RICHMOND, Va. — One hundred years after America entered the conflict of what would become known as World War I, Virginia citizens, veterans and leaders joined Virginia National Guard Soldiers for a commemoration ceremony April 6, 2017, at the Virginia War Memorial Carillon in Richmond, Virginia. The event, hosted by the Virginia World War I and World War II Commemoration Commission included remarks by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs Jaime Areizaga-Soto, and a keynote address by Dr. Lynn Rainville, Research Professor in the Humanities at Sweet Briar College. Delegate Kirk Cox, chairman of the Commission, served as the master of ceremony.
“More than 10 million international combatants died on the battlefield,” said Areizaga-Soto. “For every American combatant killed in combat, six were wounded. Five out of every six wounded were returned to duty.”
In WWI, almost 100,000 Virginians served and more than 3,700 lost their lives.
“The freedoms that we all have today are because of the folks back then who fought in WWI,” McAuliffe said during his address.
For the National Guard, WWI marked a turning point. It was the first time volunteer state militia units were federalized under U.S. Army structure and deployed overseas for combat operations.
“The National Guard played a major role in the war and its units were organized into divisions by state, and those divisions made up 40 percent of the combat strength of the American Expeditionary Forces,” Williams explained. “Three of the first five U.S. Army divisions to deploy to France in WWI were from the National Guard.”
Many of the Virginia National Guard’s units will celebrate the 100th anniversary of their official formation this year, to include the 29th Infantry Division and the 116th Infantry Regiment, both among the organizations formed as the United States prepared to enter WWI.
“Those units are still in active service today with the dual mission of defending the homeland and providing combat reserve troops to help fight our nation’s wars,” Williams told the crowd.
During the war, the 29th Infantry Division, saw 21 days of combat and suffered nearly 5,700 casualties while taking 2,148 enemy soldiers prisoner and capturing or destroying approximately 250 artillery pieces and machine guns. At the time, the 29th was comprised of National Guard units from Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington DC and Delaware. The inclusion of units that fought for both the North and South during the Civil War inspired the nickname of the “Blue and Gray” division.
The 116th Infantry Regiment, which served in the 58th Infantry Brigade of the 29th Infantry Division during WWI, earned it’s motto of “Ever Forward” for their reputation of never having given ground in battle. From the 116th came the Virginia National Guard’s first Medal of Honor recipient, Sgt. Earle Gregory, for service at the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, where he remarked “I will get them,” before advancing ahead of the infantry and capturing a machinegun nest, a mountain howitzer and 19 enemy soldiers.
“Guard Soldiers served with courage, honor and distinction and that tradition continues today as the Virginia Guard has mobilized nearly 15,000 Soldiers and Airmen for federal active duty since Sept. 11th to support the global war,” Williams said. “We owe a huge debt of gratitude for the men and women who served in WWI and the families and communities who supported them.”
Rainville, who served as the keynote speaker for the event, provided context to the event attendees and explained what the week leading up to U.S. entry into WWI looked like in Virginia. “I want to shine a light on those forgotten wartime contributions by all Virginians, from young Boy Scouts selling liberty bonds, to women packing artillery shells at the Pennimen Plant in Williamsburg, […] to Norfolk residents who hosted Soldiers for hours at a time while they were in transit from training camps to ships that would transport them to foreign battlefields,” she explained.
As President Woodrow Wilson asked congress to declare war, “members of the Virginia Red Cross began to prepare for casualties by making surgical dressings and one woman in Fredericksburg offered up her home as a hospital,” Rainville said.
Once war was declared, Rainville explained, “3,500 Virginia youth pledged to plant victory gardens, Marine Corps recruits in Richmond were sent to train at Port Royal in South Carolina, Red Cross chapters organized across the state and an Alexandria ship builder was awarded a contract for submarine chasers.”
At the ceremony, Virginia National Guard Soldiers provided a color guard team to present the colors and music was provided by the John Marshall Regimental Band Alumni, who also provided music for the dedication of the Carillon in 1932, when it was dedicated in memory of the 3,700 Virginians who lost their lives in WWI.
This commemoration ceremony is the first of many set to honor and remember the sacrifices of those who served in WWI.
In partnership with the Virginia National Guard, the Commission is presenting a speaker series, full details of which can be found at their website at VirginiaWorldWarI.org/2017.