American Soldiers and the Influenza Pandemic

By David Kelsall

Over there, over there!

Send the word, send the word over there!

That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,

The drums rum-tumming ev’rywhere!

So prepare, say a prayer,

Send the word, send the word to beware!

We’ll be over, we’re coming over,

And we won’t come back we’ll be buried over there.

‘Over There’. Lyrics and music by George M. Cohan (cynics’ version).


The Stockport Advertiser of November 1st, 1918, reported that;

‘The mortal remains of five of the American soldiers who have fallen victim of the dreaded ‘’Flu’’ were laid to rest on Thursday in a little quiet spot surrounded by trees, set apart for the purpose by the authorities at Willow Grove Cemetery, South Reddish……..The bodies were borne, each in a separate hearse, the coffins being draped in a Stars and Stripes flag and bearing a floral wreath………..sent by the American ladies of the American Red Cross…….On each side marched American soldiers, comrades of the deceased, who acted as bearers…….The service was conducted by two American Army Chaplains, the Rev. H.W. Davies of the Failsworth Camp, and the Rev. T.S. Bann of the Knotty Ash Camp……….The coffins were lowered into five separate graves……the firing party fired three volleys, and then the bugle sounded the final notes.’

These were but five of the twenty six American soldiers to be buried in this plot between 24thOctober and 9th November 1918. This article attempts to identify these men, to find out something about their short lives, to look at the reasons which brought them to this corner of a foreign Cheshire and to investigate what happened to them beyond their burial – for this wasn’t to be the end of their story. There is still a lot of work to be done on this topic as researching the war dead of America is a far more difficult job than that of, for example, those of Britain, where a vast amount of information is easily available. One reason for this is that The Great War was never viewed in post-war USA as  ‘great’ as it was in the UK – America’s WW1 dead being far fewer, and the effects of the war being regarded as far less important than its own Civil War of the 1860’s.

Nonetheless, between its declaration of war on Germany in April 1917 and the Armistice of November 1918, the United States of America sailed two million and more soldiers across the Atlantic to fight on the Western Front . Of these, about half made landfall at Liverpool (848, 000 of them, including 4,000 at Manchester docks). They were then taken to rest camps in Knotty Ashor the south of England before being transported to the Channel ports by train, from where they were ferried to, in the main, Brest or St Nazaire.

50,280 of these two million men died as a result of enemy action and 7,920 from ‘other causes’ – such as accidents. But there were another 57,460 young American soldiers (almost exactly 50%) who died, not from German bullet or shell – for many of them hadn’t even left their homeland – but from disease, the vast majority of these succumbing to the smallest of living organisms – the influenza virus. America’s outpouring of her youth coincided with the greatest pandemic of recent, if not of all, history; indeed the conditions of the Great War made such a catastrophe possible – virus and war seemingly conspiring with each other to create the perfect conditions for such an event. The total numbers around the world who died of the ‘Spanish Flu’ cannot be known, but recent estimates range from a staggering 40 to 100 million between the Springs of 1918 and 1919. These then are the factors which brought our 26 Americans, originally from a variety of European ethnic backgrounds, to untimely graves in a small cemetery overlooking the Tame Valley in Reddish, Stockport – factors which we now need to look at in a little more detail.

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Even with all the knowledge, technology and medicine available today, the identity of the virus which led to the pandemic is still largely a mystery, though most of its genome has now been recreated, under laboratory conditions, using fragments of the microscopic beast found within the bodies of Inuit victims frozen into the permafrost or from bodies buried in lead-lined coffins in more temperate regions. Also a mystery is where it actually started. There are several contenders. At the time it was called ‘The Spanish Flu’ and many assumed it began here, but it acquired this name simply because, being a neutral country with few reporting restrictions, news of the disease’s deadly effects was freely available in the Spanish press. Some thought (and still do) that it began in China and was brought to America and Europe by Chinese labourers who were being transported to work on the Western Front, via the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the North American continent. Another theory places its origin in the vast British transit and training camp at Etaples in Northern France. Here, thousands of soldiers, who were constantly on the move between Blighty and the front, also lived cheek by jowell with their living and breathing food supply – as many chickens and pigs. Assuming that the human flu virus mutated from avian and swine variants, such an origin is distinctly possible. A fourth possibility, and one that is particularly relevant to this article, is that it began in the enormous and greatly overcrowded American army training camps (in particular, Camp Funston in Kansas) which had been rapidly thrown up all over the country since the US declared war on Germany, and then brought to Europe via the similarly over-packed troopships.

