Thursday, March 2, 2017

“First Richmond Boy Killed in the World War:” Pvt. John C. Thurston, C.E.F.

On a windswept hill overlooking the James River in Richmond, Virginia lies a white marble memorial headstone that reads, “First Richmond Boy Killed in the World War.”
The stone commemorates the service of Private John C. Thurston, a Richmonder who volunteered with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915 and was killed in action near Ypres on April 3, 1916.

John Christian Thurston was born on July 20, 1893, one of five children belonging to Charles Smith Thurston and Elmira Bernice Mann Thurston of Richmond. While I was unable to find a photograph of Thurston, his service record describes him as 5 feet 6 ½ inches tall with blue eyes and light brown hair. Also of interest, he is described as being “tattooed on both arms,” an interesting notation considering that he is also listed as being a Baptist.

Before joining the CEF, Thurston was a traveling salesman with a local roofing company. Perhaps it was the quality of this work that compelled him to head across the border to Windsor, Ontario to offer his services to Canada. At the age of 21, Thurston was declared fit for service and took the Oath of Allegiance to King George V on January 12, 1915.

The Thurston home in Richmond.
Young Thurston was assigned Military Service Number A/298 and joined Company C, 1st Battalion Canadian Infantry (Western Ontario Regiment), CEF. The 1st Battalion arrived in France on February 11, 1915 and received its first big bloodletting just two months later at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. The fighting would last through May, and the Canadian troops experienced a gas attack for the first time and lost over 6,000 men.

The 1st Battalion would go on to see more hard fighting in 1915 at places like Festubert and Givenchy and by early 1916 Thurston had become a hardened veteran. In a letter home written on February 2, 1916 he admitted that he thought his chances for seeing home again were slim and that he was going to ask for a discharge.

Apparently he had seen enough.

On March 29, 1916 he wrote what would prove to be his last letter home:

Dear mother,

Just a few lines to let you know I am still in the land of the living. Received your letter of yesterday, and also a copy of the T.D. [Times-Dispatch] from M.C. [sister Mabel].

Well, the Germans made another smash below here at Verdun that cost them 300,000 men, and I expect they are going to try something here, but everyone is confident of the outcome. In fact I would like to get into another big fight with them, and in another two weeks the Canadians will decorate the front pages of the newspapers as they did this time last year.

On February 27 the captain of our company was questioning me in regard to my release, and as things didn’t materialize I saw him yesterday. He said it was up to the American consul in London, so I am expecting it every day, because no doubt there are miles of red tape to go through.

We are having beautiful weather, just like the weather at home in May, and if it were not for the noise of the guns one wouldn’t know there was a war.

I saw in one of the casualty lists the name of B. A. Rucker 1103 East Clay Street, Richmond, Va., United States Army, as being seriously wounded in the Eighteenth Battalion: also wrote to Lieutenant [Jimmy] Drake about six weeks ago, but haven’t had a reply yet. Will have to close for now. 

Love to all, John

Tragically, Thurston’s discharge did not materialize in time, and a few days after he wrote home the 1st Battalion was pulled into the Battle of St. Eloi Craters in early April. South of Ypres, the operation at St. Eloi was designed as a diversion by British and Canadian troops to help the French hold on at Verdun.

St. Eloi Craters.
The British had blown up several mines that obliterated the German lines and created a lunar landscape. The Canadians took over the British line on the night of April 3rd and found no trench line and no communication trenches – just mine craters that had turned into small lakes during the torrential rains of the preceding week. Even worse, this cratered landscape was on a forward slope in full view of the German lines and the Kaiser’s troops were able to fire into the Canadian lines from three different sides.
Thurston's grave in Belgium.

Pvt. Thurston did not survive the first night in this hellish atmosphere – he fell on April 3, 1916. He was just 22 years old.

John Thurston is buried alongside his fellow brothers in arms who died in Belgium at Chester Farm Cemetery, which is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. His grave reference is I. A. 5.

Americans who wish to honor his service can visit his memorial headstone at Riverview Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Virginian at Vimy Ridge: Capt. Hunter Pannill, 38th Battalion, C.E.F.

A few short weeks from today marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a battle which many Americans may not be familiar with, but to Canadians it packs the symbolic punch of Yorktown, Gettysburg, and Normandy all rolled into one. The Easter day victory by the Canadian Corps on April 9, 1917 provided a stunning success on the stagnate Western Front and gave Canada a place of honor on the world stage. As General Alexander Ross said after the battle, "It was Canada...on parade. I thought then, and I think today, that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation."

How, then, does one explain a son of Virginia with ties to Zachary Taylor and J.E.B. Stuart charging into battle at Vimy Ridge as a grizzled veteran when his country of origin had only been in the war for three whole days?

Enter Capt. Hunter "Archie" Pannill, a Virginian who served with the C.E.F., bled at Vimy Ridge and earned the Military Cross for his service there, and ended the war with the Royal Flying Corps just for good measure.

Augustus Hunter Pannill was born in the town of Chatham in Pittsylvania County, Virginia at the ancestral family estate of "Whitehorn" on February 21, 1882. The son of David and Augusta Pannill, he was the third of four children in a distinguished Virginia family with roots in the state stretching back to the 17th century.

