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A Good Doctor, a Good Man, a Good Life Cut Short

 

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It was a cloudy Saturday, April 27, 1918. A light spring rain was falling when the phone rang in the Milligan household on South Lake Street Road in Pavilion. The news that Mrs. Milligan received when she took the call still echoes with sadness today, 100 years later.

Doctor John Deming Arnett, the town’s popular young physician, had been killed in action “over there” in France. He was Genesee County’s first World War combat casualty.

“His untimely death has moved the community to grief over his early demise and sympathy for his young wife.”

 

 

The call came from the brother of Dr. Arnett’s 25-year-old wife, Florence, who was living with her parents in Albion while her husband was overseas. She had received the  telegram from the War Department that morning. “Deeply regret to inform you,” it began.

The couple had been married barely more than a year.

It was a tragic ending to what had been a storybook start promising a bright future.

Dr John D Arnett, 1914
Hospital of the Good Shepherd

In 1916, Dr. Arnett, a bachelor from Medina who’d graduated from Albany Medical College in 1914 and recently completed his internship at the Hospital of the Good Shepherd in Syracuse, moved to the peaceful small town of Pavilion to set up a practice.

At first, he stayed with and took patients in the Milligans’ home. Later, he rented an office and quarters above the bank building in town, where he brought his new bride after they married in January, 1917.

In ordinary times the story probably would’ve continued as promised; the doctor and his wife building a comfortable and happy life together in the village, perhaps raising a family, the years turning to decades, the decades to lives fulfilled as good neighbors and valued members of the community.

But the times were hardly ordinary. Three months after John and Florence’s wedding day, the United States declared war on Germany. Europe was self-destructing. Britain and France were reeling from bloody losses.

It would take months for America to equip and send an Army. But the Allies had another pressing need that could be filled sooner: trained doctors.

The call went out. Applications appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association. “OFFER YOUR SERVICES,” an editorial read. “This gives each physician the opportunity TO ACT AT ONCE.”

The doctor from Pavilion submitted his application, and on August 2 he was called into active service in Washington, DC.  On September 18, 1917, the newly minted Lieutenant John D Arnett, Army Medical Officers Reserve Corps, left the United States for war-ravaged Europe aboard SS St. Paul.

Arriving in England, the doctor spent that fall working in Royal Army Medical Corps hospitals, primarily the 5th Southern General Hospital in coastal Portsmouth.

Wounded British soldiers waiting for transport.

At the city’s busy port, hospital ships from France unloaded thousands of maimed and gassed soldiers who’d managed to survive the battlefield and the grueling chain of field medics, dressing stations,  burn and gas centers, casualty clearing stations, and painful transport over rough roads in wagons or lorries filled with groaning and dying comrades to reach—at last—home ground and—perhaps, with the help of men like Dr. Arnett—a chance for recovery.

It was here that Dr. Arnett gained first-hand experience in treating the ghastly wounds of war. He would soon need it.

At the turn of 1918, Dr. Arnett was sent to France, arriving there on January 6—his first wedding anniversary. He was assigned to the 99th Field Ambulance, a mobile medical unit in the British Expeditionary Forces’ 33rd Division. The unit’s main dressing station at the time was just west of the city of Ypres, Belgium—or what was left of it.

The ruins of Ypres, Belgium, December 27, 1917, three weeks before Dr. Arnett’s arrival.

Ypres was at the core of a bulge in the British line, enveloped on three sides by enemy troops. British and German forces had been slugging it out since July in the infamously bloody Battle of Passchendaele, a town just northeast of Ypres that British forces had finally taken in November but were only barely holding. The conflict is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, for the city had been the center of two previous major battles for control, and near-constant combat since 1914. Estimates of the total casualties on all sides during the three battles range from 800,000 to one million soldiers.

Returning from the front near Ypres.

The landscape for miles was nothing but watery shell holes, debris, and desolation. The cold, wet terrain, churned by daily artillery bombardments, was a sea of mud 15 feet deep or more. The few roads stood like shallow dams barely above the mire. Soldiers  walking perilous duckboard trails could slip and be sucked into the muck to their deaths.

 

Almost immediately, Dr. Arnett was put in charge of patients at a gas and wound station in the ruins of Ypres’ former prison.

A team of RAMC stretcher bearers.

Days later, he was assigned to an advanced dressing station even nearer the front lines, where he and his station’s stretcher bearers worked ceaselessly, often under fire, to retrieve and treat wounded troops.

It was the first of what over the next three months would be many rotations for the physician between gas and disease treatment centers, advanced dressing stations, and combat-line infantry stations.

In the midst of all this, possibly as a way to anchor his sanity, Dr. Arnett managed to write many letters home, corresponding with friends and family and former patients in Pavilion. On January 26, 1918, he wrote to his mother:

“I have just come from the line where I have put in my second trip in 8 days . . . . I got along fine up the line and was a much braver man than I thought I was.”

The doctor continued, “They threw over a lot of gas shells during the night but I had a man on guard to awake us if any gas came near. I got so I could sleep with big 8 inch guns bellowing all night within a few yards of me.”

He described one of the horrors of war, using an ironic opening line to soften the image for his mother at home in Knowlesville:

“I have seen some wonderful sights lately. I drained a shell hole and found five bodies partially uncovered just their heads and shoulders protruding into a shell hole. We gave them a reburial and put a cross up.”

On March 29, 1918, German forces launched a massive spring offensive across the Western Front. In Flanders, the German Fourth and Sixth Armies attacked from south of Ypres, and were pushing north and west, attempting to take the hills below Ypres, then the city itself. Their goal was to drive the British  and French in southwest Belgium and northern France toward the English Channel.

An RAMC advanced dressing station.

The 33rd Division was rushed south to reinforce embattled English troops, who were taking heavy casualties and falling back all along the line. Throughout early April the  99th Field Ambulance moved with the struggling infantry, setting up dressing stations behind the lines as needed to treat casualties as the Germans continued to push ahead.

