Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Duffy's War
Reviewed by David F. Beer

Duffy's War: Fr. Francis Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan,
and the Irish Fighting 69th in World War 1

By Stephen L. Harris
Published by Potomac Books, Inc., 2006

If you want to get a real feeling for what is so often called the American Experience in World War One you could do little better than read the classic trilogy by Stephen L. Harris, of which Duffy's War is the final volume. Harris's earlier books deal with the New York Silk Stocking Regiment and the 369th Infantry of black soldiers known as the Harlem's Hell Fighters. Duffy's War focuses on the New York National Guard's "Fighting 69th," which became the Army's 165th Infantry. The regiment was part of the 42nd Rainbow Division although not an element of the brigade commanded by Douglas MacArthur.

As its title implies, much of the book circles around the legendary Catholic priest, Father Francis Duffy, but "Wild Bill" Donovan (later to found the SOS), General Frank McCoy, the poet Joyce Kilmer ("Trees" and "Rouge Bouquet") who was killed, and others all play their part in the narrative. However, the main character, the one who permeates the book and brings home to us the unvarnished foot-slogging monotony of the war plus its dreadful combat horrors, is the band of New York Irish-Americans who make up the Fighting 69th. [Note: The New York 69th Regiment was redesignated the 165th Infantry Regiment for its time with the AEF.]

There's no doubt the regiment Father Duffy became attached to was an Irish-American outfit. A veritable waterfall of Celtic names shower us as we follow the activities of the 69th—Conley, Connors, Donovan, Doughney, Finnerty, Flanagan and so on to O'Brien, O'Connell, O'Rourke, plus Reilley, Ryan, Shannon, Sheahan, Tierney, and many others. These sons of Irish immigrants--or immigrants themselves--form their own culture and national pride, love Ireland almost as much as their adopted land, and uniformly despise England. Many Americans questioned whether they would even fight in a war that put them on the same side as the British, and prior to the U.S. declaration of war a strong anti-war movement composed of Irish-American politicians and others existed in the United States. Yet these Irish-Americans answered the call in large numbers and became patriotic and effective soldiers.

Before the regiment made its way to the front lines, where it spent some 170 days and suffered hundreds killed and thousands wounded, it first had to endure the rigors of days on the march through the Vosges Mountains. Although not particularly mountainous, the range is rugged enough and the 165th negotiated it in the dead of winter, covering fifteen to twenty miles each day. We learn how ill-equipped the troops were for such weather and terrain. Much emphasis is placed on the hobnailed shoes the troops had been issued that split so badly that men hiked with frozen feet in the snow. During the four-day march five men died of exhaustion and mules dropped dead on the trails. Kitchens were stuck far behind in mud and snow and the men went hungry. Many were too tired by nightfall to want to eat anyway. Some begged for morsels from French villagers who watched a "ragged, shivering, and starving army" plod by. Even when they reached their destination, supplies lagged far behind. The medical officer found that many men had been unable to change their clothes, including underwear, for two months. Platoon commanders ordered their men to change their socks daily due to the danger of trench foot.

Father Duffy's Statue
Times Square, NY
The troops soon saw intense action at the front, taking part in five major engagements involving, as one soldier described it, many days of "savage attacks and counter-attacks." These are described by the author with unflinching impact, and although the book is 379 pages of solid history based on numerous sources, Duffy's War reads like an exciting historical novel as it moves along with countless details and insights and vividly brings major actions and characters to the forefront.

One such person, the poet Joyce Kilmer, recorded much of this action, and his observations were published as a memoir after his death. He was also moved to poetry by his experiences and wrote one of his best poems as a result of what happened-- "In a Wood They Call the Rouge Bouquet." When Kilmer was killed in action on 29 July 1918, many comrades were greatly affected by his death, and they buried him with great respect where he had died, "between a grove of trees that ran along the bank [of the Ourcq River] and the wheat field.…We sure hated to see him get killed." (p. 292)

Meanwhile, never far from the action, the figure of Father Duffy looms in the background and often in the foreground. He is "among his boys in the muck." He is a comfort to the troops, realistic and godly but never pious or righteous. One private felt Duffy's courage inspired the troops in action because "Wherever things were the hottest there was Father Duffy, crawling around from shell hole to shell hole." The same private at one point saw Duffy "with red eyes burying our dead right out in the open….He was digging away with a pick by himself, just as cool as though planting potatoes in his backyard." (p. 353) Father Duffy, we learn, is not above getting involved in military shenanigans either and actively plots and schemes to get the leader he wants--Wild Bill Donovan, in command of the 165th Infantry once the war is over.

Much of this book is based on the diary Father Duffy kept during the war and then published as Father Duffy's Story (New York, 1919). The book was republished in 2007 as Father Duffy's Story: A Tale of Humor and Heroism, of Life and Death with the Fighting Sixty-Ninth, and is still in print. Duffy Square, in the northern triangle of Times Square in Manhattan, is the home of the good Father's imposing statue. The classic 1940 movie The Fighting 69th, starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien (as Duffy), still brings this brave band of Irish-Americans back to life for us, just as Stephen Harris's excellent book most undoubtedly does.

David F. Beer


  1. WFA-WW1HA members will recall that Harris spoke at our Plattsburgh seminar in 2006.

  2. My research proves that the US commanders distributed handbills to members of the Fighting 69th that the Krauts were cooking their sauerkraut with Bushmill's Black. That is why the Fighting 69th was so eager to get to the Germans.

  3. Just as these Irish-Americans did, many Irish came forth to fight for the Crown as well. There were over sixty battalions raised in Ireland for the Irish regiments, plus the Irish Guards, London Irish, Liverpool Irish, Tyneside Irish and even Canadian Irish battalions, plus many more who joined up independently.