WWI: HISTORICAL OVERVIEW FOR THE US & VIRGINIA
The Commonwealth's Involvement in the First World War
Also known as the “Great War,” active fighting during this global conflict took place between 1914 and 1918. Opposing sides were The Allies (Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire).
The United States officially entered the war on April 6, 1917 on the side of the Allies.
The war ended with German agreement to a ceasefire at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918—an event still celebrated annually in the U.S. as Armistice Day.
More than 10 million international combatants died on the battlefield; another 20 million died from disease. Because of this horrific toll, the conflict was called “The War to End All Wars” in its era, though this name would lose its meaning with the even more expansive and lethal World War II (1939-1945).
Before the U.S. entered the war, many American volunteers served under British, French, and Canadian military commands. Countless others went abroad to serve as volunteer ambulance drivers, medics and nurses, and supply drivers.
The U.S. Armed Forces sent to Europe were called the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
The ubiquitous nickname for members of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps was “Doughboy.” The source of the term, which dates back to the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, is unknown.
Altogether, 4.5 million men served in the U.S. Armed Forces—representing one-twentieth of the total U.S. population. Of these, approximately 370,000 were African American and 800,000 were foreign-born.
In addition to fighting on the Western Front—the war’s main theater in France and Belgium—American forces also served in Italy and Russia, and maintained security of the U.S./Mexican border.
For every American combatant killed in battle, six were wounded. Five out of every six wounded were returned to duty.
U.S. war casualties numbered 116,000 dead; 224,000 wounded.
For their valor in combat during the Great War, 119 American servicemen received the Congressional Medal of Honor. These included thirteen foreign-born men. Two African Americans were awarded the medal posthumously in 1991 and 2015.
21,000 women served in the AEF in Army Nurse Corps and 1,400 in the Navy Nurse Corps; 100 died overseas—all from influenza and disease; 134 were wounded by enemy fire. African American trained nurses were not permitted to serve abroad.
The Spanish Influenza Pandemic killed more than 50 million—and perhaps as many as 100 million—people worldwide (600,000 Americans) in 1918 and 1919.
Virginia’s military units were the 29th Division, 42nd Division, 80th Division, 510th and 511th Engineer Service Battalions, and Base Hospitals Nos. 41 and 45. At the same time, numerous Virginians also served in other U.S. military units.
The Library of Virginia database records the number of the state’s war dead at just over 3,700, including civilians and those who fought in non-U.S. military units.
Well-known examples of wartime literature include Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Siegfried Sasson’s The Memoirs of George Sherston, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The most popular period music remains George M. Cohen’s Over There.
Frank W. Buckles, America’s longest living WWI veteran, died at the age of 101 in 2011.
The Great War in Europe
World War I commenced in Europe during the summer of 1914. On June 25, 1914 in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip, an Austrian subject working for Serbian nationalists, assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. Austria appealed to Germany as it prepared to move against Serbia, invoking a network of alliances across Europe. By the fall, war had begun among clear opposing sides: The Allies (Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire).
By early 1915, the war bogged down on the “Western Front” along 475-mile network of trenches and barbed wire stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss Alps in Belgium and France. On the “Eastern Front,” from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, the war raged until the Russian Revolution in February 1917. A stalemate continued through 1917, the year that the U.S entered the war on the side of the Allies. By war’s end, the Allies had been joined by the United States, Serbia, Montenegro, Belgium, Japan, Italy, Brazil, Thailand (Siam), China, Liberia, Portugal, Romania, Greece, while Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers.
The war’s mechanization of killing through automatic weaponry, aerial bombing, and poison gas brought unprecedented casualties and shook European society to its core. By the Armistice of November 1918, more than 10 million combatants worldwide had died on the battlefield; another 20 million from disease. U.S. casualties numbered 116,516 dead (about half from disease); 224,000 wounded; countless more suffered lingering effects of battle wounds and “shell shock” (PTSD).
U.S. Involvement in World War I
Before the U.S. entered the global conflict, many American volunteers served under British, French, and Canadian commands from the war’s beginning. Countless others went abroad to serve as volunteer ambulance drivers, medics and nurses, and supply drivers.
