were killed, and 22 wounded. But it was a victory; the raid had been repulsed. German bodies hung over torn barbed-wire, and No Man’s Land was strewn with their dead.

The Rainbow Division eventually moved on to fight other battles at Baccarat, Esperance-Souaine, Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, Essey-Pannes and the final great Allied offensive at Meuse-Argonne during the next 10 months.

By October 1918, on the eve of the decisive Meuse-Argonne offensive, the Rainbow Division had earned a sterling reputation among Allied and German commanders. On Oct. 9, the Weekly Summary of Information of the German Group of Armies said: “The engagement of the 42nd Division is expected soon. It is in splendid fighting condition and is counted among the best American divisions.”

At the end of the war, Nov. 11, 1918, the Rainbow Division had seen 164 days of combat, the third most of any other American divisions. It suffered a 30.6 percent casualty rate with 2,810 killed and 11,873 wounded. That total included the 700 killed and 3,100 wounded in the 168th Infantry.

Iowa Lt. Colonel Mathew Tinley (Commander of the 42nd Division, 168th Infantry) receiving Croix de Guerre medal. Croismare, France. May 18, 1918. At Tinley’s right is Colonel Douglas MacArthur, and at his left Captain Thomas Handy. Standing directly behind Tinley is Major William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan.

The men of the 168th received numerous awards for heroism, including the Italian Croce di Guerra (1), the Belgian Croix de Guerre (1), the Belgian Ordre de Couronne (2), the French Croix de Guerre (74), the French Legion of Honor (5), the French Military Medal (20), the Distinguished Service Cross (4), and the Distinguished Service Medal (1).

Finally, on April 8, 1919, they learned they were being discharged. They took a train through Germany to France, arriving in Brest three days later. There, they boarded the Leviathan for their trip west across the Atlantic.

As they pulled out of harbor at sunset, the men — who had been so eager to fight just two years before — took off their hats and, according to Robb, stood quietly in honor of their fallen comrades until the French coast faded from view. Weary and wiser, the men of the 168th were going home.

To learn more about Iowa’s role in the war, visit the exhibit “Iowa and the Great War” at the State Historical Museum of Iowa. Also, check back here on this blog for a few profiles of Iowans who served in the Rainbow Division and paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country.

— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs



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The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources.