Alexandria during World War I
In 2018, the City of Alexandria is joining countless others around the world in commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I. The war began in Europe in 1914, and the US entered the war in April of 1917. For a small city in the shadow of the Nation's capital, Alexandria was fully involved in World War I. Over 4,000 residents participated directly in uniform, while hundreds more worked in war industries including aircraft construction, shipbuilding, and other war-related production. Effects of the war can still be seen in the City today.
The First World War . . . often called “The Great War” by contemporaries and survivors . . . changed the world in many ways. Never before had mankind witnessed the sort of mass destruction and loss of life that marked this conflict, made even greater through the industrial, chemical, and military
technology of the time. While the United States attempted to maintain a neutral stance, many American citizens clearly viewed Germany as the aggressor in this war, and sought to ease the suffering of French and Belgian civilians from the war’s earliest days.
By 1917, it had become increasingly difficult for the U. S. government to remain neutral. The slaughter on the Western Front continued with no end in sight. The sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 by a German submarine had outraged many Americans, and after a brief pause, the
German Navy was set to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. This move, coupled with revelation of a secret deal between Germany and Mexico, whereby the latter would attack the United States from the south, are believed to be the main reasons that President Woodrow Wilson finally asked Congress to
declare war on Germany in April, 1917.
Alexandrians were already heavily engaged in the First World War in many ways, from sending contributions for French and Belgian relief, to active service in the military and working in war industries. Many churches and other civic organizations raised money for relief efforts and worked with the local chapter of the American Red Cross to send parcels of medical supplies. Thousands of local men and women served in all branches of the military, and the city’s Potomac River shoreline buzzed with activity. Shipyards at either end of the waterfront produced wooden submarine chasers for the U. S. Navy as well as large steel cargo vessels for the merchant marine. Local companies built experimental seaplanes, attempting to secure a Navy contract. Embracing the latest in weapons technology, the Navy also began construction of a new torpedo factory.
Images: Soldiers at Fort McClellan, where many Alexandria soldiers trained (National Archives); Women working at an airplane factory in Alexandria (Library of Congress); SC
201 sub chaser, made in Alexandria (National World War I Museum)
Veterans Oral History Project
The Office of Historic Alexandria is collecting Oral Histories from veterans and active duty people living, working, or volunteering in the City of Alexandria. The interview will include military service and how the concept of service is part of daily and/or civilian life. If you or someone you know is interested in being interviewed, please contact the museum educator at Gadsby's Tavern Museum. Read more information about Oral History in the City of Alexandria.
Below are a few transcriptions of interviews about Alexandria's World War I veterans.
- Mildrilyn Stephens Davis (about her grandfather, Army Captain Robert Kenneth Stephens)
- William Morgan (about his father, Sergeant Herbert Morgan)
- Sandy Carpenter (about her grandfathers, Charles Renshaw and Fred McLein)
- A World War I era photographic documentation of the City. Out of the Attic, May 5, 2016.
- Torpedo Factory was foray into the defense industry. Out of the Attic, September 1, 2011.
- Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation. Out of the Attic, December 19, 2008
- Catching fire: West Marine and Salvage Company. Out of the Attic, December 2, 2010.
- The USS Alexandria. Out of the Attic, April 12, 2012.
- The Alexandria Armory. Out of the Attic, January 28, 2010.
- The City's slow recovery after World War I. Out of the Attic, December 8, 2016.
- The orphaned “doughboy” who found a home in Alexandria. Out of the Attic, November 1, 2018.