100 years ago: Rappahannock County men in World War I

116th Infantry Regiment Training and Crossing the Atlantic to France              

National Guard troops of the 29th Infantry Division at Camp McClellan near Anniston, Alabama, continue routine drill work despite a mid-January 1918 snowstorm and temperatures falling to 3 degrees above zero. National Archives

The five men from Rappahannock County listed below were not drafted, but chose to join the Virginia National Guard after the United States, on April 6, 1917, declared war against Germany in World War One. They trained at Camp McClellan, Alabama, becoming members of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. All five shipped out from Hoboken, N.J., on the USS Finland in June 1918 to St. Nazaire, France. Their names:

Maury W. Brown
Clarence Oneal Oden
Botts Strother
Lee George Taylor
George Roxey Clator

This article recounts their training at Camp McClellan near Anniston, Alabama, some of the diversions available to troops while there, and then their crossing of the Atlantic to France to fight the Germans.  One thing of great interest is that in 1919, after the war, a Virginia War History Commission was formed and an attempt was made to get WW1 veterans to fill out a questionnaire on their experiences and feelings about the war. Many, especially those drafted, refused to submit the questionnaires, fearing a future call to service. All of the above National Guard veterans, though, completed their questionnaires. That of Maury W. Brown is used later as an example of one soldier’s reticent view of the war.

Camp McClellan

Located outside of Anniston, Alabama, on a mountainous plateau, the camp usually had year-round good weather, fresh air, and thus was ideal for army training. Many other National Guard camps were also in the south, all near ports of embarkation, as it was expected such troops might be the first to deploy to France. This was the reason National Guard units were housed in tents, part of their equipment, as it would have cost $74,000,000 to build barracks. Camp McClellan was to host National Guard units from New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and D.C.

On August 15, 1917, it was the designated home of the 29th Infantry Division, the “Blue and Gray,” a name symbolically uniting the Civil War’s north and the south. The first National Guard men to arrive on August 18, 1917, were from Virginia. The last Virginia units, including the famed Richmond Blues, “Virginia’s crack military organization,” were in camp by the second week of September 1917. Virginia’s patriotism ran high. The citizens of Anniston felt the Richmond Blues to be the “best-behaved and most gentlemanly” troops of all. But with the creation of the National Army, National Guard units lost their traditional designations and were merged into one entity: The United States Army.


Boxing exercise at Camp McClellan, outside of Anniston, Alabama. National Archives

With some 14,000 men at Camp McClellan, training began in earnest in mid-September 1917. The 116th Infantry Regiment was formed on October 4, 1917, but about 1,200 drafted men at Camp Lee, Va., were expected to be sent to Camp McClellan to round out the strength of the 29th Infantry Division. An item in the October 20, 1917 issue of the Army and Navy Register tells of the comprehensive training being received at Camp McClellan. “Every officer and enlisted man will be instructed in how to protect himself from poisonous gases, how to use the gas masks, the appearance of gas clouds, and the construction of gas shells.” In addition, “training provides a great deal of bayonet combat training, bombing, hand and rifle grenade work, intrenching, and trench warfare. Night work should include scouting, patrolling, marches, occupation of trenches, trench raids, and trench combats.” The training list goes on and on.  

Even when a fierce winter storm in mid-January 1918 hit the South, with temperatures at Camp McClellan falling to 3 degrees above zero, routine drill work continued, despite a rumor (false) that three men had frozen to death. In the spring, troops went on five days of extended battle maneuvers near Piedmont, Al; and afterwards the 116th Infantry Regiment marched back to camp at night, covering 26 miles in about eight and half hours. Such hard training, hikes, and maneuvers resulted in the physically unfit and undesirables being weeded out. In the spring, experienced French and British instructors taught their methods of warfare. In April and May, new men from other commands were added to bring the 116th up to full strength so that its esprit de corps was high when the call came for overseas duty in France.

On the Lighter Side

All was not grim training for war. Troops at Camp McClellan had a treat when Ruth Law, a well-known female pilot, carried out some stunt flying there on October 27, 1917. She had enlisted in the Army on June 30, 1917, and the Army used her for recruiting and instruction purposes. Some time before her Camp McClellan appearance she had performed an unequaled 21 loop-to-loops in a row.

