By EDWARD L. THACKSTON
I was a Blue Devil once. And I still am. It was a long time ago, to be sure, and I was primarily a bench-warmer, but I was proud to be on the team, and proud of my “L.” And I still am.
As both Don Franklin and Bobby Pruitte have been quoted in this paper recently as saying, “Once a Blue Devil, always a Blue Devil.”
But few people apparently know why we are Blue Devils, and not Bears, or Tigers, or Lions, or other fierce creatures. Who were the original Blue Devils? I was surprised recently when, at a lunch, I asked about 15 of my old classmates this question, and nobody knew. Sam Hatcher didn’t know either, but he can be excused because he wasn’t a Blue Devil. But he did ask me to write a column and explain.
The answer lies in the year that Lebanon High School started, and in what was dominating the news at that time. In 1918, the world was at war, the “Great War,” as they called it then, and millions of men had already been killed in France, the Balkans and Russia. American soldiers were now fighting in France, the whole country was mobilized for war, Liberty Bond Drives were being pushed relentlessly, and, if the war wasn’t the only topic of conversation, it was certainly the main one.
Even before 1918, the war in Europe had been a major news story for four years, and there were many stories about the valiant French efforts to stem the massive onslaught of the German army, or “the Huns,” as the papers nicknamed the Germans. Even though most Americans were strongly opposed to entering the war in its early days, their sympathies were overwhelmingly with the French and the British. Their efforts, their massive causalities and their soldiers got the great bulk of the publicity.
One especially colorful French group of units received much favorable publicity. These were the Chasseurs Alpins, or in English, Mountain Hunters. These mountain troops were created in 1888 in order to counter a similar move by the new country of Italy, by converting 12 of the existing battalions of Chasseurs à Pied (Hunters on Foot). The units had originally been called Chasseurs because they were armed with rifles, like hunters, instead of smoothbore muskets, like most foot soldiers in the 1700s.
These elite mountain troops were recruited primarily from the mountainous areas of France near Switzerland. One American observer early in the war wrote, “…the men are remarkable for their sturdy physique (they are mostly men of medium height) and for their tenacious courage. They are accustomed to hardship and fatigue, and live on simple fare and by tradition are deeply imbued with antagonism to the Germans. They are silent men. Their square-set faces seem to speak of successful struggle against the mighty forces of mountain dangers; their strong backs and their frank manners harmonize well with the brave deeds for which they are world famous.”
The Chasseurs Alpins fought well in the 1914 Battle of the Marne, as the French fought desperately to stop the much more heavily-armed German juggernaught driving toward Paris. They then distinguished themselves around Montfaucon in the vain attempts to stop German advances into the Argonne. In late 1914, the French concentrated the survivors of the 12 Alpin battalions and their 25 reserve battalions into three divisions, the 47th, 66th and 57th, and sent them to attack German mountaintop positions in the Vosges Mountains.
However, in early 1915, the Germans attacked first and pushed the Chasseurs back. The Chasseurs attacked again and again, never giving up, capturing the mountaintop three times before being pushed back finally with extremely heavy casualties, because the Germans had much more and much heavier artillery. On the mountaintop is a monument to the 28th battalion Chasseurs Alpins. The plaque reads, “Three times in 1915 the 152 R. I. attacked and conquered this mountain at the cost of enormous sacrifice. On the 23 March the 6th Company made a particularly valorous assault which was cited in the Order of the Army and for which its standard was decorated with the Croix de Guerre.”
Their bravery, tenacity, courage and refusal to quit so impressed the Germans, and their distinctive dark blue uniforms made them stand out so well, that the Germans singled them out for particular hatred (and backhanded compliments) by cursing them as the Blaue Teufel, or in French, Les Diables Bleus, or in English, The Blue Devils. Their motto became Jamais être pris vivant (Never to be Taken Alive).
The Chasseurs became even more famous to the Americans in 1917. When the American Expeditionary Force disembarked in France in June 1917, they were trained by the surviving remnants of the Chasseurs Alpins. These Chasseurs had seen first-hand the disastrous results of the French reliance on the rifle and bayonet to attack against German heavy artillery and impressed this lesson on the Americans. This training and philosophical shift was probably responsible for the relatively small mortality rate of the Americans, only 85,000 out of 1,000,000 (8.5 percent) combat troops, versus 9,000 out of 40,000 (22.5 percent) among the Italians on the Western Front in the same period.
In June 1918, a contingent of the “Blue Devils,” as the press referred to them, visited the United States to help promote the sale of Liberty Bonds to finance the war. They were feted in New York City, visited the Stock Exchange, made a speaking tour across the country and received much publicity.
Is there any wonder that the staff and students at the new Lebanon High School chose the nickname of these famous French Fighting Units to represent the ideals of their sports teams? Could they have made a better choice? I don’t think so.
Incidentally, the Chasseurs Alpins are still the elite mountain infantry of the French Army and are trained to operate in mountainous terrain and in urban warfare. They consist of three battalions, the 7th, 13th and 27th and are based in the area near the French Alps. They still wear the distinctive wide beret named the tarte (pie), their nickname is still Les diables bleus, and their motto is still Jamais être pris vivant.
Once a Blue Devil, always a Blue Devil.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Edward L. Thackston, a retired professor at Vanderbilt University's School of Engineering, now serves as chair of the Cumberland University Board of Trust. Dr. Thackston, a native of Wilson County, resides in Nashville.