Ralph Benington was not one of the 12,000 men sent to the front after the call on October 10th. The headquarters companies, as well as about 30 men from each of the infantry and machine gun groups, were left in Razac-sur-L’Isle to await reinforcements. The respite was only a brief one.
On October 30th, a wire was received ordering the remainder of the 84th Division, along with the 34th, 38th and 86th Divisions, to the 2nd Depot Division at Le Mans. Like the earlier group, the men would be transferred to units at the front as needed.
On the morning of November 5th, the men of headquarters company, 334th infantry, boarded a train headed north to Le Mans. Along the route, they passed several Red Cross trains filled with the wounded to be evacuated from the front. It is difficult to imagine that any man would fail to dwell on thoughts of his own mortality when faced with such grim reminders as he headed into danger himself.
By this point in the war, the Red Cross ambulance trains had become quite specialized. They were composed of ward cars, which had seats that could be folded down into beds for patients on stretchers, a pharmacy car, a kitchen, and even an operating theater!
The afternoon of November 6th, Ralph and his fellow soldiers arrived at Le Mans and marched the five miles out to the forwarding camp in a heavy rain. The weather did not improve the following day and most of the men spent their time looking for somewhere dry to wait and something to eat. That evening, they received orders to move again the following day to a camp only a mile away. Still the rain fell. By this point, the men must have been feeling extremely anxious, knowing they were destined for the front and having nothing to do to distract them from the thoughts racing through their heads.
On the 9th of November, the men were woken at 3 a.m. and told to roll their packs and march to the train. They were on their way to the front.
The new order was to turn back to Le Mans. It was here that they received the news:
The end of the war had come, and not a moment too soon! It’s likely that the men of the 334th would have had mixed feelings about this development: the obvious joy, of course, but perhaps also a bit of regret that they had not “done their part” at the front, especially after the emotional build-up of the last two weeks.
Spilling out of the small ships that brought them across the English Channel into a cool early morning rain, the men of the 334th infantry lined up, and led by the regimental band, they paraded through the streets of Le Havre.
The expressions on the faces of the French people they passed varied. Some looked sad and downtrodden, hard-worn from the long period of war they had already endured. Others were jubilant at the arrival of the Americans.
After the sleepless night before, the men were allowed periodically to fall out and rest for a moment:
The men marched a total of five miles out of Le Havre to a rest camp. There they slept–fourteen to a tent–crammed in, but no doubt grateful for shelter from the rain that would fall the entire 24 hours they were in camp.
A video of the men of an American infantry unit preparing to leave a rest camp at Le Havre in 1918 is available at the website for the Imperial War Museum (Infantry leaving Le Havre camp). In this video, you can see the conical tents in which the men slept.
On September 13, Ralph and his fellow soldiers marched the five miles back to Le Havre, where they boarded boxcars. These cars were marked with the words “Hommes 40, Cheveaux 8” for their capacity: 40 men or 8 horses. Over the next two days, as they traveled through the French countryside, the men took turns sleeping, as there was not enough room in the car for everyone to lie down at once.
This form of transportation seems to have been a source of amusement to some of the men, who mentioned it in letters home:
“Side-door Pullman” was a slang term for boxcars.
On the 15th of September, the train pulled into Razac-sur-L’Isle, a small town with a population of about 750 in southwestern France. Several characteristics of Razac-sur-L’Isle are mentioned frequently in the soldiers’ letters home. The surrounding countryside was hilly and dotted with grape vines. The people used old fashioned farming techniques and had oxen to work in the fields rather than modern machinery. One particularly charming feature was the wooden shoes worn by the women and children of the town, which made a distinctive clicking sound as they walked.
The arrival of hundreds of troops must have been somewhat overwhelming for a village of this size. Certainly it caused several documented problems. One soldier wrote home to his family that a great deal of wine was produced and sold in the area:
One wonders how the townspeople felt about all the drunken soldiers. Were they concerned for the young women among them? About an increase in theft? Even in Chillicothe, Ohio, locks for cars were advertised by warning about the influx of troops at Camp Sherman: “Be Prepared!”
Another issue that cropped up was the high demand for the very limited supplies at the local stores. The soldiers complain in letters about the extremely high prices for canned salmon and sardines, two to three times that at home. Authorities would soon request that the Americans not purchase goods from the locals, as their produce was their only source of income. The 84th Division was well supplied by the government: all their food was shipped in and they ate significantly better than the locals; cigarettes and tobacco were handed out every ten days.
By this point in the war, the French people were really suffering. Letters mention how no sugar or tobacco was available at all, that canned salmon and sardines were all that was to be had at shops, and that coal and wood were ridiculously expensive. Bark was being used for cooking fires and even that was difficult to obtain.