Initially, among the general population, there was great resistance to U.S. involvement among Americans. President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected to office in 1916 with the slogan: “He Kept Us out of War.” Violence shattered U.S. neutrality, particularly the sinking of civilian ocean liners and U.S. merchant ships by German U-boats. On April 6, 1917, after lengthy Congressional debate, the United States officially entered the war.
The U.S. Army in World War I
Although some of the U.S. Army and National Guardsmen had some combat and field experience from recent U.S. expeditions in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, and elsewhere in Latin America, the military was undermanned at 200,000 soldiers (about 4,000 coming from Virginia). On May 18, 1917 President Wilson signed the Selective Service Act (there had not been a draft since the Civil War). More than 9 million American men between the ages of 21 and 31 registered for the draft on the first day. By war’s end, 24 million registered, 4 million were selected, and 2.8 million were inducted. Altogether, 4.5 million men in all served in the U.S. armed forces—representing one-twentieth of the total U.S. population.
There were 32 Divisional training camps (such as Camp Lee, Petersburg, Va.) established across the country and hundreds more small specialty training camps (e.g. Camp Belvoir, Camp Morrison, Camp Eustis, etc.) Two million soldiers were transported to France; a total of 42 Divisions. Of these 29 Divisions served in combat: 7 Regular Army, 11 National Guard and 11 National Army. This force constituted what was called the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), under the command of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.
The U.S. Navy in World War I
Initially many Americans hoped and believed that the U.S. role in the war would be restricted to the Navy and its ability to deliver war materials to the Allies. These hopes were quickly dispelled, and it became obvious that the Navy’s role would be to keep the sea lanes open and allow safe passage of U.S. troops to Europe. Fortunately, the Navy had begun to experiment with “at sea” refueling which extended the range of its destroyer and convoy escort fleet just in time for war use. Although a number of ships were sunk by German submarines, not one American soldier, either carried on a Navy ship or escorted by U.S. Navy vessels, lost his life due to enemy action while in route to Europe.
Transporting men and material abroad proved an enormous undertaking. Using commissioned commercial vessels as well as impounded German ships—all escorted by the Navy--the U.S. sent 40,000 trucks to France. During the same period more than 2,000,000 soldiers were transported to Europe. The greatest troop transport vessel was the S.S. Leviathan, formerly a German commercial ocean liner Vaterland, which was impounded when the war began. During her multiple crossings, she carried 12,000 soldiers each trip.
The U.S. Marine Corps in World War I
Although by far the smallest of the U.S. military forces, consisting of only some 500 officers and warrant officers and 14,214 enlisted men in April 1917, the Marine Corps played a prominent role in the fighting in France. Training men at Mare Island, Calif.; Parris Island, S.C.; and Quantico, Va., the Marines provided what became known as the 4th Brigade of the AEF. Joined together with a brigade of Army infantrymen and a brigade of artillerymen, the three brigades formed the 2nd Division. While holding the line against the German summer offensive in 1918, the Marines wrested control of Belleau Wood from the German Army in some of the hardest fighting of the war and reinforced their reputation as fighters. Because of its elite nature, the 2nd Division drew some of the hardest assignments and their casualty lists reflect that. Even today, Marines assigned to the 5th and 6th Regiments wear the French fourragère in honor of the Marines in World War I.
Conduct of the War, at Home and Abroad
To ensure support for the war, the Wilson Administration conducted an extraordinary “100 Percent Americanism” propaganda campaign, authorizing censorship, loyalty campaigns that sometimes turned violent, and surveillance of German Americans – the single largest ethnic group in the United States at the time. Contemporary ideas about intelligence and racial development led to the administration of 1.7 million IQ tests and a pseudo-scientific “ordering” of American citizens.
Some advance units of recruits and cadre from Regular Army units began arriving in France as early as June 1917, however most of AEF units were not ready for battle for almost a year. Despite Allied pleas, General Pershing resisted sending raw and untrained troops too early.
Escalation of U.S. involvement:
By January 1918, 175,000 Americans were serving overseas. By November 1918 (war’s end), four million Americans were in uniform, half of them serving overseas. In five and a half months of sustained action, 1.3 million Americans soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors served in the combat zone. U.S. role in active combat began in late May 1918 in defense of Paris, helping to repel a German assault. 310,000 Americans under French command participated in the Second Battle of the Marne offensive, which is considered the turning point of the war.
