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.