Regardless of all these issues, the French people were kind and welcoming toward the soldiers of the 334th infantry. Over and over they mention how the French were willing to share what little they had with the men and they were very rarely willing to accept payment for their kindnesses.
Many of the women of Razac-sur-L’Isle took in washing from the soldiers for a bit of extra money. According to one letter, a man could have one shirt, one two piece set of underwear, one towel, one handkerchief and two pairs of socks washed for one franc (20 cents). The women took the clothing down to the river or a shallow purpose-built concrete pond, where they either rubbed it with a board or beat it with a stick to clean it, as seen in the postcard below.
When they first arrived, the men were divided between tents and barns, sleeping on the floor with a blanket each. It wasn’t long before they were all billeted in barns or local homes and issued with straw mattresses and two additional blankets per man.
Soldiers frequently mentioned the huge amounts of blackberries growing wild. The locals apparently did not eat them because they thought they were poisonous. The soldiers had no such qualms.
Suddenly, on October 10th, the 84th received orders to send forward 12,000 men as replacements for the many casualties on the front. These men arrived at the regulating station of the 1st Depot Divison, where they were sent out to various regiments to shore up their numbers. Reports of casualties among the men of the 84th began rolling in.
In 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri destroyed between 16 and 18 million military records, including 80% of those for individuals discharged from the Army between 1913 and 1960. Combining this information with the fact that none of Ralph and Bernice’s letters from 1918 and 1919 survive, I thought it was highly unlikely that I would be able to find any details about Ralph’s time in the AEF.
Luckily for me, there are far more resources available than I expected. Men who were also aboard the Aquitania when it set sail on September 2, 1918, wrote letters home and some of these were published in their hometown newspapers. A number of these men were also in the 334th infantry or its medical detachment, just like Ralph, and shared their experiences after disembarking from the Aquitania. As a result, we are able to construct a rich picture of what the war must have been like for Ralph and his fellow soldiers.
Hurry Up and Wait
The strains of “Over There” mentioned in the previous post must only have lasted so long. Boarding the ship and waiting for it to embark seems to have been a rather tedious, and much longer than anticipated, process. The man who wrote the letter below had spent two days and nights aboard a troop ship preparing to embark when the peace was declared:
Aboard the Aquitania
As the Aquitania finally pulled away from the docks, the regimental band played on the deck of the ship. As many men as possible would likely have crowded onto the deck to catch a last glimpse of their native land. Leaving from New York City, their last sights would have been the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan’s financial district with Jersey City on the other side, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. They would have sailed past Staten Island and Sandy Hook and out into the open Atlantic.
Next, the men headed below deck for their supper. The same cooks who had been with the regiment at Camp Sherman travelled with them aboard the ship. Incredible organization and timing would have been required to serve meals to several thousand men. As we saw in the video of the systems in place at Camp Sherman, the cooks’ skills were well-honed.
Following dinner, the musicians returned to the deck to play for the officers before retiring for bed. The enlisted men were offered the option of a picture show in the mess hall, but they couldn’t get the machine working, so the evening was spent in singing instead.
For the first three hours of the journey, the ship was accompanied by a convoy of destroyers and hydroplanes. Afterward she was left to her own devices. With her complement of six 6-inch guns and her considerable speed, she was thought to be capable of outrunning any attacker.
The accommodations aboard the Aquitania seem to have varied greatly, depending on where in the ship each man was placed. Photos of suites and first, second and third class staterooms follow. There was also a steerage class area, though I was unable to find any pictures of it. Presumably, it would have been similar to that described in the letter at the start of this post: small and crowded, with large numbers of men possibly sleeping in hammocks hung from hooks.
The passengers aboard the Aquitania on this trip were lucky in that the seas were calm for much of the journey. Unfortunately, this didn’t preclude the men from suffering seasickness.
Of course, not everyone felt the same way.
The regimental band continued to provide entertainment throughout the journey, performing minstrel shows and various concerts. The typical minstrel show consisted of dancing, singing, a “stump speech”–the forerunner of modern stand-up comedy, and humorous skits. For much of its early history, minstrel shows often involved white men in blackface and much racist content. By this time, however, the popularity of such performance was on the wane. Many groups instead attempted to adopt an air of refinement and differed from other mainstream entertainments only in name.
Some confusion may have resulted from the change in time as the ship progressed on its journey. As the ship crossed into different time zones, the ship’s time was changed but of course, the men’s watches had to be reset each morning. They likely stayed on a set schedule, resulting in a feeling that I can only imagine was like that of daylight savings time, over and over again. Perhaps this gradual change saved them from the kind of modern-day jetlag one experiencing when flying overseas.
The last night of the journey, the men were told that they were now entering the danger zone. Each man had to sleep fully dressed and wearing his life belt in case of attack.
