ALABAMA RURAL BOYS
TURNED INTO FIGHTING MEN
The United States did not have a standing army at the beginning of World War I, but most states had National Guard units that had been called up for possible duty on the Mexican border, due to unrest resulting from a civil war in that country. Mexican leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa developed a reputation for raids in U.S. territory, and Brigadier General John Pershing earned a reputation for turning ordinary Americans into disciplined soldiers. Four Alabama units were mobilized on June 3, 1916—the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Alabama Infantry and the 1st Alabama Cavalry. Montgomery native and regular army officer William Preston Screws led the 4th Alabama. The troops trained at Vandiver Park in Montgomery until they headed to Nogales, Arizona, on October 22, 1916, for advanced infantry training.
In addition to policing the border, Alabama troops trained to fight using tactics of the war in Europe. They marched long distances, dug full-sized trenches for prolonged combat, and learned to use the bayonet for close encounters. A tense introduction of black Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry and the white Alabama 4th ended in street fights between the two groups. The white, rural Alabama soldiers earned a fierce reputation.
Alabama soldiers returned from the Mexican border in March 1917. Shortly thereafter, on April 6, the United States declared war on the German Empire. The 4th Alabama became the 167th United States Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, and Vandiver Park in Montgomery became Camp Sheridan. Thirty thousand troops, mostly from Ohio, trained at Camp Sheridan, including author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who met his future wife, Zelda Sayre, while stationed there.
The 167th Infantry Regiment became part of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division, made up of National Guard units from all over the United States. Major General Douglas MacArthur described the division as one that stretched like a rainbow across the nation. Soldiers whose grandfathers had fought each other in the Civil War found themselves preparing for battle with a common enemy.
Alabama soldiers developed their reputation as backwoods brawlers, ready to settle scores big and small, especially with those who considered them country bumpkins. The Alabamians would need this pride and courage on the battlefields of France.