World War I -- Life Histories/Section 018/Joseph Reed

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Joseph Reed was a farmer and student from Asheville, North Carolina, who served as an enlisted soldier in the 120th Infantry Regiment during World War I.


Joseph Lucius Reed was born in 1893 to Marcus Lafayette Reed and Bethany Barbara Sales Reed. He was the second of their three children, but he had two older half-sisters from his father’s previous marriage. During his childhood, the family lived in Asheville, NC, where his father was active in state and local politics[1]. In 1914, Reed began studying agriculture at the North Carolina University of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which later became North Carolina State University[2].

After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Reed joined the 120th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Division. This regiment was composed chiefly of enlisted men from North Carolina, along with men from Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana[3]. Beginning in mid-September, Reed was briefly stationed at Camp Jackson, South Carolina. By mid-October, he had transferred to Camp Sevier in Greenville, SC[4]. There, the soldiers of the 120th trained under British and French instructors for several months, primarily in trench warfare[3]. In early May, the regiment was moved to Camp Merritt in Jersey City, New Jersey, in preparation of being shipped overseas[4].

By the end of May, Reed arrived in France in good spirits, despite four days of seasickness on the voyage[4]. The 120th regiment deployed at Calais, where it was assigned to train and fight as reinforcement for the British Expeditionary Force. This was against the wishes of American General John J. Pershing, who was reluctant to relinquish command of his troops[5]. Nevertheless, the 27th and 30th Divisions trained extensively with the British before distinguishing themselves on the front lines on several occasions. On September 30 and August 1, the 30th Division saw its first combat in the allied victory at the embattled Belgian city of Ypres[5]. On September 29, the American troops spearheaded an attack on the Hindenburg Line, successfully piercing the German defenses. Although Reed’s regiment took part in these crucial battles, none of the letters he sent to his family include any mention of combat or troop movements. These omissions were due largely to the widespread censoring of soldier’s mail to prevent sensitive information from falling into enemy hands. Reed returned home as a decorated soldier after the war’s end. The date of his death is unknown.

Social Issues[edit]

Integration with the British Army[edit]

Upon arriving in France, General Pershing intended to form an independent American First Army under his command. However, “Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig… insisted that American doughboys amalgamate into the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to fill the ranks of his depleted army”[5]. The issue was ultimately decided by the U.S. War Department’s inability to ship its troops overseas and to outfit them for combat. The British offered “to transport American troops to Europe” and to “equip, feed, and arm” them in exchange for ten divisions of American reinforcements[5].

While this agreement between the two nations was beneficial to both parties, General Pershing remained unsatisfied. He quickly “reassigned eight of the divisions to his newly organized American First Army. Pershing wanted all ten divisions back, but Haig vehemently protested and was allowed to keep two – the 27th and 30th”[5]. As Major Walker relates in his Official History of the 120th Infantry, ““All ranks were much dissatisfied, at first, over the assignment to the British Army, and for a long time the constant query was ‘When do we go South?’ but in course of time it was changed to ‘We don't want to go South.’ "[3].

One common complaint among American soldiers assigned to the BEF was with the British rations. “Accustomed to American food served in large portions, they were instead issued a small meat ration, tea (instead of coffee), and cheese.”[5]. Reed evidently shared this distaste for British food. On November 26, 1918, after the armistice, he wrote to his mother saying: “We had been until right lately been getting our rations from the British, but are now getting fed by the United States. Instead of the jam and oatmeal we used to get, we get molasses and grits. The bread we get now is fine, a great deal better [than] English bread.”[4]. Despite small cultural differences such as these, the collaboration between British and American troops was a friendly and productive one. For their valor at the Hindenburg Line, the men of the 30th Division won more than half of the total number of awards that the British gave to American soldiers during World War I[6].

Censorship of Soldiers' Mail[edit]

World War I was the first war in which censoring of American soldiers’ correspondence took place on a large scale[7]. “Its main purpose was to avoid mention of operational details that might prove of value to the enemy. Forbidden information included references to locations, numbers of troops, criticism of superiors and even the weather (which might indicate the state of the trenches).”[8]. Although it was a necessary measure, the censorship process was inconvenient for all parties concerned. Enlisted men, such as Joseph Reed, could not communicate freely with their families and friends back home. Officers were required to read through the often high volumes of letters mailed by the soldiers of their units[8].

Objectionable content was often blotted out with ink or physically torn from the page. Any letter containing too much prohibited information was simply confiscated, without any warning to the soldier or the intended recipient[7]. This often caused distress for already worried loved ones expecting to receive letters that never came. This is evident in a July 1918 letter in which Reed told his mother that “I keep on getting letters from you saying that you have not heard from me… I have written as I had a chance ever since I landed here.”[4].

Soldiers sometimes had the option of mailing blue envelopes, which denoted that their contents were harmless. These envelopes bypassed the initial round of censors and therefore reached their destinations quicker[7]. However, censorship remained stringent until after the armistice in late 1918. A November 22 headline from the The Stars and Stripes – “the official newspaper of the American Expeditionary Force” – proclaimed that “letters home now may mention town and give all news”[9]. This was a welcome reprieve for the soldiers and families that had borne the brunt of wartime censorship.


  1. “Miscellaneous Notes: Reed and Woodfin Families.” Asheville and Buncombe County. 3 Apr. 2010. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.
  2. North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. “Catalogue of Students.” Annual Catalogue of the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Raleigh, Issue 3. Edwards and Broughton, 1914. 175. Google Books. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Walker, Major John O, Major William A Graham, and Captain Thomas Fauntleroy. Official History of the 120th Infantry “3rd North Carolina” 30th Division, From August 5, 1917, to April 17, 1919. Canal Sector Ypres-Lys Offensive Somme Offensive. Lynchburg, VA: J. P. Bell Company, 1919. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Reed, Joseph. Letters to Mrs. M. L. Reed. Box 1, Folders 4-5. Call Number 5179 Reed Family of Buncombe County, N.C. Papers. Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. 12 Feb. 2015.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Yockelson, Mitchell. “Borrowed Soldiers: The American 27th and 30th Divisions and the British Army on the Ypres Front, August--September 1918.” On Point: The Journal of Army History 17.4 (2012): 6–14. Ebsco Host. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.
  6. Birdwell, Michael E. “Old Hickory and the Hindenburg Line: The 30th Division in World War I.” The Journal of East Tennessee History 74 (2002): 1–23. Ebsco Host. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Fox, Myron. “Censorship!” American Experience. Public Broadcasting Service, 2000. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Richards, Anthony. “Letter Censorship on the Front Line.” The Telegraph 30 May 2015: n. pag. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.
  9. American Expeditionary Force. “Letters Home Now May Mention Town and Give All News.” The Stars and Stripes 22 Nov. 1918: 1. The Library of Congress: American Memory. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <>.