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View Full Version : 97th Bn. The Lost Legion - American volunteers for the CEF



Bombtrack
09-23-2004, 06:12 PM
I remember a while ago on this site there was talk about Canadians and Americans fighting in eachother;s armies and I mentioned the American Legions Canada had in its Expeditionary Force in World War 1, but I couldn't find a source online as i had read about it over a year ago at the time in a book in my school library. Anyway, I finally found an article online:


American Volunteers
97 Battalion, CEF

http://users.erols.com/hyattg/97sty3.htm [the site has some pictures]
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By: Glenn E. Hyatt
Vice Commander: American Legion, Bowen Franklin Knox, Post 55
Historian: Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 3103
Fredericksburg, Virginia

Copyright 1996:Not to be reproduced without written permission of the author.
This article originally appeared in Over There, the illustrated Journal of the First World War, Fall 1996.





A Memorial Day Remembrance.


This story began with the purchase of a old trunk filled with military uniforms, letters and a variety of newspaper clippings at a flea market in western Virginia.(See Note 1) After examination it became apparent that together they told the story of two brothers and the sacrifice of a family. Mementos and bundles of letters preserved by a grieving mother and passed down to the last surviving sister, remained intact for over 60 years in the old trunk. One brother Joined the army in 1918 and served until World War 2 when he retired.(See Note 2) The older brother joined the Canadian Army as a volunteer and was devoured in the great catastrophe of World War One. This is the story of the lost brother and his comrades of the 97th Battalion CEF, in what has become known as the Great War of 1914-1918.

From the earliest days of our history Americans have stepped forward, often at great personal risk, to volunteer for the common good. One such story is that of a young Virginian, James Frederick Kennedy, who in 1915, along with a host of other Americans, joined the Canadian Army for service in World War One.

By the end of 1915 Europe was tearing itself apart in a war which was claiming men at the rate of thousands per day. The established armies were devastated, and there was an all out effort by the Allied Powers to bring in replacements, even from the far flung corners of their empires. Many Americans were sympathetic to the Allied cause and sought to join the struggle, even though the United States officially remained neutral.

Books and periodicals were full of reports of American adventurers. Newspapers contained daily reports complete with detailed photographs directly from the front. For the first time motion pictures brought flickering views of the life and death struggle of war to heartland America. All of this served to fan the flames of war fever and entice young men to join in the great adventure. The war volunteer activity was particularly strong along our northern border as Canada mobilized for defense of England.



The 97th Battalion of the Canadian Army began organizing in the latter part of 1915 in the Toronto area. It sought to draw its strength from the growing influx of Americans looking for adventure "Over There". Comprised of over 90% American volunteers it selected for its name the "American Legion". The American influence was so strong that when 97th recruits were sworn in as Canadian soldiers their commanding officer presented each of the volunteers with a small American flag. The new soldier was told to pin it inside his tunic, over his heart.. The battalion motto became "Ill carry this to Berlin or bust" and the Canadian Maple leaf bearing George Washington's coat of arms with a "97" etched on its shield was selected for a cap badge.

Kennedy, a 19 year old machinist from the Virginia-West Virginia border town of Bluefield, was working in Detroit at this time. He lived a Spartan life at the YMCA, sending money to his family to help with their support. It wasn't long before the conscientious young man was caught up in the volunteer fever and crossed the border to join up.

January of 1916 saw the organization of the 97th well under way, located just outside of Toronto Canada at the "Exhibition Camp". The men who filled the ranks came from all over the US and represented a true cross cut of the great melting pot of American society. By the end of March, recruiting was completed with a strength of 1300 men, most of which were Americans. Officers were selected, for the most part from the volunteer ranks, and the 97th began training for the Western Front in earnest. Equipment was issued and men like Kennedy often volunteered for one of the specialized units like the Machine Gun Section.

With the spirit and enthusiasm typical of volunteers the 97th soon became a top notch unit beating several of its companion Canadian units in local competitions.

