Science and History Go To War

Soldiers of 306th Field Signal Battalion, 81st Division, signaling to airplanes in Maneuver, France, September 7, 1918

Soldiers of 306th Field Signal Battalion, 81st Division, signaling to airplanes in Maneuver, France, September 7, 1918 (Click on the image to see a larger view)

In this, the last of our blog series on science related archival materials as part of the North Carolina Science Festival, we’re looking at the science and technology of World War I.  As frequenters of this blog know, those of us in the Information Management Branch have been digitizing World War I documents and images for a few months now and yet there is so much information we have not yet had the time to scan. For example, this collection suggested by our Military Collection Archivist, Kenrick N. Simpson:

The World War I Papers in the Military Collection of the North Carolina State Archives include a number of invaluable private manuscript collections. Of these collections, the largest and undoubtedly the most interesting to students of science are the papers of Col. Joseph Hyde Pratt of Chapel Hill, commander of the 105th Engineers. A native of Connecticut, Pratt earned a bachelor of philosophy degree and a doctorate from Yale University. He moved to North Carolina in 1897 to join the Toxaway Company and to work as a mineralogist with the N.C. Geological Survey. Soon thereafter, he was appointed state mineralogist, a post he held until named state geologist in 1906. In these capacities, Pratt was credited with the discovery of several minerals. He was also active in the acquisition of land for state and national forests, and in the nascent State Highway Commission, serving as its secretary for a period. A member of the state guard since 1913, Pratt enlisted in the army on July 24, 1917, and was commissioned a major of engineers. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in November and assigned to command of the 1st Battalion of the 105th Engineer Regiment, which assembled for training at Camp Sevier, South Carolina.

On May 18, 1918, the 105th Engineers left Camp Sevier for Camp Mills, Long Island, preparatory for disembarking for service overseas. On June 1, Lieutenant Colonel Pratt commanded a detachment of the regiment that sailed for Europe aboard the Talthybius (the main body was transported on the Melita). Both vessels landed in Dover, and the regiment was reunited in Calais on June 14. Pratt assumed command of the 105th on June 19, when Col. Harley B. Ferguson was assigned the duties of American Second Corps engineer. The engineers received training from the British until July 10, when the regiment moved to the Ypres area. Here they trained with the 30th Division until August 17, when the division relieved a British division in the front lines of the Canal Sector. The 105th spent the next two weeks improving the fortifications, roads, and water supply in the area. On August 31, the 30th Division launched an attack on the German lines south of Ypres. After temporary assignments with the British First and Third armies, the 30th Division was permanently attached to the British Fourth Army on September 22 and relieved the Australian Corps in the trenches at Bellicourt. A week later, the division attacked the Hindenburg Line and achieved a breakthrough. From October 8 to 19, the 30th Division and its engineers were engaged in daily attacks that pushed back the German lines. The 105th remained in France until the first of April 1919, repairing roads and preparing defensive positions. Pratt was the officer in charge of troops aboard the U.S.S Martha Washington on the homeward voyage. He received the Distinguished Service Cross and was discharged from service on June 12, 1919. War service took a heavy toll on his health, forcing his resignation as state geologist in 1924. Pratt died in 1942.

Documents in the Pratt Collection of scientific interest include blueprints and specifications for construction of trenches, revetments, bomb-proof shelters, pyramid-type shelters, cave shelters, reinforced concrete shelters, machine gun emplacements, a Moir pill box, a German antitank mine, light railway gun-truck, “Adrian” huts, various types of bridges, including flap bridges and portable artillery bridges, a bench, dugout, thresh disinfector, stables, and the mean trajectories of projectiles; two pamphlets, translated from German, concerning the construction of defensive works; progress maps of entrenchments in the West Poperinghe line (August 1918); maps, reports, and notes concerning water supply; article re. body armor from The Literary Digest, August 31, 1918; mobilization stores table for an engineer train; reports and news clipping concerning clearing of booby traps from abandoned enemy works; sheet from Engineer Operations Bulletin (September 15, 1918) re. bridging of the Marne; daily location and work reports of the several platoons of the 105th; report on the St. Quentin canal; memoranda concerning German traps and mines; sheets from Engineer Operations Bulletin (October 15, November 1, 15, 1918); typescript, “Report on Engineer Operations by Officers of the 105th Engineers”; report concerning St. Quentin canal tunnel and adjacent portion of Hindenburg Line, with blue-line prints and maps; reports re. maintenance and repair of roads and other work done by companies of the 105th; Operations’ Reports of the 105th Engineers, May 18 – October 31, 1918, including maps and diagrams; a set of thirty-one small miscellaneous blueprints; blank book of forms used by engineers; and Handbook of the German Army in War; Lessons in Fortification, by U.S. Army Engineer School (1917).

If you would like more information on Col. Joseph Hyde Pratt, the State Library of North Carolina has put online a published copy of Pratt’s diary from their collection and one of our old World War I web exhibits includes a series of documents related to him, including this image (evidently he’s the man standing to the right of the doorway).

British sending American propaganda to German soldiers via small balloons, Somme, France, October 10, 1918

British sending American propaganda to German soldiers via small balloons, Somme, France, October 10, 1918 (Click on the image to see a larger view)

Among the World War I materials that the State Archives is adding to the North Carolina Digital Collections are photographs from the United States Army Signal Corps. The photos include a lot of portraits and posed shots but also some very interesting candid looks into the lives of U.S. soldiers during the war.

One of the things that has surprised me about these images is how they document the role of technology in World War I. You don’t have to be an expert in World War I to know that the war occurred during a period of change, both socially and technologically. Everyone who has watched any of the recent movies or TV shows set in the period knows, for example, that it was a time when horses, the mainstay of 19th century warfare, could be found on the same battlefield as tanks. But the Signal Corps images also show how important radios were to military communications. One of my favorite of the radio images so far is at the top of this blog post and part of why I like it is because you can really see all the radio components. We also have images of soldiers repairing buried cables in Belgium and using balloons to distribute propaganda on the battlefields of France (see the image above).

But of all our Signal Corps images, the one that has surprised me the most is this one:

Portable electric light and charging plant used in the field,Thirtieth Division, Watou, Belgium, July 31, 1918

Portable electric light and charging plant used in the field. Thirtieth Division, Watou, Belgium, July 31, 1918 (Click to see a larger image)

Clearly we have a caption that the Signal Corps gave the image which identifies the contraption in the photo as a mobile battery plant, but I have no idea how such a thing would work and the image itself offers very few clues. What I do know is that this image is the closest I’ve ever seen any item in our collection get to Steampunk.

I’m hopeful that some of you NC Science Festival fans will be able to enlighten me. Is it hand-cranked? Run by some sort of motor?