WWI Profile: William Ralph Smith 1890-1971

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Trench Bugle, Common in WWI
Source: Taps Bugler
William Ralph Smith
Bolivia, Brunswick County, NC
US Army

September 21, 1917 – February 22, 1919
July 31, 1918 – January 31, 1919
Wounded: October 15, 1918

William Ralph Smith was born and raised in Johnston County, NC. His brother, Robert F Smith, also served in WWI.

Some time between the 1900 Census and the 1910 Census, his mother passed away. The 1910 Census lists William and all of his brothers and sisters as laborers on the family farm in Johnston County.

William’s WWI Draft Registration (June 5, 1917) shows he was living in Johnston County, single, and working as a barber. He also reported that he had experience in the NC Militia, 2nd Regiment, for 6 months.

On August 25, 1917, his father, Britton Smith, was appointed US Postmaster of Bolivia in Brunswick County, NC [Source: ancestry.com]. The Smithfield Herald, Sept. 14, 1917, p. 7, noted

Mr. Britton Smith, of Bolivia, N.C., was in town Sunday and Monday. Mr. Smith has been appointed Postmaster of Bolivia and expects to move his family down there soon.

By the time William was ordered to report for military duty and was inducted on September 21, 1917, his residence was Bolivia. He became a bugler with Machine Gun Company, 322nd Infantry, 81st “Wildcat” Division.

The bugler had a hazardous position. Telephone and telegraph lines were useless when trenches were abandoned, so the bugle became an important method of communication. To sound the bugle, the bugler’s gas mask was removed, risking poisoning and death during gas attacks.

A photograph of WWI Buglers
In addition to the standard reveille and Taps calls, the bugler blurted out command signals for the troops during action. To do so required him to stand tall and play the instrument with great force so all could hear over the rattling of machine guns and the explosions of artillery shells. He was a strategic target for the enemy. Cutting off lines of communication in war was an essential objective for the enemy. [Source: The American Legion, August 15, 2013]

Continuing from the previous WWI Profile, the 81st Division completed training at Camp Sevier, and began the train trip to NYC, boarding the ships on July 31, 1918. Bugler Smith’s ship was Orduna [Source: ancestry.com].

This is an actual Troop transport ship bunk and meal assignment ticket, to be worn around the neck, during a trip across the Atlantic Ocean. [Source: NC DNCR]

Sunday, August 11, 1918.
As our ship sailed into the docks of Liverpool, our band played “Britain Forever” and a big English cruiser sailed by us playing “The Yanks are Coming” which showed us that we had a hearty welcome. Old men, women, and children greeted us by saying, “God Bless you, Sammy!” and young girls hugged and kissed us and walked with us most of the five miles that we hiked out to the rest camp called Knotty Ashe. [Thomas Shinn’s diary]

In England, the Red Cross provided postcards to send to loved ones, notifying them of their safe arrival in Europe. Pictured is an original postcard from the NC Archives.

A week later, they crossed the Channel and arrived in France. They were loaded into the infamous French box cars marked “Hommes 40 — Chevaux 8” (40 men or 8 horses). Most diaries and unit documentation write of the difficulty traveling this way although they quickly point out they prefer it to marching! This cartoon was found illustrating the experience. [Source: Fletcher, Arthur Lloyd (1920) History of the 113th Field Artillery, 30th Division . Raleigh, NC: History Committee of the 113th F. A. p. 190]

Women did the work at the railroad, breaking, switching and even track work.

Wednesday, August 21, 1918.
Arrived St. Percy after marching through Flogny. We were the first American soldiers that these people had ever seen and they thought we were all millionaires because we had watches and rings and other things that peasants in France didn’t have. [Thomas Shinn’s diary]

Arriving at St. Die near the end of September, they were to relieve the 92nd “Buffalo Soldiers” Division.

The 92nd Division included two Brunswick County men with WWI Profiles posted earlier, William James Gordon and Robert Stanley, as well as several other soldiers listed on the WWI Army/Marine Division Rosters webpage.

After darkness fell on September 19th, they moved into the trenches that the Buffalo Soldiers had vacated.

On September 22, after a German airplane flew directly above their heads, a sign appeared in no man’s land from the Germans, proving that their movements were being closely monitored.

“Good bye Buffalo’s Welcome Wild Cats”

On October 15, 1918, at 9pm, they were relieved from their position in the trenches. Bugler Smith was wounded that day. His NC WWI Service Card showed it was a slight wound, but it was a gunshot wound to the elbow, as indicated on the Passenger List below, and he was classified as having a disability at discharge. According to unit history, 14 men were wounded and 21 were killed during the occupation of the St. Die sector.

Source: Ancestry.com. U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.

William Ralph Smith returned to the United States on January 31, 1919, and was honorably discharged on February 22, 1919, with a 15% disability. Recall the previous profile of Corporal Calmer Clemmons, which included a newspaper clipping that listed William Ralph Smith among the wounded returning to NC.

The 1920 Census shows William (Ralph) was living with his father and two sisters in Town Creek. His father was still Postmaster and his sister, Patsy, was Assistant Postmaster. William was working as a barber. He married in 1922 and eventually moved to Wilmington, NC, and became a watchmaker. He and his wife raised several children.

In 1929, William’s younger brother Robert, who also served in WWI died of meningitis and tuberculosis. He was only 35 years old and had never married.

In 1936, his father Britton Smith died. The State Port Pilot, March 18, 1936, p. 6 published his obituary.

Funeral Services for Bolivia Man
Mr. Britton Smith, long-time resident and business man of Bolivia, died Thursday morning at James Walker Memorial hospital, after a lingering illness of pneumonia. Mr. Smith was 75 years of age. He was a native of Smithfield, Johnston County.

Being an honest, straightforward christian man, he was greatly loved and highly esteemed among all of his friends and acquaintances.

His wife preceded him in death several years ago. He leaves to mourn the loss three daughters, Mrs. Stancil, of Johnston County; Mrs. Fred Edwards of Bolivia; and Mrs. Thelma Pittman of Wilmington; also a son Ralph Smith of Wilmington, and several grandchildren.

The funeral was conducted at 11:00 o’clock Friday at Smithfield by Rev. B.R. Page, assisted by local pastors.

William Ralph Smith passed away in 1971 at age 80. He was laid to rest in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington. Military honors are shown.

Johnson, Clarence Walton (1919) The history of the 321st infantry, with a brief historical sketch of the 80th division, being a vivid and authentic account of the life and experiences of American soldiers in France, while they trained, worked, and fought to help win the world war. . Columbia, S.C., The R. L. Bryan co.

Thomas P. Shinn’s Wartime Diary

If you would like to help us honor William Ralph Smith or another Brunswick County WWI veteran, please use the following links:

Click here for the announcement: Announcement: Honor a Brunswick County World War I Veteran
Click here for directions to donate and honor a veteran: How to Honor a Brunswick County World War I Veteran

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