Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Loaded Down With Glory": Robert Gober Burton and the 151st Machine Gun Battalion

by Captain William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard 

Introducing the WWI Series

This is the first in a series of research articles the Georgia Guard history office will present on the Georgia Guard’s role in World War I as witnessed by the 151st Machine Gun Battalion particularly through the eyes of Robert Gober Burton. Burton was a 17-year-old student at the University of Georgia when he enlisted in the Walton Guards, Company H, 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment in 1916. He wrote prolifically of his experiences on the Mexican Border and in the training camps of Macon as a Soldier in the 2nd Georgia and later of his combat service in France with the 151st Machine Gun Battalion. He wrote of his friends, fellow Soldiers and comrades, some of whom would not survive the war. His words, preserved for 100 years, reveal to us not only the nature of combat service in World War I, but the timeless themes of sacrifice and valor.

The 151st Machine Gun Battalion was a Georgia Guard unit organized for service during World War I. The battalion was originally composed of three companies of the Georgia National Guard’s 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment. This regiment was designated the 121st Infantry Regiment in 1917 and serves in the Georgia Guard to this day as part of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. 

The members of the 151st came from more than 150 towns across Georgia. It was the only Georgia Guard unit to deploy and remain as a unit throughout the war.In nearly 18 months, as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force, the 151st participated in ten engagements, was in contact with the enemy for nearly 170 days and established headquarters in nearly 80 locations. With an original strength of 581, the battalion suffered 443 casualties including 57 killed, mortally wounded or missing in action.

Prologue: Tales of Past Glory

In 1915, The United States marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. As the Great War raged in Europe, the American Civil War was still fresh in the consciousness of southern society. Septuagenarian Confederate veterans and former slaves were present in Georgia’s hometowns serving as living reminders of that conflict. Whereas the Civil War exists to us now as some distant memory, those reaching military age at the dawn of World War I heard tales of valor at Gettysburg, Chickamauga and the battles for Atlanta from the lips of participants in those struggles. Additionally, the Spanish American War, just a generation removed, provided even more proximate echoes of glory and triumph.

The Georgia Guard in 1916

The Georgia Guard of 1916 was organized into three infantry regiments, one infantry battalion a squadron of cavalry, a field artillery battalion and a coast artillery battalion. The first, second and fifth regiments of infantry were based in Savannah, Macon and Atlanta with the 3rd Infantry Battalion in Augusta. Savannah was also home to the field and coast artillery units while the 2nd Squadron of Cavalry operated out of Atlanta.

In 1916, Georgia Guard units were present in 24 cities and towns across Georgia. Many of these local units such as Augusta’s Clinch Rifles, The Gate City Guards of Atlanta The Floyd Rifles of Macon and the Walton Guards of Monroe had served in the American Civil War. Following the Civil War and through the years of reconstruction, these units had been disbanded. But beginning in 1872, Georgia’s old Militia companies began to reform. 

Monroe and the Walton Guards

In 1874, The Walton Guards reformed in Monroe, Ga. This unit remained on drilling status until 1899 when it disbanded for three years. Reforming in September 1902, the Walton Guards became Company D of the 3rd Georgia Infantry. The unit disbanded again in 1905 and reformed again in 1907 as Company D. On December 2, 1907, the Walton Guards became Company H of the 2nd Georgia Infantry.

Captain John Aycock.
Photo courtesy of the Georgia Guard History Office.
Commanding the Walton Guards in 1916 was Captain John Aycock, a 32-year-old merchant and
graduate of what is now the University of North Georgia. Aycock enlisted in the Walton Guards as a private in 1902. He was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in 1907 and promoted to 1st lieutenant in 1910. He had commanded the company since 1913 and by all accounts was a popular commander.

Assisting Aycock was 1st Lt. Prince Albert Dickinson, a 33-year-old rural mail carrier. Dickinson had also enlisted in 1902.

Rounding out the officer ranks of the Walton Guards was 2nd Lt. Dennie B. Launius, a warehouseman. Launius had enlisted as a private in 1913 and had reached the rank of sergeant before accepting a commission in June 1916.

Not counting civil war service, the Walton Guards had been an established part of the Monroe community for two generations.

