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Robert James Ritter
Soldiers of the Great War

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

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Robert James Ritter
1894-1918

"It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."

Woodrow Wilson

Robert James Ritter’s paternal grandfather, Lewis Ritter, a shoe and boot maker, emigrated from Prussia in 1858 and settled in Taylor County, [West] Virginia. Records show that he registered for the Civil War draft in 1863. He died at the age of 76 years, the result of injuries suffered from a fractured hip.

Robert was born on June 2, 1894, at Arden, near Philippi, in Barbour County, West Virginia. His parents were Robert Winfield Ritter and Anna [Annie] Belle Stemple, who were married on May 29, 1887, in Barbour County. There were four children born to this marriage: Roscoe, Nema Geraldine (Mrs. William Hinkleman), Otta (Mrs. Charles Scott Phillips), and Robert James.

Both Robert’s father and his older brother were victims of tragic accidents prior to his untimely passing. Robert Winfield Ritter died in January 1894 and is buried in the Cross Roads Cemetery at Tacy, Barbour County, West Virginia. According to a newspaper account of Robert’s funeral, his father was killed in the explosion at the Monongah mine when [Robert] was but a small boy (“Remains of Robert J. Ritter Laid to Rest,” The Philippi Republican, 23 June 1921). This account appears to be in error in that the Monongah disaster did not occur until 1907, and his mother had remarried to William Shanabargar in 1896, indicating that 1894 is the correct death date for his father. [The 1900 Federal Census shows Anna as married to Shanabargar with a four-year-old child.] The Philippi newspaper account also states: “Another very tragic incident of his life was the fact that an only brother was killed by a train near Lillian a few years ago.” [Roscoe’s death record indicates that he died in July 1907 of an accident in the vicinity of Elkins; whether this was a train accident or a mining accident is unclear in that his occupation is listed as “miner.”] Robert’s mother, Annie Belle, married William L. Shanabarger on April 28, 1896, in Barbour County.

draft registration

WWI draft registration for Robert Ritter. National Archives and Records Administration

On June 5, 1917, when Robert registered in Fairmont, West Virginia, for the initial World War I draft, he was living at Montrose in Randolph County. [Note that his draft registration shows a birth date of 1893.] He was single and claimed no exemptions from the draft. His registration card reveals that he was of medium height and medium build and had brown eyes and dark hair. His draft registration also states that he was employed as a stationary engineer at the Marion Product Company in Fairmont. Also known as a power engineer, the stationary engineer’s duties were to provide electrical power, heat, and hot water to office buildings, hospitals, factories, and other similar enterprises.

When Robert entered the U.S. Army, he was assigned to the 314th Field Artillery Regiment, which was part of the 89th Army Division. Robert was a bugler and a member of the Headquarters Company.

The 89th Division engaged in the St. Mihiel Offensive on September 12-15, 1918. The objective of that battle was fourfold: 1. To deprive the Germans of the St. Mihiel salient; 2. To prevent them from interrupting traffic on the Paris-Nancy Railroad by artillery fire; 3. To free the railroad leading north through St. Mihiel to Verdun; and 4. To provide a base of departure for an attack against the Metz-Sedan Railroad system, vital to the German armies west of Verdun, and against the Briey Iron Basin, which was necessary for the production of German armament and munitions. The Battle of St. Mihiel was the first strictly American offensive of the war. In previous engagements American forces were joined by British, Italian, and French units. They were protected by the largest concentration of air power ever assembled. The successful American forces suffered only 7,000 casualties during the St. Mihiel Offensive, far fewer than expected.

Following the St. Mihiel Offensive, the Americans commenced the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on September 26. The objective of this campaign was to repel the Germans eastward from the Hindenburg Line to deny them access to important rail lines that were supplying the German front. Thirty-seven French and U.S. divisions were opposed by 24 German divisions. By early October the German Army was exhausted, demoralized, and plagued with an influenza outbreak. The battle, which lasted until the Armistice on November 11, was the largest in U.S. military history to date. It was also one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history. More than 95,000 American soldiers were wounded and over 26,000 were killed. During the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives, the 89th Division suffered a total of 7,091 casualties, which included 980 men killed in action and 6,111 wounded.

During the war the remains of some soldiers were buried several times—first in battlefield graves, then in U.S. cemeteries in Europe, and finally in the United States. At the conclusion of the war, France resisted removing bodies for reburial, but in 1920 the French agreed to the return of American soldiers to the United States. The remains of 46,000 war dead were returned to the U.S. at a cost of over $30 million.
Ritter headstone

Robert Ritter headstone, Cross Roads Cemetery. Find A Grave photo used with permission

Although some sources offer 1918 as his date of death and indicate he might have died either from being gassed or succumbing to influenza (see the article in The Philippi Republican; Soldiers of the Great War also indicates he “died of disease”), it is more likely that Robert James Ritter died on January 10, 1919, from shrapnel wounds. This theory is further complicated by the fact that his service record in the West Virginia Adjutant General’s office indicates death due to endocarditis.

The aforementioned newspaper article provides insight into the esteem in which the soldier was held and into the character of his community at the time, stating that his was the first military funeral held in the county of a returned soldier:

A very large concourse of friends attended the funeral of Bugler Robert J. Ritter, of the 314th Field Artillery, whose body was brought here last Saturday morning after it had arrived from an overseas shipment of soldier bodies returned to this country.

Robert J. Ritter was drafted from Fairmont and joined the 314th Field Artillery at Camp Lee and went overseas with it. He was wounded in the Meuse-Argonne forest battle and went into the hospital, recovered and returned to his company to be gassed and returned to the hospital and died from the effects of influenza which developed because of the condition of the lungs caused by gas. He was an orderly to Major Fortesque during his army career. Death occurred in January, 1918….

The body was held in state at the Court-House Sunday until 1 o’clock, when, headed by a military escort, of the American Legion Post, here, and the firing squad from the H. W. Daniels Post at Elkins, it was taken to its last resting place at Tacy where Rev. R. O. Phillips, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal church of Philippi, and Rev. T. C. Holland, pastor of the local Baptist church, and chaplain of the local American Legion Post, conducted a short but impressive service. Then he was carried to the grave to the beat of muffled drums under a military escort where the ceremony was performed, the final salute fired and taps sounded. His body now rests on native soil in his native county….

Citizens from all over the county and from neighboring counties were in attendance at the funeral which was the largest ever held at that place.

Robert’s burial in June 1921 enabled him to be reunited with his father in the Cross Roads Cemetery at Tacy in Barbour County, West Virginia, where, upon her death in 1957, Annie Belle Stemple Ritter Shanabargar was also buried.

Article prepared by Leon Armentrout, with editorial assistance from Patricia Richards McClure
February 2015

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Robert James Ritter

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