By First World War Historian Stephen Harris
For all the folks who love history, love to read it, talk about it—just to revel in it—we lost a treasure the other day with the passing of Tom Fleming. Among the areas Tom wrote about in his long, distinguished career were the American Revolution and World War I. His last book on the war was The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. He wrote novels, too, including Over There, a riveting account of the Great War told through the eyes of a jaded general and his relationship with an idealistic, spirited woman who went overseas to do her part from volunteering as a nurse to driving an ambulance on the Western Front.
Tom was an inspiration to me ever since I’d read a piece he’d written for American Heritage years ago about his father in World War I. When I put that article down I decided to write about my great-uncle and his experiences in the war as art editor of the 27th Infantry Division’s famous magazine, Gas Attack. My book developed into Duty, Honor, Privilege: New York’s Silk Stocking Regiment and the Breaking of Hindenburg Line. I owe that book and my ensuing books detailing New York’s National Guard in the war to Tom.
One of my last contacts with Tom dealt with a play, still yet to be staged, that he’d penned about Father Francis Duffy, the chaplain of the Fighting 69th Regiment, entitled Home Again. It tells of the heartbreak Father Duffy suffered from the war, seeing so much bloodshed, tending to the wounded on the battlefield and administering last rights to the men from New York whom he knew and loved, many from his own parish. After he was home again from the Western Front, the Good Father holed up in a hotel room to purge with alcohol the demons from the war that were tormenting his very soul. Into the room paraded a cast of characters from the war that we all know—General Pershing, Wild Bill Donovan, Joyce Kilmer, and others.
The idea for the play, Tom said, came from a friend of his who had known Father Duffy and had told him that, in fact, Duffy, once back in New York, had indeed cut himself off from the world while he dealt with this personal tragedy.
When I had the honor to read Home Again, I wrote to Tom, “Duffy’s anguish... drives the story so forcibly forward—a compelling statement against war, especially the Great War. It was a war, I believe, that should have never been fought, and your play, to me, drives that point so powerfully home.”
I hope so strongly that someday Home Again will be brought to the theater. May Tom rest in peace.
Thomas Fleming has contributed to our publications in the past and has personally encouraged me to pursue my studies and various World War I projects. I'll miss a good friend. A good place to be introduced to his view on the Great War can be found at our interview with him here: