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.

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