My maternal grandfather Frank F Jordan (1895-1975) grew up in Volant, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the army in 1917 and was assigned to the 324th Signal Corps. He trained at Fort Meade in Maryland, but never fought overseas. Searching Pennsylvania newspapers from the period, I learned that he was actually three days out on a troop ship in the Atlantic ocean, headed for the fight in Europe, when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, ending the war.
Several newspaper articles referenced another Jordan from the Lawrence County, Pennsylvania area, Ralph Turner Jordan (1894-1965), who was also a member of the 324th signal corps. Ralph was my grandfather’s second cousin. The two cousins, it turns out, had very different experiences of war.
Frank enrolled in Geneva College in 1915, joined the army in July of 1917, was discharged in January 1919, and returned to college to finish his degree as the only male graduate that year. Ralph was working in 1917 at his family’s general store in the town of Scott, Pennsylvania when he enlisted. He served from July of 1917 to January of 1919, with about five months spent overseas.
Ralph’s obituary from 1965 stated that he was involved in “four major engagements” during World War 1. His military pension application listed one of the battles as Chateau Thierry, which is considered to be the turning point in the war, when the German advance through France was stalled in June of 1918 and eventually pushed back. Under “wounds or other injuries” the pension document said “Gassed, August 14, 1918”.
A notice in the February 12, 1919 issue of the New Castle Herald stated that Ralph T Jordan was returning home, and that he had been been gassed (exposed to a toxic gas, most often mustard gas) with the 28th Pennsylvania infantry division at Fismes in France. The 28th division, the oldest National Guard unit in the United States, had a reputation for fierce fighting in World War 1, with general John J Pershing referring to them as the “Iron Division”.
Fismes, France (and its suburb Fismette) was the site of a month-long battle in August of 1918. German military leaders thought that the action there would begin their final victory push. What actually transpired was that both the Germans and the allied forces dug in for a long and brutal battle, with each side trading the upper hand back and forth many times. It stood out among World War 1 engagements because of its violent hand-to-hand street fighting, and the use of particularly terrifying weapons like lethal gas and flame throwers. In the ten day period during which Ralph Jordan was gassed, the 28th division suffered 331 men dead and 1579 wounded.
Newspaper casualty reports back in Pennsylvania listed Ralph among those “severely wounded”. Yet one paper, the New Castle News, printed a letter home from Ralph to his mother on October 3, 1918, which painted a different picture. Putting on a brave face for his family, Ralph wrote that he was only “slightly gassed”, and he recounted pleasant stories of his recovery first in a field hospital, then in Red Cross hospitals in Paris and Nantes. He described a never-ending supply of candy, gum, and cigarettes, being entertained by “moving pictures” four nights a week, and concerts given by a YMCA band. He wrote that on his arrival in Paris, his French driver got lost, so for two hours he was able to do some sight seeing among the city streets while sitting in the front seat of the ambulance, dressed in his hospital pajamas. In spite of his upbeat report, he apparently lost his voice for a substantial period of time, from the toxic gas exposure.
Ralph was sent back to the United States by early November. While his cousin Frank, who never saw action, graduated from college and went straight into medical school, Ralph returned home to continue working for the family business. He eventually took on a position that helped his fellow veterans, working as their representative in the Pennsylvania State Employment Services. A 1955 newspaper mention of his work stated that he was a disabled war veteran, so it sounds like his war injury was more serious than his letter home conveyed, staying with him for many years after his military service.
- NY Times, Amex Marines Hurl Back Foe in Fierce Hand Fighting, June 12, 1918
- Pennsylvania Heritage, Keystone Men of Iron: The 28th Infantry Division of the Great War, 2018
- BBC News, How deadly was the poison gas of WW1?, 2015
- US Army Center of Military History, The US Army Campaigns of World War 1 Commemorative Series, Supporting Allied Offensives 8 August – 11 November 1918
- HistoryNet, Tragedy at Fismette, France, 1918, 2011