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Joseph Harkley Bell

Soldiers of the Great War

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

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Joseph Harkley Bell
1890-1918

"World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world’s population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history."

The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918, National Archives and Records Administration

Joseph Harkley Bell was born in Kossuth, Pennsylvania, on June 18, 1890, to Frank Hartley Bell and Mahala Weaver Bell. The next year, the family was joined by another son, Howard Edgar, and the next year, by a daughter, Nora. In another couple of years, brother Dennis Franklin was born. All of the children were born in Pennsylvania, according to the 1910 Federal Census.

By 1910, the family had moved to Harrison County, West Virginia. Frank was a well driller in the oil and gas industry. Joseph was the oldest son, a young man of 19, and a tool dresser in the oil and gas industry. Seven years later, on June 5, 1917, a record of Joseph is found among World War I Draft Registration cards. His record states he had blue eyes, was neither remarkably tall nor short, and was slender. All of the Bell boys registered on June 5, 1917. All worked in oil and gas, though for different employers, according to their registration cards. Only Howard Edgar was married, and for this reason he asked for an exemption.

draft registration

WWI draft registration for Joseph Harkley Bell. National Archives and Records Administration

Then, in 1918, Joseph was drafted. By that time, Joseph Bell was living in Mannington, as was the rest of his family, and still working in oil drilling. His enlistment date was May 15, 1918, and he was inducted in Clarksburg. Private Bell was sent first to Richmond, Virginia, for training in mechanics’ school (Company D, Tr. Det.). He was transferred to the ordnance department and sent to Camp Hancock in Georgia. (“Bell Funeral To Be Friday Afternoon,” Clarksburg Exponent, October 28, 1920.) After a transfer to Camp Merritt, New Jersey, Pvt. Bell was sent to France in September, 1918. There waiting, somewhere in the fields of battle of Europe was his brother, Dennis Franklin Bell. Corporal Dennis Bell had been inducted in Clarksburg not long after his draft registration and had been in the military since September 7, 1917. West Virginia Adjutant General records show that Dennis was in the field artillery, where he would have been in the thick of battle, and indeed he participated in skirmishes at Laval, East of Baccones, Montsec, St. Mihiel, and Argonne Forest. There was, however, no record found that indicates that their brother, Henry Edgar, was ever inducted.

The Ordnance Department did not seem ready for the world war even years after it had begun in Europe. At the beginning of the U.S. entry in 1917, there were only 97 officers and 1,241 enlisted in this vital department. The Ordnance Department was responsible for supplying combat troops with weapons and ammunitions, including overseeing procurement and manufacturing of these items. There was also a shortage of training schools and other resources for conducting a coordinated ordnance supply and use effort. The U.S. had a serious lag to overcome, and it did. By the end of the war, the Ordnance Department had grown to 5,954 officers and 62,047 enlisted soldiers. More than 22,000 of those officers and soldiers went to France. (Karl Rubis, U.S. Army Ordnance & School, “The History of Ordnance in America,” 26 March 2014, accessed 18 January 2017, http://www.goordnance.army.mil/history/ORDhistory.html.) Pvt. Bell was part of this extraordinary effort.

Unfortunately for Pvt. Bell, and millions of others, there was another threat in the world in 1918 that co-existed with and was made worse by the world war. That threat was called variously the Pandemic of 1918, the Spanish influenza or, as it appeared on many U.S. death certificates, La Grippe. The victims died outright of the flu or of lobar pneumonia, as a consequence of the flu.

Although the death toll attributed to the 1918 influenza epidemic is often estimated at 20 million to 50 million victims worldwide, other estimates run as high as 100 million victims. The exact numbers are impossible to know due to a lack of medical record keeping in many places. What is known, however, is that few locations were immune to the 1918 flu—in the U.S. and its territories, victims ranged from residents of major cities to those of remote Alaskan communities.

West Virginia was not immune to the effects of the pandemic. When the Public Health Service finally began collecting data about influenza in September of 1918, the disease was already in the state. The government website dedicated to “The Great Pandemic” reports the impact in West Virginia:

West Virginia University was closed during the epidemic and a fraternity house on campus was turned into an emergency hospital…. At the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Romney, about two hundred pupils and employees were stricken….