On April 13, the 99th established its main dressing station at an army camp in Berthen, a few miles northwest of the British-held town of Bailleul, where German troops were attacking.

Barricade in Bailleul hours before it fell.

The next day, the 14th, Dr. Arnett was assigned to an advanced dressing station barely more than a mile from the fighting in Bailleul.

On the 15th, despite stiff British resistance, additional German attacks overran the town.

Dr. Arnett and his aides evacuated, returning to Berthen that evening.

 

Doctor John Deming Arnett was killed at Berthen the next day, April 16, when the camp was shelled while he was tending to the many wounded from the battles at Beilluel.

An article in the May 22, 1918 LeRoy Gazette-News relayed the details of  his death as described by his mother-in-law, Mrs. Charles Sayers, in a letter to a friend in Pavilion. “Dr. Arnett was standing talking with three others, three miles back of the front line trenches, when a German shell exploded near them, a piece of it striking Dr. Arnett on the chest,” reads the article. “He lived ten minutes, but he did not speak.”

On April 10, 1918, six days before he was killed, Dr. Arnett wrote in a letter to Lula Pyatt, one of his patients in Pavilion:

“[I’m] Getting to be an experienced warrior now, but it is not a pleasant thing to get used to. The quietness of Pavilion would suit me better.”

The young doctor was buried the following day at a Trappist monastery atop Mont des Cats, a tree-covered ridge overlooking Berthen and the surrounding countryside.

Mrs. Virginia Arnett at her son’s grave.

After the war, Dr. Arnett’s remains were interred at Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, Belgium, where his mother visited his grave in 1931 on a Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimage, and where he rests in peace and quiet today with 375 of his fellow Americans.

 

 

 

 

 


For source references and documents, and to read more information about Doctor Arnett’s life, see his Genesee County Honor Roll profile here.


Credits

Graduation photo courtesy of Albany Medical College Archives; Hospital of the Good Shepherd postcard retrieved from U.S. National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections (https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-101459758-img); “Wounded British Soldiers Waiting,” © IWM, Imperial War Museum (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196017); “Ruins of Ypres,” National Archives Photo No. 165-BO-1702 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16581254); “British Soldiers Returning,” National Archives Photo No. 165-BO-1433 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16580716); “RAMC Stretcher Bearers,” © IWM, Imperial War Museum  (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205238026); “RAMC Advanced Dressing Station,” © IWM, Imperial War Museum (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196017); “Barricade at Bailleul,” National Archives Photo No. 165-BO-0751 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16579166); Arnett officer photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/genealogy/amabiopage.html); Mrs. Virginia Arnett at grave photo courtesy of Millicent Arnett Matson.

Hundreds Leave the County to Serve–and War’s Harsh Realities Come Home

 

In Genesee County on New Year’s Day morning, the dawn of 1918, the thermometer plunged to two below. Over the next six weeks, the temperature rarely rose above zero.

But it wasn’t merely the weather that brought a chill to Genesee County that winter.

[Click on articles/documents for full view in separate tab]

 

The war in Europe was no longer just “over there.” Its impact had come home. The nation was straining to house, clothe, equip, transport and feed an army at home and abroad, while continuing to support its allies with supplies and provide relief to the violence-ravaged people of France and Belgium.

Fuel and food shortages were felt in every American home and business.

 

January 14, 1918 LeRoy Gazette-News (L) and Batavia Daily News (R)

The fuel situation became so severe that by mid-January the government had ordered all factories east of the Mississippi to close for five days,  and to close on every following Monday for six weeks. Hundreds in the county lost work hours.

Retail stores and business offices would have to close, too.

Warming weather allowed the government to lift the mandatory closings in late February, but citizens and businesses were nonetheless strongly urged to voluntarily conserve fuel and food.

Homeowners were asked to burn wood instead of coal if they had it, and to use as little electricity as possible. Grocers, bakers, and pasta manufacturers were required to use at least 50 percent wheat flour substitutes in their products. Home bakers were told to use the same formula to make “Victory bread” for their families.

“Heatless Mondays, meatless Tuesdays, and wheatless Wednesdays” became a way of life in Genesee County.

Austerity was not only the order of the day, but a patriotic duty.

In the meantime, the county was bidding goodbye and good luck to more young men leaving to fight the Kaiser.

March 2, 1918 Batavia Times

“Hundreds of people had gathered on the streets . . . and nothing but well wishes were heard on every side of the young men leaving.”

On February 23, 56 volunteers left for Camp Crane, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to serve as Genesee County’s own U.S. Army Ambulance section.

Two days later, 65 more men departed for training at Camp Devens, in Ayer, Massachusetts, as members of the county’s fourth draft contingent.

A fifth Genesee County draft contingent of 42 men would leave on April 4 for Camp Dix, near Wrightstown, New Jersey.

Women, too, were leaving Genesee County, to serve as nurses.

March 5, 1918 Batavia Daily News

Already, nurses Bessie Boddell of Bergen and Edna Guymer of Pavilion were at Camp Devens, and Anna MacKenzie of Bergen at the base hospital in Camp Beauregard, Louisiana. LeRoy’s Catherine MacPherson, serving at Camp Meade in Maryland, would leave for France in June.

Nora Taft of LeRoy and Florence Carpenter of Batavia had been tending to sick and wounded soldiers at Base Hospital No. 23, near the front in France’s Vosges Mountains, since they’d left in November 1917.

Ruth Randall of LeRoy, who also had sailed for France that November, was caring for soldiers at a hospital near Paris.

Many more women from the county would soon follow.

March 2, 1918 Batavia Times

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of newly minted doughboys were shipping out for Europe. News of the arrivals of Genesee County boys in France appeared regularly in local newspapers.

By the end of March, 310,000 American soldiers were in France; by the end of April, there were 430,000; by May’s end, 650,000 had landed on French soil.

