From the Rhineland to Washington-Soldier’s Homecoming, 1919

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The Archivist’s Nook: From the Rhineland to Washington-Soldier’s Homecoming, 1919

Posted on November 8, 2019 by William J. Shepherd

COMPLETE POST: https://www.lib.cua.edu/wordpress/newsevents/12050/

 

Robert Lincoln O’Connell (1888-1972), a World War I Connecticut army engineer of Irish-Catholic heritage, was the subject of two of my previous blog posts. They explored his letters home to family while training for the military in Washington in 1917, and his active service on the western Front in France in 1918. The third and concluding post of this trilogy looks at his experiences in the U.S Army’s brief postwar occupation of the Rhineland, as well as victory parades in New York and Washington in 1919. As with previous letters, they are written by “Rob” primarily to his mother and his sisters, Ellen and Sarah, who lived in their hometown of Southington, Connecticut. O’Connell’s archival papers, which have also been digitized, are housed in the Special Collections of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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Unlike the aftermath of World War II, the U.S occupation of German territory in 1919 was short lived. O’Connell returned stateside with main elements of the First Infantry Division at Brest on August 18, and arrived at Camp Mills, New York, on August 30. He took part in victory parades in both New York City on September 10 and in Washington on September 17. The final (undated) letter in the collection, addressed to his sister Ellen from Camp Leach, part of the campus of American University in Washington, was probably written a few days after the parade in New York (2):

“This is a camp of 8-man tents on frames and they had been dumped on the floor…We got there at 10:30 and never was there such a disgusted bunch. About four o’clock some ice cream was brought around and the cook managed to get supper at 8:15…Now we are getting plenty of good eats and passes into town 7 c carfare and the K of Cs especially are doing all they can, lots of cigarettes, matches, hand kerchiefs, sightseeing trips around the city in busses and free beds. The papers and the posters rave about the famous or glorious First Division and the recruiting officers are making the most of it.”

Letter to Ellen O’Connell from Camp Leach, September 1919, O’Connell Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University of America.

The campus of American University was also the base of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Unit, which also had a sub-unit at nearby Catholic University. These facilities developed deadly chemical munitions, especially Lewisite Gas. This weapon of mass destruction was invented by C.U. student-priest Julius Nieuwland, though it was not ready in time for use during World War I. However, O’Connell’s visit to Washington had nothing to do with poison gas. It was his final military march. The soldiers paraded to great ovation from the Capitol along Pennsylvania Avenue. Marching past the White House, they were reviewed by the Vice President and members of the Cabinet, who were representing President Woodrow Wilson, while he was away canvassing the country on a doomed mission to sell ratification of the Versailles Peace Treaty. From Washington, the men were shipped to Camp Meade, Maryland, where many were demobilized. O’Connell went on to Camp Devens, Massachusetts, where he was mustered out on September 27, 1919.

Washington, D.C., 1919. First Division, American Expeditionary Forces. Miscellaneous views of parade. Harris & Ewing glass negative, Shorpy.com

After the war, O’Connell briefly returned to Southington, where he worked as a machinist in a bottling mill. ....

COMPLETE POST: https://www.lib.cua.edu/wordpress/newsevents/12050/

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