Friday, April 27, 2018

“They Were Volunteers:” The Fighting Pannill Brothers of Martinsville
On a windswept hill in a sleepy section of Martinsville, Virginia lies a monument to two brothers who “Died heroically for the defense of the Right, and the civilization of the world.” At the bottom of the monument is a simple inscription – “They were volunteers.” This forgotten memorial was erected to honor the service and sacrifice of George and Stuart Pannill, both of whom were lost in the same battle.

Readers of this blog might recognize the last name Pannill, as Captain Hunter Pannill of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was featured in an earlier post about his heroism at Vimy Ridge. Captain Pannill was a first cousin young George and Stuart, both of whom were born near Martinsville at Claremont, the ancestral homestead of the Pannill family.

George Edmond Pannill was born on March 2, 1896. Described as a “slow, serious fellow,” George was a graduate of Martinsville High School and was attending Fork Union Military Academy when the First World War began. Jeb Stuart Pannill, who went by “Stuart” to friends and family, was born on August 5, 1897. George and Stuart were the only sons of Edmond Johns and Eliza Reamy Pannill, who had seven daughters in addition to the two boys. Eliza Pannill came from a celebrated Virginia family line that included the famed Confederate cavalier that she named her youngest son after.

According to an early biographical piece written about the boys, “George and Stuart were both very fond of history,” and followed the news of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 with great interest. George was especially interested and examined the newspapers every day “to see which [side] was winning, the Japs or the Russians.”

When World War I broke out in 1914, George and Stuart “devoured the news from the battle fields of Europe, little dreaming that they would so soon be a part of that great war.” With American entry into the conflict in 1917, the brothers were eager to volunteer their services to the US Army and they enlisted on June 6, 1917. They were initially sent to Fort Thomas, Kentucky and thence on to Syracuse, New York. Upon arriving in Syracuse, they were assigned to Company K of the famed 9th Infantry Regiment.

The 9th Infantry dates back to 1798 and was one of the first official regiments in the US Army. Soon after the brothers enlisted, the 9th became part of the vaunted 2nd Division. Shortly after the 2nd Division was fully constituted, George received news that he and his brothers were going overseas to join in the Allied war effort. He wrote home, relating that he had been studying French and that, “I feel real bad about going across without coming home first, but we had such short notice I did not have time to get back by yesterday.” Stuart also wrote home upon learning of his imminent departure, reassuring his mother that he liked the army “just fine” and that he liked the people of Syracuse (who he referred to as “Yankees”) very much.

Library of Virginia
The 2nd Division sailed from New York on September 17, 1917 and arrived at St. Nazaire, France three days later. From St. Nazaire, they marched to Bourmont, where they spent the winter of 1917-1918 training and getting acclimated to trench life.

By November of 1917, George wrote home asking his mom and sisters to write him “once or twice a month. It takes it quite a while to get across the pond, you see.” George then lamented, “how I would like to be home Christmas!” When Christmas day came, George was cheered to have what he called an “excellent” feast of “turkey, cranberries, pie, cakes, and nuts of all kind. You just ought to have seen the layout!”

The boys’ mother Eliza must have cherished every letter sent home from her only sons, as her husband has passed away in 1904 and she had only the presence of some of her daughters to keep her company. She made sure to send a box of goodies to her boys for the holidays and wrote them as often as she could. Stuart, an avid reader, steadily demanded that she send him old magazines after she had read them, and no matter how much she wrote, the boys were always asking for more letters from home. As Stuart wrote in January 1918, “You’ve no idea how a homesick old Sammy loves to hear from home.”

One month later the younger Pannill wrote his mother, “You can just bet that old Stuart will be glad when he gets back to the old U.S.A.,” but went on to assure his mother that she “mustn’t bother too much about us because I really do think that we are provided for as well as possible, and am quite confidant we will make it all right.”

By the time the boys wrote home again, the 2nd Division had moved into the Verdun sector, and the bustle of army life noticeably picked up. Stuart wrote of “having many different kinds of drills now.” The increased rate of activity must have taken a toll on Stuart’s health, as he wrote home in March that he was in the hospital with the measles. He did not write home again until May.