The journey across was dangerous. Enemy submarines prowled the waters for troopships; reports of sightings and attacks were common. On February 5, the Tuscania, a converted Scottish luxury liner carrying more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers in a British convoy, was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland. Over 200 Americans died.

January 7, 1918 Batavia Daily News

The news from the front, too, was worrisome. All winter long, the war had not been going well for the Allies.  Although little ground had been gained on either side, the weekly casualty figures were alarming.

The deadly efficiency of modern weaponry was all too clear.

And the situation would soon get worse.

On the first day of spring, desperate to strike a fatal blow against the British and French before more American troops arrived, Germany launched a  series of massive attacks known as the Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle), along the Western Front.

March 23, 1918 Batavia Daily News

“A powerful enemy attack delivered with great weight of artillery and infantry has broken the British Defensive system west of St. Quentin.”

German soldiers advancing in France.

On the opening day, March 21, elite German storm troops massed at the Hindenburg Line between Cambrai and St. Quentin and, after an initial five-hour bombardment of more than one million  gas and artillery shells, poured through a 19-mile gash in the line.

By the end of the day,  7,500 British soldiers had been killed, 10,000 wounded, and 21,000 captured. Within the next two days, German troops had opened a 50-mile breach in the line and advanced close enough to Paris for its long-range guns to lob shells into the city.

It was into this hellish maelstrom that Genesee County’s young men, and the rest of the doughboys either already on French soil or bound for there, were headed.

Although none from the county were yet among them, American soldiers were dying on the battlefield.

That was reason enough for the folks back home to be worried. But there was another reason, too, a lesson already learned five times over in Genesee County:

All soldiers, not only the ones facing fire on the battlefield, and not even just those who were “over there,” were in harm’s way.

The county had already lost five young men in the war to accident and disease.

[Click on highlighted name for full honor roll profile in separate tab]

An accident took the life of Thomas Clark Illes of LeRoy, the first county soldier to die in service after the U.S. entered the war.

On June 20, 1917, two days before his twenty-second birthday, Illes enlisted at the 74th New York National Guard Armory, the regiment’s headquarters in Buffalo. He was killed on September 8, 1917, a few weeks before the 74th was to leave for training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “The young man had just alighted from an Erie engine on which he had ridden down town from the army camp,” reported the September 10, 1917 Batavia Daily News, “when he was struck at the Kenmore crossing by a Lockport car. He was so badly injured that he died within a few minutes.”

1918’s first war-time death occurred on January 11, when John R Wilder of LeRoy succumbed to pneumonia at an Army hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

Wilder, a railroad fireman in civilian life, was a mechanic with the 50th Aero Squadron at Kelly Field, in San Antonio, Texas. “We are considered the finest squadron ever in Kelly Field,” he wrote in a letter to his aunt. “It is quite an honor to belong to such a company of men.” The unit was on its way to Garden City, New York, to depart for overseas duty when John fell ill on January 2 and was sent to the hospital. Wilder, whose wife died in an accident in July 1915, was 27 years old and had two young daughters.

On February 3, 1918, Clifford Barber died of diphtheria in an embarkation hospital in Newport News, Virginia.

Clifford, who grew up in Alexander and Bethany, had worked for several years in the composing room of the Batavia Daily News. He enlisted in Rochester on April 28, 1917, just over three weeks after the United States declared war on Germany. In December 1917, his regiment, the 4th Infantry, moved from training at Camp Greene, North Carolina to Newport News to leave for overseas duty. Barber came down with pneumonia while there, and had just recovered from that illness when he contracted diphtheria and died suddenly. He was 20 years old.

On March 29, 1918, Edgar Murrell became the first Genesee County soldier to lose his life overseas.

Murrell, who likely went by his middle name, Roy, was born in Monroe County and spent most of his life there. But around 1915 he moved to LeRoy and was working as a farm hand when he was inducted in September, 1917 and assigned to Battery D of the 307th Field Artillery at Camp Dix. Murrell and a small group of others were transferred out in February 1918 and sent across as replacements.  Murrell died of pneumonia and diphtheria before reaching France, at Morn Hill rest camp, a stopping-off place for Europe-bound soldiers near Winchester, England. He was 27 years old.

Willis Curtis Peck enlisted in the Navy in 1915, before America was in the war, and had achieved the rank of Coxswain when he died of tuberculosis on the final day of March 1918 at a naval hospital in Newport, Rhode Island.

Peck was born in Brockport but grew up in Batavia. He served aboard the USS Rhode Island, a Virginia-class battleship in the Atlantic Fleet, in 1916 and 1917. From May 1917 on, he was based at the U.S. Naval Training Station in Newport, where he suffered from a long illness and was in and out of the hospital until his death at age 25. Willis Peck was Batavia’s first war-time serviceman to be buried at home. All city businesses closed during his funeral.


Credits

Retrieved from the Library of Congress: “Feed A Fighter,” Morgan Wallace, artist (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002719773/); “Light Consumes Coal,” Coles Phillips, artist (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002712078/); “Be Patriotic – Sign Your County’s Pledge,” Paul Stahr, artist (https://www.loc.gov/item/96515511/); “Help Your Boy at the Front” (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002699354/); “Join [Red Cross] America’s Answer,” Hayden Hayden, artist (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002711989/); Troops on Transport Ship, Official AEF Photo 13912, U.S. Signal Corps (https://www.loc.gov/item/2016826356/); “German Soldiers Marching Toward Albert France” (https://www.loc.gov/item/2005697193/).

Others:  “74th Regiment Armory,” author collection; “Aviation Camp, Kelly Field” from Kelly Field Postcards, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/KellyFieldWWIPostcards); “Embarkation Hospital, Newport News” from Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War Vol. V, Ch.24, Fig. 164 (http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwi/MilitaryHospitalsintheUS/chapter24figure164.jpg); “Scene at an American Rest Camp,” National Archives Photo No. 165-BO-0495 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16578345); “USS Rhode Island [19-N-60-4-5]” Naval History and Heritage Command  (https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography.html)

Newspaper articles retrieved from fultonhistory.com

— UPDATE: IDENTIFIED MEN LISTED BELOW! —

“The Boys of Battery D”

First WWI Draftees from Genesee, Orleans, and Wyoming Counties.  Is Your Relative Among Them?

