Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Tom Ewing, Professor of History and Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Professor Ewing joins us today to celebrate the life and service of World War I Distinguished Service Cross recipient Dr. Urbane Bass.
In April 1917, Dr. Urbane Bass volunteered to serve his country as soon as it entered the Great War. In a letter to the War Department dated April 5, Dr. Bass declared: “Realizing that patriotism and loyalty should be paramount in the breast of all American citizens at this time, and feeling (although a Negro) that loyalty for my country and the desire to serve her in this critical period, I am herewith offering my services for the army Medical Corps should there be a need of Negro physicians for that branch of service.” Just six months after reaching the front lines to care for American soldiers, Dr. Bass died in France on October 6, 1918 when shrapnel caused serious wounds in both legs. The story of Dr. Bass’s service in the armed forces was reflective of the experience of veterans in the nation’s service as well as a trajectory distinctive to African Americans in this era of segregation.
Urbane Bass was born in 1880, in Virginia’s capital city, Richmond, where his father was a pastor at Mt. Tabor Baptist Church. Bass attended Virginia Union University and the Leonard Medical School of Shaw University (North Carolina). After completing his training, Dr. Bass became the first African American physician in Fredericksburg, Virginia, since the era of reconstruction. According to the 1900 Census, only 3% of physicians in Virginia were African-Americans, who made up 36% of the state’s population. In 1911, Bass and Warren Lee opened the Commerce Street Pharmacy in downtown Fredericksburg.
In April 1917, when President Wilson declared that the United States would enter the war, Bass was already thirty-seven years old and the father of several children. Just days after the declaration of war, and despite his age and family obligations, Bass volunteered his services. A friend later offered this recollection of the moment:
“Dr. Bass was dedicated to serving his country in a time of critical need. He knew our men were going to die in France and told me he would give his life to save them, if he had to. I could see the sincerity in his eyes. He was committed to the end.”
—African American doctors of World War I: The Lives of 104 Volunteers, 1916
After almost a year of training, Bass departed for France in March 1918, where he served in the 372nd battalion of the 93rd Division, a segregated unit of African American soldiers. In late September 1918, Bass’s unit took part in the battle that became known as the Meuse-Argonne offensive. According to the official history of the 93d Division, this offensive began on September 24, with an artillery barrage followed by an attack across the lines. Ten days of intense fighting followed, with American and French troops gradually advancing while taking heavy losses from German defenders using machine guns and artillery.
The field operations of physicians on the front lines were described in detail in the multi-volume history, The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War (Volume 8: Field Operations). Soldiers who were wounded in combat were treated on the battlefield, with primary attention to controlling bleeding, treating major injuries, and attending to victims of gas attacks. Wounded men were removed as quickly as possible to field aid stations, usually located immediately behind the front line trenches. Soldiers with more serious wounds were then transported by the ambulance service to evacuation hospitals, where treatment was followed by managed convalescence. As noted in the chapter on medical care, “no one method universally was employed; much was left to the initiative, discretion, and resourcefulness” of physicians and other medical personnel. In so-called “open warfare,” when combatants left the relative stability of trenches and front lines were more fluid, “the wounded were taken to any sheltered place near where they fell, and dressings and splints were there applied.” Dr. Bass’s experience on the front lines of the Meuse-Argonne battle was thus representative of the risks undertaken by medical personnel in the difficult conditions of the First World War.
On October 6, 1918, Dr Bass was caring for soldiers at a forward aid station that came under an artillery barrage. Shrapnel from an exploding shell severed both of his legs. According to later published reports, Bass remained calm, guiding others at the aid station as they attempted to stop the bleeding. These efforts failed, and Dr Bass died at the aid station due to his wounds.
For his heroic actions, Bass received the Distinguished Service Cross, with a citation recognizing his courage and sacrifice:
“For extraordinary heroism in action near Monthois, France, October 1-6, 1918. During the attack on Monthois, he administered first aid in the open under prolonged and intense shell fire until he was severely wounded and carried from the field.”
Dr. Bass’s death in early October 1918 is revealing of the unique timeline of American deaths in World War I. Of the 50,000 American battle deaths during the entire nineteenth months starting in April 1917, approximately two-thirds occurred in the last ten weeks of the war, from the middle of September through the Armistice. One quarter of all American battle deaths occurred in a three-week period at the end of September and early October 1918.
The Meuse-Argonne offensive involved 1,200,000 American soldiers and resulted in 120,000 casualties (killed and wounded), a remarkable rate of 10%. The 93d Division suffered 2,302 casualties in two weeks of fighting from September 26 to October 11, including 418 killed in action or died of wounds. This vast scale of death had been characteristic of the war since the first days of trench warfare, although the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) had only begun to experience these true costs since the summer of 1918. In this war, capturing territory or securing strategic locations was less important than killing as many of the enemy as possible. In the succinct summary of the AEF commander, General Pershing, the purpose of the Meuse-Argonne offensive was “to draw the best German divisions to our front and to consume them.” This strategy was deemed necessary by commanders of the Allied forces as the best way to bring the war to an end. The cost in lives, including the death of Dr. Bass, was considered a necessary sacrifice to achieve the desired outcome of an end to the war.
Dr. Bass’s service, his death, and the recognition of his heroism illustrate the position of prominent African American physicians in a segregated society. Dr. Bass’s letter to the War Department was published by the Free Lance Star on April 7, 1917, suggesting that his willingness to serve was acknowledged by the majority white establishment in Fredericksburg. Dr Bass’s death was reported in white as well as African American newspapers such as the Richmond Planet. According to a death notice in the Richmond Planet, the prominent African American newspaper, Dr. Bass was “highly respected by both white and colored, having gained their confidence during the years he practiced medicine in this city.”
A memorial service in January 1919 at the courthouse included “a number of white people who knew and appreciated the work of Dr. Bass while he lived in this city.” Mayor J. P. Rowe described Bass “as a worthy, highly esteemed and respected citizen, always looking to the uplift of his people.” A portrait of Bass rendered in stained glass in Shiloh Baptist Church was dedicated at a memorial service in January 1919. In 1921, Dr. Bass’s body was returned from France for burial at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where he was the first African American buried in Officer’s Row.
E. Thomas Ewing is a professor of history at Virginia Tech, with research interests in the history of influenza epidemics. He currently directs a workshop on data, health, and digital humanities funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities in partnership with the History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine. Follow him on Twitter at @EThomasEwing.