The German army was completely unprepared for their first encounter with black U.S. soldiers in World War One. It happened on a night patrol in the summer of 1918 shortly after the all-black 92nd Infantry Division was deployed to the Saint-Dié sector in France. For several weeks, the Buffalo soldiers had been conducting successful raids into German territory, capturing troops and pushing the enemy back. But on this mission, two men got separated from the raiding party and were captured by the Germans. The only other troops of color the Germans had faced were the fierce French colonials from Senegal, tough warriors who took no prisoners and were known to keep body parts of vanquished foe as souvenirs. The Germans were so rattled that a few days after the capture, the front-line trenches of the 92nd were bombarded with what appeared to be gas shells but were later found to contain leaflets that read:
TO THE COLORED SOLDIERS OF THE AMERICAN ARMY
Hello, boys, what are you doing over here? Fighting the Germans? Why? Have they ever done you any harm? Of course some white folks and the lying English-American papers told you that the Germans ought to be wiped out for the sake of Humanity and Democracy.
What is Democracy? Personal Freedom, all citizens enjoying the same rights socially and before the law. Do you enjoy the same rights as white people do in America, the land of Freedom and Democracy, or are you treated over there as second-class-citizens? Can you go into a restaurant where white people dine? Can you get a seat in the theatre where white people sit? Can you get a seat or a berth in a railroad car, or can you even ride, in the South, in the same street car with white people? And how about the law? Is lynching and the most horrible crimes connected therewith a lawful proceeding in a democratic country?
Now this is all different in Germany, where they do like colored people, where they treat them as gentlemen and as white people, and quite a number of colored people have ﬁne positions in business in Berlin and other German cities.
Why, then, ﬁght the Germans for the beneﬁt of the Wall Street robbers and to protect the millions they have loaned to the British, French, and Italians? You have been made the tool of the egotistic and rapacious rich in England and America, and there is nothing in the whole game for you but broken bones, horrible wounds, spoiled health, or death. No satisfaction whatever will you get out of this unjust war.
You have never seen Germany. So you are fools if you allow people to make you hate us. Come over and see for yourself. Let those do the ﬁghting who make the proﬁt out of this war. Don’t allow them to use you as cannon fodder. To carry a gun in this war is not an honor, but a shame. Throw it away and come over to the German lines. You will ﬁnd friends who will help you along.
The men of the 92nd and were fascinated by the leaﬂet, and believed its author had accurately captured the essence of American race relations. Although none of them were fool enough to think that life for the negro would be any better in Germany than it was in America, they got some satisfaction from seeing their plight so succinctly stated in print. They believed the leaﬂet would likely circulate through the 92nd and perhaps even through political circles back home. Though they knew it probably wouldn’t change attitudes about the treatment of colored soldiers, they thought it would be good for their leaders to get a taste of how their hypocrisy was viewed outside the U.S.
But however truthful the document may have been, it did nothing to shake their resolve as American soldiers. To the black troops, the ﬂyer was a desperate attempt by the enemy to neutralize a foe they really feared.
(This passage excerpted from my Historical Novel: A Place near the Front)