On September 12-16, 1918, the first all-American field army, unified under Pershing’s command, led a successful campaign at Saint-Mihiel. The Meuse-Argonne campaign, September 26-November 11, 1918, was the largest American operation of the war. (Both the 29th and 80th Divisions from Virginia served in the Meuse-Argonne campaign as part of the 1.2 million-man American attack force.) During this dangerous trench warfare, only a few yards were gained per day.
By war’s end, units of the AEF had participated in a number of battles and campaigns. They included:
Cambrai: 20 May - 4 Dec 1917
Somme Defensive: 21 Mar - 6 Apr 1918
Lys: 9 Apr - 27 Apr 1918
Aisne: 27 May - 5 Jun 1918
Montdidier-Noyon: 9 Jun - 13 Jun 1918
Champagne-Marne: 18 Jul - 6 Aug 1918
Aisne-Marne: 18 Jul - 6 Aug 1918
Somme Offensive: 8 Aug - 11 Nov 1918
Oise-Aisne: 18 Aug - 11 Nov 1918
Ypres-Lys: 19 Aug - 11 Nov 1918
St. Mihiel: 12-16 Sep 1918
Meuse-Argonne: 26 Sep - 11 Nov 1918
Vittorio-Veneto: 24 Oct - 4 Nov 1918
Many of the unit’s in today’s Army maintain the nicknames or titles they earned in World War I:
1st Infantry Division—The Big Red One
3rd Infantry Division—The Rock of the Marne
30th Infantry Division—Old Hickory
42nd Infantry Division—The Rainbow Division
77th Infantry Division—The Statue of Liberty Division
82nd Airborne Division—The All Americans
Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on November 9, 1918, and the German government agreed to ceasefire that commenced November 11, 1918 (11th day of 11th month at 11th hour). One stipulation of the Armistice required the Allied Armies to occupy the German Rhineland. By 15 December 1918, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps sector was occupied by by more than 250,000 Doughboys and their supporting service organizations (Red Cross, Salvation Army, YMCA, YWCA, Knights of Columbus etc.).
The Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 29, 1919. Congress did not ratify the treaty and the U.S. technically remained at war with Germany until August 1921 when the Treaty of Berlin was signed. The last U.S. occupation troops withdrew from Germany in February 1923. For their valor in combat during the Great War, 119 servicemen received the Congressional Medal of Honor (33 of them posthumously): 90 from the Army, 21 from the Navy, and 8 from the Marine Corps.
African American Military Service
Approximately 370,000 African American men served during the war (primarily Army; about 5,000 Navy). The vast majority of black soldiers were relegated to Services of Supplies (SOS) units and labor battalions. Some 40,000 soldiers saw combat in two new segregated units, the 92nd and the 93rd Divisions. Within the latter was the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Harlem Rattlers” (often misidentified as “Hell Fighters,” a name the unit disliked). The black Americans fought with distinction under French Army command. Another 70,000 served in the 16 Pioneer Infantry Regiments. Numbered 801 to 816, the Pioneer Infantry regiments, along with their white counterpart Pioneer Infantry Regiments provide engineering support as well as logistical support to the combat divisions. African Americans comprised 13 percent of active-duty military manpower during the war but made up only seven-tenths of one percent of the officers (1,200). Two black soldiers earned Congressional Medals of Honor, posthumously awarded in 1991 and 2015.
At home, black servicemen—like their civilian counterparts—endured Jim Crow segregation laws in the South and rampant discrimination throughout the country. Racial tensions escalated with the enlistment, training, and then return of African American servicemen. Off-duty soldiers from training camps were perceived as threatening by local white civilians, who often greeted them with disdain. Mob attacks on black soldiers in East St. Louis and Houston in 1917 presaged the “Red Summer” of 1919, a series of massacres and riots that exploded across more than 25 American cities during the summer and fall. Black veterans, fresh from fighting for democracy in Europe, chaffed at the limited civil liberties African Americans imposed at home.
Hispanic-Americans in Military Service
In addition to the many Mexican-Americans serving in the Texas, Oklahoma, California, Arizona, and New Mexico National Guards, there were large numbers of Hispanic men also drafted into the National Army. The island of Puerto Rico was also seen as a rich source of men for the Army. In June 1918, it was decided to organize a provisional infantry division at Las Casas, Puerto Rico, comprised of men from the island. Designated the 94th Division, over 10,000 men were inducted into the Army to fill the Infantry Regiments and training begun. Before the men completed training the Armistice was signed. Shortly thereafter, the men were demobilized and returned home.
