Ninety-Eight Years Ago Today: The Death of TW Culbertson, 80 Division, AEF by Connie Ruzich

Webmaster’s Introduction:  Connie Ruzich was the July 2016 “People of the Meuse-Argonne” feature on this website.  The primary emphasis then was on her poetry blog posts in Behind Their Lines.  She also indicated that she was working on a biography of TW Culbertson, who was a volunteer ambulance driver with the AFS and who subsequently joined the AEF.  He was killed in the Meuse-Argonne on 4 October.  Connie was one of the first to volunteer to write a blog post for “Ninety-Eight Years Ago Today” on the date of Culbertson’s death.


Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Tingle Culbertson’s story, the account of a doughboy from Pennsylvania, vividly reminds us of the human costs of war and the sacrifices made in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, a battle that is largely unknown by Americans today.

Culbertson was born in West Virginia but moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his family when he was fourteen. Graduating from Princeton University in 1911, he joined his father’s company, National Tube Works, a subsidiary of United States Steel. His life changed forever, however, when in March of 1916, Culbertson’s strong sympathies for Belgium and the Allied war cause prompted him to join the American Field Service (AFS) as an ambulance driver on the Western Front. His unit was assigned to a French Army division and participated in the buildup to the battle of the Somme in June of 1916, but just days before the July 1st attack, the section was moved to Verdun. Shortly after arriving at their new post, the young ambulance volunteers responded to the first phosgene gas attack of the war, transporting 828 wounded poilus in a twenty-four-hour stretch.


Driving in the pitch darkness under shell-fire, transporting the wounded after gas attacks as machine guns fired, Culbertson and the other drivers of the AFS lived and worked under conditions that we can hardly imagine. His letters home, his journals, and accounts from the men who served with him all speak of his steady nerves and the ways in which he used self-deprecating humor to ease tension, cope with the horrors of the war, and allay the fears of his concerned mother.

At his mother’s urging, after nearly nine months in France, Culbertson returned to the US for Christmas of 1916.  Friends’ accounts state that he intended to return to France for another tour of duty with the ambulance service, but before that happened, the US entered the First World War, and Culbertson immediately enlisted in the American Army, attending one of the first officers’ training camps at Camp Niagara from May – August of 1917.


Despite having seen first-hand the hardships and horrors that troops suffered in the trenches, Culbertson chose to join the infantry, and although he was selected to remain in the US as a training instructor in Virginia at Camp Lee, he requested a change in orders so that he could return to the Western Front, traveling to France with his regiment, the 318th (attached to the “Blue Ridge” or 80th Infantry Division). The 80th landed at Boulogne in late May of 1918.  Culbertson wrote a light-hearted letter to his mother, describing their early weeks in France:


The regiment is scattered here and there in small villages over the countryside. Together with another company we are quartered in a tiny village nestled away in a small valley surrounded by beautiful hills, the slopes of which resemble a crazy quilt made with many shades of neat green patches….I was at first quartered in the home of an old woman almost bent double from age and work. She had all her men relations in the war, which is the case in all the homes in this village, with the exception of a few old men. My little bedroom opened into the kitchen, which had the usual tile floor and large fire place. All the small livestock about the place used this kitchen as a sort of club. There were nine or ten very small ducks, who were always dropping in and insisted on following one about the room. The constant attention of said small ducks was extremely flattering but made foot work very difficult.[i]


By late July, the 318th was training with British troops in the trenches on the Ancre opposite Albert and in Aveluy Wood opposite Thiepval Ridge. On August 19th Culbertson wrote to his family,


“Back in billets from the line and I have just had a bath. The first time for the past eight days and nights that I have had my clothes or even shoes off…On this trip we had the first case of shell shock that we have had in our company. One man cracked after a particularly long and heavy bombardment which was handed our position. Nothing is more pitiable than such a casualty.” 


But the men of the 318th were to face their most demanding test early in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. On September 21, 1918, Culbertson wrote his last letter home:


Dear Family,

Last Thursday evening after dark the companies lined up in the woods and moved out on to the road. Presently it began to rain. Hour after hour we trudged along in the dark through the mud and rain. After awhile the column passed a cross-roads that looked very familiar. I began to look out for land marks. Before long I recognized the road as one over which I had hauled many a load of wounded. Ahead in the distance there loomed up the long ridge at the top of which used to be the little dressing station, just back of the lines, to which our cars went.

 We turned off the main road and took a trail through the woods ankle deep with mud. About an hour before daylight we reached our camping place. I rolled up in a blanket under a tree. It was cold and water was coming down through the leaves but I was soon asleep. Trifle wet when I woke up in the morning but that was a small matter. This is a hardened outfit by now and little things like sleeping on wet ground in the rain has long ceased to trouble any of us. There is only one branch of the service which really knows what a war is and that is the infantry. I wish I had the time and ability to tell about it all.

