Remembering one of 10 million, 100 hundred years later

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.)

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Today’s ‘Fake News’ has nothing on yesterday’s Yellow Journalism

Over the past couple of years there has been increasing distrust of the media, evidenced most clearly by the tag line “Fake News” that are often appended to stories which are in reality little more than an opposing viewpoint.

Some media consumers, unfortunately, are unable to differentiate between stories which occasionally report erroneous information inadvertently and the idea that journalists are purposely misreporting information to undercut those whose politics they disagree with.

Yes, some journalists, particularly those working at high-paying positions in the nation’s media centers, tend to be insulated in a world which is far different from that of most middle- and lower-class individuals, which results in an echo chamber of sorts.

But for those who believe that today’s media is intentionally lying in what they report, one need consider the media of the past.  Among the best-known examples is the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898. Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst ginned up false articles about a plot by Spain to sink the ship in Havana Harbor, helping precipitate the Spanish-American War.

Wartime, at least in recent decades, has proven to be a breeding ground for baseless media reports, perhaps in part because censorship has been doled out with a far heavier hand as the world has become more literate.

In World War I, for example, newspapers from both Entente and Central Powers nations created stories out of whole cloth, including fictitious stories about major battles, well-known warships being sunk and key military and political figures being killed.

Consider this excerpt from Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, describing French newspapers’ preoccupation with reporting on the welfare of Wilhelm, the German crown prince, son of Kaiser Wilhelm and commander of the German 5th Army during the early months of the war:

“On 5 August he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Berlin; on the 15th seriously wounded on the French front and removed to hospital; on the 24th subject to another assassination attempt; on 4 September he committed suicide, though he was resurrected on 18 October to be wounded again; on the 20th his wife was watching over his death bed; but on 3 November he was certified insane.”

Of course, as Hastings points out, no one of these stories contained the smallest element of truth. Was it malicious, reporting on rumors, wishful thinking, or simply journalists looking to fill space? One hundred-plus years later it’s hard to say.

Despite French media reports to the contrary, Wilhelm survived not only World War I, but also World War, living until 1941.

Today, unfortunately, there are those who believe what they want to believe when it comes to the media.

For the rest of us, a healthy dose of skepticism and an understanding that no journalist wants to go hat in hand to his or her editor and tell them their outlet needs to run a correction should be of assistance in keeping one’s composure when the news rubs one the wrong way.

(Top: Wilhelm, crown prince of Germany, with cane, having survived numerous “near-death” experiences in just the first few months of World War I.)

Wreck of Australia’s first sub, lost in 1914, discovered

Australia’s most-enduring naval mystery was solved this week with the discovery of its first submarine, which went missing off the coast of Papua New Guinea in the opening weeks of World War I.

HMAS AE1 disappeared on Sept. 14, 1914, after a successful mission to help capture the territory then known as German New Guinea. It had been in service just seven months.

The submarine went down with 35 men onboard. AE1 was the first Allied submarine lost in the First World War and the first ship lost by the Royal Australian Navy.

AE1, which had a crew made up of men from Australians, New Zealand and Great Britain on board, was found in nearly 1,000 feet of water, off the coast of the Duke of York Islands, in east Papua New Guinea.

“After 103 years, Australia’s oldest naval mystery has been solved,” Defense Minister Marise Payne told reporters in Sydney. “This is one of the most significant discoveries in Australia’s naval maritime history… The loss of AE1 in 1914 was a tragedy for our then fledgling nation.”

The expedition that discovered the sub was the 13th search for the craft since 1976. AE1 was found by the search vessel Fugro Equator, which was also used by Australia to hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

The official cause behind the loss of AE1 has yet to be determined. However, retired Rear Admiral Peter Briggs, who worked on the search, told The Australian that he believed the cause was most likely “a diving accident,” according to a story in The Guardian.

“The submarine appears to have struck the bottom with sufficient force to dislodge the fin from its footing, forcing it to hinge forward on its leading edge, impacting the casing,” he said.

A small commemorative service was held upon the discovery of AE1 by those aboard the search vessel, and descendants of the crew will be notified of the finding.

“For Navy, it demonstrates the persistence of a view that fellow mariners always have – that is, we always seek to find those who have sacrificed so much for our country [so they can] actually lay to rest,” said Royal Australian Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett.

(Top: AE1, foreground, with other Australian ships off Rabaul on Sept. 9, 1914, less than a week before it sank.)