Foreign-Born in Military Service
Falling under the oversight of the Selective Service Act were millions of foreign-born men. Required to register for the draft, many soon found themselves in the U.S. Armed Forces and serving in France. By the end of the war, it is estimated that some 800,000 foreign-born men served in uniform. While the greatest numbers of these came from Italy, Poland, Russia, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, there were men also from India, Syria, China, Japan and a number of African countries. During the course of the war, foreign-born soldiers would earn 13 Medals of Honor for valor in combat.
The Role of Women
Approximately 21,000 women served in the AEF in the Army Nurse Corps and 1,400 in the Navy Nurse Corps; 100 died overseas—all from influenza and disease; 134 were wounded by enemy fire. African American trained nurses were not permitted to serve abroad. Another 6,000 women, recruited through the Red Cross and YWCA, served the AEF as “civilian contract employees” in various jobs as clerks, typists, telephone operators, etc. Women entered the workforce at home to replace conscripted men or labor in greatly expanded war-related industries, such as munitions factories. Countless volunteers helped the war effort individually and through churches, service organizations, and the Red Cross.
Home Front Efforts
Civilians responded to call for war support by purchasing Liberty Bonds, conserving food, and donating time and money to relief organizations. The American National Red Cross, organized quickly after declaration of war, was the only organization officially sanctioned by the government to aid soldiers and noncombatants. Millions of Americans became members in local chapters and auxiliaries; thousands of schools, organizations, churches, and clubs established internal committees to assist Red Cross efforts to raise funds, make surgical dressings, knit garments for soldiers, mount food conservation campaigns, and to aid and entertain troops in training camps and on leave. In some states, the civilian service organization workers and volunteers were considered part of the “American Home Army.”
Spanish Influenza Pandemic
Despite its name, the influenza virus that killed more than 50 million—and perhaps as many as 100 million—people worldwide (600,000 Americans) in 1918 and 1919 is believed to have emerged in the United States in early 1918. War conditions and the arrival of U.S. troops in Europe brought the deadly virus to the world. “Spanish flu” was a particularly vicious form of influenza, causing crushing headaches, violent coughing attacks, debilitating body aches. And it spread like wildfire among troops and civilians, with particular virulence, strangely, among the young and healthy.
Making matters worse, the virus was at its most deadly phase precisely at the time that General Pershing and the AEF needed large numbers of replacements for men lost in combat. Given a choice between halting the flow of replacements in the crowded troopships, or continuing to send them to France knowing that many would die in route, President Wilson and Army Chief of Staff General Peyton March decided to continue sending soldiers across the Atlantic. They did reduce the number of men per ship by 10% in order to alleviate some of the crowding. Nevertheless, many died on the way or shortly after arriving in France.
Consequences of the Great War
Significant repercussions of the war resonate to this day:
Redrawing political maps from Eastern Europe to the Pacific brought political and social discord, including ongoing conflicts in the Middle East;
The Russian Revolution redefined the 20th century and set the stage for ongoing East/West conflicts;
The seeds of Fascism and National Socialism (Nazism) arose in post-war Italy and Germany and culminated in the militarism that ignited World War II in 1939;
The horrors of modern warfare reverberated psychologically and culturally for generations;
Experience abroad and a resurgence of violent oppression at home upon their return stimulated unprecedented activism among black Americans, setting the stage for the modern Civil Rights movement (Civil Rights Act passed 1964);
Wartime employment of hundreds of thousands of women in public and private sector fueled the Women’s Suffrage movement (suffrage amendment passed 1920);
Loyalty propaganda and the curtailment of civil liberties narrowed the scope of free speech in the United States and the virtual closure of U.S. borders until 1965.
Virginia in World War I
Virginians followed the course of the European war and the nation’s escalating tensions with Germany with interest. Even before U.S. involvement, numerous volunteers from the Commonwealth traveled overseas to fight in foreign military units or to serve as civilian medical personnel or ambulance drivers.
The state’s most prominent war-era figure was President Woodrow Wilson. Even though the Virginia native had moved from the Old Dominion in his childhood and later rose to national prominence as the president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey, he entered the dynasty of Virginia-born U.S. Presidents on his election in 1912.