He attended the Martinsville Military Academy and was a member of the state militia before leaving the country for Canada in 1912. He eventually settled in Toronto and was working as an accountant when he decided to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916.

Pannill joined the 97th Overseas Battalion, part of the short-lived "American Legion," on February 7, 1916. The American Legion was filled with men born in America who decided to swear allegiance to King George V for various reasons, a sense of adventure and outrage over the sinking of the Lusitania among them. Pannill trained with the 97th for one year before the American Legion was disbanded and its members parceled out to other units in the CEF. The 97th was one of the few units in the Legion to leave Canada for England, but once it arrived it suffered the same fate as the rest of the brigade.

Pannill was transferred to the 38th Battalion as a lieutenant in Company C on February 19, 1917. He did not have much time to adjust to his new unit before he was thrust into his first major combat of the war – Vimy Ridge on "Bloody Easter," April 9, 1917.

The 38th was part of the 12th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Canadian Division on the far left flank of the attack. The Division’s objective on April 9th was Hill 145, now site of the majestic Vimy Memorial. The 38th Battalion would anchor the right flank of the 12th Brigade’s line with the 72nd Battalion in the center and the 73rd Battalion on the left. Pannill and his men would go in with the 38th’s second wave and were tasked with capturing a portion of the infamous "Red Line" of German trenches.

The 38th Battalion's avenue of attack.
The attack was preceded with two weeks of pounding from the artillery along with several trench raids, a botched gas attack, aerial bombardment, and the explosion of several mines. A rolling barrage would also precede each wave of attacking infantry and Pannill recalled:

"The artillery strafe was the most dazzling thing I ever witnessed. I looked back and saw rows of guns go off, each in its turn, yet so fast that the flashes seemed like a tooth-edged ribbon of flames."

That said, Pannill admitted, "When the time came [to attack] I did not notice…I was busy issuing rum to the men and everyone was taking a last look at his tools."

When it was Company C’s turn to move out, Pannill stood up and waved his hands, shouting "Come on, fellows!" before going over the top. Due to the timing of the rolling barrage, the Virginian soon learned that "it was no use hurrying" and in a dry manner related that "we just walked ahead."

The men of the 38th had to advance over ground that was so heavily shelled that it resembled the surface of the moon. Massive shell craters that had filled with water over time posed a serious threat to any soldier unlucky enough to fall in after being wounded.

Pannill remembered one such crater in which "four or five [men] had crawled there wounded and died." The other sights he recalled from that day were equally harrowing:

"A great many of our dead were scattered everywhere...One dead man was split wide open, apparently having been hit squarely by a shell."

Thankfully, the line that the 38th was charged with taking was occupied quickly. Pannill stated matter-of-factly:

"We took the second line without much of a fight. The Boches came running up…in swarms…calling 'Mercy, kamarade, mercy, kamarade!'"

Pannill then took 35 men ahead of the main line to establish an advance position. Before setting out he learned that his commanding officer had been wounded and that he was now in command of Company C. He oversaw the digging of the new line and turned around to report what had happened to higher headquarters when he was hit by a piece of shrapnel that shattered his wrist.

The Official War Diary of the 38th Battalion for April 9th recorded:

"At 10:15 a.m. Lieut. A.H. Pannell [sic] of ‘C’ Company sent in report by runner that he had occupied position in front of crater No. 5 and was consolidating same…Orders were sent to Lieut. Pannell by return runner to connect with Major Howland and Capt. MacDowell giving their locations to him. Runners report a great deal of sniping from our right."

Pannill would hold the line until he was finally relieved after 36 hours with no medical attention.

Four days after his wounding he was sent to London to recover from his wounds. Word quickly spread of the daring exploits of this young American officer and before he was hobnobbing with the elite of British society.

On June 5, 1917 he wrote his mother back in Virginia:

"I am well of my wound…I have been meeting a lot of very interesting people. I have a snap shot which was taken at the Astors of a group containing the Duke of Connaught, Princess Patricia, several other prominent people, and myself."

Pannill’s superiors put him in for the Military Cross and he had the award pinned on his chest by King George V himself at a special ceremony at Buckingham Palace that August.
His citation read:

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion in operations. He led his platoon in an assault, and although wounded, he gained and consolidated the objective, holding the position for five days and until relieved."

One might assume that the experience of Vimy Ridge cured Pannill of all desire to continue as a foot-slogger, as he never returned to his battalion. Instead, he transferred to Royal Flying Corps on June 12, 1917.

Pannill joined the legendary Number 43 Squadron, which would come to be known after the war as "The Fighting Cocks" of the RAF. He served as a Lewis gunner for a few short weeks before his plane crashed on September 1, 1917. In no time at all he found himself back in a London hospital with fractured hips fractured and two broken legs.

While recovering, he was approached by an American reporter who asked him how easy it was to fly a plane.

In an impressive display of dry wit, he responded:

"All you have to do is keep your mind on the weather and the light, the speed of your own machine and its personal idiosyncrasies, the speed of the German machine – or machines, if there are more than one – the exact angle of your approach to him or his approach to you, the speed of the bullets you fire, your height from the ground, with special relation to the German anti-crafter, the proximity of the German trenches – we do most of the fighting on the German side, you now – whether your adversary is a single seater and therefore capable of firing only through the propeller and hence can only hit you when he is aimed pointblank or is a two-seater with an observer and a machine gun ready to pop off from most any angle – and certain tricks of machine manipulation."

