On Thursday, March 29, Alamance Community College hosted an extensive exhibit honoring the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of World War I. Titled “North Carolina in the Great War,” and brought to ACC on behalf of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the exhibit included authentic uniforms from the time period, along with pictorial displays and guest demonstrators who provided more information about The Great War and North Carolina’s specific role in it.
There were displays explaining the Poppies of Flanders Fields, as well as the LaFayette Escadrille, a U.S. volunteer unit under French command that came to France’s aid. One of its original members was James Rogers McConnell, who lived for a time in Carthage, North Carolina. There were also free samples of squash for guests at the exhibit, representing the victory gardens and thrift gardens that were grown during World War I to help feed troops.
North Carolina in the Great War
When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, North Carolinians shared the same feelings of regret and fear as other Americans. Tar Heels, like many others, did not want to get involved in the war. They saw the horror of the war that in 1916 alone cost the European armies 2.5 million casualties, equal to the entire population of North Carolina at the time. However, once the United States declared war against Germany in April 1917, most North Carolinians supported the war effort and rallied behind President Woodrow Wilson when he said that America was fighting for democracy in “a war to end all wars.”
Tar Heels purchased Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps to raise money for the war. Women joined the American Red Cross, the YWCA, the Salvation Army, and served as nurses in military hospitals at home and in France. Farmers grew victory acres and children grew thrift gardens to earn money to buy war bonds. Citizens raised and canned their own food and went without meat to conserve food supplies for the army. North Carolina industry also geared up to support the war.
Ships were built in Wilmington, airplane propellers were made in High Point, wagon wheels were made in Hickory, and, in Raleigh, artillery shells were made for the Army and Navy. North Carolina’s tobacco factories produced cigarettes while its textile mills made blankets, socks, and tents for the Army. Training camps for new soldiers were set up throughout the country, including three in North Carolina: Camp Greene near Charlotte, Camp Bragg near Fayetteville, and Camp Polk near Raleigh.
The state’s greatest sacrifice cam when it sent its young men into military service. Stirred by patriotism, many North Carolinians volunteered for service, but more troops were needed. On June 5, 1917, President Wilson called for the registration of all men from the ages of 21 to 31. Additional draft registration days were held in 1918 for men between the ages of 18 and 45. North Carolina registered 480,491 men. During the war North Carolina sent 86,457 soldiers off to fight for the United States. While North Carolinians served in the Army, Navy, and Marines, and throughout the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France, the greatest concentrations of white Tar Heels were in the 30th (Old Hickory) and 81st (Wildcat) divisions, whereas most of the North Carolina African Americans who served in combat were in the 93rd Division.
North Carolinians served in all of the major battles on the Western Front in 1918. As part of the American Army, they fought in the battles of 2nd Marne, St. Mihiel, and in the Meuse-Argonne, the last major campaign of the war. As part of the British Army, Tar Heels in the 30th Division fought in Belgium and in France in severe fighting. In only five months of combat in 1918, the United States suffered over 275,000 casualties, including over 50,000 combat deaths. Of that number, North Carolina lost 828 men killed and 3,655 wounded. Another 1,542 North Carolinians died of disease while serving in the nation’s military, mostly from influenza.
Some North Carolinians were singled out for special recognition. Robert Blackwell of Person County, who served in the 30th Division, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously. Another soldier, Samuel Parker, received the Medal of Honor in 1937 for his actions at the Battle of Soissons in 1918. Another 200 North Carolina soldiers received the Distinguished Service Cross and 12 were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. North Carolina also sought to provide her World War I veterans with a service medal from the state.
Other North Carolinians who fought or served in France, Canada, Britain, and other countries before U.S. entry into the war were awarded service commendations such as the French Croix de Guerre for bravery, sacrifice, and heroism. Red Cross nurse Madelon Battle “Glory” Hancock was recognized for her bravery in driving ambulances onto battlefields under fire to retrieve wounded.