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[Click unit photo above to view full-size with soldiers numbered for identification. Click “+” or zoom in for closeup; use arrow keys to scroll.]

 Most of the members of the first two contingents of WWI draftees from Genesee, Orleans, and Wyoming counties—over 160 men in all—are in this photo, taken in October 1917. About 85 are from Genesee County, 30 from Orleans County, and 50 from Wyoming County.

In September of 1917, when the government sent the first two waves of draftees to training camps, the National Army put men from the same regions in the same units. All early western New York draftees were assigned to the new 78th Division based at Camp Dix, outside Wrightstown, New Jersey. The majority from Genesee, Wyoming, and Orleans counties were initially assigned to Battery D of the division’s 307th Field Artillery.

The men wouldn’t be together long. At about the same time the Battery D photo was taken, the Army began relaxing its policy of localized units, and over the next several months, though some remained with Battery D or other branches of the 78th Division, most of the men in the photo were transferred to units in other divisions: the 3rd, 5th, 32nd, 42nd, 82nd, and more. Tossed into the winds of the Great War, each would find a different fate. Nearly all served overseas. Most saw combat. Some were gassed or wounded. Ten made the supreme sacrifice.

Did you have a relative in Battery D? Can you help identify him?

Below are lists of the names of the members of each county’s first two draft contingents. The lists have been compiled using the original Battery D muster roll (click on image to see original document), as well as newspaper articles from the time and other military records. If you find a relative on the list and/or think you can identify him in the photo, please contact me.

 

[click on any list image for complete full-size list in separate tab]


Update — These Men Have Been Identified:

         

Left: Norris W Seward, Bergen; Middle: Stanley Crocker, LeRoy; Right: Roy C Price, Batavia

Click here to read their full profiles.

Can you help identify more of the “Boys of Battery D”? Too often, our memorials to those who’ve served our country become only lists of names; over time, the men themselves become faceless. I’m hoping that the descendants of these men, and others in their communities, will come forward to help identify these men, to create a lasting document that will honor them fully, in both face and name.

 

 

 

 

A Census, the Draft—and “Distant Battlefields Come Close to Home”

 

With the nation newly at war, the summer of 1917 was a time to line up, sign up, and be counted in Genesee County. June and July brought a state military census, a Liberty Bond drive, home defense enlistments, draft registration and selection . . . and news that Genesee County boys  were among the first to ship out for the war “over there.”

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Are you a US citizen? In what country were you born? Are you white or colored (if colored, state black, yellow, brown, or red)?  Do you own an automobile?  Horses? Mules? Rifles? Can you take shorthand. . . make garments . . . do farm work? Can you operate an aeroplane . . . a wireless outfit . . . a steam locomotive?

 

Mid-June saw hundreds of local volunteer agents, most of them women and many of them suffragists, knocking on Genesee County doors and working at registration booths to help gather information for the state’s “Military Census and Inventory.” Their job: ask every county male and female resident between ages 16 and 50 a battery of questions designed to assess New York’s resources, both human and material, that could be put to military use if needed.

June 9, 1917 Batavia Times

“Persons who fail to comply with the law and refuse to answer questions can be summoned to court. If they refuse to obey they can be sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.”

An identification card was issued to each person as proof that he or she had participated in the census.

 

The census also automatically enrolled all male participants ages 18 to 45 in the reserve New York state militia, subject to be called into active service if the governor so deemed. To make that clear, those men received a “Notice of Enrollment Under Military Law” card.

 

 

“Now is the time for every man to come to the aid of his County.”

June 9, 1917 Batavia Daily News

June and July also saw hundreds of males young and old—ages 16 to 64—signing up for Genesee County’s Home Defense regiment. Organized in response to a call by the state Adjutant General for every county to do so, home defense regiments were composed of  volunteer community companies, each with no fewer than three officers, 18 noncoms and 36 privates, to be drilled and trained at least weekly.

Their duty: to “repel invasion, guard strategic points, and preserve order when other forces of the state are engaged in serving their country.”

By September, Genesee County had formed 12 companies—three in Batavia, and one each in Alabama, Oakfield, Elba, Byron, LeRoy, Stafford, Corfu, Darien and Alexander—totaling some 800 volunteers.

 

Genesee County more than did its part, too, in the Federal Government’s effort to raise two billion dollars for the war effort by selling Liberty Bonds, issued the month before.

June 13, 1917 LeRoy Gazette-News

“Nothing will contribute more toward bringing this war to a happy and speedy conclusion than Money Power.”

As June 15, the last day the bonds would be available, drew near, communities in the county launched  intensified subscription campaigns, and again citizens responded, lining up at banks and signing pledges distributed by canvassers.

In the final two days of the Liberty Loan campaign, Batavia raised more than $200,000 in bond sales. And when the bond issue closed nationwide, LeRoy led the state per capita with over $500,000 in subscriptions. Genesee County as a whole generated more than $900,000 in bond sales.

 

It was the draft, however, that was foremost on the minds of most Americans that summer.

June 2, 1917 Batavia Daily News

The Selective Service Act, passed by Congress just weeks before, on May 18, required all males between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft on June 5.

By the end of that day in Genesee County, just under 3,000 men had registered. Nationally, over 10 million men had registered for war service.

With the immediate goal of raising an initial army of 687,000 men within weeks, the Selective Service Act assigned first-draft quotas to each state, county, and large-city district based on its population. New York State’s quota was 69,241. Genesee County’s quota, originally set at 214, then 225, was eventually established: 268 young men would be called.

Upon registration, every draft-age man in the nation had been assigned a number from one to the total number of registrations in his county or district. On July 20, in Washington, DC, numbers were drawn one at a time to determine the order in which men would be called for examination before their local draft boards.

