World War I forever changed the state of Maryland

Elizabeth Cuff stood on farmland near Annapolis Junction a century ago and watched a new military community arise.

Congress had approved President Woodrow Wilson's request for a declaration of war against Germany. Now the Army was building a center between Baltimore and Washington — a messy, improvised, sprawling installation, arising with astonishing speed — to train hundreds of thousands of troops for the global conflagration they called the Great War.

"Camp Meade was all hustle and bustle," Cuff later recalled. "There were stacks of raw lumber everywhere, and the camp rang with the noise of hammering and sawing and other building sounds. Later, there were boardwalks, but in the beginning you waded ankle deep in dust in dry weather, in mud when it rained."

Camp Meade would grow into Fort Meade, Maryland's largest workplace, an economic force for the region and a key defense center for the nation.

Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I. The conflict would transform Maryland as it reshaped the world.

As the nation woke up to its global reach and power, its military provided new opportunities to African-Americans and women — including Cuff, a bilingual telephone-operating "Hello Girl."

The drive to train troops and develop technology for the battlefields of Europe, meanwhile, remade Maryland virtually overnight, from a quiet, largely agricultural state to a major military center.

The results of that rapid mobilization endure today — in Fort Meade, home to the National Security Agency, U.S. Cyber Command and dozens of other agencies; in Aberdeen Proving Ground, a key testing center for everything from the mustard agent-filled artillery shells of World War I to the IED defense measures of Afghanistan and Iraq; and in the 29th Infantry Division, the storied unit that deployed to the Western Front in World War I, stormed the beach at Normandy on D-Day in World War II and sent troops to 21st century Iraq.

"World War I changed everything," said Joseph Balkoski, the historian for the Maryland National Guard. "The Army we know today — the Maryland we know today — was made in 1917."

As the war changed Maryland, so it changed Marylanders. More than 62,000 served, including roughly 11,000 African-Americans, according to military records. 1,752 Marylanders were killed.

"Last night we were heavily shelled," Gaylord Lee Clark, a 35-year-old attorney from Stevenson, wrote from northern France as part of the 117th Trench Mortar Battery.

"As I lay in my billet and listened to the big shells coming closer and closer with their whistling rush and then the terrific crash that shakes the very earth and the ripping and tearing of the splinters as they fly about, I thought, 'What's the use? There's no place you can go to get away from the d--- things.' ... I rolled over and slept until morning."

In a letter to a former colleague, Clark admitted that he occasionally longed for the "softness, ease and comforts" of his life in Baltimore.

"But it's only a momentary spasm," he wrote. "I genuinely wouldn't return now willingly for anything I possess. ... So long as I am physically fit, my country can have me for what I am worth."

Congress authorized the creation of Camp Meade in May 1917. Aberdeen Proving Ground followed in October. The 29th Infantry Division was constituted on paper in July, and organized in August.

Existing organizations in the state also contributed to the war effort.

The Naval Academy set up a temporary reserve officers' school to provide abbreviated training to more than 2,500 leaders — known as 90-day wonders to operate ships and submarines.

Johns Hopkins Hospital became the first university-centered medical unit to go to France, where it established a 1,000-bed base hospital.

Fort McHenry was transformed into a 3,000-bed hospital that treated soldiers who'd been wounded overseas.

"It was we who had to recreate out of the wreckage of war clean, whole and useful men," Emily Raine Williams, a nurse at Fort McHenry, wrote in her diary.

World War I began in the diplomatic chaos that followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914.

Individual Americans soon traveled to Europe to join the fight. But in an era when it took a week to journey between the continents, it seemed possible for the nation to stay out of of foreign turmoil.

When the United States finally entered the war, leaders had to scramble to create a military infrastructure from scratch. As Balkoski put it: "America was completely unprepared to enter this cataclysm."

Robert Johnson, Director of the Fort George G. Meade Museum, ticked off a list of basic provisions soldiers lacked: "We didn't have uniforms. We didn't have helmets. We didn't have weapons and we didn't have equipment."

The nation had just a rudimentary standing army. That force had to be heavily supplemented by the untrained recruits produced by the first draft.

"Civilians had to be converted into soldiers," Balkoski said. "They had to be taught how to dig trenches. They had to be taught how to put on gas masks, and they had to be taught sanitation."

On June 23, 1917, officials selected 5,000 acres of farmland in Anne Arundel County for one of 16 new training garrisons nationwide. They named the installation in honor of Civil War Gen. George G. Meade, the Pennsylvania-born commander of the Washington-based Army of the Potomac.

"In 1917, this was the middle of nowhere," Johnson said. "Then 1,200 wooden buildings went up in a matter of months. Overnight, we became the second largest community in Maryland."

More than 200,000 soldiers passed through Fort Meade — so many that the overflow were housed in hastily built barracks on what would become the Laurel Park racetrack.

It was during World War I that the Army first brought in women to serve as nurses and support staff — including the "Hello Girls." Cuff and her colleagues trained exclusively at Fort Meade.

