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North Carolinians in World War I

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81st Division: "Wildcats"

Albert V. Medlin, Mess Sgt. Company K, 324th Infantry Regiment, 81st Division.
Above: Sgt. Albert V. Medlin, Company K, 324th Infantry Regiment, 81st Division.

The 81st Division was initially made up of men drafted from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. The first men sent to the division were part of the first draft of September 5, 1917. The division was initially called the "Stonewall Division" in honor of Confederate General T. J. Jackson but was later renamed the "Wildcat Division." A wildcat silhouette was adopted as a shoulder patch for the division, the first insignia worn by troops in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

The division was organized at Camp Jackson, near Columbia, South Carolina, in September 1917. But in October, 50 percent of the men were taken from the 81st Division and transferred to other divisions being sent overseas. New draftees were sent to fill the empty ranks. As a result, the 81st Division was delayed from service in France even though it was one of the first national army divisions to be organized. The division was next sent to Camp Sevier, near Greenville, South Carolina, in May 1918, and in July, it was ordered to New York to be shipped overseas.

"Over There"

317th Field Artillery Regiment, 81st Division on battlefield with horses, cannon, and caissons. Photograph taken by 1st Lieutenant Samuel Saunders.
Above: 317th Field Artillery Regiment, 81st Division on battlefield with horses, cannon, and caissons. Photograph taken by 1st Lt. Samuel Saunders. Click on image for a larger view.

In August the division traveled to England and then to France. It was sent to the Vosges Mountains in mid-September where it held what was considered to be a quiet front. While serving on this front, the division suffered 116 casualties to German trench raids and artillery fire.

On October 19, the division was sent to the American 1st Army. On November 6, the division entered the front lines east of Verdun, on the east side of the Meuse River. On November 8 the division attacked German positions on either side of a heavily defended forest. When the assault was ordered, American commanders wrongly believed that the Germans were withdrawing. From the outset the 81st Division's troops were met with heavy German machine gun and artillery fire. But by midday, the division had slowly pushed the Germans back. Attempts to advance farther were stopped by intense enemy fire. By late afternoon the soldiers were ordered to withdraw to safer positions.

81st Division postcard.
Above: Postcard from Col. Rupert Durwood Williams, Co. G, 321st Infantry Regiment, 81st Division. Click on image for a larger view.

The division continued its attack on November 10, but by evening was forced to withdraw again because of intense enemy artillery fire. During the night, rumors reached the 81st Division commanders that an armistice might be signed the following day, November 11. But because no official word was received about a cessation of hostilities, plans were made for an early morning attack.

At daybreak the 81st Division soldiers were ordered "over the top" to attack the German trenches. The troops slowly advanced through the heavy fog and German shell and machine gun fire. The soldiers fought their way across no-man's-land and through barbed wire to the German trenches. Then, at 11:00 A.M., the firing abruptly stopped. The war was over. The 81st Division suffered 1,104 casualties, 248 killed or dead from wounds and 856 wounded, during the short time it was in combat in November 1918.

After the war the 81st Division remained in France for more than five months. The division was not part of the Army of Occupation in Germany. In early June the men were shipped back to the United States and discharged from service.

Note: The 81st Division historical overview was written by R. Jackson Marshall III, North Carolina Museum of History historian. Read more about the soldiers of the "Wildcat" Division in Marshall's book, Memories of World War I: North Carolina Doughboys on the Western Front (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1998).

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