In a missive to his older sister Katie Langhorn Pannill, Stuart apologized for not writing as much, explaining that “we’ve been on the go so much lately.” He went on to relate that he and George had done some “real rank hiking for the last few days.” Waxing philosophical, he concluded “I have ceased to soldier for the glory and honor of war. But you can just bet old Stuart is doing his part.”

By early June the 2nd Division had moved into the Vaux sector to take part in the fighting around Chateau Thierry. On June 10th, George penned a note to his mother and assured her, “you mustn’t think that I have forgotten you, for I haven’t had time to write…Stuart and I are still together. Would like to see the garden. I’ll eat enough vegetables to make up for lost time when I get back.”

By late June, Stuart had grown sick of having his letters fall prey to Army censors and a note written on June 24, 1918 displayed how adept he had become at foiling any unwanted editing:

Dearest Ruth:

The weather is very pleasant, and the air is filled with music. However, the music is not so pleasant, because you can’t tell when one of the humming notes will come your way. How do I like the trenches? Oh, fine! When I’m asleep. But you know one doesn’t get much sleep in the trenches. I’m sure I can stand it if the next one can! If you can’t you know you can’t call yourself a soldier. I didn’t know how well I did like that place called home until I got so far away, but I hope these two chickens will be lucky enough to return there safe and sound some day

Sadly, Stuart and George’s luck was about to run out. On July 17th, the 9th Infantry Regiment went to Villers-Cotterets by truck to participate in the drive on Soissons. The 2nd Division, part of Maj. Gen. Pierre Berdoulat’s XX Corps, was to spearhead an attack on the Soissons-Paris railroad designed to push the Germans out of the Marne Salient. Due to the recent shellacking suffered by the Marines of the 2nd Division at Belleau Wood, the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments – both Army outfits – would do the heavy lifting along with the 5th Marines.

Stuart and George found themselves thrust into a chaotic movement up to the front lines on the evening of July 17th. Shortly before heading out, Stuart took the time to pen a letter to his mother. His youthful enthusiasm was still apparent when he wrote: “Well, Mother, I tell you I’m just going to stay an old buck private. Don’t guess that sounds very ambitious, does it? But you know I figure that there are other things to soldier for besides promotion.” He signed off, “with love to everybody” and hopped into an army truck that jostled him and his brother through stop and go traffic up to the jump off point for the attack.

As the men of the 9th Infantry deployed on the morning of July 18th, they had no inkling what was in front of them. The officers lacked maps and the orders that came down were to simply fix bayonets and move forward at a clip of “fifty meters per minute.” The 9th advanced alongside the 5th Marines, “though not blending cheerfully,” according to historian Edward G. Lengel. They marched up the Vauxcastille ravine and onwards towards the town of Vierzy.

And it was there that disaster struck. 

According to Pvt. Arthur Gray, “Pvt. George Pannill was killed July 18, about 10:00 A.M. at Soissons. We were advancing. He was near a little wagon road just before we came to a ravine, and I was not very far away. I heard a shell burst around there and heard a couple of fellows yelling. Afterwards I saw his body.” Another eyewitness recalled that George’s last words were “They got me” and that “he lived about two minutes after being hit.”

July 18th also saw the fatal wounding of Stuart Pannill. In the same combat that claimed the life of his brother, Stuart was shot through the right chest. While he was in the hospital, the younger Pannill made quite the impression on the nurses and doctors that treated him. One Canadian nurse named Phoebe Wright wrote to his mother Eliza that “his spirits & pluck were wonderful… he has been so brave and cheery… please accept my sympathy as well as congratulations on having a hero son.”

On August 1, 1918, Stuart felt good enough to write to his mother:

Dearest Mother:

I have been wounded and am in the hospital. Don’t worry, dear, for I am coming along just fine and dandy. I have not heard from George since I left the Company about eight days ago. I expect to hear from him any day, or as soon as mail arrives at this hospital.

How is everyone at home, and how is everything getting along? I expect to have mail from you at any time. Now do not worry about me, dear, for I am all right, and I will write you again in a few days. Your loving son, 

- Stuart

Two days later he wrote home again, claiming “I was not wounded as badly as I thought I was, and hope to be up in a few days.” He also claimed to have heard that George was slightly wounded and that “more than likely he has written to you by now. I will write to him first chance I get.” It is unclear whether Stuart ever learned of George’s true fate. Perhaps the nurses who tended him realized that he was dying and wanted to spare him the additional suffering.

