History from 1917 to 1919
The World War in Europe began in 1914. Despite President Woodrow Wilson's attempt to keep America neutral, a series of confrontations with Germany over the use of submarines and British intelligence reports that German diplomats had tried to persuade Mexico to attack the United States forced his hand. On 6 April 1917 a special session of Congress declared war on Germany. In December similar action would be taken against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the other Central Power. The War Department met the challenge by using its 1916 experience and mobilizing four million men, including the entire Guard.
Organizing mobile troops posed a larger challenge for the War Department because existing plans called for the Army to defend the United States from invasion, not deploy overseas. To meet the need for sustained action in the trenches in Europe a different type of combat division had to be designed. The "square" organization adopted in 1917 used two infantry brigades, each with two regiments and a machine gun battalion, to generate great power in a frontal attack, or rotate its elements while defending a fixed position. Fire support came from a field artillery brigade equipped with French-designed weapons. Two regiments drew 75-mm guns to work directly with the infantry brigades; the third (with heavier 155s) and a separate battery of heavy mortars gave general support. The remainder of the division included various trains, a signal battalion, a third machine gun battalion, and a regiment of combat engineers.
The Commonwealth's mobile units were called to the colors over a period of time to minimize the confusion inherent in mobilization. The 2d Infantry went on 25 March and the 4th followed on 2 April. Both mustered at home armories over the next two weeks. Meanwhile the Governor employed the 1st (Grays) Battalion of the 1st Infantry in state status to guard key installations from sabotage. A final call on 25 July brought that whole regiment into Federal service, along with the signal and medical companies and the 1st Brigade's headquarters. The Richmond Light Infantry Blues (1st Squadron, Cavalry) had not yet been returned to state control, although they were in Richmond, and posed no mobilization problem. The most significant issue for the Adjutant General in the summer of 1917 involved the expansion of the 1st Battalion of Field Artillery (units from Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth, plus an attached fourth battery from Hampton) into a complete regiment. This was accomplished on 5 August, the date when the federal government drafted the National Guard to allow it to be sent overseas.
Under orders issued by the Eastern Department on 26 July 1917, the Old Dominion's troops joined guardsmen from New Jersey, Maryland and the District of Columbia in the 29th Division which activated on 25 August under the command of Maj. Gen. Charles Morton at Camp McClellan (Anniston, Alabama). New Jersey provided the entire 57th Infantry Brigade along with the 112th Field Artillery; Maryland the 110th Field Artillery and 115th Infantry, part of the 58th Infantry Brigade.
Virginia's 116th Infantry served as the other regiment in the 58th. Much larger wartime tables of organization for the 116th forced the state to use all three of its prewar regiments, less a handful of companies, to fill that quota. Most of these excess companies and counterparts from Maryland formed the 110th and 112th Machine Gun Battalions. The Commonwealth's artillery regiment drew personnel from the 4th Infantry, 75-mm guns, and assumed a new number (111th). The Old Dominion's two medical units went into the division's sanitary trains, while the signal company converted to serve as the 54th Field Artillery Brigade's headquarters company. One remaining Virginia unit, the Richmond Light Infantry Blues (1st Squadron, Cavalry) took on the mission of providing the 104th Ammunition Train's horse-drawn battalion.
Training consumed the first year of the "Great War" for members of the 29th. This regimen was broken by visits from the outgoing and incoming governors during the winter, and by the aggressive efforts of General Morton to build esprit de corps. The 29th Division adopted the nickname "Blue and Gray" at Anniston. The name, probably furnished by Lt. Col. G. S. Goodale, division chief of staff, reflected the coming together of Civil War adversaries in a single organization. A division order dated 14 December 1917 directed that all vehicles carry an insignia based on the Korean symbol of Life. This design, created by Maj. James Ulio, became the first division one officially approved by the War Department and subsequently appeared as a shoulder patch.
