by Alexander F. Barnes
In the March 2018 edition of Military Trader, we discussed collecting items from National Army training camps. This article will examine items related to National Guard training camps.
The draftees who were learning the difficult business of becoming a soldier at the National Army training camps were assigned to the divisions numbered from 76 to 91. The National Guard divisions, on the other hand, were numbered 26 to 42, and their sixteen training camps differed significantly from the National Army sites in several ways.
Beyond the obvious difference in living quarters — the Guardsmen lived in tents while the National Army soldiers were billeted in wooden barracks — there was also the matter of geographic location. With the sole exception of Camp Fremont in California, the Guard training camps were located below the Mason-Dixon Line with three sites in Texas and two each in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. The others were located in Southern California, Mississippi, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Louisiana, and North Carolina.
The War Department’s logic for this geographical dispersion was simple: Many Guardsmen had received extensive training along the Mexican border. Therefore, Guard divisions should not need training periods as long as the National Army units. Likewise, since they would train in the South, they did not require more permanent facilities. Therefore, the camps could be constructed more quickly and economically by using the eight-man canvas squad tents already owned by National Guard units.
At the National Guard camps each regiment was allocated a block of land based on the type of unit and assigned equipment. Under this standardized guidance, an infantry regiment had an area that measured some 1000 by 750 feet. Mess halls stood at the head of company streets and were in line with the company’s eight-man pyramid tents. Each company required some thirty tents and each regiment required more than four hundred tents to house its assigned soldiers. The bath houses and latrines for each company were built at the opposite end of each row.
On paper, it made perfect sense: shorter training, temporary billets, and better weather equaled significant cost savings. In a time when every penny was strictly allocated and accounted, this fiscal responsibility was praised. Besides, as discussed in the previous article, there just wasn’t enough money appropriated to build wooden barracks for the Guard.
Unfortunately, the War Department’s anticipation of good weather in the South was dashed by the winter of 1917-1918. Winter not only came early, it brought with it the most severe weather the southern half of the United States had seen in many years. What had been expected to be temperate and pleasant weather instead was cold, rainy, and muddy. Men, animals, and machines became stuck in the snow and the mud. Roads could not be paved or widened fast enough to meet the needs of the soldiers being trained. The men huddled in their tents and passed their days looking for firewood to feed the stoves in these tents.
For the collector, the bad weather of 1917-1918 opens a whole universe of material. The Guardsmen kept extensive diaries, photo albums, and letters — all describing their experiences in the cold weather.
Another great potential area of collecting comes from the fact that the Guard units reported to their camps while still maintaining their old numerical designations, for example, 1st Virginia Cavalry, 5th Maryland Infantry, 69th New York Infantry, etc.
After arrival, these state regimental organizations were broken up to make the new regiments and brigades required for the model 1917 Division in which they would ultimately be deployed to France. In the 29th Division, for example, three old and historic Maryland regiments disappeared into a new unit that became the 115th Infantry Regiment.
It was the same at Guard camps all across the South. Reorganizing the units was a necessary evil; regiments that had been at full pre-war strength with 2,000 soldiers now needed 3,700 to be complete. Rifle companies that had consisted of 150 men now were redesigned to field 250 men. Soldiers who had served and drilled together for decades suddenly found themselves in different units.
In the Pennsylvania Guard at Camp Hancock, it was noted that the “... the officers of the old 8th Pennsylvania Infantry before its consolidation with the 16th Pennsylvania Infantry into the 112th U.S. Infantry [were] second to none. They were men of the highest standing, character and integrity….” The 37th Division reported that at Camp Sheridan, “Privates, lieutenants, captains, field officers and general officers all suffered through it. When companies were broken up, men who had enlisted together were separated.”
For some, the ties to home states and pre-war unit affiliations remained strong. Collectors often find WWI uniforms that have retained the state collar disks for Wisconsin, Virginia, New York etc. These make for excellent and reasonably inexpensive collecting.
In spite of the hard feelings at losing their old affiliations, the soldiers understood the need for the new organizations and slowly, the men began to take pride in their new units. Although grudgingly at first, the soldiers trained as best they could, all the while learning to perform their basic mission with new comrades and new officers. They even slowly began to develop the comradery that lasted well after their soldiering days were over, and they could look back on their training period with some sense of humor and accomplishment.
In time, each of the National Guard training sites took on a unique personality of its own, becoming memorable to the Doughboys training there. Though they suffered from the hard work, endless drills, and the all too often intemperate weather, when it was compared to what they faced at Cantigny, Belleau Wood, along the Marne, and in the Meuse-Argonne, many of the soldiers would later recall fondly days at their National Guard training camps.
- Alexander Barnes is the Command Historian for the Virginia National Guard and has written a number of US military history books. His next work, co-authored with Peter Belmonte, is “Forgotten Soldiers of WWI: America’s Immigrant Doughboys” and will be available in July 2018.