Loudoun in the First World War: Loudouners Called Up to ‘Make the World Safe for Democracy’

By Richard Gillespie

[Second of three installments reflecting on the 100th anniversary of World War I.]

In February 1917, in the 30thmonth of the First World War, Germany declared total submarine warfare around the British Isles impacting all vessels including those operated by neutrals like the United States. In March, news broke of the intercepted Zimmermann Telegram in which Germany implored Mexico to join the war against us if we declared war on Germany. With memories of the German sabotage of the Black Tom shipping complex in New Jersey the summer before, the concussion from which significantly damaged the very Statue of Liberty, headlines of the locally popular Baltimore American and other papers told a story that left little doubt of the need for a shift in American policy from neutral peacemaker to warmaker in order to confront German aggression. Congress declared war on April 6.

By Tuesday June 5, just two months later, all American men ages 21 to 31 were to have signed up with Selective Service—the draft—to see where they would be most useful. Massive all-American historically themed parades were held all over the nation on that day. It appears that Loudoun’s parade was held per instruction featuring school children and veterans, floats and flags in downtown Purcellville. Most of the buildings seen by those marching or watching that day still stand. It was a day filled with pride and nervous excitement.

Loudouners called up for military service for the national Army via Selective Service were directed to report to the courthouse at Leesburg in small groups on specific days. They posed for their photograph in front of the still extant turnstile gate in front of the courthouse, the new Civil War “lest we forget” Confederate statue in the background. The county’s newest weekly paper, the Loudoun Times (office at 6 W.t Market St. in Leesburg) took the draftees’ photo for the coming week’s front page. The paper asked the boys to write from France about their adventures, in return giving them a subscription to the paper sent to them “Over There” so they could keep up with the ever-necessary baseball scores from back home. After a going-away party in Leesburg, they were marched next day to the Leesburg Station (the building that now houses Fireworks Pizza before its move to Market Station) to go to Camp Lee near Petersburg for training. Training would continue in France.

In Our Backyard

Loudoun mobilized 2,224 men for service; 591 were inducted into the military. The rest were otherwise used, particularly for farm production. A few Loudouners were already in the military when the war began, typically the Navy or Marines. A number had joined the Virginia National Guard in the months immediately before the U.S. entered the war. They became a part of the famed 29thBlue-Gray Division. But most who went waited as instructed to be called up—drafted—most commonly into the 80thBlue Ridge Division, where they would serve with Pennsylvanians and Marylanders who just 50 years earlier had been enemies. African-Americans drafted were dispersed into units trained like white soldiers, but more often used for the hugely necessary loading and unloading of ships, road construction, clearing of battle damage, and burial details. Some Loudouners went into the famed 369thAll Colored Infantry Regiment—the Harlem Hellfighters—and were assigned to French, and later, American, divisions.

Upon completing training at Camp Lee, a soldier-city built overnight, most Loudoun men were sent to France from Newport News. Transported on former liners adapted for military use (including some seized German ships), they dodged U-boats and arrived at Brest or St. Nazaire in northwestern France. After several days there, they were loaded in “40 [men] and 8 [mules]” boxcars rattling across the country to the “Western Front” in eastern and northeastern France. Loudoun boys ended up in Champagne, Lorraine, Alsace, and other areas active on the Western Front. Rotated after additional training into quiet zones of the trenches, they would soon confront the Germans. In our final installment, we’ll examine the Loudoun home front and the 1918 campaigns for which the American military trained.

Perhaps the best town landscapes to envision Loudoun at the time of the First World War are the buildings still standing in downtown Purcellville and Leesburg. Progressive farmer and wartime Governor Westmoreland Davis’s home, Morven Park near Leesburg, is open for tours and clearly evokes the era. American Expeditionary Force commander General John Pershing’s chief strategist, Col. George C. Marshall, who planned both the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne American offensives of September 1918 also had a Loudoun house, Dodona Manor, now the George C. Marshall International Center in Leesburg. Marshall lived in Loudoun after World War I, from 1941 to 1959. The Upperville Horse Show Grounds still sits along Rt. 50 between Middleburg and Aldie. Mills involved in receiving grain for export to Europe in 1914-17 still stand at Aldie (open to the public weekends to view grinding), Waterford, Taylorstown, Purcellville (now Magnolia’s Restaurant on 21stStreet), and Leesburg (now Tuscarora Mill Restaurant at Market Station on Harrison Street).

A First World War walking-driving guide is available through the Mosby Heritage Area Association website, mosbyheritagearea.org/seeit/drivingtours; select Loudoun in the Great War. 

[Richard Gillespie is the former executive director and current historian emeritus of the Mosby Heritage Area Association. Previously, he was a career Loudoun County Public Schools history teacher. Now retired, he gives public presentations on Loudoun and the First World War to schools and community organizations. Contact him at rgillespie@mosbyheritagearea.org.  In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org.}

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