Tracing the History of a Vintage WW1 Razor - Part 3: Robert Mercer Joins the Army

Discussion in 'Safety Razors' started by Rosengaard, Jul 5, 2017.

  1. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Well-Known Member

    Read all seven parts of the story here:
    Part 1: The Khaki sets.
    Part 2: Searching for Pvt. Robert Mercer.
    Part 3: Robert Mercer Joins the Army.
    Part 4: Over There.
    Part 5: Battle.
    Part 6: At Wars End.
    Part 7: What Became of Robert Mercer?

    Having researched the history of the Gillette Khaki military razors and having found the military essentials of Private Robert Mercer, the owner of Khaki set J 2164, I am now able to piece together what happened to Mercer, and where he travelled with his razor during World War 1. Here goes…

    The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Initially both President Woodrow Wilson and the general public was opposed to entering the distant war, but German submarine warfare on US merchant ships (that was supplying the allies) and German plans to ally with Mexico, and help them win back the losses from he Mexican-American War, changed that.

    At first the American men were reluctant to sign up for the battlefields of Europe, resulting in a massive propaganda effort and passing of draft laws. Of the almost 4.8 mio. US troops that ended up participating in the war, about 2.8 mio. were drafted.

    [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Enlistment poster, and sheet music cover for a patriotic song

    Robert Mercer was born in Bristol, Virginia, but was living in Dayton, Ohio when USA entered the war. The first draft was called on june 5, 1917, where a lottery decided which men between 21 and 31 were drafted. Robert Mercer was only 19 when he signed up for duty on July 12, 1917, which means that he was too young to have been a part of this draft. So we can conclude that Robert Mercer volunteered, probably spurred on by the nationwide campaign that urged young men to sign up. This actually explains why I have not been able to find his draft papers. They never existed.

    As described in part 2, Mercer signed up for The Ohio National Guard as Private 1st class. On august 6, 1917 the National Guard was drafted into federal service, and was now a part of the force that would eventually be sent to Europe.

    The Ohio troops were ordered to encamp and train at Camp Sheridan, outside Montgomery, Alabama. Mercer arrived by train with the rest of the supply troops of the Ohio National Guard on 25 august, as the first detachment from Ohio. At the end of October all the Ohio troops had arrived.

    Postcard from 1917

    Construction on Camp Sheridan had begun on 24 july 1917, and it went on until December, while the troops were training. The hastily erected camp was nothing more than tents, barracks and training grounds, placed on old cotton fields. The camp was planned to accommodate no less than 41,593 troops, and when it was completed, 1,277 buildings had sprung up, and 10 miles of dirt road had been built. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who later wrote "The Great Gatsby", was also stationed at Camp Sheridan during the war.

    Panorama of Camp Sheridan, 1918

    Robert Mercer was stationed at Camp Sheridan for 11 month, while the troops from Ohio were being trained in new tactics and the use of new weaponry. On 25 October 1917 the Ohio National Guard units were officially changed into the 147th Infantry which served under the 37th Infantry Division. Robert Mercer was assigned to the 112th Ammunition Train, that was to supply ammunition on the battlefield for the 37th.

    At Camp Sheridan, at some point in 1918, while waiting to get shipped overseas, Robert Mercer and the rest of the men of the 112th Ammunition Train must have been provided with their Gillette Khaki sets, as part of their gear. According to the lists, the Khaki sets were produced in 1918, not 1917, and since Robert Mercer received one of the first sets produced (number 2164), this probably happened in early 1918.

    At this time straight razors were the norm, and there is quite a lot of pictures in existence of soldiers being straight-shaved by other soldiers during world war 1. Private Thomas Mcindoe, a british soldier on the western front in 1914, wrote in his memoirs, that soldiers of the "nervous type" often had faces full of nicks and cuts since their hands shook so much from the experience of battle. To remedy this, it was easier to shave one another, since the straight razor can be rather lethal when trying to shave yourself with shaking hands.

    A french soldier shaving a british soldier in a trench at Boesinghe 19 august 1917

    This procedure probably changed for the US soldiers when the army started handing out safety razors. Suddenly it was easier for young men like Robert Mercer to shave themselves.

    So we can assume, that Robert Mercer started to use his brand new Ball-end Razor on a chilly winter or spring day in Camp Sheridan, Alabama in 1918. Just a few months before he went to war. It could very well have been the first time in his life that the young man (now 20 years old) used a safety razor.

    On October 16, 1917 another 20 year old Ohio soldier (from the 7th infantry), was the first from the 37th Infantry Division to enter the war statistics. The Gallipolis Daily Tribune reported the next day:

    Member of Company F First to Be Injured.
    Merl Vance, Company F, Seventh Ohio Infantry, of Gallipolis, was shot accidentally in the left leg by a revolver he was handling Tuesday at Camp Sheridan. He lost much blood and was carried to the base hospital for treatment. Vance is the first member of the division to suffer a bullet wound since the Ohio soldiers arrived. Vance is the son of Mrs. William Scarberry of this city and about 20 years old. He joined the company when their first call for volunteers came.