At 10 a.m. on September 9th, the Aquitania came into sight of the white chalk cliffs of southern England. An English convoy met the ship and escorted it into port at Southampton. The men stayed aboard the ship until September 11th when they were loaded into smaller ships and ferried across the English Channel under cover of darkness. Later ships carrying portions of the 84th Division were diverted to Scotland and rode trains to Winchester, England.
The trip across the Channel was probably the most treacherous portion of the entire journey. The men were warned against even lighting a match, in case it attracted the attention of a German submarine. However, the men arrived safely at Le Havre on a wet, dreary day in mid-September. They were finally in France.
The long train journey to Camp Mills, Long Island, is well-described in many letters home. A number of these men had probably never been so far from home and their descriptions of the amazing sights they encountered reflect this fact. Imagine the wonder of seeing Niagara Falls for the first time in your life! Another event commonly mentioned is the presence of the Red Cross at every major stop along the way. The men were supplied with free postcards and presented with treats of all sorts: lemonade, fruit, homemade cakes. The food must have been particularly appreciated as nearly everyone lists the various items they were offered.
More wonder awaited the men as they approached Camp Mills.
How the sight must have stirred every man capable of patriotic feeling! They were soldiers now and here they were, seeing what it was they were fighting to protect!
If that wasn’t exciting enough, the men were able to explore the city during their free time, taking in the sights, dancing and seeing shows.
The cantonment itself was more of a disappointment. At the time at which the 84th was stationed at Camp Mills, the men were expected to stay in tents as permanent barracks had not yet been constructed. One letter described the tents as having no floor, which was particularly miserable when it rained and the ground turned to mud.
Camp Mills was located directly beside the Hazelhurst Aviation Fields, so frequently the men would see large numbers of airplanes flying in battle formation. In fact, on the 14th of October, 1918, one man was killed and several wounded during training when they were accidentally strafed by machine gun fire from a plane.
Units from the camp left on a regular basis, creating quite the scene as they queued up to be transferred to the ports of embarkation in New York City and Hoboken:
According to Percy Smallwood, the YMCA’s physical director at Camp Mills, the men often left in high spirits, ready to do their part “Over There”:
The 334th infantry departed from New York harbor on September 2, 1918, aboard the Aquitania. The Aquitania was a Cunard Line ocean liner that had been designated as a hospital ship and later for troop transport. Its distinctive dazzle paint was used to prevent attack by making it difficult to estimate a target’s heading, speed and range.
With the benefit of time, we are able to see these passenger records and know which ship Ralph sailed on. At the time, however, this would have been a highly sensitive matter. Ralph would not have been allowed to tell his family, including his wife, Bernice, when he was leaving or what ship he would board. As a result, the following information must have absolutely terrified Bernice and the rest of the family when it reached Findlay:
The men involved in the sinking of the Persic were, in fact, part of the 84th Division. Thankfully, Ralph was not one of them, but the family would wait for weeks before they knew this.
Chillicothe, Ohio, had been a site for housing troops during both the War of 1812 and the Civil War, making it a natural choice for the same purpose in 1917. Despite the initial reservations of the local population, the government constructed a facility capable of handling upwards of 40,000 soldiers just outside the city. Camp Sherman would be its name.
Just before Ralph Benington’s entry into the service, Ohio Governor, James M. Cox, began a campaign to have all Ohio draftees sent to Camp Sherman to train. Not only would the men be closer to their families and friends during training, but a significant amount of money could be saved on providing transportation. According to an article in the Chillicothe Gazette of 23 May 1918, the governor stated that the cost of transportation in a single upcoming week during which 20,000 Ohioans were sent to out-of-state training camps would approach $100,000. Whether it was due to this political pressure or not, Ralph was sent to Camp Sherman, approximately 130 miles from his hometown of Findlay, Ohio.
Upon arrival at Camp Sherman, Ralph and his fellow draftees would have been checked in by an officer and assigned a bunk. They would have undergone another physical examination. According to his records, Ralph was inoculated against typhoid and paratyphoid on July 13, 1918. It is possible that this was the day he arrived at camp for the first time.
The video that follows shows many details of in-processing, aspects of camp life and the general training regime at Camp Sherman. See the end of the post for a detailed listing of the events in the video and the times at which they occur if you don’t wish to watch the entire hour.
Early in his stay at Camp Sherman, Ralph was a private in the 158th Depot Brigade. It was very common for soldiers to be placed in a depot brigade while waiting for an assignment to a unit headed overseas. However, that was all soon to change with the arrival of the 84th Division, previously based at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky.
On the 22nd of July, Ralph was transferred to his new unit, Company H of the 334th Infantry, 84th Division. The 84th was known as the Lincoln Division, based on the tradition that its origin was with the Illinois militia company in which the young Abraham Lincoln served during the Black Hawk War in 1832.
