100 Years Ago: Rap­pa­han­nock County in World War I

The ‘Blue Ridge Divi­sion’ was ranked first of all Na­tional Army Di­vi­sions in WWI

Rappahannock News - - COUNTRYSIDE - By Don AuDette

Fi­nal part of a se­ries

One unique event in­volv­ing the men as­signed to the 318th In­fantry Reg­i­ment, who were mostly farm boys, was their of­fi­cers’ dilemma with their as­signed reg­i­men­tal drill field at Camp Lee, Vir­ginia: it was cov­ered with fully-grown corn.

The dilemma was solved when some­one sug­gested the farm boys, some from Rap­pa­han­nock County, clear the field of corn.

They did this in 24 hours, tak­ing that long be­cause of the in­nu­mer­able rab­bits found that had to be elim­i­nated. Sub­se­quent march­ing on the cleared field made it into a nor­mal drill field in a few days.

Train­ing in march­ing, etc., went on from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with Satur­days and Sun­days off. In the evenings, as equip­ment be­came avail­able, it was is­sued and its use ex­plained. Per­sonal hy­giene, first-aid treat­ment, the ar­ti­cles of war, mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline and cour­tesy were cov­ered. Men in­creased in weight and health with the three big meals a day in the mess halls.

At the end of Oc­to­ber 1917, the first of 20 French of­fi­cers and men ar­rived to teach the troops the meth­ods of war­fare then in use by the British and the French against the Ger­mans. These of­fi­cers and men had been wounded in bat­tle, had been hon­ored, and were bat­tle hard­ened. In a section of Camp Lee trainees had dug trenches and men were tak­ing turns liv­ing in them. The French of­fi­cers were pro­vid­ing in­struc­tion in the use of gas masks, grenade throw­ing, and “go­ing over the top” to make bay­o­net as­saults on en­emy trenches across “no man’s land.” A key les­son: a grenade was to be “lobbed” and not thrown like a base­ball, oth­er­wise the en­emy had time to throw it back.

In Novem­ber 1917, about 1,000 men from the 318th were trans­ferred to other di­vi­sions bound for Europe and from then to the end of April 1918, com­pa­nies had about 175 men in­stead of 256. The move was not good for morale. But train­ing con­tin­ued.

Ri­fle ranges were ready by mid-Novem­ber with 240 tar­gets for ri­fle prac­tice from 250 to 1,000 yards, and there were tar­gets for re­volver prac­tice as well. In ad­di­tion, bay­o­net train­ing was such that on Nov. 23, 1917 a re­al­is­tic bay­o­net charge was car­ried out by 318th for vis­it­ing British and French at­taches, with their spokesman say­ing, “Noth­ing will stop men like these when they get on the bat­tle­field.”

A news­pa­per ac­count de­scribed the men lung­ing for­ward with shin­ing blades of steel, fight show­ing on their faces, with each jab ac­com­pa­nied by ter­ri­fy­ing gut­tural sounds. Dum­mies rep­re­sent­ing Ger­mans had been placed in trenches so the trainees could drive their bay­o­nets into vi­tal ar­eas marked by loops of string.

In De­cem­ber, gas masks were now on hand and a “gas house” was ready for use un­der British su­per­vi­sion, initially us­ing a gas (lachry­ma­tory) caus­ing just tears. Other, more for­mi­da­ble gases were used later. The masks had to be donned in six sec­onds in­side the “gas house,” the gas at­tack last­ing a few min­utes. Don­ning gas masks while in trenches was em­pha­sized.

Also in De­cem­ber, in­struc­tion was pro­vided in bar­racks at night us­ing troop move­ments and war ma­neu­vers sketched on pa­per, plus the use of a minia­ture French section with trenches made of clay, plus barbed wire, shell holes, etc., these be­ing repli­cas of real French trench sec­tors. Trainees could now see the big pic­ture of how their day­time train­ing paid off with larger

mil­i­tary units.

De­cem­ber also brought more trans­fers to other com­mands and more unit dis­cour­age­ment, with this com­pounded by “no leave” for Christ­mas, but then the War Depart­ment al­lowed five-day leaves for all in the camp, a few per­cent at a time. The first snow ap­peared on Dec. 14, 1917 and dur­ing the week of Christ­mas, men from the 318th spent four days on con­struct­ing a two-mile stretch of front-line trenches, sec­ond-line trenches, com­mu­ni­ca­tion trenches, along with con­struct­ing sleep­ing cham­bers with bunks 35-feet un­der­ground.

