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Another look at WWI

Posted: December 4, 2017 3:48 p.m.
Updated: December 5, 2017 1:00 a.m.

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson was elected President of the United States.  Since Wilson spent much of his youth in Columbia and had relatives living there, he had many South Carolina connections. Today, his Columbia boyhood home is a museum.  

When he became president, the United States followed a foreign policy of neutrality and isolationism. He did not foresee war would begin in Europe two years later, in 1914.

Wilson was re-elected in 1916 with neutrality still in place, but the war in Europe began to force the nation into helping its friends and making preparations for possible entry into the war. German submarines sank several ships, such as the Lusitania, which  had  American citizens among its passengers, in 1915. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.  

This means the 100th anniversary of that war began this past April 6 and will end on November 11, 2018.   It’s appropriate to take a “centennial” look back at this war and see what we may or may not have learned from it.

In 1916 and  early 1917, a National Guard unit from Camden had been with General Pershing on the Mexican border in Texas pursuing Poncho Villa, but had returned home before war was declared. Ten days after the declaration of War, this unit was inducted into the U. S. Armed Forces and left to train for the war. 

The draft was instituted and men began registering across the county at railroad depots, churches, school houses, grist mills, textile mills, stores and even a barbershop at Cassatt. By June, more than 2,000 county citizens had registered.

Local African Americans answered the call of their country and their units served honorably during WWI.  At the time, segregation of troops was the national policy.  This would not change until after WWII, when President Harry S Truman ordered the armed forces integrated.

Training facilities had to be constructed. On May 19, 1917, Colonel Douglas MacArthur declared Columbia as one of 16 sites for locating training bases in the country and thus began Camp Jackson. People from Kershaw County did not flock to Columbia in as great of numbers as they did in 1940-41 to build what had become Fort Jackson.  There was a ferry across the Wateree River and roads and vehicles in 1917 were much more primitive than those more than 40 years later.

Other training facilities built were Camp Sevier at Greenville and Camp Wadsworth at Spartanburg.  Troops were trained at existing facilities at Parris Island and the Charleston Naval Base.

On the home front, local citizens engaged in a series of efforts to support the war. Old men and youths stepped forward to partially replace the local National Guard units away at war by joining a Home Guard.  Boy Scouts also participated in this effort.

Efforts were mounted to increase food production.  Banks made loans more available to farmers. The County Extension agents and Home Demonstration agents used their positions to encourage increased food production.

The local textile mills in Camden and Kershaw produced items such as bandages and hospital supplies to support the troops. They also provided jobs for local citizens who replaced workers now in the armed forces.

The local Red Cross chapters began fund raising to assist European victims of the war before the U. S. entered the war. After this event, they redoubled their efforts and many citizens from churches and other groups participated.

The county participated in the Liberty Bond drives.  In one drive, the county met and exceeded a goal of $280,000.

When the United States entered the war, it had been raging for more than three years.  “The German Army, weakened by four years of war, was more vulnerable than it appeared, and the American troops would soon provide critical assistance in bringing the long bloody conflict to its conclusion.”

“In an attack that lasted from September 18 to October 5, 1918, British, Australian and American forces broke through and cleared the entire Hindenburg Line. With its defenses fatally breached, Germany acknowledged defeat and the war ended with the signing of the armistice a month later.” November 11 became the Armistice Day holiday, later changed to Veterans Day.

Sergeant Richard Hilton of Kershaw County was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in WWI.  His sister, Carrie Hyatt, lived in the Cassatt community and was our neighbor during the Depression and WWII.

Forty-nine county citizens lost their lives during the war. Many of their graves are scattered across the county, but more than half of them remain in Belgian and French cemeteries.

One aspect of the war was the flu epidemic, which raged across the nation in the fall of 1918. By October, most towns and cities had instituted curfews. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 10,000 South Carolinians died and about 200,000 had the flu. My Mother had a light case of it.

In 1968, I interviewed William M. Leaman, a WWI veteran who had the flu in Europe.  He related, “I could look out my hospital window and see them digging graves. I didn’t know if one of them would be mine or not.”

History has lessons to teach us, but sometimes we are slow learners. President Woodrow Wilson hoped WWI would be “the war to end all wars” when he developed his “14 points,” the principles of which he sought to incorporate into the peace treaty and the League of Nations being formed then. Wilson sought to remove most of the causes of WWI. Unfortunately, political control of Congress changed hands and the United States refused to join the “League.”

I turned to my United States history college textbook, The American Nation,  by John D. Hicks for his summation of this matter.

“Had the American nation been willing to accept the responsibility of world leadership, it is possible that the return to international anarchy which marked the next two decades might have been forestalled ... but when the richest and most powerful of all nations turned its back on world co-operation to seek instead the anachronism of isolation, all hope of peace was doomed.”

As Woodrow Wilson predicted, we fought WWII. Today, when our leaders turn inward behind closed borders and walls to isolationism, I fear we will again repeat the mistakes of 100 years ago. With the existence of nuclear bombs, such prospects indeed are very scary.

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