The reporter, no doubt cracking a smile, replied, "Is that all?"

While his sense of humor was still in fighting trim, his body was not and he was eventually sent to Canada on 6 months leave in June of 1918. During this period he paid a visit to his home state for the first time in over six years. One can only ponder what went through his head as he hobbled off of the train to see his family after experiencing so much.

The local newspaper recorded:

"He arrived…with his left leg one inch, and his right, an inch-and-a-half shorter than when he went into service, an airplane crash being responsible for severe fractures which kept him in the hospital for nearly a year. Now, he is just beginning to walk again and is hoping to get back to the line."

Mercifully, however, Pannill's war was over. He returned to Canada in November 1918 just as war ended stayed on the rolls of the Royal Flying Corps until deemed medically unfit in March of 1919.

Pannill stayed in the nation he had sacrificed so much for and eventually settled in Kitchener, Ontario. He married in 1925 found good work in the lumber business. He established the Pannill Veneer Company in 1943, a business that employed more than 200 people at its height before closing its doors in 2002.

Pannill in 1919

Pannill devoted himself to the lumber trade for the rest of his life and was well-known as a local war hero and businessman. He died on June 3, 1968 at the age of 87 and is buried next to his wife Hazel in Woodland Cemetery.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Virginian at Verdun: Arthur Taylor’s Wild Ride, 1916

Young Arthur Manigault Taylor hailed from Charlottesville, the son of Joseph M. Taylor and Sarah Bergh Taylor. Soon after graduating from the University of Virginia, he set out on the adventure of his life, joining hundreds of his fellow countrymen who chose to cast their lot with France.

Taylor joined the famed Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, a group of volunteer ambulance drivers that included an improbable amount of soon-to-be famous writers, Jon Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, and Ernest Hemingway among them.

In November of 1916 Taylor and his youthful companions found themselves near Verdun, living in the cellar of an abandoned monastery by day and driving their ambulances loaded with the wounded by night.

A member of Taylor's section described this vampiric lifestyle in a letter home on December 6, 1916:

"Every night as soon as it is dark we go up near the front line and wait for the stretcher-bearers to carry [the wounded] out to us. It's inky dark and the road is filled with artillery teams and supply wagons...Everywhere are dead horses, broken trees and carts, shell holes, and mud. Not the faintest light may be shown, cannot even smoke a cigarette."

On December 21, 1916 Taylor prepared for his usual routine without realizing that he was about to experience what International News Service correspondent C. F. Bertelli would call "a story of bravery and devotion that has not been surpassed in the war."

That evening, as the temperature sank twenty degrees below zero, Taylor set out towards the dressing station just beyond the town of Bras on a road choked with snow and the detritus of battle. As the American reached the walls of Verdun, he was hailed by the night patrol who told him that the Germans had just obliterated a convoy that was traveling the same route just a few hours earlier.

Nonetheless he was ordered proceeded, and as he drove on he found that the Kaiser's artillerists had blown away a significant portion of the road when they took out the convoy. For several tense minutes he jostled along, unable to find anything resembling a road.

Once outside Bras, Taylor managed to find the road and continued without accident to the dressing station. There the commanding officer asked him to phone the other drivers and hurry them along while the darkness lasted.

Taylor jumped down, just as a stray piece of shrapnel tore through the side and roof of the ambulance. After calling his comrades, he came back out to help with the last stretcher being loaded into his ambulance.

The poor Poilu’s foot had been torn off and as Taylor helped lift the stretcher into the ambulance he was showered with blood from the poorly dressed wound. After accepting the French soldier's apology for soiling his tunic, Arthur jumped back into the ambulance to begin the perilous journey back to Verdun.

American Ambulance at Verdun.
Library of Congress.
He had barely begun the mile and half journey back when a star shell lit up the sky and a German battery spotted the lumbering ambulance. Taylor floored his accelerator and spotted two vehicles heading his way – a fellow American driver named Briggs and a French mule-drawn ambulance swaying behind.

Taylor was within twenty feet of the French ambulance when it sustained a direct hit that obliterated the driver, mules and ambulance and creating a gaping hole in the ground. The Yank narrowly escaped driving into the newly-created shell crater and was sickened to make out the faint outline of the French drivers arm slowly sliding off the hood of his car.

He no doubt breathed a huge sigh of relief when he arrived back at Verdun and began off-loading casualties.

Incredibly, the other ambulances in his section immediately set out upon his return. In all, the Americans of Section 7 would rescue 178 badly wounded French soldiers.

For his heoic exploits on the night of December 21st, Taylor and five of his fellow drivers – Norman C. Lee, John Briggs, C. Stuart Forbes, Sydney Fairbanks, and Dr. Charles Briggs – would receive the Croix de Guerre.

A division order contains the following description of their service:

"The courage and devotion of these Americans, volunteers in the ambulance service, has never faltered for an Instant amid the most trying circumstances. In the most perilous situations they secured the transportation of the wounded with a calmness and devotion to their duty which has been the admiration of all."