Wherever it began and whatever its actual identity, the 1918 flu pandemic hit the world in three main waves. The first, a milder variety but still deadly, occurred more or less simultaneously all over the planet between March and August 1918. From here, the virus mutated rapidly into an out and out killer, especially when combined with its ally pneumonia, which took advantage of the flu victims’ weakened immune systems. The death rate shot up logarithmically in this second wave which lasted from September to December, the horror of its symptoms being equally magnified. The virus mutated again into a milder form between January and May 1919, with a smaller but equally unwelcome reprise in 1920 before, seemingly and hopefully, evolving itself into extinction.

The symptoms of the 1918 flu could be horrendous. After a germination period inside a human of two or three days, its victim could easily be dead after two more. Their faces often turned a mahogany colour and their lips blue as lungs filled with a frothy, thin bloody substance, before turning into the texture of liver, preventing the flow of oxygen round the body. The patient would be prostrated with a fever and terrible muscle and headache, often accompanied by projectile bleeding from eyes, ears and nose. Over all, the death rate was, compared with other diseases of the era, fairly low but, as it could easily infect 50% of any given population, the virus could kill an awful lot of people. The constant movement of soldiers around the globe, as a result of the Great War, and their insanitary and crowded conditions put the icing on the airborne viral cake. To make matters worse, the virus had a penchant for the seemingly tough young adults in their 20’s and 30’s, who should have had the most resistance to disease. Other, lesser influenzas, naturally went for the very young and the very old whose immune systems were weakest. The 1918 variety sought these out as well but also singled out the very people who were fighting the war and living in the conditions described above. This gave a line graph, showing the numbers of victims compared with age, a unique W shape, with the central peak of the W around the 20 to 30 age cohort. Another of the complications with this particular strain of flu was that it had a far greater ability to bring about the onset of pneumonia in a victim than any other and this turned out to be the main killer.

Despite all the medical advances made in the half century before the Great War, the doctors of 1918 were as helpless as those in the Middle Ages who were faced with the Black Death – there was simply no cure; virology and antibiotics were things of the future in 1918. The only thing which might make a small difference was absolute bed rest, a difficult thing to take when fighting a world war.

To give some idea of the effects of the 1918 flu amongst civilians in Britain, it is estimated that some 10 million were affected, with 228,000 dying of the infection. Stockport itself, where our Americans were buried at the height of the second wave, suffered 51 deaths in the first wave, 312 in the second and 112 in the third. In the US army it is thought that the flu killed 30,000 servicemen before they even got to France, some 4,000 dying aboard the troopships. It also laid low an estimated 1 million US soldiers at a time when America was fighting its biggest offensive of the war, The Meuse-Argonne, and suffering its greatest battle casualties. The effect of the flu in such a situation on combat and command can only be imagined, for ‘Enza’ was rife amongst the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F) in France too, as indeed it was on the other side of the line.

Naming Names

So who were these 26 American soldiers, who were buried in Willow Grove Cemetery, next to one of their allies, the Belgian Soldat Franz Vermeulen. The table below shows the state of my researches to date. There are many gaps but there is enough detail to return some recognisable flesh to their long departed bones and present us with a thumbprint image of their regrettably short lives.