    On october 20 the same paper announced that Pvt. Vance had had his leg amputated, just below the hip. On that same day Robert T. Coughlin, also of Company F, 7th Ohio Infantry died of a gunshot wound. Company F had arrived in Camp Sheridan on 11 october, less than two weeks before, so these early accidents must be seen as evidence that weapons training was badly needed among the raw recruits.


    Other than training to handle weapons, the Ohio troops of the newly formed 37th division engaged in long marches and trench warfare training. They were also vaccinated and inoculated against the common diseases of the front. Diseases were just as lethal as bullets in World War 1. Of the 110.000 US deaths in the war, 43.000 were caused by the influenza pandemic (The Spanish Flu) - a disease the soldiers were not vaccinated against!

    At first the US mobilization was slow, but it gained momentum, and it was a massive force that arrived in Europe in the spring and summer of 1918. When the war machine was up to speed 10.000 US troops arrived in Europe every day, and Robert Mercer was part of this huge force.

    On 27 june 1918 Robert Mercer packed his Khaki Razor, and the rest of his gear and embarked from Philadelphia along with the rest of the 112th Ammunition Train on the S.S. Rhesus, a White Star Line steamship converted into a troopship.

    A picture, and a painting of the White Star Line steamer S.S. Rhesus, that carried Robert Mercer and his razor across the Atlantic (along with 1268 other troops from the 112th Ammunition train)

    That Robert Mercer was aboard the ship can be seen from the ships manifest. Robert Mercer is at the very bottom of the page:

    From the manifest of the S.S. Rhesus' trip to Europe 27 june 1918

    Other than proving that Robert Mercer was aboard the ship, the manifest also reveals that the young private had a married sister, Mrs. Gertrude E. Pilson, who was also living in Dayton at the time. Since Mercer was born in Virginia, this makes me speculate, that the Mercers moved to Dayton, Ohio when Robert and his sister were still children. That Robert Mercer has entered his sister as his "next of kin", can also be seen as evidence, that both his parents were dead at the time. These speculations will be important, when I try and trace the whereabouts of Robert Mercer in the post-war years.

    Looking through the ships manifest, I have come to realize that I have made an error, based on my limited knowledge about US military units. The manifest has no less than 68 pages, and starts with an overview of the passengers:


    This overview reveals the organization of the 112th Ammunition Train. We know that Robert Mercer was part of "Headquarters Company" of the 112th. The HQ is defined as:

    "an administrative and tactical unit furnishing the necessary specialist personnel for headquarters of a battalion or higher unit"

    On the manifest, it is clear, that the HQ and Company A are two separate companies. This means that Mercer was not a part of A company, and therefore (sadly) is not one of the proud troops on the old picture that I posted in part 2. I apologize for making that mistake.

    All of the troops in the picture followed Mercer across the Atlantic aboard the S.S. Rhesus though. They were all a part of the 1269 troops, that the ship was transporting.

    The Journey across the Atlantic was perilous. The troop ships were hunted by the German submarines, and therefore travelled in convoys, escorted by marine vessels.

    The Rhesus (and Robert Mercer) sailed from Philadelphia to Brest

    In spite of the escorts the troop ship U.S.S. President Lincoln had been sunk 31 may 2018, by a German torpedo, less than a month prior to Robert Mercers trip across the Atlantic. Of the 715 people aboard only 26 died. The others were picked up by Naval vessels.

    U.S.S. President Lincoln

    The sinking of the President Lincoln is a known naval tragedy. What has not been speculated about, is the fact that of the 715 people aboard, quite a few must have had Gillette Khaki sets in their packs. This means, that the wreck of the President Lincoln, at the bottom of the Atlantic cirka 1.100 km west of Brest, is a vintage shaving treasure trove, containing hundreds of (very rusted I would guess) Gillette ball-end razors in their little Khaki set boxes.

    A painting of the U.S.S. President Lincolns crew and passengers escaping in lifeboats. How many left their packs (and Khaki sets) behind?

    Robert Mercers J 2164 Khaki set was safe in his pack on the S.S. Rhesus. Beards were not tolerated in the armed forces, so he very surely used it a couple of times on the week-long journey across the Atlantic.

    We know that he made it across alive, but the Young Robert Mercer, lying at night in his hammock among the other hundreds of privates, must have thought about the fate of the U.S.S. President Lincoln. Maybe he listened to the sounds of the waves outside the hull, and imagined that he heard the deadly torpedoes approaching. Maybe he also thought about the deadly European war that he was sailing towards, across the vast dark ocean.

    To be continued in part 4.

