On Thursday, Nov. 8, my sister and I found ourselves standing out in the cold in Granite, Oklahoma, in the shadow of the Quartz Mountains, to honor two men that we thought we knew.
We were there at a ceremony at the Veterans Park in Granite to honor World War I veterans of the 36th infantry division that fought at the battle of Saint Etienne-a-Arnes in France just a few days before Veterans Day this year, which also marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War on Nov. 11.
The men we were there to honor – and represent – were members of our own family, John Haney Francis, my grandfather, and John R. Chitwood, our great-uncle and brother to our grandmother. Until recently, we had little insight into how World War I impacted these two men who were a big part of our lives growing up.
And, until a few months ago, we were virtually unaware of this significant part of their lives. In May, I wrote a piece about the my great Uncle John and how a piece of art he had – a graphic illustrating the World War I poem In Flanders Fields – had haunted me as a boy. I knew John Chitwood, who had lived in Mangum, Oklahoma, not far from Granite, had served in World War I and was still impacted by what he saw there. But that was as much as I knew.
Around the same time, my sister visited Mangum, and visited the Old Greer County Museum. Old Greer County is a county, now in Oklahoma, that was claimed by Texas in 1860, but eventually became part of Oklahoma. “Old Greer County” includes parts of what are now the Oklahoma counties of Greer, Harmon, Jackson, and parts of southern Beckham County. It’s a long story, but old timers in the area used to say they were born in Texas, grew up in the Oklahoma territory and then were Oklahomans, and never moved. My great grandfather John Henry “Jack” Francis had settled in the area in the last half of the 19th century.
One thing led to another and my column about Uncle John with the Flanders Fields graphic was printed in the Mangum paper. And that led to a man named Phil Neighbors contacting us.
Neighbors had grown up in Granite and recalled stories of his great uncle, Bill Maxfield, and World War I. Maxfield and my great uncle and grandfather had fought together as members of the 36th Infantry Division. Neighbors had been doing some research and was about to publish an article in the Chronicles of Oklahoma about the 36th Infantry Division and was going to be a big part of the event honoring the World War I veterans on Nov. 6.
The article focused on the soldiers from southwest Oklahoma who fought in the 36th Division’s 132nd Machine Gun Battalion in the Battle of Saint-Étienne, France, on Oct. 8, 1918.
According to Neighbors, there was a massive recruiting effort in the summer of fall of 1917 for World War I.
“They came to places like Granite, Oklahoma, and the recruiters came and said, ‘If you're between the ages of 18 and 29, you're about to take a European vacation, and you've got one of two ways of doing this. One, you can join your Oklahoma National Guard right now, and if you'll do that, as an incentive, we will keep you together, we promise you that,’” Neighbors told the crowd on Nov. 6.
They kept 60 of the men from Greer County in the 132nd Machine Gun Battalion, Company C, Neighbors said. The army sent the new recruits to Camp Bowie in Fort Worth for their basic training. Little did they know the family would settle there many years later.
My grandfather, Neighbors told me, was in the 111th Ammunition train in the 36th infantry division. He would have also been at the battle of Saint-Etienne. My great uncle, John R. Chitwood, fought with the 132nd machine gun battalion Company B 36th infantry division.
“They would’ve fought side by side on October 8, 1918 in support of the 141st infantry Regiment 36th infantry division at the battle of Saint-Étienne,” he said.
There were some tough times waiting for the men from Old Greer County.
“What happened was this, they threw them into the front lines on October 8th, 1918,” Neighbors said. “This would be one month before the end of the war.
They would fight in a little village called Saint-Étienne, France. Small little place. Saint-Étienne is right in the center of the Western Front. On October 8th, 1918, the boys from Texas and Oklahoma went up and over the top, they call it.
The French requested help in the center of the Western Front and Gen. Pershing chose to send the most seasoned division that he had, the 2nd Infantry Division and the greenest division he had, the 36th.
The French generals did not initially want the 36th, because they didn’t have any experience. But Pershing had fought with men from Texas and Oklahoma on the Texas border.
Pershing told the French general, "Those boys from Texas and Oklahoma are fighters."
“And guess what, he was right,” said Neighbors.
“Some criticized the high casualty rate of October 8th, and attribute it to the fact that they fought with such reckless abandon that they exposed themselves to fire,” he said.
But they proved they could fight.
“They went into the front line in battle. That morning, they suffered 1,300 casualties, at two o'clock in the afternoon ... Turns out, research has been done just recently on casualty rates of World War I; that's the single highest casualty rate for a single day of battle in World War I.”
Neighbors said it can be argued that the “the boys from Granite, Magnum, Altus, Eldorado all these other towns around here, were in the biggest part of the war. The biggest single-day fight of the war.”
They did do something remarkable, he said. “The French had been trying to open up that territory for four years to no avail. They held the center line, drove the Germans back 15 miles when the war came to France. It's a remarkable story.”
It is and it’s one I didn’t know just a few months ago about men I thought I knew.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.