Wednesday, July 12, 2017

John Caffey Watson was first Wilcox County soldier killed in WWI

Rainbow Division Memorial in France.
This coming Saturday – July 15 – will mark 99 years since Wilcox County suffered its first World War I fatality.

It was on July 15, 1918 that John Caffey Watson of Pine Apple was killed in action in France at the age of 27 while serving as a corporal in Co. F of the U.S. Army’s 167th Infantry Regiment. Born on June 19, 1891 to Boardman and Lola Watson, his grave can be found in the Friendship Baptist Church Cemetery in Pine Apple.

The 167th Infantry Regiment was an Alabama National Guard unit (formerly the storied Fourth Alabama Infantry Regiment) that during World War I was made part of the 42nd Division, which became known as the famous “Rainbow Division.” Soldiers of the 167th Infantry entered front line trenches in France in February 1918, beginning nine months of active participation in the war that included eight battles in 1918 and a record-setting 110 days on the front lines without relief, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Watson was likely killed in the fiercest fighting of the war for the 167th when they attacked German strong points at La Croix Blanche Farm and La Croix Rouge Farm in July 1918. The 167th forced the Germans to retreat, helped secure a crossing over the Ourcq River and helped push German troops from their entrenchments. A total of 162 Rainbow Division soldiers, including Watson, were killed during that time and a memorial to those soldiers was erected at Croix Rouge Farms in 2012.

According to records at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, Watson’s death was first officially noted on Army casualty lists on Aug. 5, 1918 and his death was widely reported in the Aug. 8, 1918 edition of The Wilcox Progressive Era under the headline “First Wilcox Boy Killed In Action.” That story read as follows:

“The casualty list of Tuesday bore the name of John Watson of Pine Apple as having been killed in action on July 15. John was the son of Dr. and Mrs. B.W. Watson of Pine Apple. He enlisted in the early stages of the war and later was assigned to the Rainbow Division which in the recent fighting has covered itself with glory.

“His death marks the first sacrifice that Wilcox will be called on to bear in the great conflict. Though our hearts go out to the bereaved parents in their hour of sadness, yet a thrill of pride permeates us as we see this splendid young man freely lay down his life that righteousness might live. Though he had been spared to live beyond the allotted span, yet in the few brief years he has lived he has given the full measure of devotion to his country.

“Though he sleep beneath the friendly sod of Lafayette soil, his memory will ever be enshrined in the hearts of Wilcox as the first to meet the rendezvous of death in the present conflict.”

According to Watson’s service card information on file at the state archives, it appears that he was initially buried in Grave No. 203, Section 89, Plot 4 in the Argonne American Cemetery in France. Apparently, at some point, like many other soldiers, his remains were exhumed and transported back to the United States for reburial.

As best that I can tell from state records, at least 25 other Wilcox County soldiers were killed during World War I. Those soldiers include Charley Blackman, William Boykin, William Dumas, William Kelsaw, William Reaves, Harry I. Savage, Howard Singleton and James Williams, all of Camden; Henry M. Autrey, Vivian T. Deaton and Jenkins Jones, all of Sunny South; Oscar L. Autrey, Henry C. Boutwell and Charles E. Treaster, all of Pine Hill; Jimmie A. James and Willie Gay Williams, both of Furman; John Henry Privett and Fletcher E. Smith, both of Lower Peach Tree; Frank C. Brooks of Coy, Fred Battle of Gastonburg, John Butler of Snow Hill, Daniel Robinson of Prairie, Frank Stallworth of Bellview, Wiley McMurphy Steen of Pine Apple and Samuel C. Watford of Caledonia.

In the end, I’d like to hear from anyone in the reading audience with more information about John Caffey Watson or any of the other World War I casualties listed above. Also, if you know of any other soldiers from Wilcox County who were killed in World War I not mentioned above, please let me know and I will add them to the list.

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