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.