By the end of June 1916 the 97th moved to Camp Aldershot near Halifax, Nova Scotia for advanced trench training. Even though they maintained a rigorous schedule, Kennedy's letters home continued to reflect their high spirits and how they looked forward to the job ahead of them. After all they were on a crusade to beat back the Hun and save civilization for the sake of humanity.

In September of 1916 the 97th finally completed training and sailed for England and the Western Front.

It was at this point that the 97th was dealt a critical blow to its credibility as a fighting force. With the diversity of its makeup and the US border so near, it became apparent that a small contingent of the volunteers had enlisted only to draw pay through the cold winter of 1915-1916. Facing the reality of war, a number of men and a few officers went "over the hill".

The newspapers in New York picked up a slanderous story related by one of these "Yellow Officers" referring to the 97th as the "Lost Legion" of tramps. Although the desertions were rather small in number the "Lost Legion" nickname was picked up and played in the papers in the US, Canada and abroad. Even though they were a top notch unit when they arrived in South Hampton, the 97th found only disappointment and ridicule by the military establishment waiting there.

A second, and perhaps the final blow to the 97th was in the form of a scandal. Their colonel, formerly a American officer, was arrested on charges of embezzlement. Officers in the 97th swore that the charges were unjustified, stemming to an old jealousy. Their highly respected and decorated colonel was accused by an ex US officer who also was serving in the Canadian command. The accuser, through political connections, had wormed himself a high position in the British military bureaucracy after only a "cooks tour" of the battle front.

As it was later proven, the charges were unfounded. The accuser lost his credibility when it was disclosed that his "War Wound" was accidentally self inflicted while showing off his pistol in his London flat. Never the less, the damage had been done, the 97th was moved to the Otter Pool Camp and would never go to the front as an all American unit. The fate of the 97th was to be that of a replacement unit, the men to be sent piece meal to line units to replace casualties.

After drawing off two large sections as replacements for front line British units, the remaining men ended up in the Royal Canadian Regiment of the British Expeditionary Force. With this stroke the 97th became truly a "Lost Battalion" and their unique crest proudly displaying the Canadian maple leaf, embossed with a symbol from Washington's coat of arms, was relegated to obsolescence.

By January 1917 most of the old 97th Legionnaires were fighting in France. Kennedy and his MG section ended up in the group transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment. His MG section, all members of the old 97th, mustered 38 strong when they reached the front.

The Royal Canadian Regiment saw action at the Battle of Arras in April of 1917. They were in the Canadian Corps, of Horne's 3rd Army. Pitted against the 8th German Division they stormed Vimy Ridge, Easter Morning 1917. Although their assault was successful and they took the ridge as well as 13,000 prisoners and 200 guns, the offset was a devastating 84,000 British casualties registered by May 3rd.

Throughout battle reports and in articles written from the front lines the men of the old 97th were universally known for their bravery and reliability in the line. A story written by 97th Legionnaire, Capt. E. B Hesser was picked up and used for the plot of a movie (For the Freedom of the World) helping project the 97th into notoriety.

When America finally entered the War in 1917 many of the old 97th's men and officers transferred to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), to serve under General John (Black Jack) Pershing. All of these men, combat hardened veterans, were an invaluable asset to the fledgling American Army.

Kennedy fought through the desperate battles of 1917 without a scratch. His letters home continued and he always calmed his mother with "I am fine and in no danger". However the reality was that he was in the thick of it and the American volunteers were slowly losing their fellows, picked off one by one.

As the volunteers of the old 97th continued to populate the "Killed in Action" reports published in newspapers throughout the US.... Mrs. Kennedy clipped and saved many of them in an old cigar box. "Lt. Frank Hines, a Minneapolis telegraph operator killed while going over the top in the great Easter Monday attack on Vimy Ridge." "Frank Jones of Dallas Texas the company cook picked off by a sniper". "Archie Pannill of Chatham Virginia wounded in the arm at Vimy yet took over his company when the major was knocked out and captured the enemy position" (Pannill was subsequently awarded the British Military Cross).

