World War I, once called "The Great War," started because of the June 28, 1914 murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian assassin. Austria-Hungary immediately declared war on Serbia. Treaty obligations brought Germany, Bulgaria and Turkey to the aid of Austria-Hungary, while similar alliances united Britain, France and Russia in support of Serbia. Each side believed it would emerge victorious, and that the war would be short, but by 1915 the opposing armies in Europe had fought to a standstill and were trapped in trenches along static fronts. The battles at the Marne, at Verdun, and on the Somme were nightmares, and fighting continued as additional countries were swept into the war. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed in the next three years, without results.
The American people watched in horror as the Europeans slaughtered themselves in useless fighting. Americans wanted nothing to do with the war. President Woodrow Wilson agreed and kept the country out of the conflict from 1914 to 1917. Public opinion turned angry when the Germans sank several ships, resulting in the deaths of United States citizens. At the same time the British and French governments neared bankruptcy, threatening to forfeit on their American bank loans. These and other factors led President Wilson to reconsider the country’s position, and he asked for a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917. At first the United States was unprepared to fight a war in Europe, and almost a year passed before America had any troops ready to fight. Meanwhile, Germany defeated Russia in the east, and almost defeated British and French armies on the western front. But, in the summer and fall of 1918, United States troops arrived to help drive back the German army. On November 11, 1918 a ceasefire was negotiated, and the fighting ended. Afterwards severe peace terms were forced on Germany. Long established governments in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia collapsed, and the map of Europe was redrawn.
North Carolina's Role
When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 North Carolinians shared the same feelings of regret and fear as other Americans. Tar Heels, like many others, did not want to get involved in the war. They saw the horror of the war that in 1916 alone cost the European armies 2.5 million casualties, equal to the entire population of North Carolina at the time. But once the United States declared war against Germany in April 1917, most North Carolinians supported the war effort. They believed President Woodrow Wilson when he said that America was fighting for democracy in “a war to end all wars.” Tar Heels purchased Liberty Loans and War Savings Stamps to raise money for the war. Women joined the American Red Cross, the YWCA, the Salvation Army, and served as nurses in military hospitals at home and in France. Farmers grew victory acres and children grew thrift gardens to earn money to buy war bonds. Citizens raised and canned their own food, and went without meat to conserve food supplies for the army. North Carolina industry also geared up to support the war. Ships were built in Wilmington, airplane propellers were made in High Point, wagon wheels were made in Hickory, and in Raleigh artillery shells were made for the army and navy. North Carolina’s tobacco factories produced cigarettes while its textile mills made blankets, socks, and tents for the army. Training camps for new soldiers were set up throughout the country, including three in North Carolina: Camp Greene near Charlotte, Camp Bragg near Fayetteville, and Camp Polk near Raleigh.
The state’s greatest sacrifice came when it sent its young men into military service. Stirred by patriotism, many North Carolinians volunteered for service, but more troops were needed. On June 5, 1917 President Wilson called for the registration of all men from the ages of twenty-one to thirty-one. Additional draft registration days were held in 1918 for men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. North Carolina registered 480,491 men, of which 337,986 were white and 142,505 were African American. Sixty-five percent were physically fit for military service. From this number 40,740 whites and 20,082 African Americans were called into military service. In the end more North Carolinians were drafted into service than volunteered, though it seems that most were willing to serve if the government called them. A few, numbering 1,612 men, evaded the draft during the war. During the war North Carolina sent 86,457 soldiers overseas to fight for the United States. While North Carolinians served in the army, navy, and marines, and throughout the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France, the greatest concentration of white Tar Heels was in the 30th and 81st divisions. Most of the North Carolina African Americans served in the 93rd Division.
