Remembering what Memorial Day is about

ravenel photo

For the past two Memorial Days, this blog has focused on a single individual: Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr., a South Carolinian who was killed in the final 24 hours of World War I.

Ravenel came from Sumter County and is buried in a historic churchyard in a small, withering community. Given that he died nearly 95 years ago, it unlikely that anyone who knew and remembers Ravenel is alive today.

That makes his story just one of many million that is all but forgotten today, but which represents the real, genuine sacrifice that Memorial Day is meant to honor.

Ravenel hailed from a noted family and was known throughout the state, according to a newspaper article written about him by The State following his death. In addition, 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 near Columbia, SC, 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 noted that he “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 hang back and keep out of harm’s way.

Of course, there were many needless deaths in the war’s final hours as high-ranking paper pushers sent troops forward into danger as they sought one last accomplishment for their resumes.

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

Ravenel clippingThat 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 realize that two years after the Battle of Verdun ended men were still dying in the area along the Meuse River.

When I first wrote about Ravenel I had few details about his death, but last year an individual named Mary Ann Bagwell posted a pair of newspaper clippings in the comments section on my Memorial Day story about Ravenel that helped fill in some of the gaps.

Among information Bagwell was kind enough to forward was a copy of Second Lieutenant Herbert R. Stender’s after battle-report, filed on Nov. 14, 1918.

Stender, of Charleston, served under Ravenel in France. According Stender’s report, at about 4 p.m. on Nov. 10 he was ordered to gather a detail of two noncommissioned officers and four privates from his platoon and patrol an area up to the limit of the territory held by the 324th Infantry, then return with his information before dark.

Stender’s detail left a short while later and after about a mile came across the “dead body of Corporal Burgess of ‘B’ Company,” he wrote. “I then realized that something was wrong because Corporal Burgess’ death was caused by machine gun bullets and not by a sniper.”

Stender and his men proceeded cautiously in the same direction and was within 200 yards of Bois de Chabotte when Stender heard “cries of some distress.”

“… 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,” Stender wrote.

“He recognized me at once and requested me to take him away before the Boche (Germans) could return and get him,” Stender continued. “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.”

Stender’s patrol then proceeded to bring Ravenel back to the American lines, but Ravenel died en route.

Stender added that the task of recovering Ravenel’s body in was an arduous one: “… we had to go through a swamp covered with shell holes and enemy wire (and the) patrol was under heavy artillery and machine gun fire the whole time while they were returning …”

Sadly, it was likely many weeks before Ravenel’s family was notified of his death.

One can’t help but imagine the shock and grief his wife and family suffered through 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 the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg, SC, in the summer of 1921.

Ravenel was one of several World War I casualties from South Carolinians whose remains were returned home to the Palmetto State on Aug. 5, 1921, according to a newspaper account.

The others included Private Williams D. Wells, of Greenville, killed on Nov. 11, 1918, the day the armistice was signed; Private Oscar Camp, Gaffney; Private James M. Lynn, Rock Hill; Private Henry K. Brown, Saluda; Private Jesse J. Moore, Westminster; Private Richard Williams, Jefferson; and Private L.T. Dickson, Kings Creek.

Ravenel and his World War I compatriots have been at rest for nearly a century.

We would do well to put down the beer and boiled peanuts for at least a few moments to reflect on their sacrifices – and those of all veterans who have given their lives for our nation – on this Memorial Day, despite the decades that have passed.

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