In June of 1917, the 21st Division's commander, General Dauvin, personally pinned the medals on each man in a ceremony at Ressons. At the end of the ceremony, Gen. Dauvin and company were startled to receive "a surprise in the way of an American college yell."

Norman Lee of Taylor's Section Receives his Croix de Guerre.

Arthur Taylor would end the war as a Captain in the American Field Service, spending the final year of the war helping wounded American soldiers with the same courage and devotion he had shown to the French.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

“Their Fame Will Increase With The Years:” Jimmy Drake & Vivian Slaughter – Virginians in the London Regiment, B.E.F., Part 2

Part Two of Two

In our last post we looked at the tragic life of Jimmy Drake of Richmond, Virginia who joined the British Expeditionary Force in 1915 and died from wounds sustained over three years of arduous service. Today we will look at Drake’s friend who also served in the B.E.F. and was at his side on his deathbed – Dr. Vivian Slaughter.

Vivian Slaughter was born in 1880, the son of Confederate veteran Mercer Slaughter and Mary Bull Slaughter of Orange County, Virginia. A distant relative of President James Madison, he was the last of five children, none of whom he ever knew – his siblings all died in early childhood and none were alive when he was born. Compounding this tragic legacy, his parents died within one year of each other when he was a small child.

He was raised by his aunt, Jane Chapman Slaughter, a locally prominent author and one of the first women to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Ms. Slaughter fondly recalled that his "early years were full of the glorious visions of a happy childhood, with its joyous twilight hours, when stories were told in the starlight and firelight of home."

Vivian caught his aunt’s love of books at a young age and his favorite was John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress. Many years later Jane Slaughter would recall him reciting a line from that beloved work that she deemed eerily prophetic – "And so he passed over the river, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side."

At some point early on Vivian developed an interest in medicine and attended the University of Virginia, graduating with the class of 1906, going on to earn his MD in 1910. While attending UVA he befriended Jimmy Drake, another stalwart soul who would eventually walk the same path when the world was engulfed by war.

After leaving the University of Virginia, Slaughter spent several years in Vienna and Berlin. He came back to his homeland in 1914, just as the First World War was breaking out. His solidarity with the plight of the Serbians compelled him to go back to Europe to utilize his medical skills for the greater good. 

He sailed to Europe in January of 1915 and found work with the American Red Cross. After a year of medical service, Slaughter decided that “his eagerness to aid the Allied Cause would be better satisfied by a share in actual warfare” and joined 2/20th Battalion, London Regiment as a subaltern in September of 1916. Slaughter and his compatriots soon joined the British Salonika Force in what is now the Greek port of Thessaloniki.

Officers of 2/20th at Tel-El-Fara, Palestine, 1917.
Imperial War Museum 
The Yank from Virginia quickly proved himself invaluable in what the troops sardonically dubbed "Muckydonia," as malaria swept through the ranks. Slaughter’s service record at the Library of Virginia notes that he “rendered medical aid to the plague-stricken British” in addition to his other duties. 

Sir Walter Merry Craddock (at the time a Lt. Colonel) described him as follows:

"He was older than most of my subalterns – quiet and unassuming, but he did the job in hand always."(emphasis in original)

Slaughter would fight on with the London Regiment at Salonika and the 2nd Battle of Doiran before his battalion was transferred to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in June 1917. There he engaged in vicious fighting at Sheria, Nebi Samwil, and Jerusalem before his battalion was called back to the Western Front in April of 1918. 

Lt.-Col. William St. Andrew Warde-Aldam, commander of the 20th, lauded:

"[Slaughter] had taken part in nearly every action in which the Battalion has been engaged and always with the greatest gallantry: he was greatly beloved by the men, who would follow him anywhere."

The 20th arrived back in Europe in July of 1918, just in time for the Hundred Days Offensive. After fierce fighting at the Battle of the Scarpe and Havrincourt, Lt. Slaughter went to London on some much-needed leave in September. By this point in time the American Expeditionary Forces were heavily engaged, and Slaughter made up his mind to leave the British Army for the AEF as soon as he had the chance.

While in London he learned that his dear friend, Lt. Jimmy Drake, had suffered a massive stroke and was not expected to live much longer. Slaughter was able to say a final farewell to Drake, who would die on September 23rd, but had no time to mourn – his battalion summoned him back to the front before he could resign from His Majesty’s forces.

An attack on the Hindenburg Line was planned for September 27th, and 2/20th was given the difficult task of negotiating a marshy area north of Cambrai and attacking German positions along the Marquion Line near Bourlon Wood.

Slaughter and his men had to cross the unfinished Canal du Nord, the only dry ground in the marsh, and use ladders to reach their jump off points. The attack commenced shortly before 10:00 a.m. and the battalion immediately suffered heavy casualties from machine guns firing into their flanks. Slaughter and his men were pinned down, and if the machine gun positions were not neutralized they ran the risk of annihilation. 

Lt. Colonel Warde-Aldam described what happened next:

"[Lt. Slaughter] with two platoons got on ahead of the rest of the Battalion, when he was hit through the back and thigh; he was bandaged up but it was impossible to bring him back at the time and when we could get to him he was dead; my doctor tells me he could not have lived very long."

