Soldiers and veterans tend to love military history.
That’s because everyone likes the history of their own institutions, explained Glenn Williams, a veteran and a senior historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. He can still remember the day his father, a World War II vet, told him Gen. George Patton said, “To be a good Soldier, learn history.” History, Williams remembered, immediately became his favorite subject in school.
“I think anybody who’s ever served in the Army, if they read military history, they can identify with Soldiers of a different era, of a different time. … The haircut changed, the uniform changed, the weapons changed, but the Soldier doesn’t change. I think that’s why a lot of Soldiers are attracted to the reading of military history, not only because they learn their heritage, but because they learn some valuable lessons on what’s been done before, maybe learned some mistakes not to make again.”
Williams made these remarks during a recent interview with Soldiers Radio and Television to mark the Army’s 237th birthday, going on to discuss some little-known Army trivia, as well as his favorite stories from Army history.
The Continental Army, the first Army of the United States, was actually discharged in June 1784 due to the deep distrust most Americans felt for standing armies, dating from before the Revolution when the British army forced colonists to provide food and quarters for its troops. Congress then replaced the Continental Army with the First American Regiment, and detailed most of it to keep settlers from illegally squatting on the new Ohio frontier, and to protect the settlers and the Native Americans from each other.
The Army actually suffered its worst defeat near the Ohio River at the Battle of the Wabash, or St. Clair’s Defeat, a few years later in 1791, when it was only slightly larger. Under the command of Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, some 1,400 new conscripts and regular and militia Soldiers (hundreds would desert) travelled west to confront members of the Western Confederacy, a group formed by several Native American tribes for dealing with the U.S., who had been raiding American settlements. The Native Americans launched a surprise attack while the Soldiers were eating breakfast on the morning of Nov. 4. Many members of the militia fled without their weapons, while others hid beneath wagons. Of the 920 Soldiers who went into battle that day, 632 were killed and 264 were wounded. Only 24 escaped unscathed — a casualty rate of 97.4 percent — but barely two decades later, the U.S. Army was strong enough to fight a second war against Britain.
Skipping ahead to World War II, when the Army was nearly 12 million strong, Williams said one of his favorite stories is actually based around the famous 1944 photo of 28th Infantry Division Soldiers marching down the Champs Elysees in Paris, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. The parade was a gesture of support for Gen. Charles de Gaulle, then-leader of “Free France,” comprising resistance fighters in France and exiles fighting alongside allied forces in other theaters of war.
“What other army in the world marches in a victory parade wearing their battle dress uniforms?” he asked. “What other army in the world comes out of the battle line to march in a victory parade and then as soon as the parade’s over, goes right back into the battle line and is fighting again? The reason I like the photograph so much is not only that … but you look at it and it’s GIs as far as the eye can see.”
For more about the U.S. Army’s history, visit http://youtu.be/OBLnRVsrVXs.