After Wilson and the U.S. Congress declared war in April 1917, Virginians responded quickly. In 1918, state draftees numbered 60,836 men, 39% of whom were African American. Moreover, the Commonwealth provided a diverse pool from foreign-born residents; for instance those who registered for the draft from the City of Richmond numbered: Italy 71, Russia 94, Greece 17, England 24, Germany and Austria 21, Poland 5, Ireland 8, Canada 7, Brazil 2, Denmark 3, Holland 2, Lebanon 2, and Sweden, the West Indies, and China 4 apiece. All total, including National Guard units and volunteers, the Commonwealth provided 73,062 soldiers (1.94% of the Army).
Virginia’s Military Units
29th Division: Trained at Camp McClellan, Anniston, Ala., the 29th Division was composed of National Guard units from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia. It adopted the nickname it still carries today, “Blue and Gray,” reflecting the fact that it had units from both sides of the Civil War now standing together against a common foe. Eight former Virginia National Guard units became the 116th Infantry; 111th Field Artillery (including former Richmond Howitzers); 104th Ammunition Train (including former Richmond Light Infantry Blues); 104th Sanitary Train; 112th Machine Gun Battalion; and Signal Corps.
The 29th joined the frontlines in July in the area of Alsace and, on 8 October 1918, became an assault element in the great Allied attack known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 116th Infantry spearheaded the attack and later earned the French Croix de Guerre. Though the war ended in November 1918, it was not until May 1919 that the 29th Division returned home and its men were released from active duty. Sgt. Earle D. Gregory, of the 116th infantry, became the only Virginian to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service during the October 8 assault.
42nd Division: One Virginia National Guard unit comprised of Coastal Artillery soldiers from Roanoke became the 117th Trains Headquarters and Military Police in the 42nd Infantry Division, which received the name “Rainbow Division” during its organization at Camp Mills, Long Island, New York in 1917. Then Chief of Staff Colonel Douglas MacArthur noted that, as the Division was made of National Guard units from 26 states, it “stretches like a Rainbow from one end of America to the other.” The 42nd participated in various battles, including The Champagne (March 1918), where it became part of the French Fourth Army; the St. Mihiel (August 1918), and the Meuse-Argonne (September 1918). It was mustered out of service at Camp Meade, Md.; Fort Monroe, Va.; and Camp Lee, Va. in April and May 1919 after having served in the Army of Occupation.
80th Division: Four Virginia units comprised of draftees included the 318th Infantry, 317th Infantry, 34th Machine Gun Battalion, and 319th Ambulance Company. The 80th Division was first organized on August 5, 1917 in the National Army and headquartered at Camp Lee, Va. It originally consisted of men mostly from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia and was nicknamed the "Blue Ridge Division." Reaching full strength with some 28,000 soldiers, including many foreign-born augmentees, the division sailed to France early June 1918. The 80th trained with the British Third Army and joined forces on the front lines near the Artois sector, seeing heavy action in the Somme Offensive of 1918. It was the only AEF Division called upon three times in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 80th returned to the United States in May 1919 and was inactivated at Camp Lee on June 26, 1919.
510th and 511th Engineer Service Battalions: Two African American military units from Virginia were organized at Camp Lee, Va., January 1918 and were made up of black soldiers (draftees) and white officers and noncommissioned officers. The troops reported to the Chief of Engineers and to the Commanding Officer of Engineers, AEF in France. The 510th Battalion deployed to Europe in March, 1918; companies were then split up to various points in France and England for labor and construction detail. The 511th Battalion also deployed in March 1918. It was based in Chaulny and Chatreauroux, France, until the Armistice.
313th Field Artillery: The artillery units need long training areas to fire their cannons. One that stands out and supports the county’s history is the 313th Field Artillery. This unit, as far as training, is quite significant to Chesterfield County’s history. Though the men were mostly from West Virginia, they were said to be a “law-abiding, self-respecting, and wholly tractable body of men”. It was formed at Camp Lee as the 313th Field Artillery, 155th Brigade, 80th Mountain Division. The unit did have one soldier that came from Chesterfield County.
