New York State Funeral Directors Association

Editor’s Note: This Clergy Appreciation Day – the Second Sunday in October – takes place during the commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of World War I. In honor of both, here is an article, reprinted with permission, from A Living Memorial, Volume II, Chapter 4, by Colin Baker and Lynn Rainville. From the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Saluting The Work of American Chaplains at the Meuse-Argonne

As long as armies have existed, chaplains have provided for soldiers’ spiritual needs, aided the wounded, improved morale and buried the dead in improvised cemeteries.

Chaplains have served in the U.S. army since the Revolutionary War.

Thrust into the first global industrial war, their role in World War I shifted as rapidly as the U.S. army itself was forced to, when faced with the chaos of trench warfare.

During the war, chaplains often found themselves under fire or dealing with casualties far behind the front lines.

This was due to the nature of an “industrial” war, in particular the range and effectiveness of modern Artillery.

Twenty-three U.S. army chaplains died during World War I.

Several are buried at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery.

Many demonstrated tremendous bravery under fire administering last rites to fallen soldiers, oblivious to the fire around them, or dashing out into the open to rescue the wounded without regard for their own lives.

At the Meuse-Argonne, the Reverend Ben Lacy, Jr. called in artillery fire to stop a German attack and earned the nickname “The Fighting Chaplain.”

This section examines the frontline experiences of several of these courageous men.

The most famous of these during World War I was undoubtedly the Catholic priest Father Francis P. Duffy.

Attached to the 165th New York regiment of the 42nd “Rainbow” division, Father Duffy was instrumental in preparing his unit for battle. New York National Guard Chaplain (Cpt.) Father Francis P. Duffy, the chaplain of New York's famed "Fighting 69th" reads a service as a cross is placed on the grave of Lt. Quentin Roosevelt in August 1918. Duffy's commander, Col. Robert McCoy, had been an aid to President Theodore Roosevelt and knew Quentin.

Colonel Frank R. McCoy wrote about Duffy that “although the Chaplain is that par excellence and beloved of the men, he is one of the most interesting men to me…very learned. And he has helped me to nick into my new regiment most thoroughly” (Harris 2006, 203).

Duffy was often in the front line during engagements.

Corporal Bill Gordon wrote to his father “I suppose you have heard of our chaplain, Rev Father Duffy. Well, he today is our father. If we are in trouble, we look for him…When we are going into battle he will come around to everybody and tell them to say a little prayer and God will take care of us, and when the battle is over he is at the first aid waiting to say a good word to the wounded” (Ibid, 353).

Bronx native Private Tim Nolan noted that “Whenever things were the hottest there was Father Duffy, crawling around from shell hole to shell hole, telling us it was not as bad as it seemed, to stick it out a little longer” (Ibid, 353).

The mass casualties of trench warfare often dictated that chaplains had to bury the dead immediately in the vicinity of the front line, occasionally even under fire.

Private Nolan added that he saw Duffy “burying our dead right out in the open with Jerry (the Germans) looking down at him from machine gun nests a couple of hundred yards away. He was digging away with a pick by himself, just as cool as though planting potatoes in his backyard. How he got away with it, God knows” (Ibid, page 353).

Father Duffy survived the war, returned to the U.S. where his service in World War I was memorialized after his death in 1932 by a statue erected for him in Times Square, New York, in 1937 and a 1940 movie about his regiment, The Fighting 69th.

Amongst the many duties of World War I chaplains was assisting with burying the dead in temporary graves.

At the Meuse-Argonne, Episcopalian Reverend Hal Kearns took charge of one burial detail, writing that “Our men were falling in such numbers that it was no longer possible to send those who had made the great sacrifice back to burial grounds in the rear; they must be buried on the battlefield” (Lengel 2009, 102).

The Reverend Kearns further observed, “Bodies were borne on stretchers and accumulated in convenient, easily designated spots where burial grounds were created, each burial ground being carefully marked on field maps so it could be located later. ..Where possible, religious services were held at such internment but often we worked under such heavy shell fire that there was opportunity to utter only a word of prayer as we lowered the bodies into their temporary resting places.” (Ibid, page 103)

From the military standpoint, identification and burial were matters of both accounting and morale.

Nothing was more depressing to the front line soldier than to see unburied dead around them.

For civilians there was a new human need that diverged from the earlier practice of mass anonymous burials for lower ranks.

Because mass “death at a distance” was so traumatic, the public demanded “rights” to recover and identify the body.

Families required an individual body or grave as a focus of their grief.

Burial detail, often performed by specialized units, notably African American in the U.S. Army, was among the most unpleasant and unpopular tasks of the war.

Burial groups were supplied with rubber gloves, shovels, stakes to mark the location of graves, canvas and ropes to tie up remains amongst other tools and materials.

Men remarked that it was “the most dreadful experience I’ve ever had.” The chaplain assigned to this detail described the post-traumatic effects of such work as causing a trying “of the nerves…and a curious kind of irritability that was quite infectious” (Hodgkinson 1997).

After the war ended the first burial task was to consolidate thousands of isolated graves, next to combine small cemeteries into larger ones, and finally to locate and identify the large numbers of the missing at the Meuse-Argonne.

Only after this, in the 1920s, did the re-interment into large permanent cemeteries such as Meuse-Argonne take place.

By that time the immediacy of burial requirements had taken a back seat to qustions of the design and purpose of the cemetery.

Until then, temporary cemeteries abounded at the Meuse-Argonne.

