Virginia National Guard & Virginia War Museum remember WWI

The Virginia National Guard’s Command Historian, Alexander F. Barnes, views exhibits at the Virginia War Museum Dec. 2, 2017, in Newport News, Virginia. Barnes spoke to an audience of museum visitors about the Virginia National Guard’s involvement in World War I. (Virginia Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Szoke)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — In early December 1917, 150 Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the 117th Military Police Company had already spent two months in France, arriving there eight months before the 29th and 80th Divisions and just seven months after President Woodrow Wilson declared war. One hundred years later, on Dec. 2, 2017, at the Virginia War Museum in Newport News, Virginia, retired Chief Warrant Office 4 Alexander F. Barnes, command historian for the Virginia National Guard, told the story of the 117th Military Police Company.

“There are a lot of things the Virginia Guard did that people have absolutely no idea about,” Barnes explained.

In 1917, Col. Douglas McArthur assembled National Guard units from 26 states to form the Rainbow Division. Virginia provided a military police company, the 117th MP Co.

“The fact that a group of 150 Virginians were donated to serve in the Rainbow Division and spent over a year and a half in France and Germany, much more time than their compatriots in the 29th Division, is a forgotten part of Virginia’s history,” Barnes said. “Their exploits were pretty famous. They served as the guard around McArthur’s headquarters when they moved to Germany.”

Barnes spoke at the Virginia War Museum as part of a commemoration event on Virginia’s involvement in World War I. Speakers presented a variety of lectures and the museum displayed one-of-a-kind artifacts to assist visitors in learning more about the Great War. The lectures covered three units – the 117th MP Co., the 116th Infantry Regiment and the 111th Field Artillery Regiment. One particular artifact was an original battle flag belonging to the 111th Artillery Regiment. The 111th was enroute to Europe when the Armistice was signed.

“I was stationed in Virginia Beach for 3 years and I’ve known about this museum for years and have been coming for a long time. I looked on their Facebook page and saw they were doing this lecture series today and saw the one on the 117th; that is the unit my great, great grandfather was in during WWI, so I had to come and check it out,” said Marine Corps Maj. Michael Doss, action officer, Logistics Vision and Strategy Branch, Headquarters Marine Corps. “I am a big WWII buff, but don’t know as much about WWI, especially the unit my great, great grandfather was in. It was great to see they served in six campaigns, they were the first unit to deploy over there and they served there the longest of all the Americans who were there during WWI.”

The Virginia War Museum was established in 1923 by American Legion Post #25 (The Braxton/Perkins Post) as the American Legion Memorial Museum of Virginia. The City of Newport News assumed administrative oversight of the museum in the 1950’s and hosts artifacts from 1775 until the present, offering visitors the opportunity to not only experience major conflicts, but do so from a Virginia perspective.

“The idea is to finally get some recognition for the [Virginia National] Guard and their efforts in the first World War. Many people know of the 29th and their famous exploits in WWII but WWI is mostly an unknown war for most folks,” said Barnes.

According to the 116th Foundation website, the 116th Infantry Regiment is the oldest continuous service regiment in the Virginia National Guard and seventh oldest in the United States Army. They participated in the Meuse Argonne Offensive in France during WWI. Part of the 29th Division, they were an integral part of the Offensive in October 1917. During that particular engagement, Sgt. Earle Gregory, assigned to the 116th, became the first Guardsman to earn the Medal of Honor.

“Keep history alive! I think that’s the main message this museum here, in Newport News has, and the mission of the one in Verona has is that, you can’t forget about this stuff,” said John Simmons, board member and historian with the 116th Regiment Foundation.

A walk through the Virginia War Museum provides a unique perspective, allowing visitors the chance to capture a glimpse of the past by reading accounts transcribed from Civil War journals, picturing themselves in period uniforms and looking at a wide spectrum of weapons from friendly and enemy forces throughout history.

“This museum has one of the best collections of artifacts I’ve seen out of all of the museums I’ve been to and I’ve been to numerous museums around the world,” said Doss. ”You go to museums and a lot of them have neat things like planes and vehicles, but as far as smaller artifacts like weapons, firearms, field gear and equipment, this museum has one of the best collections of that kind of stuff, from what I’ve seen out there. Plus, it has a focus on Virginia and Virginia’s part in America’s military history.”

The War Museum is not the only place history buffs can go to immerse themselves in Virginia-related WWI, military history. Downtown Richmond, Virginia is home to the Virginia War Memorial, the Stonewall Brigade Museum is located in Verona, Virginia, the Heritage Museum is in Dayton, Virginia, and the Woodrow Wilson Library and Museum covers the presidency of Woodrow Wilson during WWI.

“It might be better perspective for people to think of, especially the young, able-bodied men who are 18-years-old right now. Where would you be 100 years ago? Probably training at Camp McClellan,” suggested Simmons. “Put yourself in their shoes and what’s going to happen for the next 16 months of your life? We live comfortably in the 21st century because of a lot of things that happened in the past.”