In case military drills were not strenuous enough, a significant heat wave hit Chillicothe during the summer of 1918. On August 7th, the temperature on the parade grounds reached 118 degrees and over 150 men were taken to the hospital with heat prostration. Two of the men died by the next day. Officers decided to call a halt to drills until the weather became more reasonable; however, an order came from division headquarters requiring that the normal schedule was resumed.
By mid-August, rumors that the 84th would be headed overseas were running rampant.
Given this final article, one wonders whether the train would have passed through Findlay as well. Did Ralph send out a hurried telegram to his wife, his parents? Was there a tearful farewell on a train platform? One way or another, Ralph was on his way to France.
Content of “Training Activities of the 83rd Division”
1:17 Camp Sherman receiving station
1:29 officer receives men as they arrive
1:45 Division Headquarters and intro to several officers
3:34 men arriving
3:56 assigned to quarters
4:10 medical re-examination and inoculation
7:11 learning to salute
7:24 learning right about face
8:35 given bunks and uniforms
10:00 two hours of vigorous play each day
11:10 quartermaster’s department
12:26 systems for providing meals
12:59 mini railway for moving supplies
13:46 mixing bread dough and baking bread
15:33 refrigeration plant
16:55 “department of eats”
19:50 construction of camp roads
20:36 signal practice
20:55 camp hospital
24:30 “most modern war machine”–airplane
25:23 “child of British tank”
25:55 telephone exchange
26:05 mail delivery and personnel office
29:09 fire department
29:38 remount station
30:19 instruction by experienced British soldiers
31:17 bayonet instruction including obstacle course
33:28 field artillery practice
34:30 Chauchat machine gun
35:26 drilling with Enfield rifles and throwing grenades
36:48 trench mortars
38:00 “over the top”
38:25 gas masks–gas training with and without masks
40:00 introduction to commanding officers of 83rd Division
40:20 review of 83rd Division–40,000 men
41:55 construction of trenches (This section is particularly fascinating; shocking the amount of work that went into building a trench)
46:41 field kitchen and mess time
48:59 squads alternate with rest periods
50:04 separate YMCA for each regiment
50:56 Jewish Welfare Society
51:40 Knights of Columbus
52:54 Masonic House
53:10 Red Cross Community House–for visiting with friends and family
55:00 silent drill
56:30 black soldiers
57:40 long marches
58:04 entertainment in barracks
Ralph Benington, age 30, and his wife, Bernice, age 20, were married May 29, 1918, by the Rev. A. A. Hundley, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Findlay, Ohio. Little did the two suspect that they would have less than a month to settle into married life before fate would intervene.
Slightly less than a year previously, Ralph had been involved in the first national registration day following the passage of the Selective Service Act. Upon the United States’ entry into World War I, President Wilson had asked that the Army be increased from its current size of about 121,000 to one million soldiers. Six weeks later, only 73,000 men had volunteered for service. The Selective Service Act, enacted May 18, 1917, required that all men between the ages of 21 and 30 register for military service. On June 5, 1917, all men 21-31 had to report to a centralized location within their communities in order to fill out a draft card.
The following is the front of Ralph’s draft card:
The drawing of numbers began on the morning of July 20, 1917. Each number was written on black-backed paper and enclosed in a gelatin capsule. Secretary of War, Newton Baker, selected the first capsule, which contained the number 258. All individuals in all districts who were given the number 258 would be required to report for service. Ultimately, it would take about 18 hours to draw the 10,500 numbers required to meet the government’s quota.
Draft numbers were often published in the local newspaper, much like in this article from the Akron Beacon Journal the night of the first draft:
In addition, a draft notice was sent to the home of the new recruit. The following example was found in the digital collection of East Carolina University:
The back of the notice listed the penalties for failing to appear at the Local Board when summoned to do so.
Ralph’s discharge paperwork indicates that he was inducted into the military on June 27, 1918. If the previous draft notice is anything to go by, it appears that draftees were given about a week from the mailing of their draft notice to their date of induction into service.
While I do not know for certain that Ralph was drafted rather than volunteering for service, it seems rather unlikely that a newlywed would choose to leave his wife less than a month after their marriage. Ralph had had plenty of time to volunteer prior to this date. Do these look like people who couldn’t wait to get away from one another?
It would be possible to discover, without a doubt, whether Ralph had been drafted into service. Each Local Board maintained lists of the men selected, including information on the date they were ordered to report, the mobilization camp to which they were sent and certification from officials at the camp as to whether the man had appeared as required. These records are now held at the Field Archives branches in the appropriate regions.
Currently, what we know is that Ralph and Bernice were about to be separated for the first time in their very short married lives. It is easy to imagine how upset they both must have felt, faced with this prospect.