100 Years Ago: Rappahannock County in World War 1

The lighter side of Army training in Virginia

Part four of a series

In World War 1, Rappahannock County men, no matter their military unit, were provided with many non-military activities and “comfort” goods when not training. These were part of a remarkably well-conceived program designed to eliminate the vices that had always attended military life: drinking, visits to brothels, and general debauchery.

A rare copy of “The Bayonet,” the official publication of the 80th Infantry Division at Camp Lee, dated March 1, 1918, showing the upper part of the first page. The Library of Virginia

It was all part of the early 1900s progressive programs in America of eliminating vice in cities. Thus, when Secretary of War Newton D. Baker came to his new position after being a reformist mayor of Cleveland and cleaning up that city, he sought to clean up the military as well.

It started on April 17, 1917, just after the United States had declared war on Germany. A Commission of Training Camp Activities (CTCA) was formed for the purpose of promoting the moral and physical growth of servicemen.

An admirable gentleman, Raymond B. Fosdick, was its chairman. But even as the CTCA was getting underway, Secretary Baker on July 28, 1917, announced that by Presidential Order a five-mile “dry-zone” was to be established around all military camps: no sale of liquor, no saloons, no brothels, or other influences tending to corrupt troop morale within that zone.

Rappahannock County draftees in the 318th Infantry Regiment of the 80th Infantry Division at Camp Lee, outside of Petersburg, thus were immediately set on the straight and narrow.

The outgrowth of the CTCA was what became known as the “Seven Sisters,” consisting of the following groups: The American Library Association (ALA), the Young Man’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Salvation Army, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Knights of Columbus, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), and the newly organized War Camp Community. There were many other groups as well. A few at Camp Lee are described below. All were intended to keep the military men happy, and out of trouble.

“The Bayonet,” The Camp Lee Newspaper: “The Bayonet” became the official publication of the 80th Infantry Division with its first issue on October 5, 1917. All 15,000 copies were sold out that morning at five cents a copy. The editorial page said the name “The Bayonet” was selected “because it has a point to it and a punch behind it.”

Cover of sheet music for the song especially written for Camp Lee. The Library of Congress

The all-soldier staff thanked “The Richmond Times-Dispatch” for placing its printing plant at their disposal at no cost. Eight pages long, and published under the auspices of the YMCA, it contained four pages of general news from the YMCA’s central office in New York City. The other four pages held local camp news written by the troops themselves. There was even a “gossip” column for the 318th Infantry Regiment. The newspaper greatly increased the esprit de corps of the 80th Division, bringing men of varied backgrounds together, letting them read about themselves and their grand mission.

Entertainment: After an early September 1917 visit from YMCA Headquarters, plans were set for first-class musical and theatrical shows, religious services, lectures, and speakers to appear at the YMCA buildings at Camp Lee.

And in a turnabout, 200 talented soldiers of the 318th Infantry Regiment band and Glee Club presented, on stage, a Thanksgiving Day evening concert entitled “Camp Life” before 4,000 people in the City Auditorium of Richmond, on October 29, 1917.

It was not until February 1918 that the “Liberty Theater” opened at Camp Lee. Brand new, it seated 4,000 people, had a large stage and many dressing rooms. The opening show, “Princess Pat,” a musical comedy, ran from Sunday, February 24, 1918, to Wednesday, the 27th, with a matinee on the 27th.

Libraries: A good example of the American Library Association’s work was the library at Camp Lee. A standard library held 10,000 books and provided space for 200 readers. American Library Association (ALA) librarians, both male and female, wore forest green uniforms and a hat, plus ALA pins and patches. The ALA also had libraries in camp hospitals. Troops were interested in books about France, plus technical subjects.

Sports: Football, baseball, boxing, long distance running, and other sports were all promoted at Camp Lee. Star college athletes who had been drafted continued to play in the service. A good example was the highly publicized football game between the 319th Infantry Regiment team from Camp Lee versus a Marine Corps football team from the Philadelphia Navy Yard on Saturday afternoon of November 24, 1917, in Washington, D.C. Among the 5,000 spectators were the Secretary of the Navy and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Some 500 troops from the 319th paid their own way from Camp Lee via a special train. It was a very well-played game, but Camp Lee lost, 29-0.

