One hundred years ago, the First World War entered its final, bloody year. Four years of conflict left 8.5 million soldiers and 7.5 million civilians dead.
For almost three years the US stayed out of the conflict but unrestricted warfare by German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean drew America into the fight on April 6, 1917. Before the declaration of war, the United States had just 200,000 troops, including the National Guard. By the end, over one million men had been sent to Europe and several million more mobilized for service.
North Carolina National Guardsmen, just back from deployment to the Mexican border, were sent to South Carolina in preparation for action in Europe. They, along with former guard units from South Carolina and Tennessee, were folded into the Regular Army as the 30th Division. Their nickname, “Old Hickory”, honored President Andrew Jackson, who had close ties to all three states. There were four infantry regiments within the division. One of those, the 119th, had a large number of volunteers, draftees, and former guardsmen from Wayne County, my birthplace in eastern North Carolina.
After a few months of instruction at Camp Sevier, near Greenville, SC, the 30th shipped out and arrived in Calais, France on May 28, 1918. They were assigned to the British 2nd Army to replenish their ranks, decimated by nearly four years of fighting. After a month of further training, the men were sent to the front-line trenches on July 2 at Ypres, Belgium, near the French border. Control of the area had been contested for almost four years. For Joe Thompson, the death and destruction he witnessed was overwhelming. Thompson was born in Wayne County in 1900 and had just turned eighteen when he was made a wagoner for the 119th Infantry. His unenviable task was to drive supply mules to the front at night. He recalled that the area was,
…a graveyard as big as Raleigh…The English
had lost a million soldiers. There was a smoke
haze in the air from the gunpowder…and
that’s what it was, the jaws of hell, to tell you
the truth. That was Ypres, Belgium.
The terrible conditions were not confined to combat. Food was not always available, especially when artillery bombardments prevented resupplies, and what nourishment troops did get was limited mostly to watered-down stews, with horse meat if they were lucky. Every man was infested with lice and the rats outnumbered men in the trenches. They grew to enormous sizes feasting on the bodies of dead soldiers. On top of all of this misery was the constant threat of diseases, primarily dysentery and the flu. Over 2 million troops on both sides succumbed to disease during the conflict.
Despite the difficulties, the men of the 119th spent the next two months slowly pushing back the German lines and on September 1 were rewarded with a break. The rest was short-lived however and they were back in the fight near Bellicourt, France on September 23. The battle of the following week would prove to be the beginning of the end for Germany and her allies. Their last defensive position, the Hindenburg Line, was a roughly 75 mile long system of large trenches about 6,000 yards deep and reinforced with barbed wire, machine gun nests and artillery. If breached, German forces would have nowhere to regroup and be forced to pull back to Germany.
Just before 6:00am on the 29th, the order was given to begin the assault on the German line. With smoke from artillery and machine gun fire limiting visibility to five yards, groups broke apart leaving many men to wander by themselves through the battlefield. Many Germans, demoralized and beaten down, happily surrendered, but not all were ready to give up. Wayne County native Brodie West learned this the hard way. In the smoke and confusion he was separated from his squad and wound up directly in front of a machine gun nest. Under heavy fire he assaulted the position by himself, silenced the gun, and returned with 37 prisoners. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism.
The 119th was pulled off the front-lines on October 2 and given a short rest before being sent out again to pursue retreating German forces. The 17th-19th were especially intense; enemy artillery fire, including mustard gas, rained down on the troops. On the 18th, Lt. Gaston Dortch of Goldsboro was killed by an enemy shell as his company assaulted the town of Ribeauville. Unfortunately for Dortch, the 119th was pulled from the front the following day; it was their last action of the war.
At 5:00am on November 11, 1918, Germany accepted an armistice that ended hostilities in Europe. The 119th, and the entire 30th Division, was detached from British service and returned to American command. It was not until March of the following year though that they would return to the United States. Between the 6th and 10th of April, the men of the 119th were finally mustered out of service at Camp Jackson, near Columbia, SC.
The war haunted many of the men of the 30th Division for the rest of their lives. Although fiercely proud of their accomplishments, they expected their sacrifice to usher in a new age of peace across not only Europe but the entire world. The reality was that the same nations would fight yet another terrible war on many of the same battlefields just two decades later. The pain was even more acute for veterans whose children served in WWII, including Company K commander Captain Zeno Hollowell of Goldsboro; his oldest son William served in the Army Air Corps. Luther Hall, a veteran of Company A, summed the sentiment of many, saying in a 1984 interview, “…you can’t make peace by fighting.”
For all soldiers serving during WWI, there was a better than 50% chance of becoming a casualty (killed, wounded, or taken prisoner). Over 4 million US troops served and of those, 7.1% became casualties. North Carolina lost 2,375 men, with a further 3,859 wounded. An incredible 90% of Austria-Hungary’s 7.8 million troops became casualties. While every nation in the war suffered, no one suffered quite like the French. An area larger than North Carolina was destroyed by four years of constant fighting and a generation of young French men was nearly wiped out; six out of every ten between the ages of 18 and 28 were killed or permanently maimed.
Wayne County, NC Men of the 119th Infantry, 30th Division
For a history of the 119th Infantry compiled by veterans shortly after the war check out this file from the University of North Carolina.
There is also a great compilation of interviews of North Carolina WWI veterans published by the NC Office of Archives and History and available in paperback from Amazon.