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!

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