How red poppies came to be given out on Memorial Day

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

– John McCrae

In Flanders Fields, among the most iconic war poems even penned, was written in May 1915 by Canadian physician and Lt. Col. John McCrae after he witnessed the death of his 22-year-old friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, at the Second Battle of Ypres.

McCrae performed Helmer’s burial service himself, during which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed In Flanders Field while sitting in the back of an ambulance at a medical station outside Ypres.

McCrae’s references to the red poppies resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world’s most recognized symbols for soldiers lost in war.

McRae never got an opportunity to reap recognition for his poem.

In January 1918, while commanding a Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne in Northern France, McCrae died of pneumonia at age 45. He was buried with full honors in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Wimereux, just north of Boulogne.

Helmer and McRae were two of approximately 67,000 Canadians who died in service during World War I. In all, some 39 percent of Canadians mobilized for war in the 1914-18 conflict were killed or wounded.

Proof of Turkish complicity in Armenian genocide revealed

Genocide stains the annals of the 20th century like a macabre decoration – from the Holocaust to Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukrainians to Pol Pot’s killing fields to slaughter in Rwanda.

The first official genocide of the last century began with the organized killing of Armenians by the then Ottoman Empire in 1915, an event that claimed as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or about 75 percent of all Armenians in what is today Turkey.

The liquidation – carried out under the cover of World War I – was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied males through massacre and forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and the infirm on death marches to the Syrian desert in which victims were deprived of food and water, and subjected to robbery, rape and massacre.

Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman perpetrators, has long denied a state role in the killing of Armenians. Despite the testimony of thousands of Armenian survivors, it has resisted the word genocide, saying that the suffering of the Armenians occurred during the chaos of a world war in which Turkish Muslims faced hardship, too.

Turkey also claimed that the Armenians were traitors, and had been planning to join with Russia, then an enemy of the Ottoman Empire. That position is deeply ingrained in Turkish culture with a majority of Turks sharing the government’s position.

Recently, however, Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said he has discovered a “smoking gun” that implicates the Turks, an original telegram introduced as evidenced in the 1919-20 trials connected to the deaths of the Armenians, in an archive held by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, according to the New York Times.

Akcam, who has studied the genocide for decades by piecing together documents from around the world to establish state complicity in the killings, said he hoped the evidence would remove “the last brick in the denialist wall.”

“The story begins in 1915 in an office in the Turkish city of Erzurum, when a high-level official of the Ottoman Empire punched out a telegram in secret code to a colleague in the field, asking for details about the deportations and killings of Armenians in eastern Anatolia, the easternmost part of contemporary Turkey,” according to the Times.

A deciphered copy of the telegram was used to help convict the official, Behaeddin Shakir, for planning the organized killing of Armenians in trials held shortly after the end of World War I.

Turkish officials attempted – successfully – to place blame during the trials on a small number of officials, rather than the deaths being correctly expressed as a statewide effort. Those found guilty were either in hiding or given light sentences.

Soon after the trial most of the original documents and sworn testimony disappeared, leaving researchers to rely mostly on summaries from the official Ottoman newspaper. Turkey has been able to deny the genocide partly because so many of the records of the court proceedings were destroyed or somehow vanished, leaving only historians’ accounts and journalists’ accounts, which could be dismissed as biased.

“What we were missing in Armenian genocide is the so-called smoking gun because all relevant documents were taken out from Ottoman archive or all these materials – telegrams, eyewitness accounts, they were all gone,” Akcam told National Public Radio. “We didn’t know whereabouts of all these documents. And mainly, the denial strategy was ‘show us the originals.’ So I discovered in a private archive this telegram.”

The telegram would likely have remained forever lost were it not for Akcam’s sleuthing.

As Turkish nationalists were about to seize the country in 1922, the Armenian leadership in Istanbul shipped 24 boxes of court records to England for safekeeping, according to the Times.

“The records were kept there by a bishop, then taken to France and, later, to Jerusalem. They have remained there since the 1930s, part of a huge archive that has mostly been inaccessible to scholars, for reasons that are not entirely clear,” the publication added. “Mr. Akcam said he had tried for years to gain access to the archive, with no luck.”

He did, though, find a photographic record of the Jerusalem archive in New York, held by the nephew of an Armenian monk, now dead, who was a survivor of the genocide.

