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.
The winter of 1917-18 turned out to be exceptionally cold. Soldiers risked frostbite during training exercises and marches, especially since their clothing and footwear were pitifully inadequate. American troops were considered far too inexperienced and untested for immediate deployment into battle, so most of the winter was taken up with training — and frequently shuttling to and fro in response to orders from above.
The 166th entered the front line in late February, and would stay there for almost four months. After four years of constant war, the front was a scene of unimaginable devastation. Cheseldine characterized front line duty as “damned dull, damned damp and damned dangerous.
“The trenches were old and out of repair,” he wrote. “The water and mud was knee deep in places… the dugouts were poor and inadequate in number and swarmed with rats and vermin.”
A note on cleanliness: On February 24, in his laconic war diary, William reported taking a shower. Imagine a shower being a noteworthy event. Two weeks later, William arranged for the men in his command to get baths. William didn’t write extensively in his diary, but every single bath was faithfully recorded. They didn’t come very often.
The spring brought an all-out offensive by the Germans, who wanted to make the kill before the American troops found their footing.
On April 21, William received a telegram informing him of the birth of his son, also named William.
By mid-June, the German offensive had been repulsed. On June 18th, the Rainbow was relieved of front line duty. “Men dead from lack of sleep,” WIlliam noted.
The Germans launched a fresh offensive between Chateau-Thierry and Reims. The Allies beat them back and undertook a counter-offensive that was so successful, it caused despair in the German command.
William was respected for his leadership. So much so, that at one point he was offered the chance to join the regular Army, return Stateside and serve as a trainer for the next wave of American troops. He refused, saying he didn’t want to leave his men behind.
The Allies pressed northward; the Germans fought for every inch. There would be all-out fighting in a village or over a creek, ending in a German retreat to prepared lines in the rear, with Allied forced giving chase under heavy artillery fire. The Rainbow Division joined the effort on July 25. The following two weeks were full of constant battle and pursuit, with fierce fighting over the most insignificant village, farm, or forest.
On August 2, William led his troops through a gently sloping farm field. When they crested a low ridge, the Germans spotted them from a village down the hill and immediately unleashed an artillery barrage. William was killed, and his body buried temporarily in a nearby forest. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery and leadership. News of his death occupied the entire front page of Goodyear’s in-house newspaper. William was later reburied in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Fere-en-Tardenois, France. He is one of 6,012 Americans killed in World War I who are buried there.
Florence received official notification of William’s death on September 15. On Armistice Day 1919, the Ross County War Memorial was dedicated in Chillicothe, Ohio. According to the Chillicothe Gazette, “the infant son of [William] … unveiled the statue.”
William was a remarkable young man who was destined for high achievement in corporate America or in the military, whichever he chose. He and Florence loved each other very much, and doubtless would have had a long and happy life together. Florence lived into her mid-90s and never remarried. Their son became a highly respected professional in his field.
William was one of multitudes who did not survive the war. I’m sure that every casualty has an equally worthy story behind it, but I’m awed by the magnitude of William’s heroism and his sacrifice. He is the one I think of on Armistice Day.