Wednesday, November 11, 2015

World War One - My Grandfather's Story

Today marks the day in 1914 when Archduke Ferdinand, of Austria, and his wife Sophia, were assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian Nationalist, triggering the outbreak of the First World War. Coincidentally, it is also the anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles which formally ended the war five years later. The Armistice had been signed in November of 1918 but it took until June 28th, 1919 to iron out all the details.

Like millions of others all over the world, the assassination of the Archduke would have a lasting impact on the Williams family. Growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, my family never talked much about my Grandfather's experience in the War. As a matter of fact, I never even met the man. He passed away about 8 years before I made my entrance into the world. So, naturally, I have been fascinated by him my entire life.

Recently I began looking into his wartime service to see where he went when he joined the Army and the 27th Division in the spring of 1917. The story is still missing several pieces but this is a brief account of what I have discovered so far by using photos provided to me by my favorite Aunt Gloria.

He was in the 27th Division of the NY 107th US Infantry, under the command of Major General John F. O'Ryan. This was their insignia, composed of the letters NY in an arched fashion to closely resemble the constellation Orion, a play on the majors last name. It is also the brightest constellation and contains the brightest star in the sky, Orion. They became known as the "Orion Division."

The 27th trained at Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina through the winter of 1917-18. While there they published a weekly paper called "The Gas Attack" and later this name was changed to "The Gas Attack of the NY Division". The first issue was published in November of 1917 and the last was on May 4th, 1918 as they were about to transfer to Norfolk. Another issue was put out in France at Christmastime 1918, after the war was over. Another was issued right before the Division came home to a huge parade in NY in March 1919.

In Spartanburg there were two colleges and the one most favored for dances etc was the Converse College for Girls. There are quite a few photos on line of soldiers on leave in Spartanburg during that time. I keep looking for my Grandfather.

This is a photo of Major General John F. O'Ryan. He is shown standing on a snow bank at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg. My Grandfather must have recognized him and took the photo. They were at Spartanburg from Nov 1917 through May 4th 1918 when they shifted to Norfolk for deployment to England.

Interesting side note; Spartanburg was the only place in South Carolina that did not welcome the Northern Divisions. (See the NY Times Article dated August 31st, 1917.) It concerns the Mayor of Spartanburg and his venomous attack upon the presence of "Yankee" troops. Apparently, there was also an African-American Division there at the same time. Captain N.B. Marshall, an African American of the NY Bar Association was called a "dirty nigger" and thrown from a street car in one instance. When Frank De Broit, an African-American private, attempted to buy a newspaper in a hotel lobby, with the permission of his Lt., a man named Europe, he was knocked to the ground by the hotel clerk. About fifty members of the NY 27th Division jumped in, hell bent on murdering the hotel clerk when they heard the command, ""Attention!" called out by Lt. Europe, who then ordered the men to cease their action and file out peacefully two by two.(He was, apparently, an early version of Martin Luther King.)

Major O'Ryan wrote a book about the whole experience, from Spartanburg to France and then coming home again in 1919. It's called "The Story of the 27th Division" and can be found online and read for free. You can even download it as a PDF file. http://www.archive.org/details/storyof27thdivis02oryauoft

Once in England they trained jointly with the British troops and appear to have crossed the Channel at Dover to France and marched down South towards Paris. On the way he would have taken the photo of the "Ponts de la Soissons" which is the Bridge at Soissons. From there they would likely have gone on South to Paris to group up before starting the final offensive of the war, referred to as the Muese-Argonne campaign and included the Second Battle of Verdun. Verdun is on the west bank of the Muese River. This is where he allegedly stole the keys to the city and a mandolin, which my step-mother, Alice, still has in her kitchen. The campaign lasted from September 1, 1918 through November 11th when the Armistice was called.

On Sept 29, 1918 the 27th Division, under command of Maj. General O'Ryan, along with the 30th Division, and the British units (under command of General Haig) jointly "cracked" the St. Quentin Tunnel Complex which ran parallel to the Hindenburg Line for a distance of about 4 miles North to South, and was used for resupply of the German forces there.

Forming a "pincher" and advancing eastward, the combined forces broke through the Hindenburg Line, which the combined French and British forces had been unable to do for 3 years. The 27th crossed through Guillemont and Quennemont Farms just West of the line. There were 227 officers and men of the 27th killed that day and another 688 wounded.

This means that they likely did not go to Paris upon arrival "in country", but rather, that after they cross trained with the British they headed to St. Quentin, which is North of both Paris and Verdun.

After the action at St. Quentin they continued on with the British 4th Army under the command of Major Rawlinson through most of October on their way to the Selle River south of the fighting at LeCateau.From there they would have moved on to the Second Battle of Verdun. He was wounded by artillery sometime during all of this, as a result of which he had a metal plate in his head for the rest of his life. He was also gassed. I am still, at this writing, trying to find out where and when he was wounded. It would appear, by the mere existence of the photograhs, that he was wounded late in the war, most likely right before the Armistice in November. After Verdun the 27th "hunkered down" through March of 1919 when they were sent home.

This is a photo of the entire 27th Division taken in March of 1919, composed of all 10,000 officers and enlisted men just prior to leaving France. My Grandfather is most likely in this photo, but it's kind of like "Where's Waldo." And war is like that, millions of men, whose names often go unrecorded in the greater annals of history, do the the heavy fighting, and pay the heavy price, while the select few garner the recognition of their sacrifices.

When he returned from the "Great War", as it was referred to at the time, he went on to become a Police Officer in New York City. When he died, at the all too young age of 43 years old, leaving a wife and 5 children behind, he became a belated casualty of that war.

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