The Blue and Gray finally started overseas in 1918. Its advance detachment reached Brest, France, on 8 June. The main body sailed from several east coast ports in separate convoys during June and July. The 116th Infantry, for example, left New York harbor on the Finland on 15 June and landed at St. Nazaire. Members of the artillery contingent, with supporting trains, sailed later and landed in England in July, then moved on to France. The 111th Field Artillery, brigade headquarters, and 104th Sanitary Train reached Liverpool on the Demosthenes, City of Exeter, and Aquitania; the 104th Ammunition Train went to London on the Medic.
The 29th, less its artillery, assembled near Prauthoy until ordered to a "quiet" sector for final training under combat conditions. On 25 July it relieved the 32d Division near Belfort in Alsace, just north of the Swiss border. Training came from the French XL Corps, with the 58th Brigade drawing the French 53d Division as its mentor. The 116th fell under the supervision of France's 205th Infantry. Companies I and K of the 116th earned honors as the first two companies to enter the trenches on 28 July. The 54th Field Artillery Brigade stayed behind near Meucon because it had more complex training, and did not rejoin the division until after fighting ended.
In late September the 29th received orders to join the First Army's Meuse-Argonne offensive as part of the French XVII Corps. Fire support would come from the 158th Field Artillery Brigade, detached from its parent 83d Division. The allies intended to penetrate four fortified belts and sever German supply lines. First Army attacked on 26 September and by 5 October had advanced thirteen kilometers. At this point the French XVII Corps received instructions to initiate covering operations along the east bank of the Meuse River on the offensive's right flank.
The Blue and Gray moved forward to final assembly positions on 4 October. When General Morton briefed his commanders in Verdun's ancient citadel on the evening of 6 October, he knew that his men would be going into action in some of the worst terrain on the western front, a rugged area covered with thick woods. The Germans had erected elaborate defenses there for two years and featured mutually supporting strong points and heavy concentrations of artillery and machine guns. On the other hand, intelligence noted that the main enemy units opposite the 29th, the 1st Austro-Hungarian Division and 32d (Saxon) German Division probably would perform poorly if pressured.
Morton's Field Orders 18, issued on 7 October, directed the 58th Infantry Brigade to enter combat the next day under operational control of the French 18th Division. It would advance along a strip two kilometers wide on the French left flank, making it the only American unit committed on the east side of the Meuse. The attack would not be made using the "over the top" tactics or an artillery barrage but would rely instead on flexibility and speed. The brigade would employ two regiments abreast, the 115th on the left and the 116th on the right. Each would attack in a column of battalions, assigning platoons from a machine gun company to support the battalion's four rifle companies. In addition, the combat elements of the regimental headquarters company, primarily three 37-mm assault guns and a platoon of Stokes mortars, would accompany the lead battalion of each column. The men would be widely spaced out; two companies would form the front of each assault battalion, followed by the other two. The remaining battalions trailed at 500-meter intervals. Morton directed that each assault battalion do everything possible to keep moving and let succeeding echelons deal with pockets of resistance.
The 58th moved into jump-off positions that evening, screened by French outposts. At S A.M. the men started forward. Companies I (on the right) and L (on the left) led off, followed by the rest of the 1l6th's 3d Battalion and Company D, 112th Machine Gun Battalion. They crossed the first of the German lines, the Bra-banter Stellung, at 6:20, the Hagen Stellung forty minutes later, and by 9:30 were into the main enemy line of resistance, the Volker Stellung. Observers noted that the 116th went forward "as if they are on maneuvers" because tactical surprise was nearly complete and Austrian resistance light.
Unfortunately, resistance stiffened on Malbrouck Hill stalling progress for nearly two hours. The 3d Battalion was forced to halt until enough riflemen could come forward from the 1st Battalion to make the enemy take cover again. Finally Capt. Ewart Johnson led Company L forward in a bayonet charge that secured the hill. Company I, which had just lost Capt. Robert Conrad, simultaneously cleared the Ormont Farm on the right flank. For their inspired leadership on this day Johnson would win the Division Citation (Silver Star) and Conrad a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross.