Regardless, this last letter home was accompanied by another note written in a strange hand. This memo came from Lt. William M. O’Shea of Camp Hospital #4. It read:

My dear Mrs. Pannill:

I feel that I would not be doing my duty if I did not enclose a note with the last one you loving son wrote you. Your brave soldier son wrote the enclosed letter yesterday afternoon, while he was making his last effort to win the battle he fought so bravely. The poor boy was unsuccessful, however, and died this morning at 7:40, surrounded by admiring friends, weeping nurses, and myself. He was conscious to his very last breath, and his last words “Mother”, were those of a truly noble son born of a wonderful Mother.

You are grief-stricken, truly, my dear woman, but lift up your grief and glory in the fact that you have given a son whose hereafter will be looked after by Our God in Heaven.

Stuart received a nasty wound of the right chest which involved the lung. His condition was desperate from the time of his entrance to this hospital, but with his marvelous fighting spirit so readily recognized, we hoped against hope and battled along with him to the last minute, only to find we had been beaten.

Pluck, determination to win, love of Mother and friends were characteristics of your noble son. It will please you to know that he received every possible attention. No officer was ever too busy to offer words of advice and encouragement to the poor boy, and the nurses worked day and night to give him every little comfort that he so justly deserved. It was truly pitiful to see my good nurses break down and cry this morning, absolutely powerless to do anything and heart-broken at the loss of this brave boy.

Stuart will be given a nice military funeral, and will be buried somewhere in the greatest city of France, Paris.

If there is anything further that I might tell you, kindly command me. Assuring you that our grief is in proportion to yours, I remain.


Lt. Wm. M. O’Shea, M.R.C.
Camp Hospital #4
A.P.O, 702, Am.E.F

One of those nurses who wept at Stuart’s bedside, Madeline Courage, was able to track down Eliza Pannill’s home address and composed a touching letter that assured:

In order that it may be a softening of your sorrow for you and your family, say to yourself that there is in France, at Paris, a nurse – who every Sunday between two and four o’clock goes to take a bunch of flowers to the grave of the one you loved who rests now in the soil of France.”

George and Stuart Pannill are buried at the Suresnes American Cemetery near Paris. The news of their deaths took several weeks to reach the states, but when it did, the story was front page news. On August 25, 1918 the Greensboro Daily News ran the story, revealing that “it was not known until a few days ago that they were hit by German bullets in the same engagement.” The paper also reported of Stuart’s death, “the blow is doubly cruel because Mrs. Pannill knew nothing of Stuart Pannill’s wound until a few days ago when she received a letter written by his nurse saying that he was in a Paris hospital doing well.”

I was unable to find any information about how Eliza Pannill took the news about the death of her only sons, but the brave matriarch must have found the strength to carry on. She paid for the handsome memorial in Oakwood cemetery and lived to see the outbreak of a second world war before passing away in 1944.

As time went by, the memory of the Pannill brothers’ painful sacrifice has slowly faded. But to those who knew them before that fateful July day in 1918, they were unforgettable. As a childhood friend said, “to know them [was] to love them.” Their corporal also paid tribute, saying “They were good soldiers and were as brave as they could be until death.”

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Soissons, we would do well to remember the awful price that was paid by the Pannill family and so many other families from the United States to Europe.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Into the Classroom

Greetings everyone! I know it’s been quite some time since I’ve posted, but life has been busy as of late. That said, I thought I’d update you all on some recent developments.

On the First World War front, I recently had the pleasure of giving an overview of World War One to an excellent Teacher’s Symposium hosted by the Virginia World War I and World War II Commemoration Commission. It was a rewarding experience to interact with so many dedicated teachers and to highlight some of the local stories that I’ve featured on this blog. Also, I have completed an essay for the International Encyclopedia of the First World War that is currently undergoing peer review by some of the top WWI historians in the world (no pressure.) I will feature a link on this page as soon as it is posted to the site.

My day job with the National Museum of the US Army has been keeping me on my toes as well. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job are the articles that I get to contribute to On Point: The Journal of Army History featuring some of the amazing artifacts that will be featured in the museum. One that might be of particular interest to readers of this blog has to do with a gas alarm rattle used by a soldier in the 33rd Division (see here).

