Posts with the tag: WWI

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic Yank on the Western Front, 1918

Weary but hopeful soldiers gaze skyward from “I Was There!” With the Yanks in France: Sketches made on the Western Front 1917 — 1919 by Pvt. C. Leroy Baldridge A.E.F., 1919, p. 4. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

As part of our ongoing efforts to mark the centenary of the First World War a previous blog post explored the 1917 experiences of Connecticut Catholic Robert Lincoln O’Connell training as a combat engineer in Washington, D.C. This is documented by the collection of digitized letters to his mother and sisters housed in the Archives of The Catholic University of America. Now we turn to his 1918 accounts of the war as O’Connell and his unit, the First Engineer Regiment, part of the famed First Infantry Division and vanguard of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Europe, saw harrowing service on the Western Front in France during the war’s culmination. To complete their military instruction, which began in Washington, O’Connell and the First Engineers were trained by the French in the construction of trenches, dugouts, command posts, heavy weapons sites, observation posts, wire entanglements, and other obstacles. They also learned to destroy enemy fences by cutting wire or using explosives. In addition, they drilled as regular infantry in the use of rifles, hand grenades, and gas masks.

The First Engineers served near Toul, January-April 1918, where they quarried rock, repaired roads, built dugouts, command posts, and wire entanglements while often being shelled and gassed as they worked. American efforts to strengthen the positions in Cantigny, where the engineers served, April-July 1918, helped the French thwart a German offensive. To contain yet another German attack, the First Infantry Division shifted to the Aisne-Marne sector, with the engineers deployed to the Compiegne forest where O’Connell was wounded on July 18. The engineers not only overcame natural obstacles, but fought in the front line and suffered many casualties, O’Connell among them. During his rest and recuperation, he missed the fighting in the St. Mihiel Salient, but after recovering returned to service in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in October and was there when the war ended on November 11, 1918.

A pontoon bridge built by the First Engineers. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

The O’Connell collection includes fourteen of his often breezy letters and eleven postcards sent home from France. In his March 18, 1918 missive to his mother he noted:

I am writing each week now because I have my own paper, in case I haven’t a chance to reach a Y.M.C.A. tent or an S.A. but there are few places that those people haven’t opened buildings. In this village, the two huts face each other, across the street, but the Y.M. draws the crowd and the money because they have a better equipped place. A real band has been around town for the last week and the way they grind out ragtime is a treat…Yesterday was Patrick’s day but only one man had any green and that was a scrap of weed in his buttonhole, that he had brought back from the trenches. He seemed to be the only good Irisher in sight.

In the same letter he muses about his enlistment and service:

This letter will probably reach you about the end of my first year in the Army. If you remember, it was Apr. 10, when I went up to Hartford to see if they would pass me. It has been a short but lively year and I hope I get home before another passes but I’m glad I got in early because the drafted crowd certainly didn’t have places like Washington Barracks to train in or warm weather, either, but they will have the laugh on us when they get over here and find things cleaned up.

Colorful French postcard sent by O’Connell to his mother in July 1918. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

O’Connell was wounded in action on July 18, 1918, as he explained in his July 24 letter to his mother:

There was a little round hole in my leggin, at the sore spot, so I took my rifle and started back for the dressing station, about half a mile away. It was just an emergency station, though, and they told us to keep going, to a larger place in a big cave. There was five in the party, by now, either limping or nursing a bad arm and that cave was almost two miles farther along. I’d have walked twenty, I think, to get some relief from those shells….When you get this, I’ll be back with the company again, but I’ll have had this rest, anyway, just for a little hole less than half an inch deep.

Robert Lincoln O’Connell in his Army uniform, ca. 1917-1918. O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Catholic University.

He apparently downplayed his injury for his mother’s sake because he did not return to active duty until October, demonstrated in several later letters and postcards, such as his postcard of September 27 to his mother where he said:

Ought to be back with the boys in a week or so, Leaving the barracks at this place. A few of the boys are here after the St. Michael drive. No mail since early in July. Guess never will get it all. Have had a fine rest. Seems as if all the original company had been resting. Wish this darned war was over. I want to see what is going on at home.

