Fallen in France, heroes at home
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lucy Barber, a Charleston widow, had three sons serving in France in World War I when she received this telegram in early November 1918:
"Your son, Captain Timothy L. Barber, died of wounds on October tenth."
Sallie Maxwell Bennett, of Weston, received her telegram on Aug. 28, 1918. Her only son, Louis, was missing in action. She too was a widow; her husband had died unexpectedly three weeks earlier.
Capt. Barber and 1st Lt. Bennett were among the 1,120 West Virginians killed in action during a 17-month period that ended 95 years ago Monday.
The two men shared some similarities. Both were from prominent West Virginia families. They had entered the war early, served with distinction and are still remembered today by family, historians and monuments.
'A life-time in Hell'
Capt. Barber wrote his mother a letter in early October to let her know he was all right. He had been on the firing line for a week. "It was like a life-time in Hell," he wrote.
"We have been going from one hill and woods to another ever since being relieved -- sleeping in the rain and on the hillsides -- no baggage, dirty, no water to wash in and very little to drink, marching 10 to 20 miles every night ... My mother, you cannot imagine what a terrible life this is! I am ten years older already, and have seen all my friends and comrades blown to pieces ... We leave tonight for the front again."
Barber was a doctor, like his father, who had moved to Charleston in 1882. At the turn of the 20th century, Timothy Lawrence Barber Sr. opened a private sanatorium for the treatment of disease through electricity. The Barber Clinic later became Kanawha Valley Hospital.
Barber, who went by Lawrence, was 29 years old in April 1917 when the United States entered the war that had been raging in Europe for nearly three years.
He organized a Red Cross ambulance unit that was made up mostly of men from Kanawha County. His brother, Thomas Maxwell Barber, also a doctor, joined up and would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism by Gen. Pershing. The youngest brother, Daniel, left college to volunteer for the ambulance unit. He would become a doctor, beginning his longtime practice in Charleston in 1926.
After training, the West Virginia unit was made the 313th Ambulance Unit of the 79th Division. They sailed to France in July 1918. Lawrence Barker was married and would become a new father while in France.
Seeking adventure in the sky
Louis Bennett Jr. was the handsome, rich kid in a small town.
His grandfather was a wealthy landowner, and his father was a lawyer and politician, barely losing the 1908 gubernatorial race.
The young Bennett had a knack for mechanics and an appetite for adventure. He was driving the family Buick, only the second car in Weston, at 12, the same age he was when he built both a motorcycle and a car.
After attending private boarding schools, Bennett enrolled in Yale. He became enamored with flying and while a student had the idea to form a West Virginia Flying Corps to aid in the fighting.
Gov. Comstock supported the flying corps to the tune of $10,000, but Congress didn't accept the corps into the Army.
"Louis' impatience and his desire to get into the Great War tore him from college," L. Wayne Sheets wrote in an article in Goldenseal magazine in 2000.
Bennett entered the Canadian flight school and left for England in February 1918 as a member of the British Royal Air Force. He was 23.
Enemy mine kills Barber
The news of Lawrence Barber's death was front-page news in the Nov. 9, 1918, issue of The Charleston Gazette. Four days later, two days after the Armistice, the Gazette published on the front page recent letters from Barber to his wife and mother.
"Dr. T.L. Barber, father and son, were too well known and too highly esteemed in the community to need or justify comment," the newspaper noted. Not meant for publication, the Gazette said the letters "are of the heart to heart kind" and their publication was permitted only on earnest request.
Barber's death was described as a shock. His brother, Daniel, had sent home a letter telling how his brother was injured and was recovering from his burns. During the battle of Argonne Forest, Lawrence Barber had been sent out to find an advance Red Cross relief station. He and others came upon a mine that the Germans had camouflaged and it exploded.
Charleston lawyer Tim Barber said his father was with his brother when he died. "I don't think he ever got over it," he said.
Before the war, Daniel Barber had been studying chemistry at West Virginia University. He later told his son David, "When he got blown up in France, I decided I should study medicine. I wanted to carry on for Lawrence."
Bennett shot down
Louis Bennett Jr. was West Virginia's only World War I ace, and placed ninth on the war's roster of aces.
He had 12 combat kills: three aircraft and nine balloons, including four in one day.
"This record was accomplished in just 10 days after assignment to his unit on August 14 and with only 41 hours of combat flying time," Sheets wrote in the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
Bennett died as his plane was shot down by the Germans on Aug. 24.
His mother, though, didn't get confirmation until October. In the meantime, she sent telegrams offering rewards for information and to locate his body.
She later traveled to Europe to try to find where he had died and to recover his remains. Sallie Bennett couldn't believe that neither the U.S. nor British governments had done anything to recognize her son's heroism -- no medal, no memorial service.
In contrast, Tim Barber said the U.S. government paid for both his grandmother and his uncle's widow to travel to France to visit Timothy Lawrence Barber's grave in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne, where more than 14,000 U.S. soldiers are buried.
His name is listed on the monument in the Lee Street Triangle that honors the 125 men from Kanawha County who died in the World War.
There's a marker that bears his name on an empty grave in the Barber family burial section in Spring Hill Cemetery.
The men of the ambulance unit no doubt remembered him at the regular reunions that Tim Barber said used to be held until the survivors got too old.
World War I, he pointed out, was the last U.S. conflict in which individuals personally formed military units and then placed them under the Army's direction, as had been done since the Revolutionary War.
Sallie Bennett was determined that her only son would be remembered -- in three countries.
She paid to have a chapel rebuilt in Wavrin, France, where Louis Bennett Jr. died in a German field hospital. The chapel had been destroyed by the retreating Germans. Sallie Bennett attended a rededication service there on the anniversary of his death and on the same day a memorial service was held for both her husband and son in St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Weston.
She commissioned a famous sculptor to create a 7 1/2-foot-tall statue of her son in his belted flight coat with winged arms. A few months after his historic flight in 1927, Charles Lindbergh visited the war memorial and placed a wreath on "The Aviator," which still stands on the campus of the Linsly School in Wheeling.
In 1921, she donated her 17-room Italianate mansion in Weston to be used as a public library. Nine decades later, schoolchildren still climb the flight of steps to the Louis Bennett Jr. library.
Nancy Colburn, who serves on library board, was among a group of Weston residents who visited London this past summer. They made a point of visiting Westminster Abbey to search out the stained-glass window Sallie Bennett paid to install in 1922.
The window overlooks the grave of the Unknown Warrior in the nave. Its theme is flying men and wings and is in memory of the British (Royal) Flying Corps.
At the top of the window is a figure of St. Michael, patron saint of airmen. Mrs. Bennett apparently gave the artist a photograph of her son because his portrait is the face of the angel holding the shield of faith.
"If one observes closely in the lower right-hand corner of the window is the State Seal of West Virginia, the only state to be so represented at the Abbey," wrote Sheets in his Goldenseal article on Sallie Bennett's monuments.
Reach Rosalie Earle at email@example.com or 304-348-5115.