The first five numbers drawn were 258, 2522, 458, 1436, and 2624. In Genesee County, those numbers belonged, respectively, to Thomas J Johncox (Batavia), Howard J Radley (Oakfield), Walter N Dorschied (Batavia), Franklin H Judd (Linden), and Harry A Dobson (Pavilion).

The next day, the Batavia Daily News published a full three-page list of every registered Genesee County man and his place in the order to be called for the draft.

Click for: Second page of draft listThird page of draft list.

 

For many, the long list of local names made clear what until then had seemed an abstraction: hundreds of the county’s sons and grandsons, nephews and neighbors, friends and boyfriends, could be sent to fight in a vicious war overseas. And for those whose names appeared nearest the top of the list, particularly the first 500 or so, the call would come soon.

“Genesee County knows today, full well, that Uncle Sam is at war with the Kaiser. Over night distant battlefields have come very, very close to home.”

July 21, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“Hundreds of Genesee County boys and young men know today that American citizenship has its responsibilities.

The draft figures made public yesterday and today excited the greatest interest.

Late yesterday as editions of The News made their appearance . . . papers were purchased with great eagerness and by evening not a newspaper was to be had in the city.  A special late edition . . . was taken by automobile to Stafford, LeRoy, Bergen, South Byron, Byron Center, Elba, Oakfield and East Pembroke. In each town many anxious young men were eager for news.” 

 

Over the following weeks, some 600 county men would be called to appear before the county draft board, made up of County Sheriff Freeman Edgerton, County Clerk Charles B. Pixley, and County Health Officer Dr. Victor M. Rice, who conducted physical examinations.

July 21, 1917 Batavia Times

A few were released for failure to pass the physical. Many, about half, claimed exemptions from the draft allowed by the Selective Service Act for men working in critical industries; clergy; those holding key military, governmental, and judicial positions; and sole supporters of dependents—which at the time included most  married men, and accounted for nearly all county exemption claims.

The call and examination of so many men, and the review of numerous exemption cases,  occupied the board for the rest of the summer. But by the end of August, as dictated by the federal draft authorities for every board across the nation, Genesee County had selected the first 45 percent of its first quota of draftees–121 men–to be sent to training camp in two groups in September.

 

September 4, 1917 Batavia Daily News

 

On September 5, an advance contingent of 14 county men—the first five percent of the quota, intended to help train those to follow—left Batavia for Camp Dix, New Jersey. Three weeks later, the remaining 40 percent—107 more men—boarded a New York Central to join them. They were the first two of what would become, over the course of the war and additional draft calls, 16 contingents of Genesee County draftees.

 

July 11, 1917 Batavia Daily News

 

 

The draftees would undergo weeks or months of training before being sent overseas. But news arrived in July that some Genesee County soldiers were already in France. Levere H. Johnson, Collis H. Huntington, and Robert S. Spencer, members of the 5th Marines, had shipped out on June 14 as part of the first convoy of American Expeditionary Forces to leave the U.S. for the war, and landed on June 27.

Sadly, Robert S. Spencer would be one of four Genesee County marines killed in the fighting at Belleau Wood a year later, in June 1918, and would become one of 66 men and one woman on the Genesee County WWI Honor Roll.

So, too, would Dr. Victor M. Rice, the county draft board’s examining physician, who died of influenza and pneumonia at Camp Greenleaf, Georgia in October 1918, less than a month after volunteering in answer to a national call for army physicians to help stem a deadly flu pandemic.

 

Coming Soon: “The Boys of Battery D”

Credits

Retrieved from the Library of Congress: “Gov. Whitman’s Proclamation – State Military Census” Eagle Job Printing Dept., Brooklyn, New York (https://www.loc.gov/item/2001700125/); “Let’s End It–Quick, with Liberty Bonds, Maurice Ingres, artist (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002695578/); “Your forefathers Died for Liberty in 1776 – Buy Liberty Bonds” The Ohio Litho Co. (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002695579/); “Register June 5th” Arthur William Colen, The Colonial Press (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001699911/); “Draft Drawing, July 1917” National Photo Company (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/npc2008013281/); “America Here’s My Boy” Joe Morris Music Co., New York (https://www.loc.gov/item/2013568887/). Photos ©2017 Terry Krautwurst: New York State Census badge, certification card, militia enrollment card.

Newspaper clips retrieved from fultonhistory.com

 

On a Snowy Good Friday, War—and “Months of Fiery Trial and Sacrifice”

 

On April 6, 1917, Genesee County awoke to a lily-white landscape.  Snow had fallen softly overnight, large wet flakes settling six inches deep, clinging to limbs and branches, frosting and hushing the grey-skied morning. It was a fitting start to a Good Friday; lovely, somber, purified, still. Ordinarily, the word “peace” might have come to mind.

But everyone in the county knew that this day would bring the opposite.

Friday Evening, April 6, 1917 Batavia Daily News

Four days earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had convened a special session of Congress, and after recounting the events leading up to the moment, had asked for a declaration of war against Germany.

“The world must be made safe for democracy. . . .”

Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

Wilson pulled no punches regarding the gravity of his request. “It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you,” Wilson said in his conclusion. “There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us.”

Two days after Wilson’s speech, on April 4, the Senate voted 82 to 6 in favor of war. And at 3 o’clock in the morning on April 6, as snow tumbled in the darkness across Genesee County, the House of Representatives concluded 17 hours of debate by voting “yes” 373 to 50. At 1:18 pm, President Wilson signed the resolution, and the country was officially at war.

Genesee County’s citizens hadn’t waited for an official declaration to express support for fighting the Kaiser, however.  Wilson’s speech before Congress had already inspired patriotic demonstrations and rallies. And the weeks to come would bring many more.

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“Bells pealed out their stirring notes for five minutes, and the noon whistles were given a prolonged blast.”