The disease hit coal mining areas harder than other regions. By October, so many West Virginians were either ill themselves or caring for those suffering from influenza that a local committee estimated that only 20% of people were able to attend to their normal duties. Only two mail carriers, for example, were available in Martinsburg. Grave diggers there also found themselves overwhelmed. For several weeks, the diggers found themselves facing a backlog of at least two dozen graves which needed to be dug each day. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “West Virginia,” The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919, accessed 2 November 2016, http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/1918/your_state/southeast/westvirginia/index.html.)

Though the number of flu (and consequently pneumonia) cases peaked in the fall of 1918, claiming among its numbers Private Clayton Bosworth Brandon of Barbour County; Lucinda Rose, a Red Cross Nurse of Harrison County who was deployed to France but made it only as far England; Private Charles Cleveland Meadows of Pendleton County, who died in Camp Sheridan; and so many others, the long lasting damage was to change families forever, if not destroy them entirely.

On the same pages as the announcement of Lucinda Rose’s death in the November 21, 1918, Shinnston News was that of another, named James Knight, who also died of influenza after the onset of pneumonia. Elsewhere that year in West Virginia, in Barbour County, the Democrat announced the sorrowful news of the death of an eight-year-old girl, following the same fate as her mother and the devastation left for her father, as both died of pneumonia. In the Republican, the death announcement of a 31-year-old woman followed that of Private Clayton Brandon. The woman died of “influenza pneumonia,” as had Private Brandon, who was buried at sea. In cemeteries across West Virginia and in cemeteries around the world, burials in 1918 for young people occurred at a much greater than expected rate.

Carol R. Byerly, writing in “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919,” reports:

The American military experience in World War I and the influenza pandemic were closely intertwined. The war fostered influenza in the crowded conditions of military camps in the United States and in the trenches of the Western Front in Europe. The virus traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic, and at the height of the American military involvement in the war, September through November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel…. Influenza and pneumonia killed more American soldiers and sailors during the war than did enemy weapons….

The Army and Navy medical services may have tamed typhoid and typhus, but more American soldiers, sailors, and Marines would succumb to influenza and pneumonia than would die on the industrialized battlefields of the Great War. The story of the influenza epidemic in the military is often lost in the historical narrative of the Great War, included merely as a coda to that four-year horror, coinciding with the final battles and the Armistice….

Influenza sailed with American troops across the Atlantic and when it exploded in late August and September in Europe and the United States, medical officers found themselves on the front lines of an epidemic worse than any of them had ever seen or imagined. Many were among the most knowledgeable and skilled physicians in the country and had just recently entered military service. They did their best to save those stricken by influenza, but could do little more than provide palliative care of warmth, rest, and a gentle diet, and hope that their patients did not develop pneumonia.

One of the tragedies of the influenza epidemic is that by the 1910s, the medical profession held many of the scientific and epidemiological tools to understand the nature and extent of the damage influenza and pneumonia were wreaking on their patients, but lacked the tools to effectively fight them.

The deadly second wave of the epidemic lasted about four weeks in individual camps and ran its course in the Army in about eight weeks, roughly from September 15 to November 15, 1918. (Public Health Report 2010, 125[3]: 82-91.)

And so, not long after he arrived in France, Pvt. Bell died of lobar pneumonia. At the same time, his brother Dennis was in Europe, severely wounded by an explosion. Joseph’s father Frank, then living in Mannington, was notified of the death by the Adjutant General. The telegram read, “Deeply regret to inform you that Private Joseph Bell, ordnance department, is officially reported to as having died of lobar pneumonia, October 10. Harris, Adjutant General.” It was noted in one death notice that Joseph had been a member of the Knights of the Pythias and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF).

Dennis Franklin Bell was honorably discharged in January 1919 and went home. He had served overseas from March 1918 until he was severely wounded on September 25, 1918. He died in West Virginia in 1963.

Bell marker

Frank, Mahala, Joseph, and Dennis Bell are buried in Clarksburg in the Elkview Masonic Cemetery. Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

Like many soldiers who died overseas, Joseph Harkley Bell was buried in Europe and later exhumed so that his remains could be buried closer to home. This was true for Pvt. Bell in 1920.
Bell marker

Headstone for Pvt. Joseph Bell; note the insignia signifying his service in the Ordnance Department. Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

Article prepared by Cynthia Mullens, with editorial assistance from Patricia Richards McClure.
January 2017

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Joseph Harkley Bell

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