Exhibit: A glimpse of WWI in the Albemarle

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World War I weapons, helmets, a gas mask, grenades and shells are shown Tuesday as part of the "Tar Heels in the Trenches" exhibit on display at Museum of the Albemarle. The exhibit will be on display though December 2018.


By Chris Day
Multimedia Editor

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Machines guns and gas masks may come to mind when thinking of World War I. Those were common tools used by soldiers fighting in the barbed wire-laced "no man's land" between the trench lines of the Western Front.

An exhibit at Museum of the Albemarle features a WWI German machine gun, a gas mask used by U.S. soldiers, plus more weapons, uniforms and artifacts from the war.

The exhibit, titled "Tar Heels in the Trenches: The Great War and The Albemarle" looks at the role North Carolinians played in World War I. The exhibit features several display boards highlighting the history of the war from its beginning in the summer of 1914 to the signing of an armistice four years later.

Spread throughout the exhibit are displays of World War I uniforms, military equipment and weapons. One display features several long arms used by French, British and U.S. soldiers. For example, there are a British M1917 Enfield rifle, a U.S. M1903 Springfield rifle and an M1897 Winchester pump-action shotgun, also known as a "trench gun." According to the exhibit, the Germans were not fond of the trench gun.

"German propaganda complained that the gun violated the Hague Convention," an exhibit display reads.

Another display features an MG08/15 German machine gun, an M1918 Mark 1 trench knife and a gas mask used by U.S. soldiers. The mask once belonged to David Carlisle Way, of Beaufort County, according to the exhibit.

A display at the start of the exhibit titled "1914: The Lamps Go Out," summarizes the origins of the war, beginning with June 28, 1914. On that day, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The killing of Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo was the spark that ignited World War I.

"The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime," the display states, quoting British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey.

A little more than a month later, the Great War was underway. The war pitted the nations of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also known as the Central Powers, against the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France and Russia. Turkey and Bulgaria later joined the war on the side of the Central Powers and in April 1917, under President Woodrow Wilson, the United States joined the Allied Powers.

Long before soldiers from North Carolina reached Europe, another North Carolinian had been busy opposing Wilson, who was pushing Congress for a war declaration.

U.S. Rep. Claude Kitchin, a native of Scotland Neck and the last person from the Tar Heel State to serve as Democratic Party leader in the U.S. House, objected to the United States getting involved.

On April 2, 1917, Wilson went before Congress to seek a declaration of war against Germany. His request was granted, but not before Kitchin, along with 49 other Congressman and six senators, voted against the declaration.

In February, Leonard Lanier, the museum's assistant curator, spoke at a meeting of the Currituck Historical Society. Lanier gave a presentation on the exhibit and discussed North Carolinians' role in World War I. Taking questions after the meeting, Lanier said something he found surprising during his research was how racism factored into who got drafted during World War I.

“For every one white man in one county that was sent off to the war, they sent off three African-Americans,” Lanier said at the time.

According to the exhibit, white soldiers from North Carolina served in one of two divisions, either the 81st, based at Camp Jackson (today Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina) or the 30th, which trained at Camp Sevier near Greenville, S.C. Black soldiers from North Carolina served in the 92nd and 93rd Divisions.

Also featured in the exhibit is a display that details the sinking of the Diamond Shoals Lightship and the British tanker Mirlo. Both were sunk by German U-boats. According to the display a man from Buxton named Walter L. Barnett was first mate aboard the lightship when U-140 attacked it on August 6, 1918. Ten days later U.S. Coast Guard personnel at Station Chicamacomico helped rescue survivors from the Mirlo, which was attacked by U-117.

Several artifacts, such as an engine gear, and other items recovered from the wreck sites of the lightship and the Mirlo are on display.

In another case is a photograph taken in 1918 of Murray P. Whichard, a Chowan County man who served in the U.S. Army's medical corps. There's also a German model 1915/17 canteen, brought home from the war by a soldier from Camden County.

The exhibit opened in February and will remain open till December 2018. Charlotte Patterson, the museum's education director, said Tar Heels in the Trenches has been a popular attraction, drawing 800 to 1,000 adults a month. That figure doesn't include the number of school children and student groups that have visited already, she said.