The strapping young man pictured above is my grandfather-in-law. He died fighting on the Western Front in World War I. Several years ago, I did a research project about him, and what I learned was astounding. What follows is an abbreviated account, but it’ll take a while.
William was an Ohioan, born in Paulding, grew up in Chillicothe, graduated from Wooster College, taught for a couple of years and then became a junior executive in the educational division of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. He was considered a rising star in its ranks.
While still in his teens, he joined the Ohio National Guard, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He served in the brief US-Mexican border war in late 1916-early 1917. In April 1917, the US entered World War I on the side of the Allies, but its armed forces were small in number and inexperienced. The government sought to quickly build some semblance of an army by conscripting state National Guard units. William, then 27, answered the call in July; the Ohio Guard became the 166th Infantry within the 42nd Division, dubbed the Rainbow Division because it consisted of Guardsmen from several states. In August William began training, and in October he shipped out to France, never to return.
In May of that year, he had married Florence, an elementary school teacher. Sometime that summer, she became pregnant with the son who would become my father-in-law. William never met his son.
The voyage to Europe, in a hastily refitted banana boat, took 11 days. It was dangerous and unpleasant. The men were kept below decks except for brief exercise breaks every day. “The men were packed as tight as sardines,” wrote R.L. Cheseldine, the official historian of the 166th in World War I. “Cleanliness was striven for, but not attained to any great degree after the first day.” There was constant fear of attack by German U-boats.
A few days after landing in northern France, the 166th embarked on a three-day rail trip to eastern France. They traveled in the notorious 40-and-8s, unheated wooden boxcars that were old, rickety and uncomfortable. They were the object of many a complaint at the time; but after all the hardships of trench warfare on the Western Front, the soldiers looked back in fondness on their time in the 40-and-8s.Continue reading