On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress and asked for a declaration of war against the German Empire. Four days later war was declared. But a week earlier (March 26), the War Department had ordered the Fifth Regiment Illinois National Guard to mobilize for Federal service. Three of the Fifth’s nine companies were located in Quincy, and 150 men immediately reported to the local armory.
Two U. S. Army mustering officers arrived on April 10, and the Daily Journal reported that “not a slacker was found among the ranks of the Headquarters Company and the Machine Gun Company . . . when the two units of Quincy’s soldier boys took the federal oath at the Armory today.” Among those sworn in was 29-year-old Carl J. Grimmer. Back in May 1905, at age 17, Grimmer had enlisted in the Fifth Infantry’s Co. F. Ten years later, Carl re-enlisted in the regiment’s Machine Gun Co., and by April 1917, he was one of the company’s sergeants.
After mustering the Fifth Regiment began a period of training at Camp Parker (now Parker Heights and Gardner Parks) here in Quincy. The Daily Whig for September 14 announced that “after weeks of delay in leaving, the 582 soldiers at Camp Parker will entrain at 11 o’clock this morning.” The Fifth was ordered to Camp Logan, Houston, Texas where all the Illinois National Guard regiments were combined and reorganized to form the 33rd Infantry Division. Two of Quincy’s companies became Company’s A and B of the 123rd Machine Gun Battalion.
The National Guard made up a significant part of the American Expeditionary Force deployed to France. In fact 18 of the 53 divisions the United States sent overseas during the Frist World War were made up of National Guardsmen.
The reorganization resulted in an opportunity for men with leadership skills—recognition meant promotion. On December 19, Sgt. Grimmer was commissioned a second lieutenant and took charge of a platoon in Co. B.
With training complete, the 33rd began sailing for France. The 123rd left on May 16 and landed in France on May 24. The local newspapers reported on May 29 that a number of parents, including Grimmer’s, had received word of their arrival.
Divisions were given a period to acclimate before being sent to the front. Grimmer wrote his wife and parents that he and two other officers were staying with “an aged French widow” who spoke no English and they no French, but “they were learning.” Though they were not in harm’s way, Grimmer wrote that “the rumble of the guns could be heard plainly . . . and the aeroplanes were flying over them all the time, but too high to see them though they could hear the engines.”
After a month in the rear, the 33rd was moved forward and put under British tutelage. At this stage of the war both the British and the French were facing a severe manpower shortage. To bolster an attack set for July 4, the British asked for and received four companies from the 33rd. Even though they lacked experience, the Prairie State soldiers’ enthusiasm helped make the attack a success.
Ten days later Lt. Grimmer and an Australian officer were inspecting the front lines when a shell burst nearby. The Aussie was severely wounded while Grimmer escaped with minor wounds. Treated at the nearest dressing station, Grimmer immediately returned to duty.
In a letter dated August 31, he wrote: “I don’t remember whether I have told you or not, but I have shaken the second lieutenant bars for the first bars and am now a full-fledged lieutenant . . . .”
By September 1918, over a million American troops were in France. Rejecting British and French demands that American forces be integrated with their armies, American Expeditionary Force commander Gen. John J. Pershing insisted his men would operate as a single unit under his direction. Assigned the Meuse-Argonne sector, the Americans launched a series of attacks, known as the Battle of the Argonne Forest. The fighting lasted a hundred days and was the second-deadliest operation in American history.
The 33rd was in the thick of the fighting. In a letter dated October 17, Lt. Grimmer wrote of being stationed in a “dangerous part of the line and . . . the causalities of the company have been more than the total of the preceding five months. Oh, it was awful and an experience I will never forget.” He added: “This cannot last much longer for the Germans are withdrawing voluntarily . . . .”
As the Germans retreated, Grimmer wrote that the “dirty cowards . . . sent out quantities of mustard gas and it was then that we had our bad luck.” He informed his family that he came out fine, but a number of his men were hospitalized.
In an update written October 23, Grimmer said that casualties had been heavy and that many in his platoon had fallen. “It was simply hell and I hope I never have to see our boys get into service like it again.”
November 11 was a typical day. The 33rd “and this particular battalion were in the line giving Fritz hell,” Grimmer wrote. He explained: “We had just hopped the bags that morning, five hours before the armistice was signed . . . . “ He added: “It doesn’t seem just right and at times it is lonesome without the rumble of the big guns and the bursting of shells all around us, but at that we are all pretty glad and feeling quite comfortable.”
Having been thrown from a horse and breaking an arm, Lt. Carl Grimmer was invalided home, arriving in Quincy February 20, 1919. He would work as a foreman at the Weems laundry, but remained in the National Guard. On January 1924, Capt. Carl Grimmer took command of Quincy’s Company G, 130th Infantry.
At the time of his death on August 22, 1939, Capt. Grimmer remained in command of Co. G, and the Herald-Whig said that he was “one of Quincy’s best known citizens.”
Center, Charles D., Things Usually Left Unsaid, Quincy, Illinois, 1927.
Genosky, Rev. Landry, People’s History of Quincy and Adams County: A Sesquicentennial History. Quincy, Illinois: Jost & Kiefer Printing Co., 1973.
(Available at Quincy University Brenner Library & Quincy Public Library)
Huidekoper, Frederick L., The History of the 33rd Division, A.E.F. Springfield, Illinois: Illinois
State Historical Library, 1921.
New York Times, May 18, 1919, “Hard Hitting 33d Division.”
Quincy Daily Herald, September 14, 1918.
Quincy Herald-Whig, August 29, 1939.
Stallings, Laurence, The Doughboys: The Story of the AEF, 1917 -1918. New York: Harper &
Row, Publishers, 1963.