Colonel Craddock recalled in 1919:

"Lieutenant Vivian Slaughter was killed in action in front of Flesquieres, on 27 Sept. 1918, in one of the biggest fights of the final phase. He died gloriously going straight for a German machine gun which was giving us a good deal of trouble. He was mortally wounded in the attempt but the gun was subsequently captured and crew killed."

2/20th did not reach its final objective, and Slaughter was one of 27 men from the battalion who would die that day. In October, the Slaughter family received the awful news, along with a remarkable note from Buckingham Palace stating that none other than King George V and Queen Mary “deeply regret to hear of the loss” of Lt. Slaughter and “convey to you the expression of…sincere sympathy with you in your sorrow.”

Richmond Times-Dispatch: October 10, 1918 
To the woman who had raised him, Colonel Craddock wrote a note of consolation, lamenting:

"His valor cost a gallant officer and the Battalion, generally, a sincere friend. I offer you our condolence and trust that in the gallant manner of his death you will find consolation."

Lieutenant Vivian Slaughter was buried at Grand Ravine British Cemetery in Havrincourt, France. A modern historian of the fighting along the Hindenburg Line commented that his grave “is not often visited, as it is so well hidden from view.” Those wishing to commemorate his life and service can do so at this link provided by Britain’s Imperial War Museum.

Grand Ravine British Cemetery
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
For Jane Chapman Slaughter, writing poetry helped her though the grieving process. In 1920, she published a poem entitled "A Scarlet Rose Cap" that recalled her time raising Vivian and venerated his death on the field of battle:

A Scarlet Rose Cap: A Memory of Old Days

Just only a scarlet rose-cap,
Warm, pressed tight by a childish hand —
Tossed into my lap at noonday
As he raced with his school-boy band.
But a token that he loved me.
It made me understand.

Oh, what but the palm of Victory!
Cold, lapsed, from a dying soldier's hand-
A message that came at noonday
From a battle on foreign strand.
But I knew it was because he loved me,
And it made me understand!

It told of a life's sad mystery.
Finished and wrought out in far-off land-
How he met the grim foe at noonday;
Fell—died—for his gallant soldier band.
Oh, I knew, then, how he loved me.
And, at last, could understand!

Friday, January 27, 2017

“Their Fame Will Increase With The Years:” Jimmy Drake & Vivian Slaughter – Virginians in the London Regiment, B.E.F.

Part One of Two

Continuing with the theme of Virginians who served in World War I, this series of posts will focus on two remarkable young men who left lives of leisure and comfort to join the British army in the early days of the conflict. James H. Drake, Jr. and Dr. Vivian Slaughter were close friends who met while attending the University of Virginia in the early 1900’s. By 1914 both men had lucrative careers – Drake was a Richmond attorney and Slaughter was a doctor with a successful medical practice.

Yet when the guns of August first sounded they were willing to lay aside their personal ambitions and join a cause they deemed bigger than themselves. They sailed for Europe within weeks of each other in 1915, and they would die within four days of each other in the waning days of the war. UVA President Edwin A. Alderman was so moved by their service that he told his alumni – “I believe that their names and their fame will increase with the years, for they have done the finest thing that a man can do in this world.”

We will start with the life and service of James Hodges Drake, Jr.

“Jimmy” Drake was born on February 22, 1881 to James H. Drake and Elizabeth Ott Drake of Richmond. One of six children, he descended from a Revolutionary War hero also named James Drake of North Carolina. If that wasn’t enough to interest him in military affairs, he attended the University School in Richmond as a young man. The school’s founder was William Gordon McCabe who fought with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War. McCabe sought to “make his boys in a genuine sense both gentlemen and scholars.” Building upon this foundation, Drake attended the Virginia Military Institute in 1897 as a member of the Class of 1901. After leaving VMI, Drake aspired to get his law degree at the University of Virginia, where he would befriend a young native of Orange, VA named Vivian Slaughter. Drake graduated from UVA in 1903 and moved back to Richmond to establish his law practice the same year.

He practiced law and served with Richmond’s premier militia unit, the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, for twelve years. He was known as an idealistic social reformer, with one acquaintance praising:

Day after day his service was at the command of the poorest and lowliest man or woman, white or black, who had been wronged and despoiled. He was a practical, quiet, tireless and dauntless reformer and champion of the weak and helpless and miserable against ill-gotten riches.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Drake was outraged by news concerning the “rape of Belgium” and decided to combine his passion for justice with his prior military training. He embarked for Newport News and departed for England on April 10, 1915, hoping to reconnect with his college pal Vivian Slaughter who was already in Europe serving in the American Red Cross.

Drake arrived in France in late April and eventually made his way to England, where he offered his services to the British Army. The British gladly accepted his offer and gave him the rank of 2nd Lieutenant on June 5, 1015. Since Drake already had experience drilling troops, his first duty was to teach new recruits the rudimentary arts of being a soldier.

In July he wrote of his situation:

Busy, interested, tired at night, hungry at mealtime. A good bunch, a good camp—in fact, I'm lucky, very, very, lucky.

