Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, November 9, 2020

West Virginia at War

Wheeling, WV, News Register, 3 April 1917

After the May 1915 sinking by the Germans of the Lusitania, an unarmed English passenger liner with many Americans aboard, West Virginians and other Americans turned against Germany. State colleges discontinued German language courses during the war, while several counties held ‘‘loyalty meetings.’’

World War I had already embroiled the imperial powers of Europe in conflict for three devastating years before the United States declared war on Germany 6 April 1917. Immediately afterward, West Virginia's Governor John J. Cornwell made this statement "It is the duty of every good citizen to aid his country in every way possible, the least of which is to aid the soldiers of his country in the discharge of their duties and to submit to any temporary inconvenience without complaint." West Virginians must have listened to the governor's message because they served in the war at a higher ratio than any other state. Those who were not able to participate in the armed conflict abroad, contributed to the war effort at home as both men and women of all ages and races were involved with the Red Cross, Defense Council, canning clubs, or the growing of victory gardens. However, most of these men's and women's accomplishments have gone unnoticed because World War I is overshadowed by World War II, as World War II is more widely discussed, studied, and written about. Despite this, strategies and equipment of World War I such as trench warfare and airplanes were adopted in World War II, as were ration books and liberty loans. World War I set the precedent for World War II, as did the patriotism, loyalty, and bravery demonstrated by our very own West Virginians who were involved.

Train with West Virginia Draftees Departing for
Camp Lee, VA, September 1917

West Virginia mustered 58,000 soldiers for World War I, suffering about 5,000 casualties including dead and wounded. The state’s two National Guard regiments had previously been mobilized for the 1916 Punitive Expedition in Mexico. They were reorganized as the 150th and 201st Infantry Regiments, under regular army command in the 38th Division. About 27,000 West Virginians who reached the war zone were deployed across the Western Front, but others participated in the 1918 Italian Campaign and the ill-fated Russian Expedition of 1919. Between May 1917 and September 1918, three drafts were held in West Virginia.

West Virginia’s casualties included 1,120 killed in action, 691 killed in training, and many wounded. Many others died of influenza and other diseases, often in camps on American soil. Among the dead, notables included aviator Louis Bennett Jr., who served with distinction with Britain’s Royal Air Force, and Capt. Timothy Barber of Charleston, who organized a volunteer ambulance unit prior to gallant service as an army surgeon. Although no Medals of Honor were awarded to West Virginians during World War I, many received decorations from European allies. Sgt. Felix Hill and Marine Pvt. Raymond White, both from Moundsville, received the French Croix de Guerre. Many West Virginia soldiers lie buried in U.S. military cemeteries in France. 

On the home front, World War I mobilized citizens and industry at unforeseen levels. Prior to U.S. involvement, many Americans questioned the Wilson administration’s move toward war. Some newspaper editors voiced pro-German sympathy, while opposing the British naval blockade of neutral shipping to Germany and its allies.

Massive Ordnance Plant at South Charleston

On 29 August 1916, Congress had authorized the building of the Naval Ordnance Plant to be located between U.S. 60 and the railroad in South Charleston, West Virginia. The plant took two years to build, as it was rather large, spanning the distance of 900,000 square feet, and it began operating in May of 1918. According to Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels, this naval base was the first in U.S. history to be placed away from sea waters; however, West Virginia's natural resources of coal, oil, and gas combined with its "moral environment and splendid citizenship" is why Congress chose the location of South Charleston. Military equipment such as armor plates, gun forgings, and projectiles for battleships and cruisers were all manufactured at the plant and were used by the U.S. Navy in World War I. During the war,  the Nitro gunpowder plant was built as part of the war effort, though it did not see production before the end of the war. Nitro, a Kanawha Valley community created by the war, experienced a fleeting wartime population boom of 25,000 and remains a major industrial center today.

During WWI, West Virginia was the second largest coal producing state in the United States, with a total of 79 million tons in of coal in 1917 and 81 million tons of coal in 1918.  Coal was heavily produced throughout the state especially in the locations of New River and Pocahontas, as it was used by the Navy to fuel ships. Additionally, coal was vital a resource utilized by the state and the nation to fuel the steam engines of railroad locomotives, as well as for steel production and for the heating of public and private buildings. Soldiers who had returned home from serving overseas were sent by the State Council of Defense to report to coal fields about the need for increased coal production. Even though experienced miners were drafted into the war, coal operators still managed to increase the tonnage the state normally produced to support the war.  Miners at various mining companies also grew war gardens. The United States Coal and Coke Company grew a total of 1,500 gardens at 12 mines and the monetary value of products estimated totaled $200,000.

Statewide food and coal rationing went into effect during the war. Men and women volunteered as Red Cross personnel, while ‘‘Four-Minute Men’’ raised millions in Liberty Bonds sales across the state.  After the war was over and both the miners and coal operators returned to peacetime civilian life, labor unrest began to erupt with a series of complicated events, known as the Mine Wars.

Lt. Louis Bennett, Jr. of Weston Flew with 40 Squadron
of the RAF and Shot Down Three Aircraft and Six Balloons Before Being Killed in Action



When the troops returned home after the Armistice, organizations such as the reunion for the 80th Division of Veterans were created to give veterans a sense of refuge and solidarity, while organizations such as the Gold Star Mothers helped mothers cope with the grief of losing their sons in war. Memorials were also built to honor both white and African American soldiers from West Virginia. Through these organizations and memorials, the stories of World War I live on. The last living American veteran of the war was Frank Buckles, a Charles Town, WV, resident. Buckles, who enlisted at 16 and served as an ambulance driver in France, died on 27 February 2011. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Sources: The West Virginia Encyclopedia; West Virginia Archives Online Exhibit

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