Alvin Cullum York: the Most Decorated Pacifist of the First World War

 
Frank Schoonover's 1919 painting of York storming a German machine gun nest
 

He was a deeply religious man who abhorred violence and warfare. Despite that, he went on to become the most decorated veteran of WWI.

Alvin Callum York was born on December 13, 1887, in Pall Mall, Tennessee – the third of eleven children. Back then, Pall Mall had no infrastructure whatsoever, so the Yorks grew their own food and made their own clothes.

After only nine months of school, York left as he was needed to help on the family farm. He learned to fish and hunt – becoming a sharpshooter who won many local competitions.

When his father died in 1911, York helped his mother look after the family. He worked on railroads and in logging. He also drank and gambled, and was arrested several times for bar fights.

Then his best friend, Everett Delk, was killed (not by York) in a saloon brawl in 1914. Attending a revival meeting he was converted and joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union. Formed in the aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-1865) they vehemently preached against violence and war. They were also not in favor of cussing, dancing, drinking, movies, swimming, and modern literature.

Sergeant Alvin Cullum York

York was hooked and became a hymn leader, Sunday School teacher, and elder. When America entered WWI, York was required by law to register for the draft. He did so, not thinking he would have to go. The draft allowed men to claim “conscientious objector” status – allowing them to either exempt themselves or to serve in a non-combative position (like cooking). On his form, York wrote, “Don’t want to fight.”

However, neither the state nor the federal government recognized the Church of Christ in Christian Union as a valid religious organization. At the time, they had very few members in only three states; Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.

York was drafted to Camp Gordon, Georgia in November 1917 with Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Infantry Division. He was still hoping to avoid hurting or killing others when he had another epiphany. His battalion commander who was also a biblical scholar pointed out several passages justifying war (such as “He that hath no sword let him sell his cloak and buy one.” – Luke 36). York was convinced; albeit reluctantly.

The US 129th Machine Gun Battalion, 35th Division returning from the Battle of St. Mihiel

 

He was sent to France with his Division for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive which began on September 26 and involved 1.2 million American soldiers. It was the American Expeditionary Force’s (AEF) biggest and bloodiest operation in WWI. By the time it ended on November 11, America had lost 26,277 men while another 95,786 were wounded.

A German Hannover CL III shot down on October 4, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive between Montfaucon and Cierges

France mourned about 70,000 lives and Germany some 28,000. Despite his pacifism, York contributed to the latter’s death toll on October 8. In his defense, however, he may have saved many more lives than he took.

It happened along the Decauville rail line north of Chatel-Chéhéry. York’s platoon was under Sergeant Bernard Early with orders to attack German positions near Hill 223 and take the Decauville Railroad. However, there was a problem.

Their map was in French – which was how they ended up behind enemy lines. The Germans far outnumbered the Americans. Their machine gunners let loose; killing 9 Americans including York’s best friend. Sergeant Early was also hit, so he turned command over to his two corporals.

They ordered York and 17 others to take out the machine guns. Spreading out, they took several Germans by surprise, forcing them to surrender. Another 25 refused and were killed; 9 by York. Another machine gun took out 6 more Americans and injured another 3 – which put York in charge.

The valley at Chatel Chéhér where York fought

Not wanting the prisoners to turn against them, York ordered his men to guard the POWs while he went off alone to deal with the remaining machine guns. The Germans let loose at him, but all missed. York did not. At one point, 6 Germans charged him with their bayonets, only to fall to his sharpshooting skills.

First Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer, Commander of the First Battalion, 120th Landwehr Infantry was manning a machine gun when he saw York charging him. Unable to aim his machine gun at the American, he emptied his pistol instead, trying to kill him. He missed; a miracle York credited God with.

Vollmer probably thought so too. He offered to surrender his Unit and York accepted. They marched 132 German soldiers back to the American lines. Thanks to York; the 328th Infantry were able to take the Decauville Railroad.

His brigade commander, General Julian R. Lindsey, was impressed, “Well, York. I hear you’ve captured the whole damn German army!”

“No sir,” York replied. “I only got 132.”

Hill 223

He was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).

After the war, George Patullo, a journalist with The Saturday Evening Post, visited Europe’s battlefields and discovered what York had achieved. The story was published on April 26, 1919, catapulting the mild-mannered Tennessean to international fame.

His DSC was upgraded to a Medal of Honor. The French and Italians also joined the bandwagon, and York accumulated almost 50 medals.

Despite offers to promote various products, York refused. He instead gave talks to raise money for a bible school and lobbied the local government to build a road. It is called the Alvin C. York Highway – something he appreciated much more as it finally brought development to Pall Mall.