Memorial Day and short-term memories

A trip to Memorial Park in Columbia, SC, Monday found a smattering of people inspecting around the various monuments to those who gave their lives while in military service.

Were it not for an extended family from Pascagoula, Miss., passing through, there would have been barely a dozen individuals on hand on this Memorial Day, most of them Vietnam-era veterans.

It was a paltry showing given that the park is dedicated to those who lost their lives in Vietnam, Korea, World War II, World War I and, specifically, the Holocaust.

But, then again, Americans have always tended to be a forward-looking group. This isn’t always a bad thing, but there’s a certain sadness that comes with the recognition that our society as a whole has limited interest in showing its appreciation to so many of its young men and women who died in service to their country.

Politicians will roll out the platitudes at the proper times, families who have lost loved ones will grieve in their own private way and a small percentage will genuinely make an effort to recall those who gave their lives for the US.

Except for the latter two groups, most Americans see Memorial Day as little more than just another holiday, a chance to cook out, swim at the local neighborhood association pool and knock back a few beers.

It may not be the America that those that gave their lives would have wanted to die for.Last year on Memorial Day, I wrote about a South Carolinian, Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr., who died less than 24 hours before the end of World War I.

His story is among the millions that are almost completely forgotten today, but without which it would be impossible to say where we’d be as a nation.

Consider that if the powers-that-be hadn’t been so intent on pushing back the end of the four-year-long conflict to the ominous-sounding “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, Ravenel could well have survived to return home to family and friends.

Ravenel came from Stateburg, the Sumter County community made famous by Gen. Thomas Sumter.

Hailing from a well-known family, Ravenel was known throughout the state, according to a newspaper article written about him by The State following his death, and he was acknowledged as Sumter County’s first volunteer following President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of War in 1917.

Commissioned as a lieutenant, Ravenel was stationed at what was then Camp Jackson before being sent overseas as a member of the 316th machine gun battalion of the American Expeditionary Force.

News accounts of Ravenel’s death describe him as a “brave soldier and was highly esteemed by a wide circle of friends.” He was promoted to captain during his service on the Western Front.

An indication of his bravery may be the fact that he was killed on Nov. 10, 1918, the final full day of the war. Rumors were rampant by this point that an armistice was imminent and many soldiers were understandably content to essentially sit back and keep out of harm’s way.

Ravenel was killed in action near Verdun, France. Verdun, of course, had gained fame a couple of years earlier as one of the longest and most devastating battles of not just World War I, but in the history of warfare.

That protracted struggle resulted in more than 300,000 battlefield deaths (163,000 French and 143,000 German), plus at least 500,000 wounded; an average of 1,000 deaths a day for each of the 10 months of the battle.

Few today realized that two years after the Battle of Verdun ended men were still dying in the area along the Meuse River.

It’s unclear from the limited sources available today – more than 90 years after Ravenel’s death – how he died. It does appear that it was many weeks before his family was notified.

One can only imagine the shock and grief his wife and the rest of his family must have felt at receiving the sad news after having just celebrated the end of the horrific four-year conflict, likely overjoyed at the mistaken belief that Ravenel had survived.

Ravenel’s body wasn’t returned to the US for nearly three years, when he was interred in the family burial plot at Stateburg’s Church of the Holy Cross in August 1921.

Ravenel and many of his compatriots have been at rest for more than 90 years; we would do well to put down the beer and boiled peanuts for at least a few minutes to reflect on their sacrifices on this Memorial Day – and every day we enjoy the freedoms they were willing to give their lives for – despite the decades that have passed.

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4 thoughts on “Memorial Day and short-term memories

  1. “Consider that if the powers-that-be hadn’t been so intent on pushing back the end of the four-year-long conflict to the ominous-sounding ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ of 1918, Ravenel could well have survived to return home to family and friends.”

    But consider also that if the would-be warriors were a little less eager to “serve” without question, the powers-that-be just might think twice about wasting lives so callously. By all means, let’s honor those who’ve been sacrificed in the past. Going forward, let’s abjure the folly of war as never before!

  2. REMAINS OF CAPT. RAVENEL REACH COLUMBIA – KILLED IN ACTION WITH 316TH M.G. BATTALION

    Columbia, August 5. – the remains of nine South Carolinians, among twenty-three sent from Hoboken, reached here today, men who lost their lives fighting the German. Included in the shipment are the bodies of Private Williams D. Wells, of Greenville, who was killed on the day the armistice was signed, and the body also of Captain Theodore Ravenel, of Wedgefield, of the 316th Machine Gun Battalion, who was killed two days before the fighting ceased. He was Sumter County’s first volunteer and was leading a patrol of four men in search of a machine gun nest when he was killed. One of his men was killed, another wounded and he ordered the other two to surrender. He was later picked up by Lieut. Herbert Stender, of Charleston.
    Others in the shipment today were Private Oscar Camp, of Gaffney; James M. Lynn, of Rock Hill; Henry K. Brown, of Saluda; Jesse J. Moore, Westminster; Richard Williams, Jefferson, and L.T. Dickson, Kings Creek

    Co. “A” 316th Machine Gun Battalion.
    Haudainville, France.
    November 14, 1918

    Report of reconnaissance patrol November 10, 1918 under the Command of 2nd Lieut. Herbert R. Stender.

    At about four P.M. November 10, 1918, Captain Morgan gave me orders to take a detail of two noncommissioned officers and four privates from my platoon and to patrol the area North East of Watronville as far as the lines supposed to have been held by the 324th Infantry and to bring back as much information as possible before dark. With a detail of six picked men I proceeded at once in the direction as ordered, and after having gone about one mile from the company, I came across the dead body of Corporal Burgess of “B” Company. I then realized that something was wrong because Corporal Burgess’ death was caused by machine gun bullets and not by a sniper; so I proceeded cautiously in the same direction as before and was within two hundred yards of the Bois de Chabotte when I heard cries of some distress. I located the direction of the cries and went to the spot, where to my surprise and sorrow, I found Captain Ravenel of “B” Company. He had been shot through the leg with machine gun bullets and his leg was broken. He recognised me at once and requested me to take him away before the Boche could return and get him. I called my patrol to the spot and we fixed the Captain as comfortably as possible. The captain cautioned us to keep down and to get away as soon as possible because the woods in front of us were infested with machine guns and that the Boche would open up on us right away. We then picked up the Captain and took him back to our company, the Captain dying on the way in. The task of bringing the Captain’s body in was an arduous one as we had to go through a swamp covered with shell holes and enemy wire. This patrol was under heavy artillery and machinegun fire the whole time while they were returning and with utter disregard for their own safety, they brought the Captain’s body in.

    I would especially report the actions of the whole patrol, but those of Sgt. Winstead’s in particular who showed every quality of leadership in encouraging the men to keep down and to continue in their task. His devotion to duty in the face of danger was a fine example of an heroic spirit.

    Signature
    Herbert R. Stender
    2nd Lt. Inf. U.S.A.

    • Thank you for sending this; it’s timely given that Captain Ravenel died on this date 94 years ago today. It’s also very interesting to know the details of his last patrol.

      I have to wonder, though, if patrols such as the one he was sent on were necessary. The Kaiser had abdicated the day before, Germany was on collapsing internally and its troops were exhausted and played out. Certainly the Allied leaders had to have known this and could have held off putting men at risk the final day or two.

      Of course, in retrospect the entire war was a waste.

  3. Pingback: Remembering what Memorial Day is about | The Cotton Boll Conspiracy

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