Their Stories are Fascinating and Powerful: Remembering Wisconsin’s Red Arrow Division in the First World War

By Capt. Brian J. Faltinson

This post comes from MA alum, Iraq war veteran, and public historian Brian J. Faltinson, who describes the ongoing commemoration of the centennial of one of the most famous military units to originate in Wisconsin, the “Red Arrow” Division that formed during the First World War. Downtown’s Red Arrow County Park is named in honor of the men who served.

I remember in fifth grade checking out a book on each world war from the school library so I could pass the time on a long drive to my grandparents’ farm in Watertown, South Dakota. I do not precisely remember why, but I found the book on the Great War to be the more fascinating of the two.  Today, I am fortunate as a historian and public affairs officer with the Wisconsin National Guard to share the stories of some of Wisconsin’s World War I soldiers.

The Wisconsin National Guard for the next two years is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division and honoring its service in World War I with d of the raa project we call Dawn of the Red Arrow. (The image to the left is of Facebook masthead of the Dawn of the Red Arrow (Wisconsin National Guard Image).  We consider the organization of the 32nd Division to be the beginning of the modern Wisconsin National Guard and most of our units trace their origins to that division.  Given that the U.S. Army ranked behind Portugal when it went to war with Germany, the National Guard was a vital part of building an army capable of fighting on the Western Front.  In September 1917, 15,000 Wisconsin National Guardsmen from units in 72 Wisconsin cities joined with the Michigan National Guard at Camp MacArthur, Texas, to form the 32nd Division.  The division entered combat in May 1918 in Alsace and would later fight in the Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne and Meuse-Argonne campaigns.  The French awarded the division a battle citation for its ferocity in combat near Soissons and formalized “Les Terribles” as the division’s nickname – making the 32nd the only American division to earn a nom de guerre from a foreign nation. The division pierced every single German line it encountered and, as a result, its unit insignia is that of a red arrow punching through a German battle line. This success in battle was earned at great cost; the division suffered over 13,000 casualties of which over 2,600 were killed in action.

The overarching theme of Dawn of the Red Arrow is to have the division’s soldiers tell their own story. We have partnered with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, the Wisconsin National Guard Museum and the Wisconsin Historical Society to find and share the photos, letters, memoirs, artifacts and stories left behind by the division’s soldiers.   A recent research trip to the National Archives found the division’s operational records, daily staff journal, official photograph collection and two hours of U.S. Army Signal Corps film that captured the division’s time in France. These records ranged from private’s observation Ruffreport of enemy activity from the trenches to the division’s operations orders for each of its battles.  Connecting all of these stories and creating their proper context so they can be properly understood is a series of video-recorded interviews with Marquette’s Dr. Julius Ruff (pictured here with Brian Faltinson–photo courtesy Wisconsin National Guard) and history professors from Ripon College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We will tell these stories as they happened 100 years ago, which means this project will last through June 6, 1919 when the division’s Wisconsin members marched in a welcome home parade on Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Avenue.

The history of the division as a whole is well-established and our goal is not expand the historiography, but to honor these Soldiers and restore their presence in today’s memory. Their stories are fascinating and powerful.  Cpl. Edward DeNomie, a Ho-Chunk Tribe Native American, provided a veteran’s audio interview to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and we hear in his own words about how he joined the Wisconsin National Guard while enrolled in the Federal government’s Indian School in Tomah, Wisconsin. Capt. Paul W. Schmidt, who wrote his unit’s history after the war, joined the Wisconsin National Guard in 1898 and led Sheboygan’s Company C, 127th Infantry Regiment in France. Chaplain Capt. Gustave Stearns of Milwaukee wrote vivid letters home to his congregation describing the war. His bravery and compassion on the battlefield with regard to caring for the wounded and dying on both sides earned him a Silver Star and an Iron Cross.  However, the most emotionally powerful collection we have run across features 1st Lt. Bruce W. Clarke, an infantry platoon leader. The collection starts with an almost perfect, crystal clear ID card photo of Clarke, followed by some mundane platoon leader administrative notes and then a message book he used in France to send dispatches to his commander – copies of some of those messages remain legible. The collection’s final photograph is a 1931 image of his mother dressed in black grieving at his grave at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France.

The stories of these and other individuals are easily shared through the Dawn of the Red Arrow website, Facebook page, as well as other social media.  We tell some of these stories as we find them and others will be regular features.  Some items are thematic or concentrate on a specific person, place or event, while others track “on this day 100 years ago”. We want to use these modern media platforms to bring the black-and-white images and words on aged pieces of paper to life so people can connect with these soldiers.   A demonstration of that potential happened during my week at the National Archives, when Red ArrowI regularly posted research updates.  A post of the earliest known photograph of the Red Arrow insignia, painted on a battle-scarred artillery piece (see image to the left, courtesy of the National Archives) went viral and dramatically expanded our audience.   There are thousands who currently wear that insignia, tens of thousands who once wore it and countless more who know someone who once did.   That image had tremendous meaning to those people.  We use social media to share this raw material of history which we will assemble into our culminating product of a one-hour film that tells the division’s story from its service in Texas during the Mexican Border Crisis to its return to Wisconsin after World War One.  We are targeting the film to premier in October at the Wisconsin Centennial Commission’s World War I Symposium in Madison.

Capt. Brian J. Faltinson graduated from Marquette in 1998 with an M.A. in American History. He has been a member of the Minnesota and Wisconsin National Guard since 1988 and is an Iraq War veteran.  He has been the Wisconsin National Guard’s chief historian since 2007.  In his civilian career, he is a project manager & historian with Heritage Research, Ltd, an environmental and public history consulting firm in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

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