The woods in which we are now is very close to the famous town [Verdun]. This locality is intensely interesting to me as I was over it all in 1916. Last night I went into the town. It was a beautiful clear night with a full moon. Except for a very few scattered French sentries there was not a soul in the place. As I wandered around through the moonlit streets and shattered buildings the absolute quiet of the place seemed unreal. I could not get accustomed to it, and kept half expecting that at any instant there would be a loud crash and a building would crumble up. There was not a sound, though, not even from that hill just in front of the city which used to be a veritable hell at night and down which the little Fords [ambulances] used to slide, bump and dodge with their groaning cargoes. We have been in action during the past months, but have not as yet experienced the terrific shelling that used to go on night and day continuously in these parts. As we looked over the whole scene from the top of the citadel, the two officers I was with wondered why I was so quiet. I longed for one of the old ambulance gang. As in our last stop, we are not doing much of anything but keeping under cover. By the time this reaches you the big show will doubtless be underway. Love to you all, Tingle[ii]


At 5:25 a.m. on October 4th, 1918, Culbertson led his men in an attack on the Bois des Ogons, a strong German defensive position that was part of the Hindenburg Line (Kriemhilde Stellung) just outside Nantillois, France. A month later, Major Jennings C. Wise wrote to Culberton’s mother, describing the attack:


October 4th at 5:45 a.m. your son led his company’s advance platoon against the enemy. As the battalion jumped off, 781 strong, 16 officers, the counter barrage fell upon us, literally tearing the forward platoons to shreds. But the rear wave kept on toward the Bois des Ogons, just one kilo. north of Nantillois, which is itself on the west bank of the Meuse several kilometers north of Montfaucon. Passing over a gentle crest, we came under a heavy machine gun barrage. Those who entered the wood were met by a tremendous barrage and were unable to hold their ground, falling back to the crest short of the wood. Somewhere between the crest and the wood your son was last seen advancing. A sergeant who was with him declares he was blown to pieces by a high explosive shell. Of my sixteen officers, four were killed and nine wounded, the latter including the writer. But I was able to retain command until our relief on the third day. Careful search of the field was made under my order, for all dead and wounded. Many we found, all in fact but 115 men and Lieut. Culbertson. No trace was ever found of him, body or equipment, and while compelled to report him killed by reason of his sergeant’s evidence, personally I cling to the hope that he entered the wood with some of the missing men and was captured there. It is a mere hope. In a short time now we should know more for certain. I pray that the brave fellow may return to us some day in the not distant future.[iii]



Two months later, Tingle Culbertson’s mother received the news she had been dreading: her son’s death had been confirmed. An officer of the 318th wrote to Sally Culbertson,


“We obtained definite information only six days ago that he was killed October 4th or 5th and is buried in grave No. 69, Battle Ave., Cemetery, Nantillois (Meuse) only a few hundred yards from where he was killed. We had carried him as missing for more than two months hoping all the time that information would be received to the effect that he had been captured or was in some hospital. This Company went over the top that morning with Lieutenant Culbertson commanding the 4th Platoon. The casualties were nearly fifty percent, including all the officers and most of the non-commissioned officers. The men that came out could give no information concerning Lieutenant Culbertson except that he was seen lying motionless a few seconds after a shell had exploded close to him. Since his body was not found by any of our parties we could not believe that he had been killed….Will you not accept the sympathy of Company H, the men of whom wept openly when I told them six days ago that positive news of Lieutenant Culbertson’s death had been received. They had lost an officer who had endeared himself to them during their period of training by his personality and conduct and had inspired them during combat by his leadership and personal bravery.”[iv]



Just over a month later, the grieving mother received a letter of comfort from a private who had served under Tingle Culbertson:


Dear Mrs. Culbertson,

I wish to state a few facts in behalf of our much beloved lieutenant T.W. Culbertson, that may be of some comfort to his bereaved family in their distress….Being a runner for the platoon which he was commanding I was with him the night before we went over the top and the next morning and he was as composed and free and courageous as anyone could be. And that morning, after giving a few words of encouragement to the men he led them off as a brave, courageous officer facing duty and the call of his country. 

Everybody was in good spirits when we started off, but unfortunately for us, we ran into one of the most awful artillery barrages of the war. We were up against one of the most strongly fortified positions of the enemy. It being a large hill just in front of a dense forest.  We reached the top of the hill but were checked by machine gun bullets from the forest and the artillery played upon our line.  Finding very little cover and protection on a bare hill it was decided to withdraw slightly where cover and protection could be gotten. 

Here on this hill were witnessed many heart-rending sights, and many of our comrades paid the great price of shedding their blood in duty’s call. No more noble end could a man have than “that he should lay down his life for his friends.” I was in line with lieutenant, being deployed in about the usual interval between us, seemingly very near to lieutenant. I was jarred from the ground and a piece of the shrapnel tearing my gas-mask from me and stunning me for the time being. When I recovered I could not see lieutenant and the shells raining upon us, I sought cover further down the slope of the hill. When the company was reorganized, lieutenant could not be found and the hill being swept continuously with machine guns could not be searched until after we had flanked the enemy and secured the position.  We have learned since through our company commander that his body was found on this hill and placed in one of the cemeteries. 

Such an influence as lieutenant had cannot end but has left its impress on every man and his name will be on the tongues of children’s children for what he meant to the men.

Hoping that I have said something that will be of some comfort, I wish to extend a heart full of sympathy to his distressed family and friends, trusting that they may be comforted in knowing that his end was a most noble and courageous one, I am very truly yours,

Pvt. Alfred K. Pierce, Jr.[v]


Today, many Americans associate the First World War with smiling images of Doughboys and rousing choruses of “Over There.” The centenary of World War I provides us with the opportunity to also remember the courage and sacrifice of all whose lives were irrevocably changed by “the war to end all wars.”


[i] Tingle Culbertson’s letter to his mother, Mrs. Culbertson, June 13, 1918

[ii] Tingle Culbertson’s letter to his family, September 21, 1918

[iii] Major Jenning C. Wise’s letter to Mrs. Culbertson, November 1, 1918

[iv] Lieutenant Bacon Page Pettus’s letter to Mrs. Culbertson, January 1, 1919

[v] Private Alfred K. Pierce, Jr.’s letter to Mrs. Culbertson, February 2, 1919