The British praised Drake for his ability to “give us some valuable hints in the matter of camp sanitation” and rewarded him with service in a front line unit – 1/24th Battalion, London Regiment (The Queen's.) In August of 1915, the he sailed for France and immediately went into the front lines. He quickly rose to become the Battalion Bombing Officer and saw heavy fighting at the Battle of Loos. His commanding officer, Lt. Col. William Parker, would write of his service:

Lieutenant J. H. Drake, when acting as Battalion Bombing Officer, was attached to the companies then under my command, during the operations following on the German attack on the “Hairpin,” near the Hohenzollern redoubt, Loos Salient, on December 30, 1915. During this very trying period he displayed the most tireless energy, and it was largely due to his skillful dispositions that all attempts against the sector held by the Twenty-fourth Battalion were without result to the Enemy.

The Alexandria Gazette reported that Drake was officially recommended for the Victoria Cross for this desperate action.

In 1916 a combination of cold weather, dampness, and gas exposure caused Drake to succumb to a bad case of “trench fever” that resulted in him leaving the front for a few weeks. Keeping up on events in his native country, he wrote home to mock the American preparedness movement, stating that “the present hysteria in America is rather amusing, or would be, were it not so pathetic in its aspects of futility.”

Drake continued to serve on the front lines until late 1916, when the combination of wounds, gas exposure, and shell shock rendered him a “physical wreck.” He was sent home to regain his strength in October of 1916 and stayed at his parents’ home in Richmond. Seeing his frail condition firsthand, his friends and family implored him to ask for an honorable discharge and stay home, but to no avail – he left for Europe on November 1st.

Following his return to England, he was assigned to a training camp near London as a Bombing Instructor, an assignment he would remain at throughout 1917 and early 1918. However, his health continued to deteriorate and he was invalided from the service on April 16, 1918. For the next few months Drake sought a commission in the American Expeditionary Forces.

Sadly, Drake suffered a massive stroke in September that left him paralyzed. A British surgeon took the time to write home to Drake’s parents that “he was in a critical condition, but that he had warm friends who would do everything that was possible for him.”

One of those warm friends, as luck would have it, was Vivian Slaughter who had gone on from his medical work to serve as a line officer in 2/20th Battalion, London Regiment. Slaughter had been fighting in Palestine with his battalion before they were transferred to the Western Front, giving him just enough time to visit Drake on his sick bed before moving out. The record of their brief conversation has been lost to history, but it must have been bittersweet for Slaughter to see his old companion reduced to the mere shell of a person.

Drake fought for life as best he could, but his weakened body finally gave out on September 23, 1918.

When word reached Richmond of his death, an old friend eulogized:

It was in accordance with his character and career that he left home and safety and ease and friends and crossed the sea to offer his life for the allies, when their prospects were darkest and there were no signs of help for them from his own government. That was “Jimmy” Drake exactly. What he believed to be right he was ready to die for and sacrifice himself for, and without stopping to measure odds or ask terms…No death could be sweeter than his was, or could have been more desired by him—death from the dedication of his manhood, his courage and his all for the good cause of the stricken and wronged against the strong, and the news of victory ringing in his heart with his last throbs.

Drake was 37 years old when he died.

In my next post I will relate the story of Drake’s friend and fellow warrior, Vivian Slaughter.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Virginians at War: Lt. Herbert R. Hordern, B.E.F.

