All was not quiet on the Interstate 95 front. A mere 253 miles from Richmond to Philly, according to Mapquest, but it felt like light years away in terms of the amount of time it would take because of traffic. Things seemed very calm as we entered D.C. on Friday, well before rush hour, but then we hit a wall, the fortification of 495 and 95 had surrounded us and we slowly saw our record travel time slip away. The trip would unfortunately take us 6 ½+ hours, through several traffic delays, some heated discussions over which exit could provide the best food options, and an upset two year old because his Elmo DVD kept skipping. But we finally made it, safe and sound, to our friend’s home just north of Philly.
While my wife and two-year-old son stayed with friends in Philly, I took off early Saturday morning to my ultimate destination, a World War I symposium in York. As I ventured out of the busy suburbs and towns near Philly, I entered a tranquil and beautiful countryside much different from the busy I-95 front. This was my first trip through the farm country of south central Pennsylvania, and the trip provided beautiful views of rolling hills with horse-drawn carriages and a gorgeous landscape of green pastures. After I crossed the bridge over the Susquehanna River, I eventually entered the historic city of York. All was quiet on the southern front.
My objective for this trip was to attend and present a paper at the Fall World War I Symposium organized by the East Coast Branch of the Western Front Association (WFA), one of many branches of the WFA.
“Established in 1980, the WFA has more than 6,500 members worldwide, and its goal is to further interest in the period from 1914 to 1918 and perpetuate the memory of the courage and comradeship of those on both sides who served their countries in France and Flanders during the Great War. It does not seek to glorify or justify war, it is not a reenactment society, nor is it commercially motivated. It is entirely non-political, and membership is open to anyone who shares its interest.”
The WFA has a wealth of resources and information on World War I and can be accessed through its website or social media presence. Members receive special publications and other exclusive resources. The WFA also promotes events and programs related to World War I, including this symposium.
The East Coast Branch of the WFA holds two World War I seminars every year in the Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia areas, bringing together scholars, students, and others who are interested in learning more about the “War to End All Wars.” This fall’s symposium took place on October 24th at the York County Heritage Trust and involved a full day of activities. The program included military displays, book signings, and five presentations on various World War I topics.
The first presentation included living history presenter Dane Coffman, who portrayed Gen. John J. Pershing. His presentation of Gen. John J. Pershing offered great insight into the life and military career of one of this country’s greatest military leaders.
East Coast Branch president Paul Cora then discussed aviator and Baltimore native Francis Warrington Gillett. His talk looked at this young man’s time with Britain’s Royal Air Force and his flights in a Sopwith Dolphin with the No. 79 Squadron. His twenty victories during the war ranks second among American WWI aviators. Paul also made a case for the branch to move forward with plans to memorialize this great pilot, which is a noble cause for the organization.
The third presentation, done by yours truly, explored a little known story about German sailors interned in Hampton Roads, Virginia. In the Spring 1915, two German surface raiders, running low on fuel and supplies, were held captive in Hampton Roads. The German crews lived with the local community for sixteen months. They enjoyed liberal leave, attended church services and baseball games, and even built a tiny German village that became a major tourist destination. The sailors were moved to the Philadelphia Naval Yard in September 1916 and eventually to prison barracks in Georgia after the United States entered the war. My discussion focused on the relationships these sailors formed with the local community and the U.S. military officials who watched over them during their internment. Learn more about the German sailor’s internment in Hampton Roads.
In the fourth presentation, Douglas V. Mastriano of the U.S. Army War College discussed the life of Alvin York from his civilian life in Tennessee to his heroic moments as a U.S. soldier in the battle of the Argonne. Mastriano made it clear that through ballistics evidence and research they have shown the legend of Alvin York to be true. His work focused on how exact spot where Alvin C. York earned the Medal of Honor was determined. Learn more about the Sergeant York Discovery Expedition.
The final presentation, by Matthew J. Davenport, told the story of the men of the 1st Infantry Division (“The Big Red 1”) who fought at the village of Cantigny. They were officially the “First Over There” because they carried out the first American offensive action of the war at this May 1918 battle. His discussion of the efforts of these gallant men was a wonderful way to end the all day conference that focused on the “War to End All Wars.”
This was my first time attending the WFA East Coast Branch Symposium, and it will definitely not be the last. I greatly enjoyed the lively discussions, militaria displays, and presentations. But most of all, I enjoyed the camaraderie. In the midst of the centennial of World War I, the WFA East Coast Branch is a wonderful group/organization to keep up with.
I’m looking forward to future WFA events and to trips to southern Pennsylvania, with its beautiful scenery and historic sites, but I think we’ll avoid the traffic battleground of the I-95 front and take the train to ensure a quiet advance.
On Saturday, November 14, the Western Front Association showed a free premier of Pershing’s Last Patriot: The Frank Woodruff Buckles Story, a documentary about America’s last veteran of World War I. The screening was held at the War Memorial Building in Baltimore Maryland. What a great opportunity to continue to celebrate veterans by engaging in a viewing and discussion of the last man in Pershing’s army.
Greg Hansard is the Manager of Web and Digital Resources at the Virginia Historical Society. He currently oversees the website, social media, audio video production, and manages the digitization of manuscripts and museum objects in the society’s collections. Greg has also held jobs as a library assistant, assistant editor for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, and an educator. He currently teaches U.S. History, World History, and Museum Studies at John Tyler Community College. His interest in history began when he heard his Grandfather’s stories about being a tail-gunner in a B-26 where he flew sixty-nine missions in World War II. Greg is a graduate of the University of Virginia where he played varsity baseball for four years. His current research interests include military history, sports history, and early American food and drink.