April 4, 1917 LeRoy Gazette-News 

“With other cities, towns, and villages throughout the nation, Le Roy joined Monday noon in an expression of patriotic spirit. Bells pealed out their stirring notes for five minutes, and the noon whistles were given a prolonged blast. Main street from end to end was a blaze of the Stars and on every street in town Old Glory floated out to the breeze.

 

April 11, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“It was a demonstration of loyalty to Old Glory in the hour when America joins the fearful world conflict. . . .It was the soul of America that seemed responsive to the call as the shadows of dusk seemed to gather. . . . There was, first, the biggest parade ever seen on the streets of Batavia, with over 3,000 in line. Afterwards, there were mass meetings . . . . Throngs packed the meeting places to the doors.”

 

In an address to the nation on April 16, President Wilson called for every man and woman to increase production “on the farms, in the shipyards, in the mines, in the factories.” He enjoined businesses to put patriotism over profit. He asked housewives to economize and to raise gardens for family food.  April 19, the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, was declared to be “Wake Up America Day.”

 

Genesee County responded overwhelmingly. Women, led by the  county’s suffragists, met to plan and organize their roles in the war effort.

Farmers held mass meetings and pledged to work hundreds of additional acres. Boys from the county’s high schools enlisted in the state’s Farm Cadets program, allowing them to work on farms toward the war effort in lieu of classroom time.

 

Every community held parades and rallies, and formed Red Cross chapters.  Towns, factories and businesses held flag raisings. The Stars and Stripes waved from most homes. By the end of April, local newspapers were reporting flag shortages.

 

April’s end also brought Congressional approval of the Selective Service Act, designed to raise an army of more than 500,000 men within a dozen weeks.

President Wilson signed the law on May 18, and soon designatedJune 5 as National Registration Day, when all men between the ages of 21 and 30 would be required to register for the draft.

Three days later,  Genesee County Sheriff Freeman Edgerton announced the names of draft officials and registration locations in every  community. The system was in place.

 

 

Many in the county, however, had already enlisted, and more would sign up in the days ahead. Some wanted to be with friends who were joining, or preferred a particular unit or branch of service. Most were simply eager to get into the fray.

 

 

 

On May 25, the Batavia Daily News published a list of 118 Genesee County men, many of them new enlistees, who were already serving their country.  Within a year, the number would increase tenfold.

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On May 26, 1917, in anticipation of an upcoming Memorial Day that would see patriotic parades of historic proportions throughout the county, the Batavia Times published an editorial that would prove all too prophetic.

” . . . ere the observance of this day comes again, some of our young men may have lost their lives . . . “

May 26, 1917 Batavia Times

Many of our young townsmen have been called to the colors, and many more are to be called, and perhaps ere the observance of this day comes again, some of our young men may have lost their lives in battle, and there may be many sorrowful hearts in our immediate vicinity.

 

 

 

 

Indeed, nine of the men on the Batavia Daily News‘s May 25 list of those already in the service would not survive the war–Clifford A.  Barber, Arthur L. Calkins, Howard Fay, William Hyde, Hiram Luhman, Carl J. Nielson, Robert Spencer, Peter J. Schlick, and Elva Springer.  And they would be joined by 58 others on Genesee County’s World War I Honor Roll.

 

Coming Soon: “Distant Battlefields Come Close to Home”

Credits

Retrieved from the Library of Congress:  President Woodrow Wilson Addressing Congress,” 1917 (https://www.loc.gov/item/95504407/); “Wake up America!”, James Montgomery Flagg, N.Y., The Hegeman Print (https://www.loc.gov/item/91726511/); “Sow the Seeds of Victory!”, James Montgomery Flagg (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002712333/); “Join [Red Cross symbol]”, Hayden Hayden,  Snyder & Black Inc. N.Y. (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002711989/); “Don’t Wait for the Draft–Volunteer,” Guenther (https://www.loc.gov/item/2001700146/); “Make the World Safe–Enlist Now and Go with Your Friends,” Arthur N. Edrop, N.Y., The Hegeman Print (https://www.loc.gov/item/2001700145/); “Spirit of 1917” (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002698563/); “Join the Army Air Service, Be an American Eagle,” Charles Livingston Bull, Alpha Litho. Co., Inc., N.Y. (https://www.loc.gov/item/95503123/); “Enlist in the Navy–To Arms,” Milton Bancroft (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002699395/).

Newspaper clips: Courtesy of fultonhistory.com.

Winter’s Fury, Spring Beckons—and “Days of Anxious Waiting”

 

If it hadn’t been for the Kaiser, February and March of 1917 in Genesee County would’ve echoed almost any earlier year’s transition from winter to spring in western New York.

February’s first days brought brutal winds, record cold, and snow measured in feet, not inches.

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“Engines Were Buried All Day in about Eighteen Feet of Snow”

February 7, 1917 LeRoy Gazette-News

“The storm, which started on Friday night with some snow and a strong north wind, continued almost  unabated until yesterday,” reported the Wednesday, February 7  LeRoy Gazette-News.  “Saturday was one of the worst days here this winter. The temperature in the morning was two to eight degrees  below zero and the wind which blew at a 40-mile clip all day drove the cold into buildings, making it difficult to heat them. On Sunday more snow fell. . . . The wind came up again and continued without let up until yesterday noon.”

 

“Low Temperature Records for this Winter were Broken this Morning”

February 12, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“The high school was not in session this morning, owing to the low temperature in the rooms, although the heating plant was operated to its capacity. . . . Joshua R Houseknecht of the Batavia-Stafford townline road reported that the mercury registered 20 below zero at 5:45 o’clock and it was 18 below at 8 o’clock this morning on his farm.”

 

 

But western New Yorkers always have been a hardy lot, not the sort to let a little cold and snow get the best of them, and 1917 was no exception.  “Those who bundled up well and kept moving did not suffer,” observed the Daily News in that February 12 article announcing record cold.

