A Special Contribution Courtesy of
Glenn Watkins and the University of California Press

Excerpted from:
Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War

Reprinted by permission of the Author and Publisher. Available with accompanying musical CD at The Publishers Website

James Reese Europe and

The Harlem Hellfighters Band


Glenn Watkins

Lt. Europe and the Band Aboard Ship

John Philip Sousa . . . was not the only American bandsman to play a crucial role during the Great War . . . [I]n many ways the black musician James Reese Europe was equally consequential. Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1880, and when he was nine years old his family moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived just a few doors from the Sousa residence. Sousa and the Marine Band claimed a long-standing relationship with the black community in Washington. Members of the band also taught promising black children. Among them was young James Reese Europe, who received instruction in piano and violin.

In 1904 Europe went to New York where he directed shows and, in 1910, organized a black musicians' union. Performances with his own symphony orchestra at Carnegie Hall followed, and almost overnight Europe achieved professional notice as both composer and conductor . . .

Noble Sissle
Bandmaster & Vocalist
In the summer of 1916, almost a year before America entered the war, a new all-black regiment of the New York National Guard was formed, and that September Europe enlisted as a private and was immediately assigned to a machine gun company. By this time Jim Europe had developed important associations with musicians like James Herber (Eubie) Blake and Noble Sissle, and Europe explained to the latter that, having lived in New York for sixteen years, he felt the need for an organization of Negro men that could "bring together all classes of men for a common good." Sissle enlisted shortly after Europe, and their commanding officer, recognizing the importance of music and parades in establishing morale, asked Europe to organize and develop the finest band in the U.S. Army. Initially Europe was reluctant, but when his requests for an expansion of the standard complement of twenty-eight musicians to forty-four and a handsomely increased budget were met, . . . he relented . . .

Jim Europe's growing sense of patriotism was especially remarkable in light of the persistent discrimination that he and all African American soldiers encountered. Following America's entrance into the war, for example, a request by the 15th Regiment for inclusion in the farewell parade down Fifth Avenue was rejected. This insult was compounded by a remark made to Europe as they marched off to join the Rainbow Division in France, to the effect that "black was not one of the colors of the rainbow." Shortly thereafter the announcement that the 15th Regiment would take up training at Spartanburg, South Carolina, brought a warning from the town's mayor, dutifully reported in The New York Times, that "with their northern ideas about race equality, they will probably expect to be treated like white men."

A series of racist incidents followed. Although the band's concerts were warmly appreciated by many Spartanburg residents, it was ultimately deemed best that the all-black regiment be transferred. Rather than indicate retreat by shipping them to another location in the United States, it was determined that the group should be sent to France to complete their training. Ultimately the regiment joined a convoy to France, arriving on New Year's Day 1918. They were the first African American combat group to set foot on French soil, and their band immediately struck up the "Marseillaise" in a rhythmically spirited rendition that French soldiers initially failed to recognize as their own national anthem. Orders came from General Pershing to proceed to a center where an engineering detachment was busy building facilities to support a multi-million-man force, and musical instruments were exchanged for pick and shovel. Assignments were made even more difficult by the traditional injunction against black soldiers serving with white ones.

Eventually American entertainment organizers got word that Europe's band was in France, and when they heard the group in person they were completely won over. Orders followed from General Pershing to have them transferred to a location where they could entertain soldiers who were on a week's leave. In the period that followed Europe and his band played in numerous places, and programs that featured Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "plantation" melodies and finished with "Memphis Blues" invariably brought down the house. "Jazz spasms" and "ragtime-itis," to use Sissle's words, worked the crowds into a frenzy. France, which had previously "gone ragtime wild" over performances by John Philip Sousa in 1900 now came down with a high fever.

Europe the Musician
Repeated attempts to have the 15th Regiment reassigned to combat duty fell on deaf ears because of America's Jim Crow policies. The unit was given two choices: return to the United States and await assignment to a proposed black division, or accept immediate transfer to the French Army, which had already integrated French colonial troops into its ranks and was now in desperate need of reinforcements. The regiment's commanding officer accepted the latter proposal at once, and at the end of March Europe's regiment, carrying the colors of New York state, marched to the front and became the first American unit to join a French combat force. The 15th Infantry Regiment vanished and the 369th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army, was born.

The soldiers of the new Trois Cents Soixante-Neuvième, as they were dubbed, soon impressed the French as well as the enemy with their adeptness at throwing grenades and in hand-to-hand bayonet combat. Although the signs of bigotry typically encountered with American troops remained largely out of sight, numerous cartoons of the period emphasized that the poilu was French and white, and portrayed black soldiers "as stupid and even savage." The Germans also bristled and charged that the Allies had "brought black troops to subdue European soldiers. . ."

Nonetheless, genuine friendships developed between the French and black American soldiers, and the level of cooperation between the two forces seemed nothing short of miraculous in light of recent experiences in the U.S. Army. Here both sides needed each other. They were soon ordered to move closer to the front, and Lieutenant Europe turned over his responsibilities with the band and took charge of instructing his troops in the use of the French machine guns and protection from gas attacks. Europe was the first African American officer to lead his troops into combat during the Great War, and of that he was understandably very proud. During this period Europe gained firsthand experience with raids into no man's land, and in time so did his troops. Sissle remained behind with the regimental band, which continued to perform . . .

Europe and his machine gunners came under heavy German artillery fire during the third week in June 1918, and Europe, the victim of a gas attack, was transferred to a field hospital. When Sissle arrived at the gas ward to check on him, Europe was propped up in bed with a notebook in his hands. As Sissle approached, Europe announced that he had just completed the chorus of "On Patrol in No Man's Land," based on the bombardment the night before. It was to become one of the band's most popular hits after the group's return to the United States.

Europe the Warrior
Jim Europe was sent to Paris for a few weeks to recover from the gas attack, and then, in August, his band was ordered back to Paris to give a concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The program, dominated by national airs, was ecstatically received. In the fading months of the war Europe's group played countless concerts that held Allied audiences spellbound. . . . Europe could report that although his band ". . . Played to 50,000 people, at least, and, had we wished it, we might be playing yet."

A few weeks after the Armistice the "Hellfighters" of the 369th Infantry Regiment were awarded the Croix de Guerre. And when the final tally was made, it was discovered that the 191 days the regiment had spent in action was the longest stretch served by any group of American soldiers, black or white, during the Great War. Yet they had always fought attached to a foreign service and had never been attached to an American brigade or division.

The regiment arrived back in the United States on the S.S. La France on 12 February 1919, and five days later they held a joyous victory parade up Fifth Avenue and home to Harlem. The less pleasant memories of the regiment's departure in the fall of 1917 were momentarily erased, and the denial of permission to black troops to join in the victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., following the Civil War was all but forgotten. . .

Jim Europe was discharged from active duty on 25 February 1919, and he immediately set about making plans for a national tour with his 369th Hellfighters. It was launched on March i6 with a performance in New York . . . Four recording sessions were held during this period,.

The Glorious Return Home of the 369th Infantry

After so recently escaping death at the front, Europe was fatally stabbed in Boston on May 9, 1919, only two days after the fourth recording session by his drummer, Herbert Wright, following a professional reprimand. James Reese Europe's promise had been prematurely stilled . . .

Sources and thanks: The Great War Society extends its appreciation for their support to Laura Driussi and Lorraine Weston of UC Press in presenting this excerpt. We recommend Professor Watkin's book to anyone interested in the cultural impact of the First World War. It is an excellent companion to Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and Eckstein's Rites of Spring. Images from the work were supplemented by photos from the National Archives and Army Signal Corps. MH

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