An exhibit on World War I is now on display through June 2015 at the Camden Archives and Museum.
The exhibit, titled “…The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month…,” includes documents, photographs and objects owned by soldiers from the Camden area who served in the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.
Not on display but available to the public are photographs of World War I soldiers from the area who died during the Great War. These photographs are part of the James Leroy Belk Post No. 17 of the American Legion Collection.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary coupled with a complicated series of treaties between the “Great Powers” of Europe, thrust the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires into conflict with Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and numerous other countries and their colonial possessions. After early German victories, fighting eventually solidified into “trench” warfare. Opposing armies faced each other across a no-man’s land from almost 2,000 miles of protected trenches. When ordered to attack, the advancing troops charged across a killing field that left them exposed to deadly artillery fire. By 1917, with millions dead from gunfire, disease, poison gas and combat-related accidents, the war was stalemated.
From 1914 until 1917, the United States remained neutral. Nevertheless, private companies in the U.S. supplied Great Britain and the other allies with tons of war munitions. Germany attempted to stop this trade through acts of sabotage in the U.S. and submarine attacks on neutral American ships. In 1917, Germany proposed an alliance with Mexico against the United States. These provocations eventually turned public opinion against Germany and toward intervention in Europe. On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I.
Although the first troops in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) arrived in France in June 1917, Americans did not join the front lines until October and they were not fully engaged in offensive actions until the spring of 1918. In 1918, the Army and Marines participated in several major battles, including the Battle of Belleau Wood, the Battle of Hamel, the Second Battle of the Marne and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. From their arrival in France until the end of 1918, the AEF suffered 320,000 casualties with more than 116,000 dead and 204,000 wounded.
When the United States entered the war, many of Camden’s citizen soldiers initially joined Company M, 1st Infantry, of the South Carolina National Guard. In October of 1917, this unit became Company M, 118th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division. After training near Greenville at Camp Sevier, the unit traveled across the Atlantic to serve in Europe. The 30th Infantry Division fought in the trenches at Ypres-Lys, and at the Somme offensive. They were among the soldiers that breached the Hindenburg Line and they fought in the Argonne forest. During the Battles of La Selle, St. Mihiel and in the Meuse-Argonne, 12 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers in the 30th Infantry Division. Cpl. John C. Villepigue and Sgt. Richmond H. Hilton, both of Camden, received two of those Medals of Honor.
In 1918, after three years of a devastating stalemate, the Allies broke the German will to continue the fight. By November, Germany and her allies accepted they could not win and, although the formal surrender did not take place until June, 1919, an armistice began at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.
For decades, every year and all over the world, people stopped to remember the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month -- Armistice Day. In the United States, in 1954, Congress passed legislation to make Armistice Day a day to honor all veterans of America’s Wars -- Veterans Day.
The exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information call (803) 425-6050.
(This information provided by the city of Camden.)