At one o'clock the 1st Battalion took over duty as the assault formation and started towards the final objective for the day, high ground in the Brabant Woods. Lead elements reached it almost three hours later, then dug in because the regiment had lost contact with the units on either flank. The 2d Battalion came forward and assumed responsibility for consolidating the new position. A great deal had been accomplished, although at a heavy cost. Morton's tactics worked and won praise from French observers. A major reason for the success lay in the leadership and courage of the men-all three of the 29th' 5 Medals of Honor, for example, were earned this day. Included in that elite group was Chase City's Earl Gregory, a sergeant in the trench mortar platoon of Headquarters Company, 116th Infantry. When the infantrymen he was supporting were pinned down, Gregory grabbed a mortar shell, used it as a hand grenade, and then stormed a dugout and supporting machine gun nest, single-handedly destroying both, knocking out a German field gun, and capturing twenty-two enemy soldiers.
On 9 October, the 116th repulsed a weak enemy counterattack and then advanced another kilometer into the Molleville Woods until it ran into the last of the fortified belts, the Eitzel Stellung. It held in place there on the 10th while the rest of the division came up on line. The next day the 1st and 2d Battalions made three separate tries to cross the open ground of the Molleville Farm but were stopped cold by intense fire, and several days passed while the division caught its breath.
After a brief artillery barrage the 3d Battalion resumed the offensive again under the cover of thick fog on 15 October. Although reduced to a third of the numbers who began the attack on the 8th, the battalion was able to push forward into the Grande Montagne Woods. During this drive Maj. Hierome Opie's command post took a direct hit. Although wounded, he refused to go to the rear until dark, winning a Distinguished Service Cross and French Croix de Guerre for his courage. Col. John Palmer now ordered the 58th Infantry Brigade to shift to skirmish line tactics to increase assault firepower. On the 16th, led by the 1st Battalion, the 116th reached its final objective (Hills 370 and 375) and went on the defensive at 7:30 in the evening.
After a week manning the Grande Montagne Sector and repulsing several counterattacks by fresh German troops, the 116th was called upon to make one final attack. At 6:15 A.M. on 23 October the 2d Battalion launched a bitter battle to clear Hill 361 and the surrounding Etrayes Woods in order to improve the division's position. The ridge line was completely secured on the following day, and on the night of 29/30 October the Blue and Gray was relieved in place by the 79th Division and moved to the rear for much-needed rest.
During its 21 days in combat, the 29th Division advanced seven kilometers, captured 2,148 prisoners, and knocked out over 250 machine guns or artillery pieces. It paid a high price for this success. One-third of its members became casualties-170 officers and 5,691 men. The cost to the 116th Infantry alone amounted to 257 dead and 1,005 wounded. Within the regiment losses forced nearly every company to put sergeants, corporals, or even privates in command of platoons! Heroism turned out to be commonplace. Virginia units within the division accumulated one Medal of Honor, forty-eight Distinguished Service Crosses, and a host of lesser decorations.
The Armistice on 11 November cancelled plans for the Blue and Gray to make a new attack as part of the Second Army. Six days later the division moved to Bourbonne-les-Bains where the 54th Field Artillery Brigade joined it on 8 December. General Morton and his staff spent the months until the division was ordered home sustaining morale. A show, called "Snap It Up," staged by the more talented of the soldiers helped, as did recognition from high-ranking dignitaries during a series of parades and reviews at different locations.
Headquarters closed out at Bourbonne on 12 April 1919 as the Blue and Gray started for its eventual port of embarkation at St. Nazaire. Most of the division sailed in mid-May on a dozen ships, particularly the Matsonia (116th Infantry), Virginian and Orizaba (54th Field Artillery Brigade, including 111th Field Artillery and 104th Ammunition Train), and Manchuria (104th Sanitary Train). The bulk of the Virginians landed later that month in Newport News and proceeded to Camp Lee for demobilization.
From The Tradition Continues: A History of the Virginia National Guard 1607-1985; edited by John W. Listman, Jr.; Robert K. Wright, Jr.; and Bruce D. Hardcastle. Taylor Publishing Company 1987.