Army Chaplain (Capt.) Francis Duffy, Regimental Chaplain of the 165th Infantry Regiment, the Army’s famous “Fighting 69th” Irish regiment. Father Duffy would go on to serve as the division chaplain for the Army’s 42nd Infantry “Rainbow Division” in 1918. Photo courtesy of the New York State Military Museum.Father Duffy conducted many burial services at these cemeteries.

Colonel McCoy noticed that during one burial, French villagers had erected a simple fence and planted a hedged with flowers and vines.

Duffy collected children from the local village and they decorated each temporary cross with flowers praising the villagers for their “tribute to our dead which warms our hearts to the people of France.”

He then sent letters to the mothers of the regimental soldiers just buried saying to each:

“It was a source of great satisfaction and gratitude to us to find that the graves we have had to leave behind in our movements have been carefully tended by French soldiers and civilians. Day after day women and children from the villages have spent the twilight hours with soldiers trimming the grassy edges and cultivating flowers until our little cemeteries are more blooming and beautiful than most one finds at home…Our Colonel wishes me to express this information to you with renewed expression of the sympathy which he and all of us feel for you in the sacrifice you have called upon to bear in the cause of our country” (Harris 2006, 204).

The strain of being under fire, aiding the wounded, and conducting burials for men they often knew well was immense for chaplains.

Father James Hanley was wounded by a bullet returning from noman’s land while trying to rescue a wounded soldier.

The tourniquet he administered on his own leg saved his life in the short term but, together with being gassed, ultimately contributed to his death from pneumonia in 1920.

Reverend John B. DeValles served for 18 months with the 26th Division before being found unconscious from the effects of mustard gas at the Meuse-Argonne.

He returned to the U.S. in 1919 but spent the remaining months of his life in and out of hospitals until his death in 1920.

Chaplain Reverend Ben Lacy survived the war while serving with the 30th Division and became famous in his native North Carolina for an incident at the Meuse-Argonne where he called in artillery fire to break up a German attack.

He went on to become a pastor in Atlanta and moderator of the Presbyterian church of the United States after the war.

Lacy’s own diary reveals the true toll of the Meuse-Argonne in the last few pages where he recounts his time after the Armistice attending the sick and dying.

On February 17, 1919, he “went to funeral of some of my men, then visited hospital. Bodies brought to gate of ambulances. One put on caission. Band, chaplain, caission, Guard of honor, French and American, pall bearers, Music to grave. All at salute and present arms while body is being covered and conveyed. Short service, 3 volleys taps. Big flag at half mast.”

Finally, the February 21 entry simply reads, “Some very sick men still in hospital. Am doing little else now except visit sick and bury dead.”

One of the four chaplains buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is Coleman E O’Flaherty.

His life and service in World War I exemplify the dedication of U.S. army chaplains.

Born in 1878 in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, the eldest of eight children, O’Flaherty expressed an interest in the priesthood.

His schooling was financed by the American Roman Catholic church on the condition that he eventually emigrate to the United States to study as a priest.

Arriving at Ellis Island in 1898 on the White Star liner Cymric, he attended Catholic Seminary in New York before being ordained as a priest in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1901 at the age of 23.

Father O’Flaherty worked for 17 years in various pastorates in sparsely populated South Dakota, helping establish at least two schools.

His friend the Reverend B. Weber described him as “zealous, energetic, fearless.”

At age 39, he volunteered as a chaplain and attended Chaplaincy school in Oklahoma before being posted to France as a 1st Lieutenant in the 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division.Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, in France, is the final resting place to more than 14,000 Americans that gave their lives in World War I. Twenty-three chaplains died during World War I, several are buried at Meuse-Argonne.

Reverend Weber says that upon leaving, O’Flaherty shook his hand and with great emotion said, “I don’t think we will meet here again”.

Father O’Flaherty was cited for distinguished conduct during an action of the 1st Division south of Soissons, France in July 1918.

Major H.L. Loughry reported that “he displayed bravery under fire and with utter disregard for personal danger aided the wounded, buried the dead and assisted front-line troops in every possible way during action.”

Lieutenant Birmingham of his regiment added, “he was always up in front where the fighting was going on. As soon as he would see a man fall he would go to him and administer to his needs.”

Near Very at the Meuse-Argonne in October 1918, he was aiding men wounded from shellfire when he himself was hit by a shell and died.

He was initially buried in the temporary cemetery of field hospital number 12 before being re-interred at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery where his grave is today.

Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for this final service, his citation reads “Chaplain O’Flaherty displayed conspicuous gallantry in administering to the wounded under terrific fire, exposing himself at all times to reach their sides, and give them aid. In the performance of this heroic work, he was killed.”

While researching at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, I recorded a brief tribute to him and all the U.S. army chaplains of World War I at his gravesite.

However, his close friend Lieutenant Birmingham does him, and fellow chaplains, better justice with this closing tribute:
“He was to all of us a great and dear friend, never for a moment losing his genial smile, even when things were going very hard with us. Officers and the men in the ranks loved him because of his unselfish interest in our material and spiritual welfare. We always looked upon him as a person far above us, he was so brave and so good to everyone, always accompanying us “over the top” to take care of our wounded and cheering us on. Be you Catholic or not did not make any difference to him. He knew us as his Boys and he was known to us as our Chaplain.”

Lengel, Edward G. To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 The Epic Battle That Ended the First World War. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2009.
Hodgkinson, Peter E. “Clearing the Dead.” Centre for First World War Studies 3, no. 1 (1997): 33-60.
Harris, Stephan L. Duffy's War: Fr. Francis Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan, and the Irish Fighting 69th in World War I. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2006.
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