A few days earlier, “When the Waterman house at Corfu burned on Monday evening,” reported the February 9 Batavia Daily News, five firemen at Darien Center gamely hitched up sleighs and headed to the trouble. “The two rigs had a hard time getting through the drifts,” the Daily reported. “They arrived home about midnight, with pretty tired horses.”

Then too, there is a silver lining in every cloud, or in this case tons of ice in a frigid winter.  “Councilman Nelson W. Cleveland . . . is now at work storing a large shed with about eighty tons of additional ice,” reported the February 24 Batavia Times.  “The second cutting was eleven and twelve inches in thickness. . . . At East Pembroke, where only one cutting was made on the Tonawanda creek . . . ice which measured 28 inches in thickness was taken.”

Weather-wise, March came in like a lamb, promising spring soon. Not even a brief snowfall on the 5th dampened the county’s anticipation.

“The snowfall will be of much benefit to the wheat crop, which is reported to be wintering in good condition,” opined a West Bethany correspondent in the March 6 1917 Batavia Daily News. “New seedings and meadows will also be protected from the cold.”

By mid-March, the signs of spring were everywhere.  Robins were spotted in Corfu, LeRoy, and Bergen.  In Bethany, shearing of sheep was begun. In North Byron, reported the March 24 Batavia Daily News, “Charles Searis has tapped his sugar bush.”

 

Yes, all would’ve been well in Genesee County in 1917 as winter made its welcome exit and spring’s long-awaited renewal arrived, bringing a fresh start, a fresh season.

All would’ve been well, that is . . . except for . . . the Kaiser.

Day after day in February and March of 1917, nature’s cadence from winter toward the edge of spring in Genesee County was overshadowed by a darker sort of  rhythm, a relentless beat orchestrated by the Kaiser and his minions toward the edge of war.

 

February 1: Germany resumes unrestricted submarine warfare.

“Situation Is Grave”

February 1, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“Germany’s statement means that her submarines have been unleashed for unrestricted operations and henceforth all traffic by sea–neutral or enemy–within a proscribed zone, will be endangered.”

 

 

       February 2, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“Tonight or tomorrow the American people may know the course their government has decided upon.”.

 

February 3: The United States breaks diplomatic relations with Germany.

“These Are Days of Anxious Waiting”

February 3, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“It is a historic fact that such action as the United States has taken is invariably succeeded by hostilities.”

 

 

February 7, 1917 LeRoy Gazette-News

“These are days of anxious waiting for the people of the United States for it is a time when no one knows how soon the clouds of war may obscure the sunshine of peace . . . . In these hours of suspense there is little excitement because the people of this country are looking at the matter with a determined purpose to face whatever may come with courage and confidence.”

 

 

February 8: 45 ships reported sunk by German submarines in seven days.
February 8, 1917 Batavia Daily News

Throughout February and March, hardly a day passed when local newspapers didn’t report at least one more ship sunk, more lives lost. Germany’s strategy:  to cut off food and war supplies to England and its allies, forcing a surrender within six months.

 

 

 

February 26: Ocean liner Laconia torpedoed without warning with 281 aboard; 10 Americans killed.

“A Clear Violation of American Rights”

February 27, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“The first torpedo struck near the stern and when the vessel was struck a second time she listed quickly to starboard.”

 

 

 

March 1: “Zimmermann Telegram” reveals secret German plot to enlist Mexico and Japan in war against U.S.

“We Shall Make War Together . . . It Is Understood that Mexico Is to Reconquer the Lost Territory in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.”

   March 1, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“Revelation of how Germany, expecting war with the United States as the result of her submarine campaign of ruthlessness, plotted to unite Mexico and Japan with her for an attack on the United States has stirred the capital to its depths.”

 

 

The telegram from Germany’s foreign minister,  Alfred Zimmermann, to his counterpart in Mexico City was transmitted in code on January 19.  The message was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence, and passed along to the United States. Although neither Mexico nor Japan was found to be complicit in the plan, the telegram provoked outrage throughout the country when it was released to the public on March 1.

British Decoded Telegram
German Encoded Telegram

 

March 8: German admiralty announces 47 more ships sunk by its submarines in recent days.
March 8, 1917 Batavia Daily News

Germany’s  stepped-up campaign of aggressive submarine warfare against  shipping bound for Britain or its allies was clearly taking a toll. Weekly reports such as this one suggested that the admiralty’s effort to cut off food, ammunition, and medical aid was threatening to succeed.

 

March 10: President Wilson orders all merchant ships armed.

“Guns, Gunners and Ammunition Will Be Placed Aboard American Merchant Ships Immediately”

March 10, 1917 Batavia Daily News

” . . . they will be sent to sea under orders to fire on German submarines . . . . The mere appearance of a German submarine in the presence of an American armed merchant vessel would entitle that ship . . . to take all measure for protection. . . . ”

 

“Time To Shoot”

 

Remainder of March: Submarine attacks continue, outrage grows.   The nation gears up for war.

As March wore on, every day seemed to bring news of more sinkings, more Americans killed, less hope of peace.  The March 19 Batavia Daily News (left) reported three unarmed American ships sunk the day before.  On March 24, the Batavia Times (right) reported 21 lives lost when the U.S. steamship Healdton was torpedoed. Among the dead were seven Americans.

“The Time When Every Man Must Be a Patriot Has Come.”

The nation’s patience was worn thin. There seemed little doubt that the United States would soon be at war. National Guard units such as Buffalo’s 3rd Field Artillery and  74th Infantry Regiment, which included Genesee County men,  were called up to protect bridges,  power plants, and shipyards. Enlistment offices opened. And impassioned editorials in local papers reflected the nation’s growing patriotic fervor.

 

 

March 28, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“The time when every man must be a patriot has come. Men of the United States of America must now take their stand. There is only one way to face, there is only one path to take. The way to face is toward liberty and freedom. The path to take is our country’s.”

 

President Wilson would soon address Congress at an emergency special session, called for April 2, regarding “the German situation.”  The nation waited to hear what course of action the President would take. But deep down, nearly everyone in Genesee County, indeed most Americans, already knew.