Ethnic Composition;

All of the soldiers for whom I have details were described as naturalised citizens of the USA and all were white. At this time, a large proportion of US citizens were first generation immigrants. For example, there were some 500,000 Germans and 3 million Austro -Hungarian citizens living in America when the war broke out and a surprising proportion of these ‘aliens’ actually registered to fight for their new homeland. 20% of the army in 1918 was foreign born and it could be that some of our soldiers were indeed of this type – their surnames perhaps giving some indication of their origins. Many, of course have names of British or Irish origin but Kleinjohn, for example, is very common in the Netherlands, Kutz, Cordes and Hagen are generally German, while Cautes is possibly Romanian. Between 1895 and 1920, 145,000 Romanians emigrated to the USA, many from Transylvania, to escape poverty and forced assimilation into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ole Hedahl has a Scandinavian surname. There was an influx of Norwegians into North Dakota beginning in the 1870’s to farm the fertile soil of the region and Ole was probably descended from these people.

There were no African-Americans buried in Willow Grove Cemetery and this is partly due to the very strict segregation of Blacks and Whites in US army units. More on this later.



Of the 8 soldiers whose units I have been able to identify so far, 6 belonged to the US 38thInfantry Division. Of these, 3 were members of the 113th Sanitary Train. Each infantry Division had a sanitary train attached, composed of an Ambulance Section and a Field Hospital Section, each of which had both motorised and horse-drawn sections, with around 900 personnel all told. As these were the men who cared for the sick in camp and on board the troopships, it is no wonder that their names form such a large proportion of the dead. It is to be expected that the vast majority of the remaining 19 soldiers would also have been members of the 38th Division.

Wesley Grubbs, our tall, slender, blue-eyed and, no doubt, smooth- tongued car salesman, was a member of Company ‘I’ of the 74th Provisional Ordnance Battalion, who dealt with the supply and maintenance of weaponry. They were not part of the 38th Division and there appear to be no records of this unit’s existence available for study. However, an ordnance battalion did sail to Liverpool in the same convoy as the 38th Division, as recorded in ‘The Story of the 139th Field Artillery’, and this was most likely the unit in question.

Camp Shelby

Charles Estes’ 138thField Artillery Regiment had fought for Union in the Civil War as the 5th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. On 15th June 1917 it was called into Federal service again, assigned to the 38th Division and sent to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to help construct Camp Shelby, where it was then trained for war. Much to the unit’s consternation however, it was converted into an light artillery regiment (employing French 75mm field guns) while at Camp Shelby, leading to problems of retraining and the loss of its proud infantry roots.

The 152nd Infantry Regiment, before being called into federal service at Jeffersonville in 1917, and assigned to the 38th Division, had been known as the 2nd Infantry, Indiana National Guard. As such it, the present Doughboy’s grandfathers had fought in it on the side of the Union during the Civil War.



The identified occupations of our Doughboys show a good mix of early 20th Century American, mainly working class, occupations – including a, hopefully, trustworthy  car salesman, Wesley Grubbs from Chicago, 2 truck drivers and a wagoner.  In addition, many would have been members of the pre-war National Guard, as the 38th division was a National Guard division. These were (and are) the equivalent of our Territorials – part time soldiers.  Preston Ridgeway had been in the Kentucky National Guard for 3 years when he registered for the draft on June 5th1917, for example. This unit, during the Civil War had split into two, one fighting for the Confederacy and the other for the Union. On 25th June 1916, following Pancho Villa’s raids into US territory, the Kentucky National Guard, presumably including Preston Ridgeway, had passed into Federal service at Fort Thomas, Kentucky and remained so until 21st April 1917, spending some time patrolling the area around, and stationed at Fort Bliss, El Paso against Mexican incursions. In a matter of weeks their country called them again, this time for war against Germany. While in training for world war at Camp Shelby, the unit was redesignated as the 149thInfantry Regiment

Money, of course, was not easy to come by and, to make ends meet, 26 year old J. Rolphe Leo McManus listed himself as a teacher as well as a farmer of the endless expanse of featureless fields which surrounded his isolated hometown of Palmyra, Illinois. Likewise for tall, brown eyed George Dunn a 36 year old married man from Clarkesville, Arkansas, who worked as a farmer and a coal miner. His couldn’t have been an easy life. 22 year old, black haired Robert Hagen, worked for the Hectaw Lumber Company in Idabel, Oklahoma, the principle economic activity of that town. He would have seen his trade being supplanted by cotton growing from 1904 but, had he lived, would have seen it too disappear in the Great Depression of the 1930’s by over-cropping and destructive pests. There were also 2 labourers, a banker, a farmer, a carpenter for a building company in Detroit, a ‘manager’, and a manager of a telephone exchange in a hardware store in Mercer, North Dakota, a bleak small town where there was no such thing as close neighbour and where, even today, every road bar the main road is a dirt road.

