On the 100thanniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, the Great War’s impact on Loudoun was explored by historians during a program in the county courthouse Sunday morning.
The program began just after the courthouse bells joined those across the nation in ringing at 11 a.m.—the exact time fighting ended in 1918. Organized by the World War I Centennial Committee, the program examined life in Loudoun during the war, highlighted the roles prominent residents made supporting the war effort, and reflected on the 30 local residents who died while fighting to end the Great War.
Historian Richard Gillespie provided insight into how Loudouners experienced the war, from learning about the devastating European conflict in the newspapers and newsreels, to reporting for Selective Service assignments after the U.S entered the war, and the sacrifices made by stateside families to support the war effort.
Speaking to a crowd packed in the historic courthouse in Leesburg, Gillespie noted that today’s residents could relive the experiences of those living in Loudoun a century ago.
“So, you’re at an historic site that looks now almost exactly as it did on that Monday 100 years ago today,” he said. “It’s almost frightening to stand on these steps and look out at King Street and realize that what I see now is so much exactly as it was a 100 years ago—which is a credit to Loudoun County people, isn’t it, to have been able to preserve that.”
Wartime in Loudoun
“When we went to war, Loudoun County was watching this through the Baltimore papers, occasionally a Washington paper. Our thought was fairly simple: How does this happen? We watched with the same horror that we’ve watched in the last week with mass shootings and the massive fires raging in California—with that kind of awed ‘oh my gosh’ not knowing what to make of it.”
For the first three years of the war, President Woodrow Wilson worked to maintain America’s neutrality and preserve its ability to act as a peacemaker. But as German attacks hit closer to home—with the sinking of the Lusitania and sabotage attacks—that neutrality increasingly was put to the test. The disclosure in early 1917 of the Zimmerman telegram in which Germany promised Mexico control of the American southwest if it joined an alliance against the U.S. prompted Wilson to ask for a declaration of war. “If you understand his commitment to peace, it was probably the single most difficult thing he ever did other than the day he had his stroke,” Gillespie said.
While entering the war to aid the Allies—Britain, France and Russia—federal leaders still sought to stand as the arbiter during the peace talks they were confident would follow. “What we don’t tell you is at that moment we entered the war we were frightfully afraid we were too late and that France and Britain were about to collapse,” Gillespie said. “The situation was dire at the point we entered but we usually don’t tell people that.”
The war effort geared up with a draft. All men ages 21 to 31 were required to report to their local board by June 5, 1917, for assignment. Through the selective service process, the draft board determined where the men could be put to the best use supporting the war effort. Gillespie said, for some that meant keeping the railroad going or remaining on the farm. For those tapped for military service, most were assigned to Camp Lee for training then transported by boat with submarine escort to Brittany, France, then carried in boxcars to the western front.
At home, residents supported the war effort by buying bonds—or more likely—the more affordable stamps to loan the government money to build its army. Providing food for the troops was also a critical role of residents, who practiced meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays to accomplish that goal without formal rationing. And the knitting of wool socks to send to soldiers in the cold, damp areas of France was also an important service, Gillespie said.
Of the 30 Loudoun men killed during their military service, two were killed in the Battle of Belleau Wood, the final German offensive in June 1918. At least six were killed during the Allies’ Meuse-Argonne Offensive—a six-week campaign to push the German army back on the Western Front that resulted in the armistice ending the war. It was a costly campaign, with 26,777 American soldiers killed and another 95,786 wounded.
“It will be the most disgusting military operations Americans have ever been involved in if you had to participate. I can’t even begin to tell you how difficult it was,” Gillespie said. “It’s between the Meuse River and the Argonne forest in this little valley that’s about the size of the Loudoun Valley and we lost what—casualties 125,000 people there—that’s stunning. So, think about what that did to Loudoun when they began to realize those statistics.”
Many of Loudoun’s war dead died from disease or during training or in post-armistice service.
Loudoun’s war veterans were honored during a July 25, 1919, ceremony at the courthouse where medals were presented by the people of Loudoun County in recognition of their service to those “who had gone through this great campaign to make the world safe for democracy,” Gillespie said.
The program also highlighted the contributions of other prominent Loudouners during the war.
Most important was Westmoreland Davis, who began his term as governor in February 1918 and formed close ties to the soldiers. “He became the doughboy’s best friend in as many ways as he could,” Gillespie said.
George C. Marshall entered the war as an army captain charged with training and planning for the 1stDivision. He won acclaim for the planning of the attack in the May 1918 Battle of Cantigny, which resulted in the first notable American victory. Marshall’s career was altered following a tense exchange with General John J. Pershing, when he objected to the commander’s criticism of a training exercise. Soon afterward, Marshall joined Pershing’s staff at the headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force and was instrumental in planning the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
Another Loudoun resident, William Corcoran Eustis, then the owner of Oatlands, also served on Pershing’s staff. Oatlandshas more than 200 letters he wrote home to his wife, Edith, during the war that provide insight into the not only the goings on in Paris but also the challenges of life back home, such as the rising cost of grain on the home front prompting talks of selling horses at the estate.
Upperville resident Rear Admiral Cary Travers Grayson served as President Wilson’s White House physician and served as an important advisor and confidant during the war.
The program concluded with a wreath-laying at the World War I memorial in the courthouse square. Members of the centennial committee read the names of the war dead listed on the monument and, when known, told of their war assignment and cause of death.