    Go to:
    Part 4: Over There.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2018
  2. RetLEO-07

    RetLEO-07 likes his penguin deep fried, with pink sparkles

    Outstanding work!
    Keep it up!
    Rosengaard likes this.
  3. twhite

    twhite Peeping Tom

    Awesome read.
    Rosengaard likes this.
  4. Bookworm

    Bookworm Well-Known Member

    Bravo. Looking forward to part 4.
    Rosengaard likes this.
  5. richgem

    richgem suffering from chronic clicker hand cramps

    Amazing work. I am enthralled and anxious for the next installment.
  6. jmudrick

    jmudrick Well-Known Member

    Wonderful stuff. Got me reading old copies of The Masses , the wonderful left magazine which was a leader in the antiwar movement in '17 until the government shut them. No razor ads.

    Sent from my Nexus 5X using Tapatalk
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2017
    Rosengaard likes this.
  7. George X

    George X Well-Known Member

    You sir...are gifted. Outstanding story and a nice piece of history. These parts are like a mini-series...maybe publish/real mini series?

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
    Rosengaard likes this.
  8. LKLive13

    LKLive13 Well-Known Member

    You should indeed get yourself to a publisher of some sort. Your writing skills are very sharp to say the least and leave the reader WANTING to read more of the story your are telling! Great job!!
    Rosengaard likes this.
  9. Keithmax

    Keithmax Breeds Pet Rocks

    Rosengaard likes this.
  10. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Well-Known Member

    That's fascinating! I'm happy to have helped in getting you to dig into more ww1 stuff :)
    The whole US paradigme change that led them to entering the war is a very interesting area.
    Are you reading copies online or do you have the actual papers??
  11. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Well-Known Member

    I must admit that I am very happy to read all of your positive comments. Thanks alot.
    The wait for part 4 will be a bit longer, since im vacationing a bit with the family. Sorry about that.
  12. RetLEO-07

    RetLEO-07 likes his penguin deep fried, with pink sparkles

    Never apologize about spending time with family. We'll be here when ya get back :)
    Rosengaard likes this.
  13. jmudrick

    jmudrick Well-Known Member

    The Masses was printed on very cheap paper, thus finding good copies is rare indeed. So few survived that no library has a full set. I have a couple of coffee table books with excerpts. Fortunately much is available here online in PDF. Some of America's finest authors, artists, and cartoonists contributed, and it's well worth checking out their perspective on the war.


    Sent from my Nexus 5X using Tapatalk
    Rosengaard likes this.
  14. Bookworm

    Bookworm Well-Known Member

    And if they'd stayed away from directly criticizing the government and military, they'd probably have survived a lot longer. I mean, that's the same thing that got McCarthy nailed decades later.
  15. jmudrick

    jmudrick Well-Known Member

    Of course, but what would have been the point of that? The First Amendment isn't about protecting the government from criticism, just the opposite.

    Sent from my Nexus 5X using Tapatalk
  16. Bookworm

    Bookworm Well-Known Member

    I did say _directly_. You can criticize the general actions, but groups like these always end up gravitating towards direct attacks on specifics (such as specific people, or targeted groups) I think it's the whole thing about humans liking to live dangerously. "I'm bored. Let's see what happens when I poke a hornet's nest." McCarthy thought he was immune to criticism, but found out wrong. *shrug*. It's still going on, and it probably always will.
  17. jmudrick

    jmudrick Well-Known Member

    I don't think the movement of which The Masses was a part was about hornets nests or living dangerously, these were folks who put their freedom and lives on the line for their beliefs about war and social justice. Before "safe spaces", people had guns, billy clubs, and deportation to counter beliefs not government approved. Gene Debs ran for president from prison for making a speech. People died for your eight hour day. Perhaps we'd best stick to shaving.

    Sent from my Nexus 5X using Tapatalk
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2017
  18. Rosengaard

    Rosengaard Well-Known Member

    Thank You for the link.
    It's always fascinating to look at a time period through the primary sources.

    I find the war/anti-war debate a very interesting subject in all of the countries that participated in WW1. It was the first "modern" war, and it birthed the first "modern" anti-war movements (All Quiet on the Western Front etc).
    RetLEO-07 and jmudrick like this.
  19. jmudrick

    jmudrick Well-Known Member

    "All Quiet" didn't appear until 1928 but point taken. A weekend spent with All Quiet, Grand Illusion, Johnny Got His Gun, Paths of Glory, and Gallipoli would be sobering. There was little great about The Great War beyond the courage of individuals whose fate (or folly) it was to man the trenches

    Sent from my Nexus 5X using Tapatalk
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2017
    Rosengaard likes this.
  20. Jim99

    Jim99 Gold Water Shaver

    @Rosengaard , this is a fascinating read! I can't wait for part 4.
    Rosengaard and RetLEO-07 like this.

Share This Page