Relative to baseball, a gift was made to training camps by the “Clark C. Griffith Ball and Bat Fund” of baseball outfits, each outfit costing $30 (about $580 now). Camp Lee received 30 outfits. An outfit consisted of: one catcher’s mask, one catcher’s mitt, one chest protector, one first baseman’s mitt, three bats, three bases, three base pins, 12 balls, one book of rules, and 12 score cards.

Boxing was very popular at Camp Lee as General Pershing was a strong advocate of the sport. He felt boxing built character in men and that boxing taught a man how to fight and defend himself. In April 1918, Camp Lee held Championship Boxing matches for the 80th Infantry Division before 2,600 fight fans at the Liberty Theater.

Singing: A favorite pastime of the troops was singing. They sang while marching, sang in choirs, in their own vaudeville shows, overseas, any chance they had. It was a great morale booster. Each training camp has a song coach. Even the director of CTCA, Raymond B. Fosdick, was impressed. He wrote of hearing at one southern training camp 20,000 men singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” accompanied by six military bands. A general next to him was in tears.

At Camp Lee, an instructor in vocal development was assigned to the 80th Infantry Division to teach the entire command all the war songs and favorite tunes to raise their spirits and keep their morale high. The 318th Infantry Regiment soon became known as “The Singing Regiment.” Ultimately, someone wrote a song entitled, “The Song of Camp Lee,” in which the chorus, in part, says, “And you will see the Turkey trot when Camp Lee gets a shot.”

Overseas, masses of U.S. marching troops singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” had a stunning effect upon the Allies. Popular WW1 songs became legendary, such as George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” “Till We Meet Again,” and “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”

Post Exchanges: In the Army and Navy Register of August 18, 1917, there was a short article about Post Exchanges at training camps. “A list of articles composing the initial stock for each exchange has been prepared, and contracts for the material have been awarded to include tobacco, candy, ice cream, stationary, toilet articles, underwear, and notions.”

Exchanges were to be operated on a cash basis only. Post Exchanges were also used for religious services, as well as for showing movies, vaudeville shows, boxing matches, and other forms of entertainment.

The Soldiers’ Godmothers’ League: This was a unique group. A socialite, Mrs. William Leonard Davis, of New York City, came back from France in August 1917, and told of seeing soldiers with trench foot.

Trench foot was caused by standing in the cold, muddy water of the trenches while wearing ill-fitting boots for long periods of time. Trench foot led to the swelling of feet, and progressed to gangrene if untreated. With no way to remove boots, clean the feet, and put on dry socks, trench foot ended with amputation in severe cases.

The Godmothers were woman who knitted woolen socks and sent them in “comfort” packages to U.S. troops in the trenches in France. Mrs. Davis suggested each woman tuck a little note with their name and address in the toe of some of the socks so men would be getting a little message from home.

The idea spread rapidly and women were knitting “comfort” packages of mufflers, socks, caps, etc., at the rate of one a month, with the Red Cross taking care of shipment and distribution. Their slogan was “Save the Sammies Feet. ” Sammies (derived from Uncle Sam) was the then-popular term for U.S. troops in WW1 along with the term “Doughboys.”

In the fall of 1917, the Godmothers’ items expanded to include “knitted sweaters, mufflers, helmets, socks, wristlets, flannel shirts (khaki color), suspenders, leather shoe laces, a box of buttons, colored pocket handkerchiefs, safety pins, wrist watches, writing pads and envelopes.” They often snuck in a bottle of liquor as well. And, keeping up a regular correspondence with a soldier was emphasized.

At the end of December 1917, though, General Pershing requested the Godmothers’ League to discontinue “adopting” soldiers in France. Some 20,000 women were clogging the mails with their packages and letters. General Pershing also did not approve of his men corresponding with unknown women, some of whom might actually be German spies trying to obtain intelligence about troop morale, their location, planned operations, etc. In addition, soldiers were likely having romantic and sexual fantasies about the women they were corresponding with, or they unknowingly were writing to widows looking for a new husband. The overseas aspect of the Godmothers was thus immediately stopped.

The organization continued good works at home, though. For example, in December 1917, the Godmothers’ League of Richmond provided 37 Christmas trees for the hospital wards at Camp Lee and even filled a request from a surgeon at the Camp Lee hospital for an ax. Several convalescents were accustomed to chopping wood on frosty mornings, so the women sent an ax to the surgeon to keep those men happy.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 28 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.