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

Monday, June 12, 2017

Knights of Columbus Service in the Great War, Part II

A  "Casey" at the Front

By  Joseph Pronechen


To run the huts, Knights of Columbus workers, known as secretaries, began arriving in France from the United States in March 1918. These men did not qualify for military service but still wanted to help as much as they could. Their uniforms were like the U.S. Army’s but with “KC” on their shoulder badge and buttons. Naturally, secretaries quickly got the nickname “Casey.”

One such Casey was Frank Large, later grand knight of Palos Council 35 in Bristol, CT. His poor vision prevented him from enlisting, but he served as a secretary and chaplain’s assistant at southern U.S. camps. His uniform and several items from his work are displayed in the museum exhibit.

The Caseys dispensed items such as candy, gum, cigarettes, playing cards, sewing kits, razors, postcards, and rosaries. The KC secretaries sometimes even went to the front lines and trenches to hand out items to soldiers. They also operated large mobile food trucks known as rolling kitchens — a Knights invention — to bring the men hot coffee, cocoa, and other warm food.

The secretaries even provided tremendous quantities of sports gear and equipment, including baseball bats and gloves emblazoned with the order’s emblem. During their first month overseas, 14,772 baseballs, 2,286 sets of boxing gloves, and 1,687 footballs were doled out. Doughboys played 5,000 games of baseball every day wearing uniforms also supplied by the Knights.

No doubt some got pointers from Hall of Fame infielder Johnny Evers, who played on the Boston Braves 1914 World Series winning team and was the league’s MVP. A member of Troy (NY) Council 176, Evers joined the Caseys and served overseas from July to December 1918.

Caseys also helped the wounded in the field and hospitals, writing letters for men unable to do so themselves. One KC secretary, Frank Larkin, a past grand knight of Mystical Rose Council 268 in New York, NY, remembered a badly wounded young soldier at a hospital in Neuilly, France, calling out to him: “Have you a minute to spare, Casey?” The young man first wanted to write a letter but then said, “Casey, get a priest.” He had a smile on his face as a chaplain gave him the last rites.

Since more than a third of the soldiers were Catholic, chaplains were there to serve the men—and serve with them. Among the first five K of C chaplains to arrive in France, for example, was 1st Lt. Chaplain John B. DeValles. Known as the Angel of the Trenches, Father DeValles never recovered from exposure to mustard gas while ministering on the front lines. He died shortly after the war, in 1920. His tunic, helmet, Distinguished Service Cross, Portuguese Military Order of Christ, and French Croix de Guerre medals are on display in the K of C Museum exhibit.

The exhibit includes numerous other World War I artifacts as well, including a 13th-century altar stone from Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, which was bombed during the war; uniforms, helmets and hats from service members; a rosary and pocket shrine; the Catholic Prayer Book for the Army and Navy; and an autographed manuscript of “The Peacemaker” by famous poet and journalist Joyce Kilmer, a Knight from New York who died in the war.

The exhibit even includes a gallery simulating a trench and trench warfare, complete with lighting and special sound effects. 

Men of the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division Visiting a Mobile Kitchen at Juvigny, France


By the end of the war in November 1918, more than 116,000 American men and some 60,000 Canadians had died in the conflict. Among them were 1,500 members of the Knights of Columbus from the United States and approximately 120 Knights from Canada. Both the first and the last U.S. officers to die in the war were Knights.

“The first name on the casualty list of the American army in France is that of Dr. William T. Fitzsimmons of Kansas City, killed in a German air raid on our hospitals,” wrote former President Theodore Roosevelt in the fallen doctor’s hometown paper. “To the mother he leaves, the personal grief must in some degree be relieved by the pride in the fine and gallant life which has been crowned by the great sacrifice. We, his fellow countrymen, share this pride and sympathize with this sorrow.”

Lt. Fitzsimmons was a member of Kansas City Council 527. In 1914, before the United States entered the war, he had served as a volunteer with the Red Cross in France for four months, returned home, and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Medical Officers Reserve Corps. When the AEF was formed, he immediately volunteered and was with the first five physicians heading overseas in June 1917.

Fitzsimmons was waiting to help the wounded at Base Hospital 5 in Pas-de-Calais, France, on the afternoon of 4 September, when he was killed by a bomb from a German plane. His memory wasn’t forgotten, nor was that of 1st Lt. Chaplain William F. Davitt, the last U.S. officer and chaplain to be killed in the war. A member of Holyoke (MA) Council 90, Father Davitt volunteered as a K of C chaplain and served with the 125th Infantry. He was killed by one of the last shells fired in the war, just over an hour before the ceasefire at 11 a.m. on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918.

The priest had already been awarded the Croix de Guerre and Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for organizing and leading the rescue of 40 wounded soldiers cut off from the troops. One soldier wrote that Father Davitt’s “DSC” should stand for “Died in the Service of Christ!” 

A "Casey" Assists a Wounded Doughboy in the Argonne Forest

Even though the war ended on 11 November 1918, a number of the recreation centers remained in full swing. Serving troops at a hut in Koblenz, Germany, Knights gave a new meaning to the nickname “Doughboys,” producing more than 40,000 doughnuts a day in their large kitchen.

Overall, about 1,100 men and women served overseas to run nearly 150 K of C huts. Even more worked in a comparable number of huts stateside.

The war relief effort during World War I made such an impression that between 1917 and 1923, approximately 400,000 men joined the Knights, doubling the prewar membership. Through its war relief efforts, both on the battlefield and behind the lines, the Knights of Columbus earned international esteem and recognition. And it was through this work that the Knights brought the message of charity, care, and Christ to countless servicemen.

This article appeared in the May 2017 issue of Columbia magazine and is reprinted with permission of the Knights of Columbus, New Haven, CT. Thanks to Richard VandenBrul for making this possible.

1 comment:

  1. World war 1 and 2 both were the toughest times millions of families faced around the world, with loved ones lost, and some missing...those were rough times...even the thought gives me shivers