World War I and its “Indescribable Desolation”

By Nancy Gadzuk

Jan Davidson, Historian at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, spoke at the January 16, 2017 meeting of the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society.

Jan spoke on Service, Sacrifice, and Memorialization: New Hanover County Residents and World War I.

The United States entered World War I in 1917. The war was sold effectively to citizens as a fight for democracy, and colorful propaganda posters promised “Adventure and Action” while serving the country.

World War I was considered a total war that required mobilization on every front. Everything and everyone had to come together: mobilizing business, labor, finances, and, especially, mobilizing “Red Blooded Fighting Men Between 18 and 40.”

Wilmington became the biggest source of draftees in the region, with the majority of its draftees African American. Women were called to serve as nurses.

It was a terrible war, known for its “indescribable desolation” and killing its soldiers both in action and through disease, all the while setting the stage for World War II.

Those soldiers who did return did not come home unharmed. As one North Carolina returnee wrote from a psychiatric hospital, “We aren’t the same animals at all who left home.”

Wilmington’s World War I Memorial was first erected in 1922 to honor New Hanover County’s war dead. The monument was moved, restored, and rededicated along the downtown Riverwalk in 2014.

The following quote from the Roman poet Horace (born 65 B.C.) is inscribed on its base: “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori. ” This was a well-known rallying call during World War I, translating to: “It is sweet and proper to die for your country.”

Dulce et Decorum Est is also the name of the best known poem from the first World War, written by British soldier Wilfred Owen. Owen was killed in action in France one week before the Armistice.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.


Cape Fear Museum’s Historian Jan Davidson:  A Moving Monument – Wilmington’s World War I Memorial