And speaking of the National Museum, I’m both sad and excited to announce that I will be departing the museum this month to enter the world of secondary education. While I’ve been blessed to work on the NMUSA project for the past 22 months, I’ve decided it’s time to put my teaching license to use. I’ll be teaching High School History and Government at a local school this fall and am excited to see what happens when I teach the topic of the First World War to my students!

I still have plenty of blog posts featuring Virginians who fought in the Great War lined up, I just need to find the time to complete them! I was happy to see that Dr. Jeffrey Sammons commented on my post featuring the Harlem Hell Fighter D. Lincoln Reid, but since I wrote that post I’ve found 20 more Virginians who fought in the 369th Infantry! Also, I’m gathering information on two cousins of Hunter Pannill who fought in the AEF. Lastly, look for an interview with Matthew J. Davenport regarding his excellent book First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America's First Battle of World War I.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Virginia Hellfighter: Captain D. Lincoln Reid, 369th Infantry

As the centennial commemoration of U.S. involvement in the First World War gets under way, one story that has been receiving some much needed attention is that of the famed 369th Infantry, an African American National Guard regiment from New York more famously known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

In 2014, Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow, Jr. published the authoritative history of the regiment in Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality. That same year, Max Brooks (son of comedy legend Mel Brooks) published a graphic novel about the regiment, which is now being converted into a six hour limited series for the History Channel. And in 2015, Sgt. Henry Johnson finally received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on May 15, 1918.

With my never-ceasing interest in teasing out stories of Virginians who served in World War I, I was chagrined to learn that the two well-publicized Virginia connections to the regiment – Henry Johnson’s alleged birth in Alexandria and famous Richmonder Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s involvement with the famed 369th Hellfighters Band – were both erroneous (Johnson was born in North Carolina and Robinson never served in the regiment.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled upon the record of a Hampton University student who did serve with the regiment…

…and was a native Virginian…

…and was one of the first African American officers to fight in France…

…AND won the Croix de Guerre leading black troops in another elite unit with a cool nom de guerre, the 370th Infantry Regiment, otherwise known as the “Black Devils.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Captain D. Lincoln Reid – Hellfighter, Black Devil, and forgotten hero of World War I.

Dennis Lincoln Reid was born in Phoebus, Virginia in Elizabeth City County on October 1, 1880. I was not able to find much information about his life prior to World War I, other than the fact that he attended Hampton University (Class of 1901) and then moved to New York some time following graduation.

After moving to New York he found work as a clerk in the New York Post Office before enlisting in Company B of the 15th Regiment, New York Army National Guard in September of 1916.

The 15th had been established as an African American infantry regiment in 1916 following three years of bitter fighting and obstruction from the state’s National Guard leadership. William Hayward, a white Nebraska-born Public Service Commissioner, was put in command of the regiment.

Private Reid must have impressed his superiors, as he quickly jumped from corporal to supply sergeant to First Sergeant in less than a year. With the American declaration of war on April 6, 1917, the men of the 15th New York were hopeful that they would be allowed to participate in the American war effort and once again prove to the country that they were worthy of the full benefits of citizenship.

The question of whether African American officers would be permitted in the American Expeditionary Forces had not been resolved when The New York Age reported an astonishing bit of information on July 12, 1917:

First Sergeant D. Lincoln Reid has been recommended for a commission as a second lieutenant.”

Just two days after this report, Reid was indeed promoted to second lieutenant. On July 25, 1917 freshly-minted Lt. Reid was mustered into federal service and the “Old 15th” was rechristened the 369th Infantry Regiment. In late 1917 the unit set sail for France, with Reid one of only five black officers in the regiment.

In December, the 369th landed at Brest and soon found themselves all alone, never receiving the anticipated orders to deploy to the front lines. Rather, the “black orphans” of the regiment were used as labor troops, constructing roads, digging ditches, unloading cargo from ships – anything but fighting. The officers received infantry training, but never had a chance to implement it.

Shortly after arriving, Col. Hayward remarked in a letter that “Lieut. D. Lincoln Reid [is] living at the French Officers’ Mess at our division Infanterie School, [an] honored guest.” While French adoration and good treatment of African Americans during the First World War has been overblown and distorted, Reid surely must have enjoyed being accorded all of the privileges of his rank.

