With sudden orders to take the French town of Sedan, William Orbry Lambert, of Pendleton County, and the rest of his unit clashed with the occupying German soldiers for control of the area on Nov. 7, 1918.
Lambert was among three men in his company killed during the assault, and he is only Pendleton soldier of the 17 who died in the war whose body remains overseas.
Pendleton County resident Brenna Mitchell first heard about Lambert while researching for her book, “Pendleton’s Boys of ’17” — which has information on each of the 463 Pendleton residents who went to Europe for the conflict.
Mitchell decided to seek more information about Lambert, which ultimately led her to his relatives and his gravesite across the Atlantic, where she brought a piece of home to his final resting place almost 101 years after his death.
Lambert was born on March 16, 1896, near Circleville, W.Va., and was one of four brothers, the others being Lorenzo, Delmar and Carmen. Their mother, Callie Johnson, died in 1909 and the brothers were sent off to live with different relatives.
When working at the North Fork Lumber Co. in Boyers, W.Va., Lambert signed up for the draft in June 1917 and set sail for Europe a little over a year later on Aug. 22, 1918.
But the order to take Sedan seemed unnecessary because many generals already knew by November that the Central Powers were ready to surrender, Mitchell said.
“I just thought that was pretty sad that a general sent those boys in, even though they knew [the Entente and Central Powers governments] would end the war, just so we could take a town before France,” Mitchell said.
And so Lambert was buried in France, the foreign country where he died fighting to liberate a town from invaders.
But after the war, records on his service and resting place became muddled through several archive fires, Mitchell said.
In 1971, a fire broke out at an Army service archive in St. Louis and destroyed the lists of First World War soldiers and their hometowns, she said.
But a Pendleton lawyer named H.M. Calhoun kept track of the local boys who went off to Europe to fight, so even though the state records were destroyed, Mitchell was able to find out more about Lambert.
“Now, if another county wanted to do it, they can’t because all the records had burned up,” Mitchell said.
Calhoun’s records were also almost lost in the 1970s, she said.
World War II veteran Richard Homan was at a yard sale in Franklin, W.Va., when a box of papers caught his eye, according to Mitchell. The box was full of Calhoun’s records, which contained information on the Pendleton young men who went off to Europe in World War I.
The yard sale owner was preparing to throw it away and told Homan it was junk, Mitchell said.
“If it wouldn’t have been for a World War II veteran, the Pendleton World War I boys would have been lost,” she said.
The final night of Lambert’s life is captured in a report on the division’s Nov. 7 action in a memoir written after the war by 165th Infantry Brigade Chaplain Father Francis Duffy. Lambert’s name only appears listed in the dead for E Company after the fight had ended.
“If [Homan] wouldn’t have taken that interest in World War I records, Orbry would have been lost and if Father Duffy didn’t write his book, Orbry would’ve been lost,” Mitchell said.
In 1924, the newspaper of record for Pendleton County, the Pendleton Times, lost its archives from the war due to a fire, according to Mitchell.
For years, the local historical society said there were no records of the paper left from World War I, but Mitchell and her husband were able to find archives of all Pendleton Times editions from the war, she said, through another newspaper’s archives.
“We kind of beat fate with these things,” Mitchell said.
Despite his family’s desire to have him returned home, Lambert’s body was only ever moved about 40 miles to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery instead of the nearly 3,000 miles back to West Virginia.
“When I was looking at the different people, I realized he was the only boy still in France,” Mitchell said.
Lambert is one of 14,426 Americans buried in the cemetery, the largest resting place of Americans in Europe.
Many of those buried on the ground’s 130.5 acres died in combat or from diseases in the First World War, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Only four days after Lambert’s death, an armistice was brokered between the Entente powers of the United States, France and Britain and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, to stop the deadliest conflict in history to that time. Over 8.5 million soldiers were killed in action or by disease during the conflict, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Mitchell’s research on Lambert didn’t stop. In late summer, she found an obituary of a relative of Lambert, Ervin Lambert of Bridgewater, Va., on ancestry.com.
One evening in August, Trudy Derrow, of Bridgewater, sat down and listened to her voicemails.
“I had this message saying, ‘Hey, I pulled information together and we did a book and it includes William Orbry Lambert,” said Derrow, whose grandfather was one of Lambert’s brothers.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, that was a really nice surprise I guess you’d say,’” Derrow said with a laugh.
“I had the name of that man’s children and started randomly calling people in Virginia and found Trudy in Bridgewater,” Mitchell said. “It’s weird how it all came together.”
Derrow told Mitchell about how much her grandfather Lorenzo regularly thought about Lambert and always wished to be able to bring his body back to America.
“My grandfather said different times that his body wasn’t able to be brought back here, and I don’t know why it wasn’t brought back,” Derrow said.
Mitchell said it was heartening to hear that people did, indeed, remember and care for Lambert.
“If he couldn’t have been brought home to Pendleton County, at least part of Pendleton County could be brought to him,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell gathered dirt from Lambert’s parents and grandparents’ graves in Pendleton and from his brothers Lorenzo and Delmar’s graves in Oaklawn Cemetery in Bridgewater before flying to France in September.
There, on Oct. 10, as she stood in front of Lambert’s grave in the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, she brought home to Lambert.
“I was trying to not be emotional,” she said.
Derrow said what Mitchell did meant a lot to the family.
“It really touched my heart because all these years and nothing had been said about uncle Orbry, and for her to say that, and know that he wasn’t able to be buried at home with family, it was like a part of them was going to be there with him,” Derrow said.
And Mitchell and Derrow have discussed trying to find even more information on Lambert, including photographs, though they have so far been unsuccessful, she said.
“Now, I’m just really happy when I hear things, and the more I hear, the more I want to know,” Derrow said.
“I only wish my grandfather was here — the things you don’t think to ask people what they know when they’re here,” Derrow said. “I think me and my grandfather could have had a very special conversation about Orbry.”
Likewise, Mitchell’s thoughts have been on her grandfather, Ben Mitchell. His service in World War I inspired her interest in finding and telling the local stories from the time, leading to the book and eventually the research on Lambert.
“Before coming home from France, I stopped by the cemetery where my grandad’s grave is and just sat on the top of the hill and cried, because I felt it was a full circle thing,” she said. “It was something I was doing for him, but it ended up also for Orbry and all of the other boys.”