The 38th Infantry Division

A brief history of this division is necessary to understand how these, mainly, Mid-Western American soldiers came to be buried in a small northern English cemetery, so far their homes. The 38th Division was originally formed in July 1917, following the US declaration of war on Germany, composed of National Guard units from Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia. These were drafted into Federal service on August 5th 1917 under Major-General William H Sage and concentrated into the newly built Camp Shelby for war training. The camp was located 10 miles southeast of Hattiesburg in Mississippi. The camp’s 36,000 soldiers outnumbered the inhabitants of Hattiesburg by almost 3 to 1. These training camps were vast. Shelby was constructed in a pine forest, requiring the removal of 180,000 trees and the building of 1,206 wooden, hanger-sized huts. All the soldiers were housed in regimental cities of pyramidal, 8 man squad tents, the lower sections of which were usually boxed in with wood to help keep out unwelcome draughts – or, indeed, draftees.  It covered an area of approximately 2×2 miles and included miles of new roads, water and sewerage pipes and featured its own, practise trench system and artillery and rifle ranges.

The division was made up as follows;

75th Infantry Brigade which included the 149th and 150th Infantry Regiment and 138th Machine Gun Battalion.

76th Infantry Brigade which included the 151st and 152nd Infantry Regiments and the 139thMachine Gun Battalion.

63rd Field Artillery Brigade which included the 137th, 138th and 139th Field artillery Regiments (the first two armed with light 75mm artillery pieces and the 139th with heavy 6’’ howitzers.) and the 113th Trench Mortar Battery.

Divisional Troops included the 137th Machine Gun Battery, 113th Engineers, 113th Field Signals Battalion and a troop of cavalry.

The Trains (horse and motorised supply units) included the 113th HQ and Military Police, 113thAmmunition, 113th Supply, 113th Engineer and 113th Sanitary Trains.

Each division was, therefore, a small army in its own right and contained around 28,000 men.

At the end of 1917, the 38th Division, being understrength still, received drafts from the 84thDivision, which introduced Illinois men into the mix, some of whom were probably amongst those found in Willow Grove. The winter of 1917/18 was the coldest in many years and the men, most of whom were living under canvas, suffered greatly. A cyclone which ripped through the camp did not help matters but gave the 38th its nickname – The Cyclone Division.

Influenza made its first appearance in the camp on April 8th 1918, which was around four months before the first, recognised, wave of the Spanish Flu. Although relatively mild, it floored around 1,200 men and killed Lt Tony Hunter, a medical officer of the 149th Infantry Regiment – 38th Division’s first officer death of the war. It quickly disappeared and may even have given some of the division a certain degree of immunity to the waves of influenza to come, for Camp Shelby, despite having a very high rate of venereal disease, did have one of the lowest rates of flu mortality amongst US training camps. The first wave, proper, arrived at the end of August 1918. There were 543 cases, followed by 35 of pneumonia leading to 4 deaths. This outbreak was, ironically, attributed to relatives and friends of the soldiers entering the camp to bid them farewell, as the division was preparing to leave the camp to begin their long journey to the Western Front. They began entraining on September 9th 1918.

