100 Years Ago: Rappahannock County in World War 1

The ‘Blue Ridge Division’ was ranked first of all National Army Divisions in WW1

Part three of a series

One unique event involving the men assigned to the 318th Infantry Regiment, who were mostly farm boys, was their officers’ dilemma with their assigned regimental drill field at Camp Lee, Virginia: it was covered with fully-grown corn.

The dilemma was solved when someone suggested the farm boys, some from Rappahannock County, clear the field of corn.

They did this in 24 hours, taking that long because of the innumerable rabbits found that had to be eliminated. Subsequent marching on the cleared field made it into a normal drill field in a few days.

Postcards courtesy of the Library of Virginia

Training in marching, etc., went on from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with Saturdays and Sundays off. In the evenings, as equipment became available, it was issued and its use explained. Personal hygiene, first-aid treatment, the articles of war, military discipline and courtesy were covered. Men increased in weight and health with the three big meals a day in the mess halls.

At the end of October 1917, the first of 20 French officers and men arrived to teach the troops the methods of warfare then in use by the British and the French against the Germans. These officers and men had been wounded in battle, had been honored, and were battle hardened. In a section of Camp Lee trainees had dug trenches and men were taking turns living in them. The French officers were providing instruction in the use of gas masks, grenade throwing, and “going over the top” to make bayonet assaults on enemy trenches across “no man’s land.” A key lesson: a grenade was to be “lobbed” and not thrown like a baseball, otherwise the enemy had time to throw it back.

In November 1917, about 1,000 men from the 318th were transferred to other divisions bound for Europe and from then to the end of April 1918, companies had about 175 men instead of 256. The move was not good for morale. But training continued.

Rifle ranges were ready by mid-November with 240 targets for rifle practice from 250 to 1,000 yards, and there were targets for revolver practice as well. In addition, bayonet training was such that on Nov. 23, 1917 a realistic bayonet charge was carried out by 318th for visiting British and French attaches, with their spokesman saying, “Nothing will stop men like these when they get on the battlefield.”

A newspaper account described the men lunging forward with shining blades of steel, fight showing on their faces, with each jab accompanied by terrifying guttural sounds. Dummies representing Germans had been placed in trenches so the trainees could drive their bayonets into vital areas marked by loops of string.

In December, gas masks were now on hand and a “gas house” was ready for use under British supervision, initially using a gas (lachrymatory) causing just tears. Other, more formidable gases were used later. The masks had to be donned in six seconds inside the “gas house,” the gas attack lasting a few minutes. Donning gas masks while in trenches was emphasized.

Also in December, instruction was provided in barracks at night using troop movements and war maneuvers sketched on paper, plus the use of a miniature French section with trenches made of clay, plus barbed wire, shell holes, etc., these being replicas of real French trench sectors. Trainees could now see the big picture of how their daytime training paid off with larger military units.

December also brought more transfers to other commands and more unit discouragement, with this compounded by “no leave” for Christmas, but then the War Department allowed five-day leaves for all in the camp, a few percent at a time. The first snow appeared on Dec. 14, 1917 and during the week of Christmas, men from the 318th spent four days on constructing a two-mile stretch of front-line trenches, second-line trenches, communication trenches, along with constructing sleeping chambers with bunks 35-feet underground.

At the end of December 1917 and beginning of January 1918, a cold wave and blizzard hit the Eastern part of the United States, with temperatures at Camp Lee dropping below zero and snow piling up. Tonsillitis and sore throats were up at the camp due to wet shoes and feet, so men were ordered to waterproof their shoes.

Training went on a week later with British officers providing instruction on the firing of Colt machine guns. Men had to carry these machine guns over a mile away for a drill that involved crawling 330 feet over a mud-covered field, then assembling their guns, and firing at targets. The next week it was similar training with the French Chauchat machine gun, and later, the Stokes trench mortar. The history of the 318th Infantry Regiment noted that, “from about the middle of December until the end of January there was at least a foot of ice and snow on the ground almost continuously.”

February saw men in trenches, knee-deep in mud, repulse a two-hour night gas attack. Also in February, a private at the base hospital who deserted and headed for Mexico in December was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor without pay at a federal prison. As of Feb. 1, 1918, Camp Lee had about 116 men AWOL (Absent Without Leave).

Toward the end of February, 100 homing pigeons arrived to be trained to carry messages, and then used in a mimic battle in March, when Browning rifles also arrived for first use in the Army.

Toward the end of March, 10,000 more draftees started to arrive at Camp Lee and the 318th received enough men to bring it up to war strength: 114 officers and 3,720 enlisted men, which included medical and ordnance detachments. And on March 30, the 318th Infantry Regiment joined all other units but one, in the 80th Division to march in review before their commanding general, Major-General Adelbert Cronkhite. More that 20,000 men were involved. The 80th division was known as the “Blue Ridge Division.” It was ranked first of all National Army Divisions in WW1. Its shoulder patch made use of three mountain peaks representing Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. It still exists, but is now known as the 80th Training command.

At the end of April, some 1,000 men from the 318th participated in a realistic attack on Germans by moving into the trenches that they had previously helped construct. Mud-covered, they were to defend their position for 12 hours. By evening, they were relieved by another 1,000 men of the 318th who spent the night and the following day in the trenches.

Out in “no man’s land” men were setting up 14 Stokes trench mortars to devastate “the enemy,” plus seven machine guns were sited for the same purpose. Artillery located well behind the trenches was in telephone and visual communication with trench liaison personnel. Unfortunately, an expansion of a battalion commander’s dugout experienced a roof collapse with tons of dirt causing some injuries, but medical aid responded almost immediately.

At the start of May 1918, the War Department issued bulletins about preventing all military information from leaking out, and not disclosing such in letters or postcards mailed home. Nor was any discussion to be made of movements abroad, ship names, embarkation points, routes, etc., in public places.

On May 20, 1918 Camp Lee men knew something was up, and news rapidly spread that they were moving out. No newspapers mentioned the movement, except apparently one small newspaper in Pennsylvania.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 24 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.