“The telegram was written under Ottoman letterhead and coded in Arabic lettering; four-digit numbers denoted words. When Mr. Akcam compared it with the known Ottoman Interior Ministry codes from the time, found in an official archive in Istanbul, he found a match, raising the likelihood that many other telegrams used in the postwar trials could one day be verified in the same way,” the Times wrote.

For historians, the court cases were one piece of a mountain of evidence that emerged over the years – including reports in several languages from diplomats, missionaries and journalists who witnessed the events as they happened – that established the historical fact of the killings and qualified them as genocide.

While many countries, including France, Germany, Greece and the Vatican, have recognized what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as genocide, the United States has refrained from using that term, not wishing to alienate Turkey, a NATO ally and a partner in its fight against terrorism in the Middle East.

Akcam told NPR that the Turkish government must now develop new strategies to deny the Armenian genocide.

“They cannot deny as they have been denying over the years,” he said. “It is over now. There is no way to escape. They have to face this reality. This is a telegram with an Ottoman letterhead and we with the Ottoman coding system.”

(Top: Armenian mother kneeling beside her dead child near Aleppo, Syria, one of many who died crossing the Syrian desert during the Armenian genocide.) 

Memorial Day: Remembering three men from three wars

George Koon 2 cropped

It’s difficult to walk through any older Southern cemetery and not find gravestones identifying individuals who gave their lives for their country.

Even if one doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of Confederate dead that dot cemeteries from Virginia to Florida, the Carolinas to Texas, there are many, many thousands who died in the line of duty, whether it was during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars of the 1830s, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or the other conflicts the US has been involved in over the past 240 years.

In a small church cemetery in the South Carolina Midlands rest the remains of three men who died during three major conflicts that the United States participated in during roughly the first half of the 20th century,

Each died in very different times under very different circumstances, yet all are buried in Old Lexington Baptist Church Cemetery within about 15 feet of each other.

Milton Wilkins Shirey was a private in Company B, 31st US Infantry Regiment who perished of pneumonia on Dec. 12, 1919, in Siberia, at age 19.

Gravestone for Pvt. Milton W. Shirey.

Gravestone for Pvt. Milton W. Shirey.

US involvement in Siberia is a little-known aspect of the Great War. President Woodrow Wilson sent several thousand troops to Vladivostok in 1918 following the October Revolution for a number of reasons, including aiding in the rescue 40,000 members of the Czechoslovak Legions, who were being held up by Bolshevik forces as they attempted to make their way along the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific, where they hoped they could eventually make their way back around the world to the Western Front.

Also, Wilson wanted to protect large quantities of military supplies and railroad rolling stock that the US had sent to the Russian Far East in support of the prior Russian government’s war efforts on the Eastern Front.

Weather conditions made the Siberian experience a miserable one. There were problems with fuel, ammo, supplies and food, and horses suffered terribly in the sub-zero Russian winter.

Troops struggled, as well. During the American Expeditionary Force’s 19 months in Siberia, 189 soldiers, including Shirey, died.

It took four months for the US government to get Shirey’s body back home to South Carolina, where hundreds attended his funeral in April 1920.

Pvt. Ulysess S.G. Shealy, 23, was killed in action Sept. 27, 1944, in Italy. Details of his service, unit, and where he was killed are sketchy, but online records do show that Shealy’s remains weren’t returned to the US for burial until March 1949.

Gravestone for Pvt. Ulysess S. Shealy.

Gravestone for Pvt. Ulysess S. Shealy.

Given that 73,000 American dead from World War II are still missing in action, though, of course, presumed deceased, just the fact that Shealy’s body was returned to his home state was no small feat.

Finally there is the grave of Sgt. First Class George Walter Koon. Koon, 36, enlisted in the US Army in 1936 and served for nearly 15 years.

He was taken captive by Chinese forces on Dec. 1, 1950, after the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, a fierce conflict between Chinese and American troops.

Evidence shows he died of neglect, specifically malnutrition, gangrene and dysentery, while being marched from Kunu-ri to a POW camp along the Yalu River, military records show.

Sgt. Koon was one of 11 individuals whose bodies were found in a mass grave by US authorities, assisted by North Korean officials, in 2002. In 2005, Koon’s brother Carl gave a blood sample and the military was eventually able to match it with the remains.

A funeral service for Koon was held in May 2008 at Old Lexington Baptist Church Cemetery, 57 years after his death.