Comic depicting “camp life” American soldiers experienced

Comic depicting “camp life” American soldiers experienced

Most units of the 38th were taken by train to Camp Mills in Nassau County, Long Island, New Jersey – 10 miles from New York and their embarkation port of Hoboken. It was discovered that there wasn’t enough room at Camp Mills so some units (including the 139th Field Artillery) were moved on to Camp Upton, also on Long Island , 5 miles from Yaphank, Suffolk County. These were transit camps and re-equipped the soldiers briefly stationed there with new underwear, hobnailed boots, spiral puttees and weaponry . They also exchanged their wide-brimmed Campaign hats for the Overseas side-cap and steel helmet. The Camp Mills site was low-lying, swampy and cold and this, combined with the overcrowded conditions, as the US tried to feed as many newly trained recruits as it could into the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, now raging in France, were perfect conditions for the second wave of Spanish Flu to explode.  The first 5 cases emerged on September 14th, climbing logarithmically to 257 new cases on October 5th, the day before the majority of the 38th Division set sail. Between October 1st-15th, there were 2,154 cases and 287 died. The camp medical report stated that ‘the incidence of morbidity and mortality’ was ‘greatly enhanced by the long railroad trips of most of the men affected, troops from Georgia, Mississippi and California furnishing all our cases.’ Things were no better in Camp Upton where the hospitals were overflowing with flu cases and all the sick and attendants were masked. 50 men of the 139th Field Artillery Regiment were taken ill, including its commanding Officer.

The description of the Division’s Atlantic crossing is best given in the history of the 139th Field Artillery regiment. Some, mainly headquarter, units had already sailed for England in September and earlier in October but the bulk of the division was taken to Hoboken, home of the 22 month old Frank Sinatra, and piled aboard the convoy troopships which were awaiting them. The convoy was made up of 11 British ships, escorted by a British cruiser. All were in startling, striped, black, blue and white camouflage dazzle schemes, which made the ships so very visible that their shape and direction of movement became almost unfathomable. 2 US destroyers took up the rear but left after a couple of days out.  4 of Britain’s largest and finest liners were in the convoy, RMS Cedric, Adriatic, Carmania and Empress of Britain. All had had the luxury ripped out of them to be replaced by sardinely -packed bunk beds, many of which had to be occupied in a shift system. All were overcrowded, with too little deck space to get adequate fresh air and exercise. The Cedric, for example, was designed to take 2,877 passengers but, on this voyage, carried 3,450 – an excess of 573 souls. Aboard were the 139th Field Artillery Regiment, a battalion of Ordnance troops and a battalion of the 814th Pioneer Infantry – a black labour unit.

As the soldiers filed up the gangways into their respective liners, they unknowingly took more with them from Camps Mills and Upton than their newly issued steel helmets and puttees – something that would prove far more lethal than their rifles and bayonets.

RMS Carmania in dazzle paint scheme

RMS Carmania in dazzle paint scheme

The convoy set sail at 4.00pm on Saturday, October 6th 1918. The cruiser led the way, followed by the Cedric, to the right of which were the Adriatic and Carmania and, to the left the Empress of Britain. The voyage took 11 days on its submarine-avoiding, jig-jag course across the Atlantic. Some men had been left behind at Hoboken, being too ill to travel. Others on board were rapidly coming down with Influenza of the second wave. Very quickly, on board the Cedric, officers were giving up their quarters to accommodate the flu cases which were overflowing from the ship’s hospital; decks were covered in blood and viruses from the nosebleeds and soiled blankets. Conditions on board ship were ideal for the explosive spread of the disease; overcrowding, young men in close contact with each other, little chance of fresh air, few doctors and nursing staff and an isolated position with no escape. The men of the Sanitary Trains worked tirelessly but to little avail, apart from contracting the virus themselves.  Above decks, sentries kept a lookout for submarine periscopes; below decks the dying started.  Robert L. Moorhead, the commanding officer of the 139th Field Artillery watched 50 burials at sea taking place on the adjacent Adriatic.

Given the short incubation period of 2 to 3 days and the fact that many died 2 to 3 days after the pneumonia set in, the 26 Willow Grove men must have contracted the virus towards the end of the voyage so they would have been becoming rather ill as the convoy entered St George’s Channel at night – the night the Cedric was struck by a torpedo from a submarine which had been spotted a few hours before. Luckily, little damage was done and, on the 17th, the convoy entered the safety of the Mersey Estuary.  The convoy docked at Liverpool in the morning, five aboard the Cedric having died that night – they were buried in the soldier’s plot of the cemetery by the American Camp Hospital No. 40. This was located next to Alder Hey hospital, itself adjacent to the US soldiers’ rest camp at Knotty Ash and it was to Camp Hospital 40 that those still suffering from flu were taken after being stretchered off their ships. The rest of the 38thDivision boarded trains, after a brief march through the American flag-lined streets of Liverpool (itself in the grip of ‘Enza’) to Lime Street Station. From here they were taken by train to the US rest camp at Codford, Wiltshire.

