Friday, September 3, 2010

A Painful Discovery

In my last post I discussed some of the inherent joys in doing original research on the First World War.

However, this can be a double-edged sword, as I found out in the midst of my research for my upcoming exhibit Ready To Do My Part: Henrico County & World War I.

Case in point, Lieutenant Newton B. Ancarrow of the 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division.

Lt. Ancarrow’s letters to his mother can be found in Folder 3, Box 80 of the Virginia War History Commission files at the Library of Virginia.

The first letter I came across was written on July 2, 1918. Here’s a portion of the letter:
The American soldier is as a general rule, very keen for the trenches, and I think that when the opportunity comes, he will prove himself quite worthy. There is a spirit of daring in our men which our Allies and the Germans do not now possess, because of the fact that they have spent four years in the trenches and are now rather “war weary.” This spirit causes the American to be forever pestering the enemy rather than to sit and wait. We all know that among the men who have been through it there are some who say that it does no good to “kill one.” Their argument is that one man more or less won’t win or lose the war. The boys from “over there” think differently.
Newton’s enthusiasm was infectious and I was happy to read more of his observations of life in France.

On August 18, 1918 he wrote:
I suppose I told you that I have been in command of the company for over a month and am having no trouble at all. The trenches the last time up were not so bad for the weather was nice and we were not strafed quite so much by Jerry. Still it is quite wonderful how one will appreciate life after having a taste of the trenches, dug-outs etc.
It should be noted at this point that the 80th Division had not seen combat on a large scale up to this point. However, on September 26, 1918 the largest battle that the United States Army has ever fought – the Meuse-Argonne – commenced, and Lt. Ancarrow was caught up in the middle of it.

After experiencing the harsh realities of combat, Newton had this to say on October 15, 1918:
Dear Mother,

I suppose you have been a bit uneasy about me for the last three weeks because you have heard nothing from me. You have probably seen by the papers that we have been in action. We started in the drive on the 26th of September and were at it steadily until the 14th of October when we were relieved. Our Division made quite a name for itself, I think. I am sending you one of the congratulatory messages sent by the Division commander. There were two of these. I shall send you the other later. They are very valuable souvenirs.

There were quite a few casualties in the fight. We had four officers in the company but came out with two. Dago Campbell was shell shocked and is now in hospital. Barry came out all right. I wasn’t touched.

We are now back for a rest and I don’t know how short it will be. We needed it as we have been living in woods, trenches and holes in the ground for a month and a half. I hadn’t seen a woman or a house that was standing for a month and something even worse I hadn’t until today, had a real bath since late in August.

I guess that the people back home are talking and thinking Pease quite a bit. It doesn’t do any good. If there could be a fair clean-cut statements and not so many confounded notes and so much loose talk in the papers matters would be much better. The wonderful head-lines in the papers won’t do any good. Our papers have made it appear that the Allies are holding out for the Earth. The men won’t fight when they think there is nothing to fight for. I don’t believe that there will be Peace for a month or so yet. I wish the talk would stop.

I haven’t heard from Granger or Parker lately nor have I ever heard but once from Rob. The boys were down in Alsace in a quiet sector but I believe they are now near us where the latest American Offensive, Sept. 26, started. As far as I could find out they haven’t been used yet.

The hopes of everyone have been raised mighty high by the latest talk. I hope it doesn’t fall through. It would hurt awfully. The men have undergone lots of hardships and they are tired.

By the way, our Captain was gassed and later transferred to another Battalion. I have been recommended for promotion and expect that I will be a Captain in a week or so. I think I wrote you this before.

I shall write you very soon and cable if I have the opportunity. Love to all.


To see the obvious shift from giddy enthusiasm to jaded realism was certainly distressing. However, a few months after reading through his letters I came across a typewritten document listing all of the men from Richmond who were killed in World War I.

Listed at the top was Lt. Newton Ancarrow.

He was killed on November 3, 1918 – just eight days before the Armistice ending the war was signed.


  1. This is a terrific post. I would say 95% of Americans today are totally unaware of the AEF and America's contribution to victory in the Great War. (Even a professor I know, very knowledgeable on the war, constantly downplays the U.S. role in his class.) Recently I discovered that my great-great grandfather was a decorated veteran of the 107th Infantry. I've searched in vain for much information on his experiences, but happened upon an obscure book that remarked that he spent much of his postwar life at the local American Legion hall, remembering the horrors he'd seen, and was greatly disturbed by it all. This kind of stuff is the reason why I study history. Keep up the good work and good luck with the exhibit.

  2. Hi Will,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

    That’s very cool that your great-great-grandfather served with O’Ryan’s Roughnecks. Have you looked at David Laskin’s new book The Long Way Home: An American Journey From Ellis Island to the Great War? One of the soldiers in the book is a member of the 107th. Here’s a link:

    I’m glad that you found this blog and if you’d ever want to share some f your grandfather’s stories, just let me know.



  3. I purchased Laskin's book as soon as it became available and found it excellent, but sadly college-required reading has forced me to lay it aside. the modern history of the 107, "Duty Honor Privilege" is also very good. Mitch Yockelson of the National Archives has recently published what looks like a great work on the 27th and 30th divisions under British control.

    I know very little of my g-g-grandfather Art Wiedeman's service, except that he was "mentioned in orders" and later awarded the silver Star for rescuing men from a burning tank during the great assault of Sept. 29, 1918, in which the 107th suffered more losses than any other American regiment. He was one of over a thousand men of the 1st New York transferred to the famous "Kid Glove Seventh" when it was federalized and became the 107th. He was a corporal in the one-pound cannon platoon of the 107th (these were squat little artillery pieces used in direct support of the riflemen). He apparently had a difficult life after the war.