And, finally, his postcard of October 15 announcing his return to his unit, plus additional commentary:

Got back to the company about a week ago. Received four letters, one from you, and from Mame and Helen. Better than money. Paid last in June. Did you receive the $20 from the YMCA and the piece of German airplane cover? I don’t need any money. I can send it, instead. Hope all are well. Good news in the papers, lately.

The war ended on November 11, 1918, and the First Engineers arrived in Germany’s Rhineland shortly thereafter as part of the army of occupation, but that is another story for a future blog post. O’Connell’s wartime experiences are a well preserved and freely available testament at Catholic University that give voice to the millions of soldiers of all nations whose accounts have not survived.

The Archivist’s Nook: Heroes for More than One Day

Logo, Catholic Heroes of the World War Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

In his 1977 hit single ‘Heroes,’ David Bowie sang “We can be heroes, just for one day…We can be heroes, forever and ever.” He may just as well have been referring to the ‘Catholic Heroes of the World War‘, whose valor was chronicled in the American Catholic press, 1929-1933. This now obscure paean to Catholic veterans and war workers, decorated by their then grateful country, was rediscovered in 2015 by Catholic University archivists working to identify and digitize materials documenting American Catholic efforts for the 2017 centenary of the United States entry into the so-called War to End All Wars. Perhaps via digitization these “heroes, just for one day” can begin again to be recognized as “heroes, forever and ever.”

As a minority, American Catholic population percentages increased mostly through immigration, from one percent during the American Revolution, to seventeen percent in World War I, and twenty-two percent in the twenty-first century. Supporting America’s World War I effort was a watershed for Catholics, long viewed as having questionable patriotism. They responded under the motto “For God and Country” to create the National Catholic War Council (NCWC), forerunner of today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), representing Catholic interests in Congress and addressing the needs of soldiers and war workers. After the war, Catholics were confronted with the Oregon School Bill, supported by the Ku Klux Klan, declaring school age children could only attend public schools. The NCWC mobilized public opposition and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Oregon School Bill in 1925.

Colonel William J. ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (1883-1959). Decorated World War I veteran, he was the only one to win all four of the United States’ highest awards: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Medal, and National Security Medal. He was also head of the World War II era Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Image from Homeofheroes.com.

The 1928 American presidential election witnessed the first Catholic to head a major party ticket with Al Smith of New York as the Democratic Party nominee. He lost to Republican Herbert Hoover and it would not be until 1960 with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that another Catholic would run, and this time win the presidency. Smith and Catholics were subjected to such vitriolic abuse that for Daniel J. Ryan, who headed the NCWC Bureau of Historical Records, it appeared work over the past decade to document American Catholic patriotism via war activities had been for naught. Never faint hearted and with records of over 800,000 Catholic veterans available, Ryan began in December 1928 to write a weekly column on outstanding ‘Catholic Heroes of the World War‘ for the Catholic press.

Ryan chose to profile men, and some women, who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH), the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), and the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM). Included were Colonel William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, later the famed spymaster of World War II; nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald, the first woman to win a DSC and Purple Heart; Daniel Daly of both the Knights of Columbus and U. S. Marines; Michigan chaplain Patrick R. Dunigan; El Paso native Marcus Armijo; and Italian immigrant Michael Vigliotti. Ryan kept a record of the stories with clippings in a scrapbook organized alphabetically by surname. The scrapbook itself was unremarkable, hard cover with yellow onionskin paper. The cover was acidic and falling apart, and many of the pages torn or disintegrating. The clippings were digitized and photocopied onto acid free paper, with the originals and copies individually housed in acid free folders.  

The feature was well received by former servicemen, their families, and others, who noted the accuracy of the articles. It continued until 1933, ending perhaps not coincidentally, in the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt, relatively friendly to Catholics, assumed the Office of the President, though it should be noted the NCWC decided to close the Bureau of Historical Records in 1934 citing lack of funds. Ryan had explained the series hoped to deal with Catholic heroes from every state and diocese, and by 1931 there were 141 stories covering the then 48 states and all but 7 Catholic dioceses. By the time the column ended in 1933 there were about 250 stories in all.¹ For more on American Catholics in World War I see the Catholic University online exhibit.

