Jesse D. Grisdale – A North Carolina Victim of ‘Friendly Fire’ at Ypres, 1918

Posted: September 3, 2013 in Family History
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‘Killed by Friendly Fire’ is a dreadful modern American euphemism to avoid saying explicitly that a soldier has been killed (unintentionally of course) by his own side. Despite this appalling new name, it is certainly not a new phenomenon. This is the story of one North Carolina man called Jesse Grisdale who was the victim of ‘friendly fire’ at Ypres in Belgium in late August 1918, only a few days after his regiment became a ‘combat’ unit.

The United States entered the First World War late. It wasn’t until mid 1918, only months before the end, that American units first started to go into action in the fields of Flanders.  The British, French, Germans and others had by this time already been slaughtering each other for four years in this most meaningless and avoidable war.

Highland Park No 3 Cotton Mill Workers

Highland Park No 3 Cotton Mill Workers

Jesse D. Grisdale was a young North Carolina man. Jesse was born in July 1891, the sixth and last child of English-born cotton weaver James Grisdale and his wife Annie Cannon. I previously wrote about how James Grisdale had followed his two uncles to America, working first in the Pennsylvania mills before moving his family to North Carolina to do the same thing. In 1907, aged just 16, Jesse was a Machine Operator in Salisbury, North Carolina. By 1910 he was working with his older brother, George Washington Grisdale, in the huge cotton mill in McAdenville in Gaston County, as his father had before. He was a ‘twister’. By 1913, he had moved to Charlotte and was working in Highland Park Mill Number 3, where he was to remain until he joined the army.

The Highland Park #3 Mill in the… North Charlotte industrial district was the largest textile factory in the county when it opened about 1904, one of the state’s first mills designed for electric operation. It soon become one of the South’s best-known mills, for its architect was Charlottean Stuart Warren Cramer. Cramer, credited with designing and/or equipping “nearly one-third of the new cotton mills in the South” between 1895 and 1915, used this factory as a showcase of his techniques. Over seventy pages of his influential book Useful Information for Cotton Manufacturers Volume 3 (1906) are devoted to drawings and photographs of the mill and its machinery layouts. Twenty-four of those pages focus on the architecture of the main building itself, including facade elevations, structural drawings, specifications for contractors, and even detailed drawings of cast-iron column capitals and wooden windows and doors.

Highland Park No3 Mill, Charlotte, North Carolina

Highland Park No3 Mill, Charlotte, North Carolina

When work began in February, 1903, the Charlotte Observer announced that it was to be ‘a state-of-the-art factory, and by far the city’s largest’: ‘$600,000 PLANT TO BE BUILT THE FIRST ELECTRIC-DRIVEN MILL. Work will begin Monday on the new cotton mill that is to be erected by the Highland Park Manufacturing Company…. The plant will occupy 102,125 square feet. R.A. Brown, of Concord, has the contract for the brick work of the mill, and the wood work will be done by A.K. Lostin of Gastonia. It is expected that the mill will be completed and running by next January. … C.W. Johnston … informed an Observer reporter yesterday that his company had decided to build a power plant on Sugar Creek, 1,000 feet from the new mill and about one mile from the Gingham Mill (Highland Park #1 …. The power plant will have 2,000 horse power and will generate electricity to run both the Gingham Mill and the new mill; and the two mills will be the first electric driven plants in North Carolina….. The new mill, which will be called the Highland Park Manufacturing Company plant #3, will consist of two buildings. One will be one story high and 450 feet long by 125 feet wide; the other will be two stories high and will also be 425 feet long and 125 feet wide. The mill will employ over 800 operatives and will have 30,000 spindles and 1,000 looms. The Gingham Mill, which is considered a large plant, has only 500 operatives…. The No. 3 mill will make a specialty of ginghams, and will give the Highland Park Company a total of 27,000 spindles on ginghams alone.’

105th Engineers at Camp Sevier

105th Engineers at Camp Sevier

The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. In September Jesse joined the newly formed 105th Regiment of Engineers, the engineer troops of the 30th Division, called ‘Old Hickory’. The Regiment spent eight months training at Camp Sevier, South Carolina. ‘While carrying out the Engineering training programme, the Regiment was at the same time given thorough training in Infantry Drill. It had the reputation while at Camp Sevier of being one of the best drilled units of the 30th Division.’ So wrote First Lieutenant Harry S. Tucker, an officer in the Regiment.