Hordern's VMI Class Picture
As we enter this centennial year of American involvement in the First World War it is my hope to write up a series of short biographical profiles highlighting the service of forgotten servicemen and women from my home state of Virginia. These are stories that I have encountered in my research going back to 2009 when I first spent a lengthy amount of time in the files of the Virginia War History Commission.
This first set of profiles will focus on Virginians who took the bold step of going “over there” before the American declaration of war in 1917.
We will start with the tragic tale of Warrenton native Herbert Hordern, who rose to become an officer in the Second Battalion of the Irish Guards, B.E.F.
Herbert Radcliffe Hordern was born on June 12, 1892, the son of the son of Radcliffe and Grace Harriet Nesbitt Hordern. Herbert was descended from what his Alma Mater described as “distinguished English ancestry,” which may partly explain his decision to join the British ranks in 1915.
In 1908 Hordern enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute, where he earned such distinguished nicknames as Count, Herbo, and Scrooge. Hordern struggled with academics and eventually graduated in the Class of 1914, prompting the yearbook author to quip:
All records of matriculation of this Stone Age representative have long since crumbled to dust, and it is only by careful examination of the hieroglyphics, recently excavated, that we can discover anything concerning him.
Apparently Hordern wanted to carry on Virginia’s cavalier tradition, which resulted in more ruthless taunting in his yearbook:
His highest ambition is to be a dashing cavalry officer, and we earnestly hope that Uncle Sam, in his leniency, will examine his nether extremities through a magnifying glass and let him in.
Two months after graduation Europe was embroiled in war, and Hordern wasted little time in crossing the Atlantic to join the British Expeditionary Force. Hordern was able to gain a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the Irish Guards in August of 1915.
Writing in 1917 his mother recalled:
His dearest wish ever was to be a soldier; and when this War came he felt from the first the most intense desire to go to the front in any capacity.
Hordern served as an adjutant and received a slight wound at Loos before being transferred to the 2nd Battalion (the same unit that Rudyard Kipling’s son John served with). According to his mother, he, “made good from the first; and those warm-hearted Irish adopted their American ‘Sammy’ with sincere affection.”
1916 brought the Battle of the Somme, and with it the incident that would forever alter Hordern’s life. At the beginning of August, Lt. Hordern was put in charge of a small party of men tasked with digging new trenches near the embattled village of Thiepval. Hordern and his detail left their main camp on August 1st and had to take trucks to a bivouac near where they were to start digging. The next day they set about their task and soon came under the fire of German artillery. Hordern was in the middle of directing his small detail when a shell exploded that wounded Hordern and eight other men in his party.
Rudyard Kipling chronicled the incident in his classic work, The Irish Guards in the Great War:
2nd Lieutenant Hordern was dangerously and eight men were slightly wounded by one shell while at work…The machine had taken possession of their lives and fates, and as they went from trench to bivouac and back again they could both see and hear how extremely little a battalion, or for that matter a brigade, mattered in the present inferno. The fortnight's battle that had opened on the 14th of July had finished itself among erased villages and woods that were already all but stumpage, while the big guns were pounding the camps and bivouacs that held our reserves, and one stumbled on old and fresh dead in the most unlikely and absurd places.
Hordern was evacuated to a hospital directly behind the lines where he underwent the first of two surgeries before being sent to London, where his mother paid him a visit and recalled:
In November [1916] another operation was performed; and, after many anxious weeks and agonies of pain unspeakable, he began slowly to creep back to life. He is still in Hospital, but convalescent, and we are now hopeful he may in time be well. Whether he will again be with his beloved regiment, we can not yet say, but he has no other hope than to get back to his work. He has been brave—never a murmur.
It would be nearly three years before he would leave the military hospitals to rejoin his family. On January 26, 1918 his mother reported:
He is, I am most happy to tell you, very much better, can now walk about in the house, and even get up steps, with his sticks. He is still under his medical board, at a convalescent home for officers at Brighton (Tie Herbert Samuelson Hospital, 2 Sussex Square), and spends most of his days in the wonderful bracing air of that charming place.
One month later he would be placed on the half pay list because of his inability to serve.
By war’s end, he would finally be sent home. During his time in the B.E.F. Hordern earned the Mons Ribbon of Service and was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his bravery on August 2, 1916. He received a full commission into the Irish Guards August 29, 1916 with seniority from the date of his wounding and was promoted to 1st lieutenant on November 27, 1916.
When he returned to the United States he lived with his family in Pennsylvania, but was never able to recover from the Somme. On September 23, 1929 he died from complications from his wound.

He was 37 years old.

Hordern was brought back to Virginia to be laid to rest, and is buried in Warrenton Cemetery in Fauquier County, Virginia.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

I Will Hold: An Interview with James Carl Nelson

Greetings everyone and sorry for the dearth of posts as of late – as it turns out, helping to create a national museum dedicated to the U.S. Army is a very time consuming task!

Happily, I get to break my silence today with an interview I recently conducted with James Carl Nelson about his latest book I Will Hold: The Story of USMC Legend Clifton B. Cates, from Belleau Wood to Victory in the Great War.

I vividly remember when Mr. Nelson burst upon the scene of First World War literature back in 2009 with The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War, which was given an Editor’s Choice Award as one of 2009’s seven best history books by Booklist. I was working on what became the exhibit Ready To Do My Part: Henrico County & World War I and was voraciously consuming anything that had to do with the AEF and World War I. To say that The Remains of Company D stood out would be quite the understatement.

Nelson went on to publish Five Lieutenants: The Heartbreaking Story of Five Harvard Men Who Led America to Victory in World War I in 2012 and his latest book tells the story of Clifton B. “Lucky” Cates’ exploits with the United States Marine Corps during World War I.

I’d like to thank Mr. Nelson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with me and I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say!

JP: Please tell us a little bit about yourself – what is your background?

JCN: Even as a child I was interested in military history, and at age seven I even had a notion to try to get into West Point. The remainder of the 1960s and the early 1970s pretty much wiped that idea from my head – as did the fact that I’m terrible at math. I grew up in a Chicago suburb, and always having had some talent for and a strong interest in writing, I gravitated towards journalism while at the University of Minnesota, where I worked for the student paper, and then upon graduation headed off to a job in The Miami Herald’s Keys bureau. I’ve been in my present job as a journalist for 30 years.

JP: How did you come to be interested in the First World War?

JCN: I actually had a personal interest – my grandfather, a Swedish immigrant to Chicago, was drafted in 1917 and sent to France as a replacement soldier. He was assigned to Company D, 28th Regiment, US 1st Division after its assault on Cantigny in May, 1918 – and then he was shot through the abdomen by a German machine gunner on July 19, 1918 during the Soissons offensive while he and his battalion were assaulting the village of Ploisy. He laid on the field all night, then was rescued by a couple of French Colonial troops – he always said they were Algerians, but I think they were more likely from a West African nation – who brought him to an aid station. He spent nine months recovering, but he lived to be 101. After his death, I became consumed with trying to discover what had actually happened to him, and his small story, and the larger story of the men with whom he briefly served, became the basis for my first book The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War, which was published in 2009.

JP: The book opens, “He has already spent one night sleeping almost atop the bodies of dead men, French and German, dead for days and weeks and thankfully unseen now in the blackness, though there was no mistaking their odious, putrid smell.” Quite an introduction! Could you give us some insight on how you go about the process of crafting such evocative writing? How do you “get in the zone,” so to speak?

