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!