The artillery unit needed more space and soon found and leased land in Chesterfield County to continue their training. In the Spring of 1918, it bivouacked at Dutch Gap near Parker’s Battery adjacent to the Ware Bottom Church. They were happy to be away from the mud and activity of Camp Lee and practiced firing their cannons from positions formerly used by the Union Army during the Civil War. They got their water supply from the same spring that Confederate and Union soldiers had gathered to exchange stories, tobacco and food. The army was asked not to disturb the Civil War era earthworks and that request was honored. Their target area was Farrar’s island across the James River. By May 1918, the entire 80 Division received its orders to go to France. The 313th packed up and headed for the ships in Norfolk.
Bases, Training Camps, and Embarkation Centers
In May 1917, Camp Lee near Petersburg was selected as a state mobilization camp and soon became a division training camp for the 80th Division. At its height, Camp Lee held accommodations for 60,335 men. The camp also had a “colored quota” with segregated facilities for 6,300 African American men (black Virginians were also sent to other segregated training camps across the country). The troops trained for trench warfare in large earthworks, many of them historic remnants of the old Civil War battlefield
Other training camps included Camp Eustis on Mulberry Island near Newport News. It became a coast artillery replacement center for Fort Monroe and a balloon observation school. Camp Humphreys (today’s Fort Belvoir), in Fairfax County, was founded during the war as an army engineering training center. Built by African American service battalions, it accommodated 20,000 men. Camp Myer near Arlington was a training and staging area for a large number of engineering, artillery, and chemical companies and regiments. Langley Field, near Hampton, Va., became a proving ground for U.S. military aircraft and was a training base for aero-squadrons.
One day after the U.S. entered the war, the government purchased the site of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition at Hampton Roads. This became the Naval Operating Base, which by war’s end housed 34,000 naval and civilian personnel.
The Newport News Port of Embarkation became the second leading U.S. port for the deployment of men, horses, and ordnance to Europe. During remount mission during the war, a 77-acre Animal Embarkation Depot served as a holding site for nearly 50,000 American horses and mules awaiting shipment to British and American troops in France. (Most of the horses were trained and conditioned at the remount station at the Front Royal Remount Depot in Warren County before they were moved to the port.) The Newport News port included a constellation of adjoining smaller camps: Camp Hill, which processed both men and horses for overseas duty; Camp Morrison, which housed aviation trainees; and Camp Alexander, which processed African American stevedore and labor battalions for deployment.
Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va., was authorized to give technical instruction to black soldiers, trained approximately 500 electricians, carpenters, wheelwrights, machinists, chauffeurs, auto repairers, truck drivers, master truck drivers, horseshoers, blacksmiths, and pipefitters.
During the War, the Norfolk Navy Yard was greatly expanded. Three new dry docks, begun in 1917 and 1918, were completed in 1920, and many new shop facilities were added. Employment reached its peak in February 1919, attaining the record figure of 11,234, as compared with 2,718 workers in June 1914. Numerous vessels were repaired, converted, and fitted-out, and four destroyers were built by Newport News Shipbuilding: the CRAVEN, launched in 1918; and the HULBERT, NOA, and WM. B. PRESTON, launched in 1919.
Numerous private firms took on military contracts to produce artillery and munitions during the war. These included Tredegar Iron Works and the American Locomotive Works, both in Richmond, and the DuPont gunpowder plant in Hopewell. Many of the laborers were women, whose small hands and fingers were valued for the delicate production work.
Home front efforts in Virginia were led by the American National Red Cross, which established multiple branches and auxiliaries statewide and received the funds and supplies gathered by individuals and through the work of civilian service organizations, refugee aid associations, churches, and clubs. Red Cross fundraising was highly successful; for instance, the Richmond branch alone raised over $700,000 in first three months of the war and was able to fully fund a base hospital in France.
Debarkation hospitals servicing returning wounded troops included the new Richmond College (UoR) campus commissioned as Debarkation Hospital No. 52, and Debarkation Hospital No. 51 at Newport News.
Virginia’s Overseas Ambulance and Hospital Units
UVA and Washington & Lee formed military ambulance companies, sent abroad. These were attached to the French military and saw action near the front lines as Sections 516 and 517 (UVa) and Section 534 (W&L).