 

Next: “Months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead”

Credits

“Getting on His Nerves?” C.D. Dana (LC-DIG-ppmsca-33521); “Sailors and Others in a Lifeboat,” Frank Branqwn, U.S. Navy Recruiting Bureau (LC-USZCR-11363); “Time to Shoot” W.A. Rogers ((DLC/PP-1932:0042)); “Uphold Our Honor,” New York: Hegeman Printing Company (LC-USZC4-8307); “Join Army Navy Marines” (LC-USZC4-8309): Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

“Kaiser Warning Uncle Sam” J.M. Stanforth: Courtesy of “Cartooning the First World War” project at Cardiff University.

Zimmerman Telegram as Received by the German Minister to Mexico, “Telegram from Secretary of State Robert Lansing to the American Embassy, London, 3/1/1917” (ARC 302025); and Zimmerman Telegram Translation, “Telegram from Ambassador Walter Page to Secretary of State Robert Lansing 2/24/1917” (page two, ARC 302022):
Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State, 1763-2002, National Archives Catalog, accessed online https://catalog.archives.gov/id/[enter ARC NUMBER].

Newspaper clips: Courtesy of fultonhistory.com.


 

Mad Dogs, Blizzards, A Fireball, Buffalo Bill’s Demise—and “That War Over There”

 

In hindsight, perhaps they were hints of things soon to come, connections to the coming conflict between county and Kaiser hidden between the lines of the local news in Genesee County in the winter of late 1916 and early 1917:

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“Trail of Fire Left by Meteor Across the Sky”

December 7, 1916 Batavia Daily News

“Many people who were out of doors last evening between 7 and 7:30 o’clock had a view of a beautiful celestial visitor that was awe-inspiring in its brilliancy . . . what might have been a golden serpent sinuously working its way through the sky. The head was a ball of fire and the body was a shimmering streak of flame from which the gilded scales fell off as it moved creepingly along.”

 

 

 

“Buffalo Bill’s Remains Will Lie in State in Colorado’s Capital . . . Well Known in Batavia”

January 11, 1916 Batavia Daily News

“Many Batavians knew Buffalo Bill well at the time he was a resident of Rochester in 1874 and 1875, as he frequently visited this village during that period. . . . “He was an intimate friend of the late Major Reedy of Batavia, afterward sheriff of Genesee County, who, like Cody, was an old Indian fighter . . . . After the organization of his big Wild West Show Buffalo Bill visited Batavia twice, on July 2, 1892, and the last time on May 28, 1912.”

 

“Rabid Dogs Are Creating Some Alarm – Many Persons Bitten”

January 13, 1917 Batavia Daily News

“The spread of the disease known as rabies has assumed alarming proportions in Western New York,” warned health officials. “Within a week, a boy who was bitten by a strange dog on the streets of Buffalo died of hydrophobia, and some thousands of dollars worth of horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs have died in Western New York from rabies and an even hundred of persons within this same territory have been bitten by dogs, which were found . . . to have had rabies .”

 

On the other hand,  you hardly needed to read between the lines to know that serious trouble was brewing. A mere glance at any day’s headlines would tell you that.

Since August 1914, when the treaty-linked trains of England-France-Russia and Germany-Austria-Hungary had collided head-on and Europe exploded in war, the news in Genesee County from across the sea had been bad at best, and horrifying too often.

  

The births of the modern machine gun, torpedo, and tank; of “aeroplanes” that rained bombs; of gas that blinded, burned skin, and flooded lungs; of machinery that coldly flung body-mutilating explosives into distant troops, had spread death and destruction like no war before. By the end of 1916, combined German and Allied casualties totaled more than two million.

In the still-fresh September 1916 presidential election, although Genesee County had voted overwhelmingly for his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, Woodrow Wilson had won reelection to the Presidency using the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”

Many Americans called for military preparedness in the interests of national defense, and many more raised funds or made bandages for the Red Cross to help the armies overseas. But few wanted the United States to get involved in that unthinkably bloody war thousands of miles away in foreign lands.

Meanwhile, German submarines nosed along our shores and throughout the Atlantic and Mediterranean prowling for ships carrying, or thought to carry, ammunition and supplies for the Allies. At least, following the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, in which 128 U.S. citizens had died, and of the Sussex in March 1916, in which several more Americans perished, international outrage had prompted the Germans in May 1916 to limit attacks on commercial ships. Its subs would sink a ship only after a search proved contraband was aboard and only after its crew and passengers had been provided safe passage.

Small comfort, and an agreement that Germany would soon retract, on the final day  of January.

But in those wintry months of December 1916 and January 1917, as blizzard after blizzard swept through western New York, choking roads and stopping trains in their drift-covered tracks, Genesee County residents had worry enough just staying comfortable in their own homes. Coal prices were sky-high, and municipal gas plants could barely keep sufficient pressure up for heating and lighting.

        

But you have to wonder if anyone noticed, sitting by the fire reading the news as the storms raged outside.

That meteor: Wasn’t Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany’s private yacht named Meteor?

And Buffalo Bill: Wasn’t Kaiser Wilhelm one of Cody’s biggest fans, so admiring the showman’s efficiency in transporting men and animals by train from one performance to another that he had sent members of his Prussian Guard to study his techniques?

And that scourge of rabid canines spreading across western New York:  Wasn’t Kaiser Wilhelm known throughout the world as “The Mad Dog of Europe?”

 

 

Next: “Days of Anxious Waiting”

 


Credits

“Getting on His Nerves?” C.D. Dana (LC-DIG-ppmsca-33521); “Deutsches U-Boot” (LC-DIG-ds-09934); “Kaiser on Ship ‘Meteor'” (LC-DIG-ggbain-04171); “Buffalo Bill” (LC-USZC4-3116): Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

“Mad Dog of Europe” J.M. Stanforth: Courtesy of “Cartooning the First World War” project at Cardiff University.

Newspaper clips: Courtesy of fultonhistory.com.