Going To Berlin With The Boys Of Battery A
By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – Memorial Day is May 27 this year. On that same date a century ago, James Tate was somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean on his way home from the battlefields of France. Tate, along with his Battery A comrades, had sailed from Marseilles in route to New York on May 22, 1919 aboard the Duca A’Osta, a former Italian cruise ship.
The “war to end all wars,” as it was called at the time, was over. It had ended Nov. 11, 1918 when hostilities ceased at 11 a.m. But, it would be another six months before the local unit would return home.
Tate, a 21-year-old Water Vallian, enlisted Dec. 9, 1917 in the local National Guard unit made up of 100-plus men and officers who volunteered to be a part of Battery A of the 1st Mississippi Field Artillery.
The unit’s roster included the names of a cross-section of area residents. The City Itemizer newspaper described them as the sons of the most wealthy of this county, and the most humble. Many were under 21 years of age, and quite a few were over 31, the editor wrote. “These men are volunteers in the serious business of war, responding to the call of their country.”
Battery A got its start in December of 1916 with Special Order No. 163 issued at Jackson by then Adjutant General Erie Scales authorizing Captain Guy Nason to organize a battery of field artillery and accept recruits for same. The federal government was promising $85,000 worth of property and about $1200 per month in pay “for the services of these young men.”
The local newspapers printed recruiting advertisements which included offers of special inducements for pharmacists, musicians, bandsmen, electricians, carpenters, clerks, bankers, cooks, barbers, teamsters, blacksmiths, horseshoers (sp?), and other mechanics. The ads usually included a hint of danger, the possibility of great adventure, and the opportunity to wear “the most attractive uniform worn by any part of the entire Army.”
Water Valley had the honor and distinction of having the first organized battery in the state. The Herald reported on Feb. 23 that the new unit would consist of 133 men, 36 horses, four cannons, six caissons, 133 pistols, officer’s sabers, uniforms, camp equipment and miscellaneous supplies. The city purchased a parcel of land known as the Sam Nation place for $10,000 and presented it to the battery for an armory and drill ground.
After six months of introductory training here, the unit was activated into federal service and ordered to rendezvous at their armory at 8 a.m. Sunday morning, August 5, 1917. They boarded a train downtown in what is now Railroad Park. Spread along its coaches was a banner that read, “We love Water Valley and we’d like to stay. But we’ve got to go to Berlin with Battery A.”
The unit spend the next year first at Camp Jackson and finally Camp Beauregard near Alexandria, Louisiana. On Aug. 14, 1918 the unit left Camp Beauregard. They arrived at Camp Mills, a military installation on Long Island, about ten miles from the eastern boundary of New York City.
Tate began a diary of his trip beginning with their arrival in New York on Aug. 18. He wrote that the trip was fine, but his first night in camp was hell for “a southern boy up north with only one blanket.”
On Aug. 28, the unit was awoken at 4 a.m. and marched to a train which took them to the docks and their transport, the Northern Pacific. “It was a big one,” said Tate, describing the ship. The men spent 48 hours in dock before sailing on Aug. 31 for France. He noted that his feet were sore from having to go barefoot. “The salt water sure does burn them.”
Tate wrote that he liked the boat trip, but some of the men were seasick. “Poor Wade Miller has thrown up everything but his shoes and they will be next.” He added that it had turned cold and it was his turn to sleep on the floor.
On Sept. 4 he wrote that they were still at sea and it was very rough. “Not sick yet, but soon.” He added that he would gladly trade his hard tack (food ration) for sight of land. “I will never marry a rich girl for fear she might want to go to France.”
The sea conditions worsened over the next days and by Sept. 6 Tate observed that he only wanted to cross the ocean once more and that was coming back. On Sept. 7 they arrived in port. “Land looked so good,” he wrote. “The scenery from here is beautiful.”
“My feet hit land today at 11 a.m. for the first time in ten days,” wrote Tate. “It felt good.”
The unit walked three miles to a rest camp that Tate described as nothing but a hay field. “We’re sleeping in dog tents on the ground.”
He got his first look at the French people and said they were so funny. “Nearly everyone is wearing wooden shoes. I have to talk with my book,” he added, referring to the English to French section in the front of his diary.
“We walked two miles for water. Had hard tack on corn beef for dinner, also for supper. My pay for a good American meal. ”
Things weren’t any better on Sept. 9 when he wrote, “War is hell. I am wringing wet, freezing cold, and sleeping in the mud. It has been raining ever since we came. One cup of coffee for breakfast and corn beef for supper.”
The next day Tate said that they were still in the hay field and the rain was still falling. But, he noted that the sun did come out in the afternoon. He added that they walked ten miles in the rain for a sweater.
“I am so hungry. If we ever get back home I will stay there forever.”
The unit was on the move and Tate described traveling by rail with 40 men crammed into one cattle car to reach Messac. They also were staying indoors as he wrote about billeting in a local home. “We are sleeping in their attic. But, it is a palace to us.”
“Had a bath today, the first in 23 days. It was a treat. It was in a river and cold as ice.”
Near the end of September, the unit hiked the 28 miles to a nearby training camp. “The YMCA saved my life with a cup of hot coffee.”
They were housed in barracks at the camp and Tate wrote, “The bed I slept in last night was the best since I left home.”
He described drilling every day with the 75mm artillery piece while in the training camp. “I like them. But, they are so different from our guns.”
Then in early October, Tate wrote that he had been sent to the hospital due to a problem with his eyes. He made several entries about his stay including the last one stating that he left the hospital on Feb. 5, four months after he entered. There were no other entries until May 22, when he wrote that he had sailed from Marseilles on his way home.
The men of Battery A had arrived at the beginning of September 1918 and had only been in France for just a bit over two months when the war ended. Why they didn’t come home immediately after the hostilities ended is not clear. Although Corporal Dudley Wagner, who acted as a Herald correspondent for the local unit, hinted at one possible reason. He wrote that a “school of fire” similar to the one at Fort Sill was to be opened and that the 140th might execute the fire for it. “So it is doubtful that we shall be home within the next few months, certainly not before later April or early May.”
Wagner’s predication was about a month off as the unit landed in New York on June 6, a little over ten months from the time they left the United States for France. There was only one casualty in the unit, Curtis E. Pass was killed just seven days before the Armistice went into effect. The local American Legion Post No. 37 is named in his memory.
Wagner wrote that the members of Battery A were very anxious to return home. “We have been away for almost two years. During that time the men of this Battery have experienced many sides of life; its joys, its sorrows, its mysteries.”
“We are returning to the land of our birth,” he continued, “better men – physically, morally and spiritually – better prepared to cope with the daily problems which will confront us.”
Two more weeks passed before the first arrivals were greeted at the depot on Friday morning, June 20. Later in the day, the majority of the Water Valley recruits arrived on the afternoon train. “Several hundred auxious mothers and proud fathers were made happy beyond description today when passenger train no. 24 pulled into the Water Valley station bringing home their precious boys, Battery A,” the editor of the Herald wrote, under a front page banner headline that read, Welcome Home Battery A.
The article noted that the officers and men had returned home from France with a clean moral record. Not one even censured for failure or neglect of the duties imposed upon them. “They return men – clean, moral, and healthy, the highest type of American young manhood.”
James Tate made good on his promise to stay close to home if he was able to return from the war. He moved just a few miles to the north to work for the Memphis Press-Scimitar as manager of the business review pages.
He died in 1955 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery not far from many of his Battery A comrades.