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

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Remembering a Veteran: Lt. William F. Davitt, Chaplain, 32nd Division, AEF

Lt. William Davitt

Chaplain William F. Davitt is believed to be the last officer of the AEF, and last member of the 32nd Division to be killed in action during the Great War. He was fatally wounded late in the morning—there are conflicting reports of the exact time—on 11 November 1918. He was nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross for his earlier service.  His life and time in the military are described in this article from the National Catholic Register.

When the war began, Father Davitt volunteered as a K of C chaplain. At the time he was an assistant at St. Ann Church in Lenox, Massachusetts. As a chaplain and commissioned officer, he was assigned to the 125th Regiment, 32nd (Red Arrow) Division in Texas, then sailed to France.

Father Davitt wasn’t shy about joining the men in the thick of fighting. In one instance, when his division was advancing along the Vesle River and he heard that a party of Americans was cut off in a ravine, he assembled and led a group of volunteers through what was described as “a hail of machine gun bullets and rescued those cut off without the loss of a man.”

For that heroic action the French Army awarded him the Croix de Guerre with palm. The citation read, “During the advance from the Ourcq to the Vesle from July 31 to August 6, 1918, he carried out his duties heedless of danger and without interruption under a violent fire. By his comforting words and his fine example of abnegation and bravery he encouraged the men of his regiment who were advancing to the assault."

More honors came for the brave chaplain while he was serving such a long way from where he was born on 8 December 1886 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, then grew up in neighboring Chicopee, where he played football in high school. No doubt his brother James also showed the same courageous spirit as a first lieutenant in the 94th Aero Squadron of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).

It was also a long way from Holy Cross College in Worcester, where he graduated in 1907, and from the seminary he attended in Montreal, Canada, before being assigned to St. Ann’s.

But then came the war and his service as a chaplain in France. In another instance, there the commanding office of the American 5th Corps cited him "for faithful and conscientious performance of duty and for extreme coolness under shell fire in the performance of his duty as Acting Chief Burial Officer, 5th Corps, during the Meuse-Argonne Operations." He was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross. 

Soldiers of the Red Arrow Division, October 1918

The recommendation stated that during one major advance “Chaplain Davitt worked single-handed without ceasing for anything, collecting the dead of his Division (32d) and looking after the burial. He did this under violent fire, to which he apparently paid no attention. While doing this work he stopped to encourage with cheerful words and advice the enlisted men along the line who also were under fire. The results of his work were 125 American soldiers buried, many wounded cared for, and soldiers in the line encouraged." 

Nor were those the last of his citations. Another for bravery on 20 October 1918, during the Argonne offensive read: “To rescue three wounded soldiers, he leaped over the top of the trench, and, under enemy machine-gun fire, dragged them to safety one by one.”

Posthumously, he would be cited “for extreme coolness under shell fire in the performance of his duty as Chief Burial Officer, 5th Corps, during the Meuse-Argonne operations,” and for “gallantry in action near Courmont…under heavy shell fire."

Shortly before the end of the war, Father Davitt was transferred to the 3rd Corps, but on 10 November 1918, he had to return to his regular division. There, the next morning everyone was looking forward with relief to the armistice to take effect at 11 a.m. But then the unthinkable happened. Father Davitt was carrying a large American flag to present to the commanding officer, said one source. The flag was to be raised at the official hour of the armistice. He had “just stepped from the latter's room” and was crossing over a parade route when “a piece of a shell bursting on the roof of a barn nearby struck and killed him.” The shrapnel was from the last shell fired by the enemy in the war.

His friend and fellow classmate Father George Connor, also a chaplain and captain there, celebrated Father Davitt’s funeral. He would go on to tell Father Davitt’s mother his regiment “had learned to love this wonderful, brave, big-hearted boy of a chaplain. The colonel, his officers and men, marched behind their regimental band, bearing his precious remains to the yard of the little village church that nestled almost unharmed amidst the ruins around it.”

In 1921 his remains were brought back from France to Holyoke and reburied with his family. Among memorials dedicated in his honor was a plaque at St. Ann’s Church in 1919 and the William F. Davitt Memorial Bridge in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in 1931, which was rededicated at 11 a.m on 11 November 2013, after being rebuilt. Among the Davitt Family members attending was his great niece, retired Air Force Colonel Robin Davitt. He is also memorialized on Chaplain’s Hill at Arlington National Cemetery. A song, “Father William Francis Davitt World War Martyr,” was composed in his honor by William Kimberley of Palmer in 1934.

Sources: National Catholic Register;  VFW Post 625 (Thanks to Paul Albright for sharing this.)