One hundred years ago today Capt. Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr. was killed in fighting on the Western Front. Sadly, he died just one day before the end of the Great War.
Even sadder, given the confusion of war, his family did not find out for some time afterward, so they initially believed he had survived the terrible conflict that claimed 10 million lives.
Ravenel was from a rural community in Sumter County, S.C. He was described as a “brave soldier” and it was noted that he “was highly esteemed by a wide circle of friends.”
That he was brave is indicated by the fact that he was killed on final full day of the war. With German allies Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire already having surrendered, rumors were rampant by early November 1918 that an armistice was imminent. Many soldiers on both sides were understandably content to do their best to just keep out of harm’s way.
Still, high-ranking officers in the rear continued to send men forward, many times only to add to their own personal accolades, resulting in needless deaths in the war’s final hours.
Ravenel, a member of the American Expeditionary Force’s 316th Machine Gun Battalion, was killed near Verdun, France. Verdun had seen some of the worst fighting of the war, and in the history of warfare, in 1916, and the area remained a hot zone throughout the remainder of the conflict.
An after-action report by 2nd Lieutenant Herbert R. Stender, who served under Ravenel, recounted the details regarding latter’s death.
According Stender’s Nov. 14, 1918, 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 …”
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 Carolina whose remains were returned 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.
It would be nice to be able to write that Ravenel and the tens of thousands of other U.S. troops who gave their lives in World War I died for a worthwhile cause.
Given that World War II, with all its accompanying horrors, would be spawned from the carnage of the Great War, though, it’s hard to believe much good came from the First World War.
And today, the centennial of World War I has largely gone unnoticed in the United States, from the war’s beginnings in Europe to U.S. involvement in 1917 to its last days in November 1918.
We plod merrily along, glutting ourselves with consumer goods, social media minutiae and pointless political squabbling, oblivious to the hardship and sacrifice of 1914-18. Meanwhile,
In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row
As they have for a full century now.
(Top: Gravestone of Capt. Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr., in Church of the Holy Cross Cemetery, Stateburg, SC.)