Alexandra Park Military Hospital, Edgeley, Stockport

Alexandra Park Military Hospital, Edgeley, Stockport

Those flu victims who had arrived at Camp Hospital 40 found its draughty marquees full to overflowing and they had to be moved on to other hospitals in the local area. Since the only real treatment for the flu was absolute bedrest, this was the last thing they needed. And so it was that consignments of sick Doughboys arrived in Stockport and were admitted to Alexandra Park Military Hospital in Edgeley, Stockport. This was one of the many schools in the borough which had been converted into a hospital at the expense of the education of its children and it was here that they began to die. Ole Hedahl, of Scandinavian descent, born on February 7th 1890 in Twin Valley, Minnesota, the short but slender, light haired and grey eyed manager of the telephone exchange in a hardware store in Mercer, North Dakota and recently a wagoner in the 113th Sanitary Train, who had worked so hard looking after the sick and the dying on his nightmare voyage across the Atlantic, was probably the first.

Funeral procession for American soldiers who died of the Spanish Flu in Stockport

Funeral procession for American soldiers who died of the Spanish Flu in Stockport

It was from Alexandra Park too, over the next 20 days that 8 separate funeral corteges slowly set off across the town, accompanied by a school band, marching British wounded in their hospital blues, local dignitaries and American comrades and chaplains, to the soldier’s plot in Willow Grove Cemetery. The last three services, on the 4th, 6th and 9th November, with 1 body each, marked the sudden decline of ‘Enza’s’ terrible second wave – as sudden as it had struck…. just as the rumours of the war ending very soon were  gaining more and more credence.


We know that there were still recuperating, American soldiers in Stockport on November 11th, for they were reported as ‘taking French leave’ and making their way to Stockport town centre to join in the Armistice Day celebrations, gathering especially around the YMCA club on Wellington Street. They were reported to be in a ‘very jubilant mood’ and severely taxed ‘the resources of the ladies on the staff’ – according to the Stockport Express. No doubt many were from the 38thDivision. Perhaps others were from the American military presence in Oldham, where the US government had requisitioned Gorse and Lilac Mills for the assembly of Handley-Page 0/400 bombers. Using British labour to construct them, the giant bombers were meant to contribute to the American air service’s bombing campaign of Germany.  An aircraft acceptance park was also constructed in Chadderton to receive and test -fly the finished products. By the end of the war however, only 10 aircraft had been assembled, and then only partially. Perhaps this could explain the reported presence of an American camp, with its own chaplain (see above) in Failsworth but, so far, a great deal of research has uncovered absolutely nothing, apart from spawning a few ill-conceived theories of my own based on very little evidence indeed.

As for the 38th Division, it sailed on to Cherbourg but, much to its consternation, was broken up (‘Skeletonised’) upon arrival in France to supply existing fighting units with reinforcements. Within less than 2 months however, the war ended and the remaining units sailed away from Brest on December 3rd 1918, landing at Newport News, Virginia, on the 19th. They were back in their old Kentucky home by Boxing Day where, with luck, they would survive Enza’s parting slap in the face. In all, the 38th Division had suffered 301 deaths – 105 from combat, 47 who had died of wounds, 68 from non-combat accidents and 81 from influenza and pneumonia.

Pte. Rudolph Cordes

Pte. Rudolph Cordes

Those Doughboys who returned to their homes, hopefully, found some peace, but not so their dead comrades left behind in Willow Grove. The Stockport Express of April 17th 1919 reported the inexplicable theft, the week before, of four of the crosses which marked the resting place of the American soldiers. They belonged to Truman J. Cook, Ciland Smith, George Frye and Rudolph Cordes.  As far as is known, they were never recovered.

