Loudoun in the First World War:  ‘Over There’ Comes to Main Street

By Richard Gillespie

The third of three installments

In 1917-18, the Wilson administration strove to make American participation in the First World War—the “war to end all wars”—a people’s war, with everyoneplaying a part. Hundreds of Loudouners were drafted or otherwise served in the military. But the soldiers were not alone in their efforts to defeat Germany and Austria-Hungary.

On the home front, Loudouners were met with patriotic messages in the newspapers, on posters that sprouted everywhere courtesy of the federal Committee on Public Information, from “Four Minute Men” (and women) who spoke on citizens’ duties between projector reel changes at local theatres, and in the newsreels moviegoers watched.

Loudoun households were urged to buy Liberty Bonds and later Victory Bonds from their National Banks—lend the government money now while you’re making it, get paid back with interest five years down the line when you’ll need it. In the banks where they’d been busy borrowing the year before to expand their fields and consequent agricultural production, now they went as patriotic Americans to buy Liberty bonds.  Children and those with less money to spend were encouraged to buy War Savings Stamps, which were available in very small denominations. Everyone was urged to buy them regularly. Gov. Westmoreland Davis, of Leesburg, was photographed with a big smile buying $10,000 worth from a pretty young War Savings Stamps saleswoman.

J Terry Hirst of Purcellville who returned from France a Lieutenant and later served on many county boards.

Women and girls were urged to knit standard-pattern socks, sweaters, and balaclavas to go under the new steel Brodie “tin pot” helmets for the boys going over to the cold, wet trenches of the Western Front. The knitters worked under the auspices of the American Red Cross, which organized local committees through Loudoun’s churches and civic groups. Many of Loudoun’s churches still standing from that era saw thousands and thousands of stitches knitted for the boys “Over There.”

Some Loudoun women volunteered for more dangerous service with the Red Cross as nurses, phone operators, ambulance drivers in France, and working with the Army and Navy. Mrs. Marguerite Davis of Morven Park, wife of the governor, volunteered as a Red Cross nurse in flu wards in Richmond hospitals. The petite Virginia First Lady also volunteered weekly to pack dangerous ammunition bags at the Seven Pines Ammunition Packing Plant east of the city. It was a time of intense self-sacrifice and patriotism.

Meanwhile, homemakers were urged to conserve food through Meatless Mondays, Wheatless Wednesdays, and Sweetless Saturdays—not only to allow more food for our soldiers and European allies’ populations, but to build a spirit of national self-sacrifice. It must have seemed strange to those bringing grain to one of Loudoun’s many mills only to be asked to observe Wheatless Wednesdays. Yet conservation also served the purpose of less pressure on food markets, and consequently, less inflation of food prices.  Some young Loudoun women, in particular, Girl Scouts, helped production by picking peaches and apples coordinated with the Women’s Land Army movement. Only the slackers, generally despised, did nothing. Americans were asked by U.S. Food Administrator Herbert Hoover to conserve without rationing, and they did. All the while, they paid much higher income taxes to pay for the war.

Patriotism, however, sometimes could be vitriolic. Many of Northern Loudoun’s first settlers were Germans from the Palatine region near the French-German border.  During the First World War, those with German or German-sounding names or anyone who spoke German might well be suspect of sympathizing with the enemy. That suspicion made it imperative for such folks—think Lovettsville, for example—to show themselves to be hyper-patriotic Americans. Long-time Loudoun historian Asa Moore Janney recalled as a boy his German-American mother inviting an old German lady from Round Hill down to her Main Street Purcellville home one day; mother indulged the old lady by speaking the tongue of the Fatherland. After Asa Moore told friends about the visit, he soon had to run home from school every day to avoid being beat up. Janney, a “free-range” child by today’s tight standards, also recalled a ditty about the German king painted on an outhouse door behind the lumber mill in Purcellville:

Here’s to the Kaiser, the son of a b—-/I hope he’ll have always the seven-year itch/May his thumbs be hammered by a heavy trip hammer/Till his nostrils will whistle The Star Spangled Banner.” 

Meanwhile, those at home waited anxiously for mail from those over there in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). What was received—and what was sent from home—was of course censored, and the reality of the situation over there (or even here at home) was never truly made clear to the receiving party. Letters were nonetheless sent by the millions.

A number of the American “doughboys” arrived in France just in time to help stop the last great German offensives of the War in the spring and summer of 1918, fighting just east of Paris. Marine Captain Edward Fuller of Hamilton died with other leathernecks in the famed fight at Belleau Wood in which Americans shocked the Germans by their ability to rapidly learn and adapt at the front. Others, arriving later in the summer, were on hand for America’s St. Mihiel offensive that showed what we could do and the huge Meuse-Argonne Offensive beginning Sept. 26, 1918. These offensives left the trenches behind, converting the war to one of movement for the first time in four years as promised by the AEF’s General Pershing. The Meuse-Argonne offensive is to this day the largest battle in American history, with 1.5 million doughboys facing machine guns, gas, heavy artillery, flamethrowers, and the ever-effective Mauser rifles carried by their German opponents. Despite American pluck and ingenuity, our battlefield casualties were shocking—26,777 Americans killed and 95,786 wounded in one six-week battle between September 26 and Nov. 11, 1918.

Some Loudouners never returned home—32, in fact. Some were gassed, some shot, some hit by

John R. Smith House–son John E served and did not return.

high-explosive shells. Others fell to pneumonia or the deadly Spanish Influenza that swept both barracks and trenches. They all served their country. They are segregated on the county’s courthouse memorial as they were in life.

This fall will bring the 100thanniversary of the large American offensives and the resulting ceasefire on the Western Front—the Armistice—signed Nov.11, 1918 in the Compiegne Forest. To commemorate these events, on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018 at 11 a.m., Loudoun’s historic sites will present a joint program on Loudoun and World War I with a number of speakers at the courthouse. We hope you will learn more about this crucial yet all-too-much forgotten war in the coming weeks and take some time to attend the Armistice Day Centennial program. You’ll be able to spend a moment at Loudoun’s First World War memorial outside to remember those who cared, gave, and served a century ago.

 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 educator.  Now retired, he gives public presentations on Loudoun and the First World War to schools and community organizations.  He can be reached 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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