Three men, ranging from a 19-year old just out of high school to a career soldier nearly twice his age. Men whose causes of death ranged from illness, to wounds and neglect, to being killed in action. Men who died thousands of miles from their homes in the rural South. It was scene played out, of course, all across the United States.

Each, sadly, is a story that was repeated tens of thousands of times in the 20th century alone. It continues today.

There are those who believe war is wrong under all circumstances; it certainly is a terribly unfortunate occurrence.

This Memorial Day many in the US will give little more than a glancing thought – if that – to the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for their nation. There are many in other parts of the world, including South Korea and Italy, though, who still remember.

Bidding adieu to a century of history; holding on to memories

sigma-nu-maine 3 retouched

Sometime this summer the University of Maine will demolish the Sigma Nu fraternity house, a structure that has been a part of its campus for nearly a century. The fraternity chapter’s 99-year lease expires next year and the house is in need of serious repairs.

The university, in its ever-generous magnanimity, had offered to extend the lease by “seven or eight” years if the house were renovated or up to 15 years if it received a significant overhaul to bring it up to date. Costs for such renovation have been estimated at $1 million.

The fraternity, which owns the house but not the land on which the structure sits, will instead give the building, built during World War I, to the university, which will then raze it in order to create a parking lot.

I spent three years living in what we referred to as the “Great White Castle of Sigma Nu overlooking the placid Stillwater River in beautiful Orono, Maine.” (The structure was white and great, and the river placid, but I’m not sure how beautiful Orono, Maine, was – then or now.)

The chapter has been on the ropes of late: It was suspended for five years in 2012 for alcohol violations, and the house has been leased to another fraternity for the past couple of years.

And while there’s no question that the house is in need of renovation, it also offers the university a convenient excuse to do away with another vestige of the Greek system.

University officials around the nation and not a few in the mainstream media have had fraternities in their sights for some time, accusing them of elitism, classism and sexism, among other “isms.”

While there is no question that some fraternity chapters have committed serious improprieties over the years, lumping all fraternity members into the category of alcohol-abusing date-raping Neanderthals is simplistic and grossly inaccurate.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house, likely taken in 1940s.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house at University of Maine, likely taken in 1940s.

As a pledge, the worst hazing I was subject to was being “forced” to drink beer – lots of beer. (Yeah, it was hell.) There was no paddling, no humiliation and no weirdness.

My time at Sigma Nu was spent with a pretty good group of guys. Unlike the stereotype, none were rich – in fact, as far as I know, all were middle class, ranging from a small number of upper middle class to a small number of lower middle class. Most were somewhere in the middle.

Some were more into school than others, but most of us graduated. Some went on to become doctors and lawyers, others firemen and salesmen. In other words, pretty much like students from any college dorm.

And I don’t recall the police arresting anyone for a felony (not that there weren’t some very stupid misdemeanors committed).

A handful of things I recall about the house:

  • The third-story floor had thousands of tiny marks from fraternity members, in training for service in World War I, trying on their hobnail boots;
  • The time an aging fraternity member stopped by to visit and told of a fellow brother who, during World War II, while flying a B-17 bomber on a training mission from the air base at nearby Bangor, put his plane into a full screaming plunge at the house before pulling up at the last moment, than waggling the plane’s wings before heading back to the base;
  • The rats that lived in the basement. They had moved into the house through pipes in the mid-1950s when a neighboring fraternity house burned;
  • The awful paint schemes that existed throughout the house. It costs a lot of money to paint the interior of a 13,000-square-foot structure, so we were always looking for a bargain on paint, and stores don’t put their top-selling brands or colors on special. We must have got one heck of a deal on lemon yellow; and
  • The aging piano that sat in the living room. It was at least 40 years old in the late 1980s, and probably had had a thousand gallons of beer spilled on it over the decades, but it still worked. There was always someone with enough musical ability to play an intro to a rock song on it. One of my pledge brothers, for example, could knock out the start to “Home Sweet Home,” by Motley Crue.

Of course I’m disappointed that the university will knock down a structure that’s been around for two-thirds of the history of the 151-year-old school. But I also realize that given the environment we live in today, the days of fraternities in general are likely numbered.

It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve seen my old fraternity house and nearly as long since I’ve seen any of my fraternity brothers. When you live 1,200 miles from your alma mater – and the general area where most of your college buddies still reside – it’s tough to drop in for a visit.

But “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” will always be connected by our experiences in the grand old house of Sigma Nu, whether it’s standing or exists only in our memories.