Beatrice Mary MacDonald (1881-1969). Canadian born, New York resident, U.S. Army nurse seriously injured, losing an eye while caring for wounded soldiers. First woman to win the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and the Purple Heart. Also awarded the British Military Medal and French Croix de Guerre. Image from Purpleheart.com.

On occasion a ‘Heroes’ column was also published in the NCWC Bulletin magazine, as with the June 1929 story of Slovak immigrant, Matej Kocak, who won two Medals of Honor before making the ultimate sacrifice for his new country. USCCB records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

¹NCWC Bureau of Historical Records, Annual Reports, 1929-1933.

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic University Declares War

CUA students in uniform on steps of McMahon Hall, 1917. Lawrence Wright Photograph Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The decisive entry of the United States of America into the calamitous First World War on April 6, 1917 joining Britain and France against Imperial Germany was a momentous event in the history of the American Catholic Church. Making up about seventeen percent of the American population, Catholic support of the war effort was a watershed event to prove their patriotism.  While many German and Irish Americans were not keen to assist the British, most Catholics believed it was a just war against an enemy whose submarines indiscriminately killed civilian passengers and oppressed the largely Catholic population of occupied Belgium. The fledgling Catholic University of America (CUA), established in 1887, was one of the first American Catholic institutions to declare itself when its rector, Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, wrote to President Woodrow Wilson on March 28, before the declaration of war, offering “such services as the Government of the United States may desire.” The President replied two days later expressing thanks “for your pledge of cooperation and support.”¹ Though partially addressed in a previous blog post, we now take a more in depth look at CUA’s wartime activities.

SATC at CUA Application, 1918, SATC Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

After the declaration of war, lay students military drilling on campus, forming three companies led by university instructors with prior military experience. A new gymnasium, ‘The Drill Hall,’ served both recreational and military needs. Many students also joined both reserve and active duty units. Soon, the U.S. War Department (a precursor to the Defense Department) inaugurated the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), an incarnation of today’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). The SATC used over 100 college campuses as training facilities for new military personnel, including nearly 400 inducted from CUA, while the University’s Rev. Dr. Peter Guilday served as one of the SATC Regional Vice-Directors. CUA contributed to the state in other ways, such as vigorously promoting Liberty Loan subscriptions to help fund the war effort and permitting the United States Navy to use Albert and Gibbons Halls as a paymaster training school, graduating nearly 600. More ominously, the United States Army used the Maloney Hall laboratory for important chemical research, developing Lewisite Gas, which thankfully went into production too late for use in the war.

Certificate of Appreciation from the U.S. War Department to The Catholic University of America (CUA), 1921. SATC Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

CUA also provided valuable service to the church as the venue for the founding of the National Catholic War Council, forerunner to today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Under the motto of ‘For God and Country’ and ably headed by CUA alumnus and Paulist priest, John Burke, a New York City native and Catholic newspaper editor, the NCWC represented Catholic interests ranging from charity to war before federal and state governments as well as secular and other religious organizations. By war’s end, some 800 CUA alumni and students had served in the military, with fifteen making the ultimate sacrifice, including Edward L. Killion, editor of the Cardinal Yearbook’s first issue in 1916. Additionally, more than 50 priest alumni had served as chaplains, probably the most famous being Francis P. Duffy of the famous ‘Fighting Sixty-ninth.’ The University’s postwar efforts included a rehabilitation school for wounded soldiers, administration of the Knights of Columbus Scholarships for ex-service men, and a 1922 campus memorial to honor CUA’s fallen

Image showing the list war dead from CUA’s campus memorial taken from a 1920s CUA View Book, University Photograph Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

For more on CUA’s collections relating to the war please see the ‘Chronicling the U.S. Catholic Experience in the First World War’ web site.


¹Correspondence Files, CUA Rector-President Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

²C. Joseph Nuesse. The Catholic University of America: A Centennial History. Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 1990, pp. 176-177.