A state with a strong martial tradition, South Carolina provided as many soldiers for service during World War I as the state had for the Confederate army a half-century earlier. With America’s entry into the war in 1917, the state once more underwent a mobilization of manpower and resources of titanic proportions.
As the United States entered the great European war, the nation formed unprecedented alliances with European powers and took on a new and daunting role on the world stage. For the state of South Carolina, the federalization of its National Guard and the state’s commitment to the national war effort were drastic steps marking a shift of perspective from regional to international affairs.
Mexican Border Campaign
While the European powers struggled for supremacy, another war raged much closer to home. Revolutionary factions struggled for the control of Mexico, and President Woodrow Wilson’s administration watched events south of the Rio Grande with growing alarm. When the town of Columbus, New Mexico was raided by revolutionaries under Mexican leader Pancho Villa, Wilson mobilized state militia troops to protect American citizens and property in the Southwest.
For South Carolina troops, this security duty along the Mexican border provided a significant prologue to World War I. South Carolina troops served alongside the regular U.S. Army, safeguarding United States citizens and property against Pancho Villa’s marauding revolutionaries.
During the Punitive Expedition, the state volunteer system was employed for the last time, with each state’s troops serving in their state militia regiments. When the same troops were called up for World War I, they would be reorganized, their units redesignated and made part of the regular army.
Mobilization and Draft
Upon their return from the border intervention, South Carolina’s citizen-soldiers soon found themselves preparing for deployment to France. When war with Germany was declared in April, South Carolina’s troops were called up for the defense of the state. That summer, however, they were summoned into federal service. In the reorganization that followed the activation of the National Guard for federal service, the 1st South Carolina Regiment became the 118th Infantry. Assigned to the 30th (“Old Hickory”) Division, the 118th would become one of the most distinguished regiments of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
Activation of the National Guard on July 25, 1917 doubled the size of the U.S. Army, but even this expansion was insufficient to realistically affect the course of the war in Europe.
Another more controversial policy followed: the national draft. For the first time since the desperate days of the Confederacy, South Carolina men were subject to conscription. Draftees were organized into the national army, distinguished from both the regular army and the National Guard. This national army also included the segregated troops of the 93rd Division, whose 371st Regiment was composed primarily of African-American South Carolinians.
South Carolina citizens would also serve in great numbers in many other units, including the 81st
(“Wildcat”) and 42nd (“Rainbow”) Divisions. They would be found among the U.S Marines and Navy sailors serving overseas, as well.
More than two million black U.S. males between 21 and 31 registered for conscription. Even though they represented 10 percent of the total draft registration, there were only four “Buffalo Soldier” regiments in the U.S. Army to take in these new soldiers, and none of those regiments were slated for AEF service. With some reluctance, the U.S. War Department agreed to create the 93rd Division in the national army.
The 93rd Division contained four regiments: the 369th, 370th, 371st and 372nd. The 371st formed at Camp Jackson in August 1917 and was the only regiment in the 93rd Division formed primarily of draftees. The 371st, unlike the other regiments, consisted mainly of African-Americans from across the South.
Upon arrival in France, the 93rd Division’s regiments found themselves “on loan” to America’s allies. Starved for replacements and long accustomed to employing African colonial troops, the French army eagerly took in the black American soldiers. American commanding General “Black Jack” Pershing, whose nickname referred to his Buffalo Soldier service in the Spanish-American War, agreed to this arrangement, perhaps to help mollify the French demand for recruits.
In the Trenches
United States troops arriving in France were immediately coveted by the other Allied powers, who wanted replacements for their own horrifying losses. General Pershing, following President Woodrow Wilson’s orders, insisted on the American Expeditionary Forces’ independent existence and national chain of command.
The fighting in France was characterized by great lines of fortification dug into the earth, where armies maneuvered in small spaces constricted by artillery and swept by machine gun fire. Thousands of lives might be expended for a gain of a few hundred yards of territory, a gain that was quite likely to be temporary, as the enemy regrouped in a further line of entrenchments to mount a counterattack.
The infantryman of the late 19th century relied on his rifle and was expected to march into battle, but in this environment, the machine gun dominated long-range fighting and the line tactics of previous generations were suicidal. Trench raids, on the other hand, often devolved into pistol and hand grenade contests where a “trench sweeper” shotgun could prove superior to more conventional long arms. At any range, Western Front fighting was a brutal contest of attrition and had settled into a deadlock that the American Expeditionary Forces would help to break.
Adding to the danger and misery was the constant threat of attack by poison gas. Gas warfare originated as an attempt to break the deadlock in the trenches, but soon became just another horrific feature of life on the front. First Sergeant Joseph Etheredge, who served in South Carolina’s Field Hospital Number One (119th Field Hospital, 30th Division), graphically described the effects of a gas attack:
“In being gassed by Mustard Gas, your throat commences burning as if you have taken a swallow of red-hot lead, your eyes commence burning and swelling shut as if a hive of bees had stung you, your voice goes from you till you can scarcely whisper, and you have a tremendous pressure on your chest as if there is a weight of from 50 to 100 pounds there… It was about five weeks from the time I was gassed before I was able to turn over, and in fact it was about Armistice Day when I began to sit up a little.”
Artillery and Aviation
World War I would see the first large-scale use of aircraft for military purposes. Used at first for reconnaissance, the aircraft soon found other roles as well. As the use of aircraft proved advantageous, control of the skies was contested and the romanticized “Flying Aces” in their swift fighter planes attracted public notice. Meanwhile, the less glamorous reconnaissance flyers provided vital intelligence to the commanders on the ground, proving the worth of the airplane permanently. By the time American troops arrived in France, aircraft were a major component of wartime strategy on both sides.
Although the machine gun is the weapon most often associated with trench warfare, it was actually the massed artillery of the Western Front that caused the most casualties. The role of artillery in the First World War is difficult to overemphasize, both in its direct results and in the demoralizing effect of continuous bombardment.
Sophisticated techniques were employed to isolate enemy units and to prepare the ground for infantry advances, and the landscape of the battlefields was drastically altered by the storms of high explosives unleashed by the big guns. The artillery also delivered the gas attacks, which proved to be yet another innovation to break the bloody stalemate of static trench warfare.
Many Allied military planners anticipated the continuation of the Western Front stalemate well into 1919, and American troops began the war on the defensive as the German army attacked. However, 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.
The Allied “Hundred Days Offensive” in the autumn of 1918 finally collapsed an important section of the German defenses, and South Carolina’s soldiers were in the forefront with a historic assault on the Hindenburg Line. This 100-mile-long trench system across northeastern France was fortified with concrete bunkers, barbed wire, minefields, interlocking machine gun positions and tunnels that allowed German reinforcements to move to threatened sections in relative safety.
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. South Carolina soldiers were in the forefront of this historic assault. Soldiers of the 30th Division, including the 118th Infantry Regiment, won particular praise for their part in the battle.
The heroism of the men of the 118th, 371st and South Carolina’s other battlefield units helped drive the final advance that forced an armistice and an end to World War I. South Carolina’s Adjutant General Moore expressed a common hope in his annual report for 1918 when he said that the year “in all human probability will go down into future history as the culmination of the world’s greatest war.” Certificates issued by President Wilson would acclaim America’s “Great War” soldiers as “The Chivalry of a New Humanity,” and the surviving soldiers returned to their homes with hopes for a lasting peace.
Courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society