Lucy Duval Grubbs watched her husband die. Her farm boy turned soldier. Her young warrior who left for France soon after their wedding day, part of the great battle that would become known as World War I.
Pvt. Richard L. Grubbs died at his family’s home, back in the woods along Bethany Church Road in Louisa County. He returned from the war neither shot nor wounded by artillery shrapnel; he died in agony from mustard gas. Lucy, his young bride, waited with him as he died.
The Blue Ridge Division
Recruits from central Virginia like Private Grubbs made up most of what became the 318th Infantry Regiment, a unit in the 80th Division, which was known as the “Blue Ridge Division.” The 318th was formed officially in September 1917 while the troops were in basic training at Camp Lee — now known as Fort Lee — near Petersburg.
When the new soldiers arrived at camp, their first task was to turn a remote outpost into a military base capable of preparing America’s new fight force. Buildings had to be constructed, supplies organized and farm fields converted into training grounds.
The unit history for the 318th describes how Camp Lee’s commanders put the farming experience of the new recruits to good use.
“The farmer army was turned loose and in 24 hours there was no more corn in sight,” the unit history read. “The time would have been appreciably less had it not been for the great number of rabbits whose homes were destroyed during the process.”
The men also had to build their own physical foundations. Conditions on family farms at the turn of the century meant many of the recruits reported to Camp Lee underweight. Soldiers in the 318th reported actually putting on pounds and growing a few inches during boot camp.
Despite the rigors of military training, men of the 318th maintained a few of their civilian traditions. They formed a theatrical group — “the 318th Minstrels” — which traveled to Richmond on Thanksgiving night in 1917 and performed to what the unit history described as “a crowded and enthusiastic house.”
Capt. Senius J. Raymond, the unit’s adjutant, said the event proved “to the people of Richmond and Petersburg that Virginians were not only good fighters, but also good actors.”
Training continued through the spring, then, in early May, the 318th received orders to depart for France. The soldiers embarked on May 20 for Hoboken, N.J., where they boarded the ocean liner that would shuttle them across the North Atlantic.
The trip across
The 318th made the crossing on the S.S. Leviathan, a vessel familiar with the effects of war. Built in 1914 as the Vaterland, an ocean liner in Germany’s Hamburg Line, U.S. forces seized the ship in 1917 and rechristened it Leviathan. It served as a troop ship for the remainder of the war.
It was the first time many of the central Virginia soldiers had seen the ocean. Soldiers on the crossing wrote about seeing porpoises and flying fish, and of standing watch for enemy submarines.
To maintain morale and keep the restless troops entertained, bands from the 318th, the 131st Infantry and the 31st Coast Artillery performed daily. The unit history recalled that “most of the officers found time for an occasion waltz or foxtrot.”
The Leviathan arrived in the port of Brest, France, on May 31, 1918, and the 318th became part of the American Expeditionary Force.
The first combat experience for the 318th came in early September 1918, during the second battle of the Somme. The unit remained in a reserve capacity. After only a few days, the 318th was pulled from the line in preparation for a major offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region.
Allied planners designed the Meuse-Argonne Offensive to push through the German lines between the Argonne Forest and Meuse River, northwest of Verdun. The offensive was fought in three phases, beginning Sept. 26 and running up to the signing of the armistice on Nov. 11.
By the start of the offensive, U.S. forces had grown in number to enable formation of American army groups. The 318th was deployed with the U.S. Army’s III Corps along the right flank near the town of Verdun. The unit history described the sector as “the scene of much bitter fighting.”
The armies on both sides of the Meuse-Argonne engagements typically started an attack by dispersing poison gas. The white puffs overhead created a sense of panic, and the floating cloud could kill or disable troops hidden in opposing trenches.
The Science History Institute reported that 1.3 million casualties were caused by chemical weapons during the First World War, with an estimated 100,000 fatalities. The gases used during the first years of the war — chlorine and phosgene — caused tearing and asphyxiation, with death mainly from exposure to a high concentration of the chemicals.
Mustard gas, or dichloroethyl sulfide, which was deployed beginning in 1916, attacked the entire body — the eyes, lungs and skin. The yellow-brown, oily mist blinded and choked those caught beneath the cloud, then dissolved into the skin and produced severe burns.
Even days after being dispersed, mustard gas could lie settled in low areas. A report from the field noted, “A soldier jumping into a shell crater to seek cover could find himself blinded, with skin blistering and lungs bleeding.”
Survivors of mustard gas experienced long-term physiological problems — skin cancer, severe eye and respiratory conditions, and sterilization. Those killed died a painful death.
A tragic end
It’s unknown whether Grubbs fell beneath the pines of the Argonne Forest or in the war-wasted fields toward the Meuse River.
It didn’t matter. Once the mustard gas hit his eyes, Grubbs could see nothing around him. His body shut down, one organ at a time. His skin blistered. After being carried to a field hospital, he returned to America to live out his final days.
Grubbs died at the family’s clapboard house, near the old sawmill, in the woods off Bethany Church Road. His only comfort was to be back at home and to have his bride next to him.
A wedding day picture is all that remains of Richard and Lucy — Richard in uniform, seated with puttee-wrapped legs stretched forward; his new wife standing beside him, arm pressed behind his back.
There is no way to read the expression on their faces with any degree of accuracy, but the young soldier seems to have a sense of adventure on his face. Richard had traded life on his family’s farm for the promise of glory on French battlefields.
Lucy’s face holds a warm smile, but her eyes betrayed perhaps a sense of worry. Her young husband going off to war, tales trickling in from “over there” describing death in the trenches.
Neither could know the tragedy that would unfold.
A family changed
In the years following Richard’s death, Lucy Duval Grubbs married his younger brother, Robert Irven Grubbs. This common practice in times past was a way for the family to support the widow after the husband’s death.
The couple remained married for nearly 60 years, producing four children and eight grandchildren. They lived in a simple, one-story house less than a quarter-mile from the “old house.” They grew corn, tomatoes and yellow squash. They raised pigs and chickens.
When Diane Sunshine, one of the Grubbs grandchildren, was asked whether the family ever spoke of Richard, she responded, “Not really. One time, when I was a kid, Grandma and I were looking in her trunk at some pictures and trinkets, and she told me she had been married to Richard, but he died shortly after coming home from the war.”
“Grandma said she didn’t talk about him much because Granddaddy didn’t like her to talk about him.”
The family house where Richard died was never lived in again. In time, it fell into disrepair as underbrush grew through the porch and walls. The Grubbs family gradually moved on, its path forever changed, with mementos of those tragic times just a few steps away.