North Carolinians served in all of the major battles on the Western Front in 1918. As part of the American Army they fought in the battles of 2nd Marne, St. Mihiel, and in the Meuse-Argonne, the last major campaign of the war. As part of the British Army, Tar Heels in the 30th Division fought in Belgium and in France in severe fighting. In only five months of combat in 1918, the United States suffered over 275,000 casualties, including over 50,000 combat deaths. Of that number, North Carolina lost 828 men killed and 3,655 wounded. Another 1,542 North Carolinians died of disease while serving in the army, mostly from influenza. Some North Carolinians were singled out for special recognition. Robert L. Blackwell of Person County, who served in the 30th Division, received the state’s only Congressional Medal of Honor--posthumously. Another 200 North Carolina soldiers received the Distinguished Service Cross and twelve men were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. All of North Carolina’s World War I veterans were offered a service medal by the state. All of them came home hoping World War I would really be "the war to end all wars."
The 30th Division was initially composed of National Guard units from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. More North Carolinians served in the 30th Division than in any other division in the war. Its name, "Old Hickory Division," honored President Andrew Jackson. Most of the 30th Division soldiers had just returned from the U. S. border with Mexico when it was called into federal service on July 25, 1917. It was sent to Camp Sevier, near Greenville, South Carolina for training. In May 1918 the division traveled to New York and then left for Europe. After a two-week voyage, the division landed in England, and then departed for France. The 30th Division was assigned to the American 2nd Corps and attached to the British Army. In June 1918 the division underwent extensive combat training under British supervision, and exchanged their American equipment and firearms for British equivalents.
On July 2, 1918, the 30th Division was sent to the trenches near Ypres, Belgium where it attacked and captured German positions with a loss of thirty-seven dead and 128 wounded. In September the division was withdrawn from Belgium and sent to the front opposite the German Hindenburg Line near Bellicourt, France. On September 29, the 119th and 120th infantry regiments (formerly the 2nd and 3rd North Carolina, respectively), attacked the German lines. Despite high casualties, the 30th Division broke through the Hindenburg Line. In the 3,000-yard advance made against enemy lines, the division suffered about 3,000 casualties. This was the greatest loss for North Carolina since the Civil War. The division continued driving back the German army in repeated and costly attacks, until October 19, when it was pulled out of combat for the last time. From July through October, the division's casualties were 1,641 killed or dead from wounds and, 6,774 wounded, 198 missing, and twenty-seven taken prisoner--for a total of 8,415 losses. After the war it remained in France, taking no part in the operations of the Army of Occupation. In April 1919 the 30th Division soldiers were sent home and discharged. The division garnered several outstanding distinctions in the war: it was the first to break the German Hindenburg Line on the Cambrai-St. Quentin front, and its soldiers were awarded more Congressional Medals of Honor than soldiers in any American division.
The 81st Division was initially made up of men drafted from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. The first men sent to the division were part of the first draft of September 5, 1917. The division was called the "Wildcat Division." A wildcat silhouette was adopted as a shoulder patch for the division, the first insignia worn by troops in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The division was organized at Camp Jackson, near Columbia, South Carolina in September 1917 and went into training. In May 1918 it was sent to Camp Sevier, near Greenville, South Carolina, and in July it was ordered to New York to be shipped overseas. In August the division sailed to England and then to France. It was initially sent to the trenches in the Vosges Mountains in September where it held what was considered a quiet front. While there the division suffered 116 casualties.
On November 6, the division was transferred to the front east of Verdun, on the east side of the Meuse River. Starting on November 8 the division attacked German positions for two days with limited success. From the outset the 81st Division's troops were met with heavy German machine gun and artillery fire. Rumors reached the 81st Division commanders that an armistice might be signed on November 11, but because no official word was received about a cessation of hostilities, they ordered their men to continue their attacks. At daybreak, November 11, 81st Division soldiers were ordered to assault German positions. The troops slowly advanced through the heavy fog and German shell and machine gun fire. Then, at 11:00, the firing abruptly stopped. The war was over. The 81st Division suffered 1,104 casualties--248 killed or dead from wounds and 856 wounded--for the short time it was in combat. Like the 30th Division, the 81st Division remained in France and was not part of the Army of Occupation in Germany. In early June the men were shipped back to the United States and discharged from service.
For information on the 93rd Division, please go to their Summary of Operations, available at the U.S. Army’s Center for Military History: http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/topics/afam/93div.htm