History of Women in World War I
During World War I, women were not employed as combat troops but worked as nurses and doctors with the American Red Cross, the Army Nurse Corps, the Navy Nurse Corps, and even with hospitals they organized themselves. During the war the American Red Cross staffed hospitals and ambulance companies while also running programs that supported civilians.
Clara Releder Fredere Sullivan, a North Carolina native, served as a nurse with the U.S. Army during World War I. During her time in the Army Nurse Corps, she was stationed at Camp Merritt in New Jersey and served overseas in Rome, Italy, and various military hospitals in France.
Approximately 1,000 civilian women also worked with the U.S. Army as translators and telephone operators. While the Army persisted in hiring women as civilians, the Naval Reserve and the Coast Guard enlisted women as clerical personnel and radio operators. Almost 12,000 Navy “yeomanettes” served, primarily performing clerical work. In 1918, the Secretary of Navy allowed women to enroll for clerical duty in the Marine Corps, and approximately 300 “marinettes” enlisted. It is estimated that over the course of the war, 34,000 women served as nurses, yeomanettes, or marinettes, with more than 10,000 Army Nurses and Red Cross workers stationed overseas.
Some Important Dates to Remember for 1918
—On June 5, 1918, while flying for the French, Arthur Bluethenthal of Wilmington was killed in combat when his plane was shot out of the air. Bluethenthal was one of 68 Americans who died in the air while fighting for France.
—On June 14, 1918, following a 90-day search operation, the U.S. Navy declared the crew and passengers of the U.S.S Cyclops dead. The ship disappeared near the Bermuda Triangle with no trace. Of the 293 sailors on board, six were North Carolinians.
—On July 2, 1918, fighter pilot James Baugham of Washington engaged, without support, three enemy aircraft over France. Baugham was flaying for a French fighter squadron and put up a fierce fight but was forced to withdraw after suffering a mortal wound and damage to his aircraft. He died in a French hospital at age 19.
—On July 18, 1918, the Battle of Chateau-Thierry was fought. It was one of the first actions of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (AEF) under General John J. Pershing. The American experience was not merely one of victory - but also of what victory cost. Americans and Allies saw nearly 2,000 casualties while the German military suffered over 5,000 in the same battle. The Americans proved beyond doubt that they had the grit to see things through.
—In the summer of 1918, German UBoat submarines were found off the North Carolina coast with most activity centered on shipping lanes close to Hatteras Island. Several ships were sank, including the Diamond Shoals Light Ship, and a British oil tanker called the Mirlo.
—In August 1918, Fort Bragg, a 300-square-mile military facility that is home to the 82nd Airborne Division and United States Army Special Operations, was authorized as Camp Bragg, a World War I training center for artillerymen.
—Throughout the fall of 1918, Americans take the lead in what has become known as the 100 Days Offensive. Throughout September and October, American troops fought to break through well-fortified German defenses. North Carolina troops in the 30th and 81st Divisions led some of the assaults and lost many men in the process. September 29, 1918 saw more North Carolina men die in action than any other day of the war.
—On November 11, 1918, as a result of the 100 Days Offensive, German troops were defeated on many fronts and a ceasefire and armistice meant that on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11:00 a.m., the guns went silent and the war was essentially over. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919.
World War I Centennial Activities
The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources has been working since 2014 to share the stories of World War I through programs, development of online tools, and exhibits. Visit them on the web atncdcr.gov/worldwarI for more information, and to sign up for their informational blog.
The North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh has a free interactive multimedia experience that commemorates the centennial of World War I with a focus on North Carolina’s role on the western front in France and Belgium. Visitors walk through a re-created trench environment to discover what life was like for Tar Heel soldiers who entered the war in 1917. This free exhibit is available throughout 2018.
Upcoming commemorative events include exhibits and symposium on the Coastal War at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, Hatteras Island. On September 29, there will be solemn observances in Raleigh for the greatest loss of North Carolina soldiers on a single day. On November 11, there will be ceremonies at the State Capitol in Raleigh to mark the end of World War I.