Like their male counterparts, the Hello Girls went through basic training, were taught first aid, and wore uniforms and dog tags, Johnson said.

Unlike the men, they were denied military benefits until 1978 — 60 years after the armistice that ended the war — when President Jimmy Carter signed legislation designating them veterans.

Cuff wrote of her wartime service for The Baltimore Sun in 1961.

She described Camp Meade where women were escorted everywhere and were prohibited from talking to the men — as "a prison."

But she was convinced the women provided a valuable service.

"How lonely and confused those soldiers at Camp Meade were," Cuff wrote. "Apparently there were no security regulations then, because everybody in camp always knew when troops were going to ship out. The boys were frantic before those troop movements. Almost all wanted to telephone one last message to their mothers, and many cried as the operators put through the calls."

In 1917, the nature of war was changing dramatically. Soldiers still fought on horseback and with bayonets. But both sides used tanks and planes in combat, and deployed chemical weapons.

Camp Meade exemplified these extremes. Some 22,000 horses and mules passed through the installation on the way to Europe. But it's also where America's first tank unit was formed.

(Two young officers instrumental in creating the new Infantry Tank School were George S. Patton Jr. and Dwight D. Eisenhower, then both captains.)

A series of letters shows one soldier making that transition. Sgt. William E. Masurek began the war in the stables of Camp Meade, and ended it in a machine gun company in France.

The letters home to the wife he addressed as "Dear Girlie" begin in January 1918: "Dearest, I'm not taking any chances on that horse, but Hoffman rides him in the evening and I get the credit for breaking him."

Masureck chronicles his deployment to France six months later: "These few lines, Dearie, are the hardest I ever had to write for we are leaving today."

Later, he suffers a battlefield injury from a bayonet, but tries to reassure loved ones that he isn't badly hurt: "I guess Charlie and Anna think that I've broken my arm or something, but tell them not to worry. ..."

Sgt. Masureck recovered from his wounds. He returned to his wife in Baltimore and died in 1979 at age 85.

The war also brought change to Harford County. The Army, realizing its main ordnance testing establishment in New Jersey was inadequate to meet he nation's wartime demands, decided to build a newer, larger facility outside Aberdeen.

The government used eminent domain to push farmers off land that had been in their families for generations to establish the now 72,000-acre Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Construction started on Oct. 20, 1917, and the first weapons test occurred on Jan. 2, 1918.

Soon, recently vacated homes were pockmarked by bullets. From time to time, local farmers who heard the noise would walk out onto the ranges to find out what was going on.

Chemical weapons, including chlorine and mustard agents, were produced at the nearby Edgewood Arsenal and were shipped to Europe.

Americans also were on the receiving end of the toxic compounds.

"I remember a large detachment of shell-shocked," wrote Williams, the World War I nurse at Fort McHenry. "The gassed men, even when walking around, seemed to gasp for breath. They left the impression that they were restless and could not sit down."

Few African-American soldiers in World War I were allowed to serve in combat, but the rare exceptions were eager to prove their mettle. The battle-weary French were desperate for help, so members of the all-black 372nd Infantry Regiment, which included a Maryland company, were sent overseas and attached to the famed French fighting force known as "The Red Hand."

"The African-American soldiers became renowned," Balkoski said. "They were almost considered to be elite or shock troops. When they came back to this country, these soldiers had changed. They'd proven they could fight as well as anyone else."

The 372nd fought alongside the 29th and 79th Divisions — and the 313th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed "Baltimore's Own" in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

"Maryland was at the spear-point of what was the greatest U.S. offensive to that point," Balkoski said. "It was the pinnacle of everything we were trying to achieve."

The 29th Division suffered a casualty rate of about 25 percent, Balkoski said. Troops advanced seven kilometers in three weeks, captured 2,148 prisoners, and knocked out more than 250 machine guns or artillery pieces.

The 313th Infantry Regiment completed in just 36 hours a mission that French generals estimated would take three months by capturing the 1,100-foot hill known as Montfaucon.

A Baltimorean from the 313th would become the war's final fatality.

On Nov. 11, 1918, 23-year-old Henry Gunther charged out of the trenches by himself just five minutes before the ceasefire. Members of his platoon shouted at him to come back. So did the Germans. Gunther kept running.

"He was killed one minute before the Armistice," Balkoski said.

Gunther was awarded a posthumous citation for valor.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Several exhibits and ceremonies statewide commemorating Maryland's role in World War I will be held this week. Those below are free and open to the public:

•Fort George G. Meade Museum, new WWI exhibit, 4674 Griffin Ave, Fort Meade, MD. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. ftmeade.army.mil/museum/

•Maryland Museum of Military History, WWI exhibit opening, 10 a.m. Thursday, 219 29th Division St, Baltimore. Thereafter: 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. marylandmuseumofmilitaryhistory.org/

•Wreath-laying and commemorative ceremony, 12 p.m. Thursday War Memorial, 101 N. Gay St., Baltimore.

•Re-dedication of World War I memorial, 6 p.m. Thursday, Tydings Park, Havre de Grace.

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