The next disturbance of their peace was officially sanctioned. Unlike the fallen of the British Empire, who remained in the place in which they died, the US government allowed its dead to be repatriated if the families of the deceased wished it. Their loved ones could either have the body reburied in a national cemetery overseas or in one in the United States. Either way, the government would cover the cost. If they chose to have a private burial, then the government would only pay for the transportation of the body and for a headstone. Four of the Willow Grove dead were exhumed and reburied in Brookwood American Cemetery in Surrey, the only American cemetery of the Great War in Britain. It now holds the bodies of William G. Payne, Ole Hedahl, Richard Columbus Webster and Herbert Kleinjohn. Just to confuse matters however, another source states that William Payne’s body was returned home and buried in Morgantown, Indiana.

Ole E. Hedahl’s grave, Brookwood American Cemetery

Ole E. Hedahl’s grave, Brookwood American Cemetery

As far as is known, there are no more Doughboys buried in Willow Grove and Belgian Franz Vermeulen lies today without his old allies by his side; the soldiers’ plot is now an anonymous, undulating grassy patch bearing a line of 4 Commonwealth war Grave headstones as if perpetually on parade.  The names of the Americans are not commemorated on the old cemetery plaques or mentioned on the recent information boards. It is assumed that the rest were, at last, returned to their families but, throughout the North West of England, some 15 -20 American soldiers still remain where they were buried.  Perhaps then, still true to a century-old war aim, this gallant little Belgian is not alone.

The First World War “soldier’s plot” in Willow Grove Cemetery, Stockport

The First World War “soldier’s plot” in Willow Grove Cemetery, Stockport

The article in the Stockport Express which reported the burial of the first 5 of the American soldiers ended with the following paragraph;

‘A beautiful story is told of the passing of one of these heroes in a Manchester hospital. He was a coloured man, and in moments of consciousness he frequently referred to his little girl he had left at home in the West, and occasionally muttered, ‘’But it’s worth it all,’’ and when asked what he meant by that, replied, ‘’I, a black man, have received the same treatment as a white man’.

In the American army of the Great War, black and white units were strictly segregated. What’s more, 89% of black soldiers were relegated to labour units, many never leaving the camps they were taken to for training. There were only 2 black combat divisions raised, the second being only partly formed before being handed over for employment by the French Army. Black units received the worst of everything, from clothing and shelter to weaponry and medical care, in the meantime often suffering a great deal of racial abuse. Most were officered by whites, as African Americans were not thought capable of command, and distrusted with guns. During the height of the flu pandemic, one US camp was so desperate for nurses that they allowed black nurses to care for white patients – but only after segregated accommodation had been built for them.

It isn’t known who this particular dying African American Doughboy was, but similar stories do exist. He could well have been a member of the 814th Pioneer Infantry who had crossed the Atlantic with the 38th Division, aboard RMS Cedric. Pioneer Infantry were basically labour units who had also been trained to fight as infantry so that they could be employed on more technical tasks nearer the front line than others. The 814th were raised in Kentucky in August 1918 and had sailed to France on October 6th so, typically, they had been given precious little time for any serious infantry training.

Many African Americans supported the war, the draft and the ‘Democratic’ country which often treated them with such contempt and violence because, in the words of a black, Southern teacher, ‘When we have proved ourselves men, worthy to work and fight and die for our country, a grateful nation may gladly give us the recognition of real men, and the rights and privileges of true and loyal citizens of the United States.’ They were, of course, to be sadly disappointed. However, despite protests from senior ranks in the US Army and the publication of a report informing their allies how African Americans should be (poorly) treated, it is a fact that the British and French treated their black soldiers with several degrees less prejudice and a few more of equality than did their white American associates – perhaps a small glimpse of the silver lining in the dark cloud which was the ‘17 – ‘18 War.

***For more research on the First World War in Cheshire by David Kelsall, please click here.***



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The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919, Byerly, Carol R., 2010. (Website).

U.S Draft Registration Cards 1917-1918, National Archives Microfilm Publications, Washington. (Freely   available on the internet).

Willow Grove Cemetery Records for 1918, Stockport Heritage Library.


With thanks to Stockport and Oldham Local Heritage Libraries.