JCN: I believe in grabbing the reader right away, and that means jumping into the story at the greatest dramatic point. With I Will Hold, there were many such points, but I liked the imagery of the dead bodies – it just really evoked the brutality and the slaughters of the Great War and what Clifton Cates and the Marines experienced. I worked from several descriptions of that night that are out there, and then put my own imagination and words to the horrific scene. As for getting into the zone, it’s hard to describe. I usually don’t have to labor over such scenes because often the words just come to me, from where I don’t know for certain. It’s just the artistic process, I guess.

JP: What in particular drew you to the story of Clifton Cates?

JCN: I actually had a great interest in a stand-alone book about the battle of Soissons – which involved the 1st and 2nd Divisions, including the Marine Fourth Brigade -- and threw together a 50-page proposal over one weekend in 2012 and sent it to my literary agent, James D. Hornfischer. He had just published his third book Neptune’s Inferno, about the naval battle off of Guadalcanal in 1942, and the name Clifton Cates was familiar to him. He suggested I get away from the 1st Division – my second book Five Lieutenants focused on a small group of officers who also served in the division in WW1 – and he was the one who suggested a biography of Cates. A quick check revealed that Cates has a large collection of papers at the Marine archives in Quantico, and so off I went. I was very happy and enthused to tackle the Marine experience in WW1, though starting out I knew very little of it outside of Belleau Wood. Ironically, I actually stumbled across Belleau Wood in 2008 while in France researching my first book, but still had only a very sketchy idea of exactly what went on there.

JP: Readers of I Will Hold may be surprised to learn that that United States Marine Corps of 1917 didn’t have the same reputation as an elite fighting force that the modern Corps enjoys. Cates himself once recalled of his pre-war training, “Outside the rifle range part of it, there wasn't any of it any good." How was Cates able to have such marked success on the battlefield, given the steep learning curve that faced his Marines when they were deployed on the Western Front?

JCN: Yes, Cates was also somewhat derisive about the training, saying most of it wasn’t worth a “hoorah,” but the Marines AND the leaders of the American Expeditionary Forces were certain that once Americans got to France in large enough numbers the stalemate of the trenches would quickly be broken. The Marines in particular espoused the theory that massed rifle power would provide a breakthrough. But the reality was that the machine gun and powerful, massed artillery was king Over There. Cates and the Marines found that out at Belleau Wood, Soissons, and St. Mihiel, but by the battle of Blanc Mont in October, 1918 and then in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in November, the Marines had learned the value of employing a standing artillery preparation followed by a creeping barrage that was followed closely by the men. As for his personal success, he was known as “Lucky Cates” for the numerous bullets and shells that hit him but did not kill or severely wound him – this happened at least 10 times -- which wasn’t the case for many men in his company, the 96th, which took more casualties than any other American unit, or for the Marine Brigade in general, which lost 1,342 men killed in action and another 8,292 to wounds. But Cates’ success was due also to his smarts, his dash, his utter bravery and his frame of mind. One Marine called him “the most optimistic man I have ever met.” He was just a natural-born leader – he was one of those combat leaders who are most clear-headed in the thickest part of the action.

Cates in 1918
JP: Cates went from not even knowing what the Marine Corps was before joining to a lifer who was instrumental in World War II and rose to become the Corps’ 19th Commandant. He even took a reduction in rank to Lieutenant General when he could have retired. Was his love for the Corps cemented in his battlefield experiences in World War I?
JCN: Despite his wartime success, Cates actually was planning to leave the Corps after the First World War and had resigned in 1919. He probably would have become an attorney – he had a law degree from the University of Tennessee -- but the then-commandant of the Corps, George Barnett, convinced him to stay and made him his assistant. That shows how highly valued he was regarded in the Corps. But as I say several times in I Will Hold, I really believe Cates found himself, and his calling, on the battlefields of World War 1. He loved the action, he loved and cared for the men of his company, he loved the camaraderie, and he certainly loved the Marines – but as one Time magazine writer said simply when Cates finally retired from The Corps, “He liked the work.” 

JP: What are your thoughts on the centennial commemoration thus far?

JCN: I have to be honest, I’m not really that up on the plans for the commemoration. I guess I feel my three books are personally my own best commemoration of the American experience in World War 1. But I’m very happy that efforts are being made to note the centennial. World War 1 has in the U.S. always been something of an afterthought, and existed too long in the shadow of World War 2; when I was working on The Remains of Company D I can’t tell you how many people told me that people didn’t want to read about the Great War. That’s obviously not true, at least anymore, as we can see by the constant stream of excellent books that have come out in recent years, among them Mitch Yockelson’s Forty-Seven Days and Matthew Davenport’s First Over There. A new generation of writers is discovering the many terrific, untold stories from within that war and are now carrying them forward and, happily, publishers are showing more and more interest in their books.

JP: What are you working on now?

JCN: I have discussed an idea – also World War 1 – with my agent, and one of these days I’m going to get off my rear and write a proposal for it. It has something to do with an American division in the war that isn’t the 1st or 2nd, and that’s all I want to reveal right now.