There are many stories of the heroes that laid down their lives in the trenches of World War I, based on original sources written by the soldiers in their poems and correspondence, or eye-witness accounts from survivors. Not every story is that well known, however, and untold millions lost their lives with no-one to record their actions. One such group are the awe-inspiring Harlem Hellfighters.
This unit of African American soldiers, stationed in New York, was literally kicked and beaten to the bottom of the U.S. Army. Given no weapons, segregated from their White American colleagues and treated as little more than porters, these brave men had to fight for the right to go to war before they had a chance to fight for their side.
Eventually loaned to the beleaguered French, the Hellfighters fought the Germans on the front line, as well as racist Americans back home, to become one of the most decorated units in the army.
Max Brooks, writer of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide has taken a step away from his zombie comfort zone and produced a fascinating insight into the life and times of this unit. It’s a fictionalised account, with Brooks putting words into the characters’ mouths and dramatising the fighting (of which there is a lot). It feels authentic, though, and if the comprehensive bibliography in the back is anything to go by, it’s well researched, too.
Caanan White’s illustration is explosive, bringing life to the horror and the heroes of the Hellfighters. If ever a book is begging to be coloured, however, it’s this one. Its black and white pictures subdue what could have been some truly shocking depictions of horrific wartime injuries; and on occasion, in the thick of battle, obscured my ability to tell who was who, which could have been easily clarified with visual clues from uniform or skin colours.
However, it’s a fascinating book, charting an ugly period of history, both on the world stage but also behind the lines, where you presume that everyone on the same side might be able to stand shoulder to shoulder. The Harlem Hellfighters reminds us that this wasn’t the case, but that these brave men fought and died for their country anyway.