Robert Gober Burton

Robert Gober Burton was born June 29, 1898 in Monroe, Ga. to Phillip Franklin Burton and Ida T. Gober. He was the youngest of seven children, and by 1916, was the only one still living at home. Brothers John and Frank were businessmen. Frank worked for A. H. Edwards, a peanut buyer, and traveled extensively. Sister Ida lived in Atlanta with her husband Toombs Roberts.

Gober grew up at 208 Boulevard, just a few doors down from 1st. Lt. Dickinson. Many of the boys Gober knew growing up would serve in the ranks with him. Boys like Tom Hensler, John Felker and Augustus Williamson. It is likely that Gober’s many friends and acquaintances in the Walton Guards influenced his decision to join the local Georgia Guard unit in the spring of 1916. Economics and boredom also may have played a role. In a June 14, 1916 letter, brother Frank counseled Gober to be patient.
“I would not get discouraged over not having anything to do. This is summer time and everything is dull. You pick up enough around there to keep you in smoking material and drinks. I will send you a little money along. You have your clothes for the summer.
Do not get disheartened.  Keep a stiff upper lip.  Everything will come out right. Write me whenever you feel like it. 
I am, 
Your Bro, Frank”
The Ga. Guard mobilizes for Mexican border service.
Photo courtesy of the Georgia Guard History Office

Four days later, Gober’s boredom would be relieved. On June 18, 1916, Newton D. Baker, the Secretary of War, advised the governors and adjutants general of President Woodrow Wilson’s intention to call the National Guard to active service on the Mexican border. Gober would soon find himself a part of the largest activation of National Guard units in history. More than 110,000 Guardsmen would head to the border in the coming months in response to cross-border raids by Pancho Villa.

By June 20, 1916, Gober Burton, the Walton Guards, the 2nd Georgia and the remaining units of the Georgia National Guard had been ordered to report to their armories in preparation for assembly at training camps. The 2nd Georgia assembled in Macon and went into training near Crumps Park which would come to be known as Camp Harris. The site of Camp Harris is today marked by Freedom Park.

Writing home, Gober expressed his sense of adventure.

June 29, 1916
Mobilization Camp
Macon, Ga.
My Dearest Mama,
We had the physical examination this morning. I have just come back from the field hospital.  I stood the examination perfectly and was vaccinated and took the typhoid inoculation. Most of the boys in our company came through O.K. All the town boys did.
I am having the biggest time of my life.  I always did like this kind of life and I am not disappointed in the real part.
With lots of love and a kiss I am,
Your Devoted Son
PS: Did you know today was my birthday?

Burton's promotion orders.
Photo courtesy of the Georgia Guard History Office
Burton was promoted to corporal August 4, 1916 as his regiment continued training at Camp Harris.
In the ensuing months, the units were provided with uniforms, equipment, horses and ammunition as well as basic Soldier training. Burton’s letters reflect uncertainty. Rumors flew about possible mobilization dates and of the possibility that they would be sent home without mobilizing to the border.

In the meantime, Gober enjoyed the life of a Soldier, rising early for drill and having the opportunity to take in the sites of Macon by night.

Learning of Gober’s impending departure, Frank Burton wrote a brotherly letter of advice.

Oct 15th 1916
Dear Gober,
I note from the papers that you will go to Mexico next week.  Now Gober, I have a request to make which is that you leave whiskey and bad company alone and always be square in your business dealing and truthful with everybody and be careful with yourself. Write to Mama regular and write me often and let us know if anything should happen to you at once.
I trust you will have a good trip and that your conduct will be such as to command the respect of everybody. 
I send my best wishes and trust you will be returning soon loaded down with glory.  Be sure to let us know your address at all times.  Wishing you the best of good luck and God speed. I am,
Your Bro
Remember at all times that you are a gentleman and of fine stock.
One week later the 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment began movement to the Mexican border. At 1:00 pm, Gober Burton and his fellow Soldiers were crammed into rail cars for the beginning of a five-day journey to El Paso, Texas.

Next Chapter: The Mexican Border.

Post card from Pvt. Robert G. Burton to his mother written
from Camp Harris near Crumps Park, Macon, Ga. August 1, 1916.
Photo courtesy of the Georgia Guard History Office.