Base Hospital No. 41: Sponsored by the University of Virginia, funded by the Elks War Relief Committee. Staff of 24 doctors, 200 enlisted men, and 65 nurses, trained at Camp Sevier, Greenville, S.C. Active duty: managed 1000-bed hospital based outside Paris, Abbey of St. Deny from August 1918 to January 1919. (Additional patients were housed in temporary tent wards, swelling the census to over 2,000 at the height of American battle involvement and the flu epidemic.) The unit was inactivated April 1919.
Base Hospital No. 45: Sponsored by the Medical College of Virginia, funded by Richmond Chapter, Red Cross. Staff of 30 doctors, 350 enlisted men, 65 nurses, trained at Camp Lee, Petersburg. Active duty: managed 500-bed hospital based in Toul, France, April 1918 to February 1919. (The patient census rose to over 1,500 at the height of war and flu casualties.) The unit was inactivated April 1919.
Today, the Library of Virginia database records the total number war dead at just over 3,700, including civilians and those who fought in non-U.S. military units. Figures from period resources: According to War Department statistics, reported in Richmond Times-Dispatch, on September 7, 1920: total Virginia war dead: 1,635 (664 killed in action, 286 died of wounds, 556 died of disease, 129 died of other causes), 4,452 wounded, 43 taken prisoner. From the Virginia Adjutant General’s 1920 report: total Virginia “colored” war dead: 537 (21 killed in action, 16 died of wounds, 457 of disease, 43 other causes).
Virginia’s troops returned home during the spring and summer of 1919. Communities across the state held parades and banquets in their honor. In Richmond, decorated pillars and an arch formed a “court of honor” viewing area for the Governor and dignitaries during a series of troop parades. Parades and ceremonies were segregated, with African American troops marching on different days with different routes than white soldiers.
Racial Unrest in Wartime Virginia
Protests by African Americans at Camp Lee prompted a special War Department investigation in summer, 1918, into discrimination in treatment, training, facilities, and duties of black recruits. Lack of medical facilities and treatment for black troops at Camp Hill, Newport News were also investigated, with little redress. The wave of race riots across the country during the “Red Summer” if 1919 included four days of attacks on black residents by white civilians and off-duty soldiers in Washington, D.C., in late July and a riot in Norfolk, Va., on July 21 during celebrations welcoming African American troops home. In Norfolk, fighting and gunfire ensued after Norfolk police tried to arrest a black soldier. Clashes continued for several days as police reserves patrolled black neighborhoods.
Virginia War Memorial Carillon
Deep interest in remembering and honoring the sacrifice of Virginians during the Great War began immediately after the Armistice. In the two decades to follow, hundreds of monuments were dedicated across the state, ranging from bronze plaques, church windows, and sculptures to municipal memorials and cemetery markers.
The Commonwealth’s official monument to the World War I dead is the Virginia War Memorial Carillon, which stands on land donated by the City of Richmond in William Byrd Park. Commissioned through juried competition by the state’s General Assembly in the 1920s, it was originally designed as a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by prominent Philadelphia architect, Paul Cret. In 1926, after a successful citizens’ campaign to erect a carillon memorial instead, the design changed to a Colonial-revival bell tower designed by Cram & Ferguson, led by prominent Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram, in association with Carneal, Johnston, & Wright of Richmond. State and private funds supported the approximate $350,000 cost of the project. Depression-era budget constraints prevented the completion of a formal landscape plan that included a reflecting pool or the mounting of memorial plaques with the names of Virginia’s war dead.
On October 15, 1932 and with great ceremony, the 240-foot Virginia War Memorial Carillon was dedicated, recognizing the “patriotism and valor of the soldiers, sailors, marines, and women from Virginia who served in the World War.” The tower featured 66 bells, forged by John Taylor Co., in London (in 1970 restored and recast to 56 bells). The first floor included a war museum with artifacts donated by soldiers and their families. In the mid-1960s, the museum artifacts were dispersed to the War Memorial Museum of Virginia in Newport News, and the 1980s and ‘90s, the Carillon structure underwent several repair campaigns. Today, this rare musical instrument still features a working clavier panel, from which various holiday concerts are played each year.
E. O’Leary, A. Barnes, E. Yellin, and G. Cranford
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Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922)
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Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012)
Crews, Edward R. “A Virginia Hospital Abroad: U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 45 in the Great War,” (1993)
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Fisher, W. Douglas and Joann H. Buckley. African American Doctors of World War I (2015)
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