Freddie Stowers: An American hero who died fighting for France in World War One

Freddie Stowers was an American Corporal who died a hero in World War One, but he was fighting for France, not his home country, for one simple reason, he was black.

Awarded the Congressional Medal Of Honor for "exceptional heroism" he is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France, where he was shot down during the One Hundred Days Offensive.

Stowers was an African-American and, when the United States entered the war in April 1917 black soldiers were barred from fighting for their country.

General John Pershing, commander of the US Expeditionary Force had decreed that he would not lead black soldiers in to battle.

The lost children

The majority of African Americans who were drafted in to the US Army were sent to work behind the lines in segregated labour battalions.

But there were a small number of men in combat units, and General Pershing's ruling turned them into an orphaned army - called by the French 'les enfants perdus', the lost children.

Freddie Stowers was one of these men, and he and his comrades were welcomed into the French Army, carrying French rifles, taking orders from French officers.

For many of these men their experiences were a world away from those at home.

In 1914, 54 black men had been lynched in the United States and in the South black people lived under a set of repressive racial segregation laws.

The French Army ranks already contained black soldiers from their colonies.

The US soldiers could go out to cafes, could travel in the same railway carriages as whites and could talk to white women on the street.

One soldier wrote home to his mother saying the only time he was ever reminded in France that he was black was when he looked at his own face in the mirror.

'Spoiling the Negroes'

The US authorities did not approve of France allowing the African Americans these liberties. They sent the French Military Mission a document entitled Secret Information concerning the Black American Troops, issuing instructions on how to treat the black US soldiers, including the demand that there should be no "pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers".

French officers were not to eat or shake hands with the soldiers and keep their interactions to those related to military service.

The instructions also stated that the French should be stopped from "spoiling the Negroes".

Furthermore, "white Americans become greatly incensed by any expression of intimacy between white women and black men," the document said.

Medal of Honour

On 28 September 1918 Cpl Stowers was serving as a squad leader launching an attack on Hill 188 in the Champagne Marne sector.

A few minutes into the attack the enemy troops stopped firing and held up their arms, as if surrendering.

Freddie Stowers and his men walked towards the enemy trenches to take the surrender but as they neared, the enemy fired their machine guns.

Despite being hit twice, Cpl Stowers continued to lead his men in an attack that ultimately succeeded in capturing Hill 188.

He died on the battlefield, an American soldier in a French helmet.

Following his death Cpl Stowers was recommended for the highest US military accolade - the Medal of Honor.

But it would be more than 70 years before the recommendation was processed. It was awarded to his sisters on his behalf by President George Bush in 1991.

The citation for his Medal of Honor said, his "conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army."

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