Col. William Hayward
Everything changed when the Germans commenced their spring offensive in 1918. Gen. Pershing responded to Gen. Foch’s desperate pleas for more men by saying, “All I have is yours.” With that, the 369th was handed over to the French 4th Army for use in combat.
After three weeks of training, the regiment joined the fight in April of 1918 and quickly showed themselves to be effective combat troops. The following month the exploits of Henry Johnson and Neadom Roberts were picked up by the press and the “Hellfighters” were household names back home in a matter of weeks.

In spite of this record of success, Pershing and the other officers at GHQ were worried by the presence of black officers in the 369th and elsewhere. What if one came in as a replacement for a white officer that was killed or wounded? Would white enlisted men be forced to submit to the orders of an African American?

These and other questions caused all of the black officers in the 369th, with the exception of famed band leader James Europe, to either be transferred to other units or to resign after being given numerous impossible tasks that they had no training for. Reid later expressed outrage over the treatment of Lt. Francis Eugene Mikell of the Hellfighters Band who resigned after he was given duties he wasn’t trained to do. It was obvious to Reid and others that he was treated this way for the express purpose of forcing his resignation to make way for white officers.

Reid’s orders came at the end of July, just as the Hellfighters had begun fighting in the Aisne-Marne sector.

An outraged Col. Hayward wrote on July 26, 1918:

An order has come through today transferring Reid, whom I had recommended for another promotion… to the 370th. Reid had made no application. He is a fine man and good soldier, has performed his duties well.” (emphasis in original.)

Reid was transferred to Company I of the 370th Regiment (formerly the 8th Illinois) a unique unit completely officered by African Americans. The 370th had a fighting record every bit as impressive as the Hellfighters, and in mid-August of 1918 Reid and his fellow “Black Devils” plunged into heavy fighting in the Oise-Aisne sector.

In October, Reid was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star for “successfully maintaining a heavy mixed French and American combat patrol in a dense wood while the battalion on the right tried vainly for six days to bring up and consolidate the line.” The Southern Workman reported that “although slightly gassed, he otherwise escaped uninjured.”

After fourteen months of overseas service, Lieutenant Reid returned to New York in early 1919. His love for his old regiment caused him to rejoin the 369th, and on May 19, 1919, Governor Alfred E. Smith commissioned him as a captain. He would continue to serve with the unit until July of 1924.
"We Return Fighting" - the 369th comes home, 1919.

Unfortunately for Reid and his fellow black veterans, participation in the Great War did not bring about the societal changes that they were hoping for. He experienced this firsthand after being appointed a member of the Executive Committee of the Theodore Roosevelt Post No. 1 of New York’s American Legion.

In 1919 Reid attended the Legion’s national meeting, held in Dallas, and was refused accommodations due to the state’s Jim Crow laws. Thankfully, the New York delegation pledged to stand by him and he was finally admitted to the hotel where the meeting was being held.

He and his fellow black officers of the 369th later signed a petition to have the unit “officered entirely by colored men.” The petition cited Reid’s other unit, the 370th Infantry, as a successful example.

After his postwar service with the 369th, Reid was a foreman in the Mailing Division of New York’s General Post Office. In a biographical profile published in 1931 it was noted that “Capt. Reid…still has the spirit of ‘Over There’ in his bones.” The profile went on to describe his life in postwar America:

Capt. Reid…is a trustee of Williams Institute Church…president of the Southern Beneficial League, an Elk, a Mason, [and] interested in civic and social betterment. [He] lives with his wife, a well-known social worker and a singer in their church choir…There are two children, a boy and a girl; the boy is at Fisk, and the girl at Virginia State.”

In 1932, Reid was appointed to the prestigious position of Finance Officer in the Jesse Palmer Post of the American Legion. He stayed in New York for the rest of his life and died on April 5, 1967 at the age of 86. He is buried in Long Island National Cemetery, plot 2W, grave 3788.

After World War I, America saw some of the ugliest and most shameful examples of racial violence and oppression in its entire history. It would take another world war for the civil rights movement to gain the necessary traction needed to start the process of national change. However, if it were not for Reid and others who “returned fighting” for a better America, the civil rights movement could have faltered and delayed progress indefinitely.

For that, and his service in hell, we owe him a debt of gratitude.

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!