SS Melita

SS Melita

On 18 May, 1918, the Regiment left Camp Sevier on four trains. Jesse was in F Company which boarded the third train and arrived at Camp Mills in New Jersey on the 20th of May. A large part of the regiment then went to Montreal to find a ship, but F Company boarded the Canadian Pacific Steamship Melita at Hoboken on May 27th. They sailed for Liverpool, where they arrived on June 8th, and immediately ‘entrained for Dover’ and then crossed the English Channel to reach Calais, establishing their initial camp 20 miles east of Calais in the Licques area. Throughout June and July, 1918, the Regiment continued their training – this time often under British instructors – first at Licques then at Terdeghem. They were not yet a ‘Combat Regiment’ but as well as training ‘the entire regiment was employed in constructing trenches and barbed wire entanglements on the Winnezeele Trench System’. On July 10th the Regiment moved to Proven in Belgium and continued to work on the trenches and defences to the rear of Ypres. On the 17th August the 30th Division, including the 105th Engineers, became a ‘Combat’ unit, its ‘training having been sufficiently completed to the satisfaction of the authority competent to judge’, and on that day the 30th relieved the 33rd British Division on the ‘Canal Sector’ at Ypres.

The 105th Engineers took over the work then being done by the British Royal Engineers and Pioneers.’ This work, Lt. Tucker wrote in 1919, consisted of: ‘The construction of trenches, the building of shelters, machine gun emplacements, observation posts, erecting barbed wire entanglements, road patrols, camouflaging, the establishing of advanced water points, operation of light railways, salvaging material, (and) road and light railway building.

The Division had yet to make any attack, but in preparation for such, on the night of August 26/27th, the 105th Engineers ‘put over some deadly gas attacks’, which, ‘did great damage as we afterwards learned from German prisoners’, as Captain Zachary P. Smith wrote later. But unfortunately the ‘damage’ was not only to the enemy. Lt. Tucker tells us the full story:

On the night of August 26/27th, 1918, there was launched on the left of the Division Sector a cloud gas attack. It was carried out by an officer and 50 men from the Engineers, assisted by 350 men from the Infantry. Nine trains of eight cars each, carrying 2520 gas cylinders, were rolled out by hand into ‘No Man’s Land’. When the wind became favourable – at 02.30 – the cylinder heads were detonated by electricity, under the direction of a British Gas Officer, and the gas released. There was such a high concentration of the gas, combined with a low velocity of the wind towards the enemy trenches, that a considerable gas came back towards our own trenches, As a result the Engineers suffered 15 casualties.

Soldiers of the 30th Division at Ypres, 1918

Soldiers of the 30th Division at Ypres, 1918

Tucker goes to add that, ‘in all other respects the attack was highly successful’.

But three of these fifteen casualties died from their own gas attack, one of whom was Private First Class Jesse Grisdale. In Willard P. Sullivan’s The History of the 105th Regiment of Engineers (1919), Jesse is listed as: ‘Missing in Gas attack August 27th, 1918.’  Another report says: ‘Missing in action following a gas attack that rolled back on US troops. Men tried to retreat from the gas cloud but the Germans opened fire, and some were hung in the barbed wire. Two men were not found, Arnett and Grisdale both from Charlotte.’

Jesses’s sergeant, Guy R. Hinson, was awarded the Distinquished Service Cross for his valour on the day Jesse died. His citation reads:

GUY R. HINSON, sergeant, first class, Company F, 105th Engineers. For extraordinary heroism in action August 27, 1918. He was in charge of a platoon, delivering a highly concentrated gas-cloud attack against the enemy, when the cloud unexpectedly flared back. After leading his men to a place of safety, this soldier went back into the cloud four times at imminent peril to his own life, collecting and rescuing others who had been overcome. Conducting his platoon through heavy machine-gun fire, he put them in charge of another sergeant with instructions to resume their mission, while he again returned to search for gassed men, and found all but two. His excellent leadership and unusual courage prevented many casualties, and at the same time effected the completion of an important mission.

Jesse Grisdale's Grace in Oaklawn Cemetery, Charlotte

Jesse Grisdale’s Grave in Oaklawn Cemetery, Charlotte. North Carolina

Obviously the two soldiers Hinson couldn’t find were Grisdale and Arnett. So Jesse’s war was over almost as soon as it had begun. It seems that his body was probably eventually recovered because his grave is to be found in Oaklawn Cemetery in Charlotte, he was, says the headstone, ‘killed in action’.

Many of the descendants of Jesse’s brothers and sisters still live in North Carolina to this day.

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