“Spike” Webb became the boxing instructor at Camp McClellan, where whole battalions were taught self-defense through boxing. “Spike” held the world record for long distance running when, as athletic director at Baltimore, on October 1, 1911, he ran 45 miles in 6 hours, 12 minutes, and ten seconds. His motto was “Hit the line hard and don’t foul.” He was a left-hander and his short arm punch landed like a spike, hence his nickname. His plan at Camp McClellan was to make the men of the Blue and Gray the greatest fighting machine in the country. He wanted to give every man in the 29th Division instructions in boxing and the most important punches, so that each man could take care of himself.

Crossing the Atlantic to France

After their intensive training, the 116th Infantry Regiment left Camp McClellan by train on Tuesday, June 11, 1918, and traveled by way of Cleveland, Tenn., Bristol and Lynchburg, Va., Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, Pa., to Jersey City, N.J., arriving on Friday, June 14th, 1918. They then traveled the Hudson River on ferry boats to Hoboken, N.J., and boarded the USS Finland. The USS Finland left New York harbor at midday on Saturday, June 15th.

The USS Finland became part of convoy of 13 ships, arriving at the port of St. Nazaire, France, on the afternoon of Thursday, June 27, 1918, after a 13-day voyage across the Atlantic. In the latter part of the trip the battleship North Carolina and 14 U.S. destroyers accompanied the convoy. At Nazaire, French sub chasers plus U.S. seaplanes and dirigibles offered protection from German submarines. The troops disembarked the next day, Friday, June 28th, and stayed at a nearby former British camp.

Preparing for Action

During the next few months of the summer of 1918, the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division continued training, but it also became engaged with the enemy. Units of the 116th were called upon to occupy trenches in the Alsace area in August 1918. There, in an early morning attack by German troops on August 26, 1918, Company F of the 116th repulsed the Germans after two hours of fighting.

Over the summer, the 116th moved slowly across France to finally take part in the greatest American battle of World War One, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It is interesting to note that the two infantry regiments involving men from Rappahannock County would participate in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  One, the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division, was made up of National Guard troops, and the other, the 318th Infantry Regiment of the 80th Infantry Division, consisted of men drafted into the army.

Maury W. Brown and his Military Service Record

One member of the 116th Infantry Regiment from Rappahannock County was Maury W. Brown.  In 1919, after WW1, he completed the War History Commission, State of Virginia, Military Service Record. The questions and his answers are provided below in paragraph form.

Maury W. Brown, was born October 15, 1897, at Hawlin, Va. His father was H. A. Brown and his mother’s maiden name was Allie.  He was white, not a citizen, not a voter, and he was a Baptist. He belonged to no Fraternal Order, no College Fraternities, and had no previous military experience. His preparatory education was at Sperryville, Va. His occupation before entry into the service was farming, with his employer being H. A. Brown. His residence before entry into the service was Hawlin and his present home address is Hawlin, Va.

He entered the service on April 16, 1917, at Warrenton, Va., as a Private in the infantry of the National Guard, with an identification number of 1287821.  He was originally assigned to Company C of the 2nd Virginia Regiment. He was trained at Camp McClennan from September 7, 1917 to June 10, 1918, and was then transferred to Company D of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. He embarked from Hoboken on the Finland on June 15, 1918 and arrived at St. Nazaire on June 27, 1918.  He then proceeded from St. Nazaire to Laurent to Auxelle Haute to Anjoutey.

He first went into action on August 4, 1918 at Alsace-Lorraine. He participated in Meuse Argonne. He received a machine gun wound in Meuse Argonne on October 15, 1918.

He was under medical care at Base Hospital #36 at Vittel from November 19, 1918 to December 7, 1918 and then at Base Hospital #23 at Vittel from December 7, 1918 to January 16, 1919. He arrived back in the United States at Newport News on the Matsonia on May 20, 1919 from France.  He was discharged at Camp Lee, Va., on May 27, 1919. He returned to civil life with an occupation of farming after the war.

Maury W. Brown then answered the “Additional Information” section of the form as follows: What was your attitude toward military service in general and toward your call in particular? None. What were the effects of camp experiences in the United States upon yourself-mental and physical?  None. What were the effects upon yourself of your overseas experience? None. What effect, if any, did your experience have on your religious belief? None. If you took part in the fighting, what impressions were made upon you by this experience? None. What has been the effect of all these experiences as contrasted with your state of mind before the war? None. Photographs: if possible enclose one taken before entering the service and one taken afterwards in uniform, both signed and dated. None. Additional data: None

Signed at Camp Lee, Va., on May 26th, 1919, by Maury W. Brown, Pvt., Infantry.

Next time: The beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

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.