Other of the old 97th volunteers racked up incredible records as brave fighters. Alexander Rassmussen, a veteran of the Spanish American War, the Philippine Insurrection and one time officer of Pancho Villa's revolutionary army, enlisted in the 97th as a private. He soon rose to the rank of major in the Legion and when the 97th broke up was transferred and served in the Dardanelles as part of the Turkish campaign and later returned to the Western Front. He was known for his personal bravery, often leading raiding parties into the dark night. His acts of bravery were often recounted in period articles in US newspapers.

In one of the yellowed clippings saved by Mrs. Kennedy, Rassmussen was reported as having gone forward into No Man's Land and personally rescued his wounded men. While trying to drag back one of his boys a German grenade was thrown into their position. Reacting in the best heroic style that Hollywood could conceive he picked the grenade up and flung it over the parapet just as it exploded. He must have lived a charmed life though, even though the explosion was so close that it blew out his ear drum and embedded fragments in his arm, he went on and carried the wounded boy back to the aid station. He suffered several more wounds and gassed but returned each time to the front after recuperation. After America entered the war, he transferred to the US 1st Division where he met his fate, finally succumbing to wounds he received in battle. Rassmussen was awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for gallantry and is buried in France

Others gave their all yet, never wore the garland of heroes. Such was the fate of our young volunteer Kennedy. Among the letters saved by his mother, is her final letter to her son. It bears the terrible note "Frederick's Last Letter" and has the postman's mark "KILLED IN ACTION" scrawled across its face.(See Note 3) Additional official reports note that His luck had run out when he was killed "by a large aerial dart" on August 23, 1917 at post, "Nuns Alley Trench", Hill 70, 3/4 of a mile north of Lens France.

Although correspondence with official Canadian authorities note that he was buried in a soldiers grave, marked with a wooden cross behind his position, subsequent action churned the area into a moon-like landscape and his grave was lost forever. Only 5 other men of the MG section survived to write Kennedy's mother of her son's loss, they were all wounded and were in the hospital.

The survivors of the 97th straggled back home in ones and twos with little to show for their effort other than the haunting memories of the horror of the trenches. Other volunteers like Kennedy and hundreds of thousands of his comrades were lost forever, consumed by the battlefield. The only recognition of their passing, their struggle, their sacrifice is perhaps a name inscribed on a tablet or a few crumpled letters hidden in the corner of a dingy attic.

The heroic deeds of the American Volunteers who served with the 97th have nearly vanished into the dust of time. The 97th truly became a Lost Legion, lost to the cataclysmic events of 1914-1918 in what was known as the Great War.




Notes:
1. The trunk containing the Kennedy brothers memorabilia was sold at a church auction when the last surviving Kennedy sister was moved to a nursing home. An antique dealer brought the trunk with contents undisturbed to the Hillsville Virginia Flea market where it was purchased by the Author. The trunk remains in the Author's collection.

2. William Kennedy joined the US army after the death of his older brother Frank. Trained as an machinist he served in the ordinance department. After the Armistice he remained in the Coast Artillery and in 1919 William was promoted to Sgt. while serving with the American Expeditionary Force in Russia. He went on to help build the fortifications at Ft. Mills on Corregidor Island in the Philippines. He retired from the Army in 1940 and died as a civilian during WW2. His personal effects were placed in his foot locker with those of his older brother and passed on to the surviving members of his family

3. Mrs. Kennedy was devastated by the death of her oldest son Frank. She wrapped all that she had left to remember him by, along with newspaper articles and other memorabilia from the 97th, and placed them in a shoe box. She went on to be a founder of the Gold Star Mothers organization in Bluefield and ultimately with other mothers and next of kin successfully had a chapel dedicated to their lost loved ones. She died prior to the out break of WW2, believing she had lost her Frank in the what for her was truly the War to End All Wars.



I also heard of 2 other American Legions in the CEF.. Any one else have more info?