We are living in a truly uncertain time. A highly contagious disease, COVID-19, has abruptly changed the way we live and there is no knowing when things will return to normal; or will we just have to adapt to a new normal? In 1918, the world was also facing uncertainty, both from the war and the Spanish flu pandemic. In the United States, this deadly strain of influenza was first reported in a Kansas army training camp and within five weeks over 1,000 soldiers throughout the country were infected and 47 were dead. The disease spread rapidly throughout the world, infecting about one third of the global population. By the end of the year, an estimated 20-50 million people were dead, with October being the deadliest month. Although the virus struck young and old alike, young men in the military were at the greatest risk of infection due to increased travel, malnutrition, and unsanitary conditions. Once infected, they were placed in crowded military hospitals where they almost always died from bacterial pneumonia.
Born on February 10, 1896, Rudolph Victor Witte Jr. was the only son of Rudolph and Henrietta Witte. He and his six sisters grew up on the Victor Witte homestead and the family was well regarded by the Winedale community. Witte registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, in accordance with the Selective Service Act of 1917. He and 24 other men departed from the Union Station in Brenham on July 24, 1918, and headed to Camp Travis in San Antonio. An article in The Brenham Banner Press listed all 25 men by name and described an upbeat scene, with a large crowd from all parts of the county assembled to cheer them on as the train departed the station.
He was assigned to the 32nd company, 8th Battalion, 165th Depot Brigade until August 20th then was detached to the 59th Field Artillery unit and remained there until Sept 1st. He was then assigned to Battery A of the 126th Field Artillery unit and sailed out of New York City on Sept 24th on the HMS Kashmir.
The Kashmir was assigned to Convoy HX-50 and this was the ship’s third time transporting American troops from New York to Liverpool, England. Unlike the previous two voyages, this trip was fraught with peril. Within a week, several hundred soldiers contracted the dreaded influenza virus. On October 4th, the convoy encountered hurricane force winds and was swept off course. On the morning of October 6th, a large wave struck the Kashmir causing it to ram into the troopship HMS Otranto. Over 400 troops aboard the Otranto were killed and the badly damaged Kashmir sailed on to Glasgow, Scotland where it arrived on October 7th.
Young Witte died of bacterial pneumonia the next day.
I imagine Rudolph, having never been off the farm, waving goodbye to his family as the train pulled away from Union Station. As he sailed out on the Kashmir, he might have thought about the stories of adventure he would bring back to his family. Maybe he planned to bring back souvenirs. I imagine him on the ship, falling ill, burning with fever and struggling to rest as the ship shook about in the violent storm. There was nobody to offer a cool cloth or a soothing word: just a hard, damp cot in a strange place, not knowing if the illness or the shipwreck would do him in.
It often took weeks for families to receive news of a soldier’s death. Such long-distance communication was not easy, and Witte’s situation was made more difficult by a major shipwreck and its obvious complications. His father might not have gotten the news until November. I imagine the shock and anguish, and even anger at knowing his son died just one day after arriving at his destination, without having had the chance to fight for the country he set out to defend.
November 11, 1918 marked the end of the war and raised the question of what to do with those soldiers who perished on foreign soil. Competing organizations argued for and against repatriation of remains, so in early 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation allowing parents to choose whether to bury their sons in American graves overseas or have their remains repatriated. The Wittes chose the latter.
On September 29, 1920, the USAT Antigone left Liverpool, England and arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, carrying the remains of hundreds of soldiers. Witte was returned to the place of his birth and buried in the Jaeger Witte Cemetery next to his mother Henrietta.
A large monument was erected on Rudolph V. Witte’s grave a few years after his burial. Some of my first memories of the family cemetery were looking at that monument. I was fascinated by his image. A young man frozen in time, watching the rest of us grow up. Etched into his headstone is the poem found on many World War I monuments.
He left his home in perfect health,
He looked so young and brave.
We little thought how soon he’d be
Laid in a soldier’s grave.
The more I learn about his life and death, the more chilling these words become.
These photos show the large memorial headstone and detail (left and center) and the small cenotaph at the Prairie Lea Cemetery in Brenham. Prairie Lea has several dozen such markers for those young men from Brenham who perished during World War I.
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