At the end of De­cem­ber 1917 and be­gin­ning of Jan­uary 1918, a cold wave and bliz­zard hit the East­ern part of the United States, with tem­per­a­tures at Camp Lee drop­ping be­low zero and snow pil­ing up. Ton­sil­li­tis and sore throats were up at the camp due to wet shoes and feet, so men were or­dered to water­proof their shoes.

Train­ing went on a week later with British of­fi­cers pro­vid­ing in­struc­tion on the fir­ing of Colt ma­chine guns. Men had to carry these ma­chine guns over a mile away for a drill that in­volved crawl­ing 330 feet over a mud-cov­ered field, then as­sem­bling their guns, and fir­ing at tar­gets. The next week it was sim­i­lar train­ing with the French Chauchat ma­chine gun, and later, the Stokes trench mor­tar. The history of the 318th In­fantry Reg­i­ment noted that, “from about the mid­dle of De­cem­ber un­til the end of Jan­uary there was at least a foot of ice and snow on the ground al­most con­tin­u­ously.”

Feb­ru­ary saw men in trenches, knee-deep in mud, re­pulse a two-hour night gas at­tack. Also in Feb­ru­ary, a pri­vate at the base hospi­tal who de­serted and headed for Mex­ico in De­cem­ber was dis­hon­or­ably dis­charged and sen­tenced to 20 years of hard la­bor with­out pay at a fed­eral prison. As of Feb. 1, 1918, Camp Lee had about 116 men AWOL (Ab­sent With­out Leave).

To­ward the end of Feb­ru­ary, 100 hom­ing pi­geons ar­rived to be trained to carry mes­sages, and then used in a mimic bat­tle in March, when Brown­ing ri­fles also ar­rived for first use in the Army.

To­ward the end of March, 10,000 more draftees started to ar­rive at Camp Lee and the 318th re­ceived enough men to bring it up to war strength: 114 of­fi­cers and 3,720 en­listed men, which in­cluded med­i­cal and ord­nance de­tach­ments. And on March 30, the 318th In­fantry Reg­i­ment joined all other units but one, in the 80th Divi­sion to march in re­view be­fore their com­mand­ing gen­eral, Ma­jor-Gen­eral Adel­bert Cronkhite. More that 20,000 men were in­volved. The 80th divi­sion was known as the “Blue Ridge Divi­sion.” It was ranked first of all Na­tional Army Di­vi­sions in WW1. Its shoul­der patch made use of three moun­tain peaks rep­re­sent­ing Vir­ginia, West Vir­ginia, and Penn­syl­va­nia. It still ex­ists, but is now known as the 80th Train­ing com­mand.

At the end of April, some 1,000 men from the 318th par­tic­i­pated in a re­al­is­tic at­tack on Ger­mans by mov­ing into the trenches that they had pre­vi­ously helped con­struct. Mud­cov­ered, they were to de­fend their po­si­tion for 12 hours. By evening, they were re­lieved by an­other 1,000 men of the 318th who spent the night and the fol­low­ing day in the trenches.

Out in “no man’s land” men were set­ting up 14 Stokes trench mor­tars to dev­as­tate “the en­emy,” plus seven ma­chine guns were sited for the same pur­pose. Ar­tillery lo­cated well be­hind the trenches was in tele­phone and vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tion with trench li­ai­son per­son­nel. Un­for­tu­nately, an ex­pan­sion of a bat­tal­ion com­man­der’s dugout ex­pe­ri­enced a roof col­lapse with tons of dirt caus­ing some in­juries, but med­i­cal aid re­sponded al­most im­me­di­ately.

At the start of May 1918, the War Depart­ment is­sued bul­letins about pre­vent­ing all mil­i­tary in­for­ma­tion from leak­ing out, and not dis­clos­ing such in let­ters or post­cards mailed home. Nor was any dis­cus­sion to be made of move­ments abroad, ship names, em­barka­tion points, routes, etc., in pub­lic places.

On May 20, 1918 Camp Lee men knew some­thing was up, and news rapidly spread that they were mov­ing out. No news­pa­pers men­tioned the move­ment, ex­cept ap­par­ently one small news­pa­per in Penn­syl­va­nia.


LEE, VIR­GINIA | The drill field was initially cov­ered with ful­ly­grown corn. What to do? The dilemma was solved when some­one sug­gested the farm boys, some from Rap­pa­han­nock County, clear the field. They did this in 24 hours, tak­ing that long be­cause of the in­nu­mer­able rab­bits.


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