- Over the Top:Denton County Soldiers in the Great War, 1917-1919
In the waning days of World War I, two Texas soldiers, Sergeant Ollie S. Calvert and Corporal Warren T. Sweeney of Company M, 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division, were assigned the task of escorting eighty-seven prisoners toward the rear of the front lines. They were about one kilometer southeast of the town of St. Etienne-à-Arnes, where units of their division were attacking German forces on October 8, 1918. While escorting the prisoners away from the front, enemy artillery shells started to fall nearby, forcing the soldiers and their prisoners to take cover in a roadside ditch. As Corporal Sweeney recalled, "Sgt Calvert was sitting in a leaning position against the bank of the ditch when a large shell burst about twenty feet directly in front of us." A piece of shrapnel, "about the size of a man's thumb," struck Calvert in the chest. Sweeney heard his sergeant cry out and then Calvert was dead. When the shelling stopped and Sweeney was able to continue escorting the prisoners from the front, Calvert's body had to be left in the ditch. Sweeney later reported that he did not know the location of Calvert's grave.1
Before the war, Calvert worked on a farm near the town of Justin in Denton County, Texas, and Sweeney farmed near Pilot Point in the same county. Both were in their early to mid twenties when they entered military service. They were two of the nearly 200,000 Texans who served during World War I and contributed to bringing the war to a victorious close for the Allies a little more than a year after the United States entered the conflict. Curiously, however, their stories and those of other Texans [End Page 137] in what was then called the Great War are not well remembered. Texans have a great military tradition that is much celebrated in accounts of the Texas Revolution, the U.S.-Mexican War, Civil War, and World War II, but the role of Texas and Texans in World War I has not been adequately studied.
For example, in the wide ranging collection of essays edited by Joseph G. Dawson, The Texas Military Experience from the Texas Revolution through World War II, the military service of World War I Texans receives only the briefest mention: Martin Blumenson's essay on the 36th Infantry Division in World War II spends three paragraphs describing the unit's World War I service. The recent Twentieth-Century Texas: A Social and Cultural History, edited by John W. Storey and Mary L. Kelley, includes an essay by Ralph Wooster, "Over Here: Texans on the Home Front," in which the author provides a longer, but still not comprehensive survey of how World War I influenced Texans at home.2
This is not to say that World War I in Texas has been completely overlooked. Wooster's recent Texas and Texans in the Great War provides a much needed overview of the period, while historian José Ramírez ably chronicles the experiences of Mexican Americans in World War I in To the Line of Fire: Mexican Texans and World War I. Lonnie J. White has offered histories of the 36th and 90th divisions, and earlier histories also exist for the two divisions.3 However, the study of Texas and World War I still has much to offer historians. The military, social, and cultural aspects of this subject can be explored through a detailed examination of soldiers' experiences in joining the service as draftees or volunteers, their training in Texas, their journey to the front, their combat service, and their return home. Who were these soldiers, and how did they experience the Great War? This study seeks to broaden knowledge of this lesser known aspect of Texas history by analyzing a single company of soldiers who volunteered for service in Denton County in 1917.
On March 29, 1917, a little more than a week before the United States entered World War I, the mayor of Denton, Sam G. Gary, placed "A Call to All Americans" in the Denton Record-Chronicle in which...