Chaplain Last Officer Killed in WW1

“The last American officer killed in WWI: Chaplain, Holy Cross grad, fell an hour and 15 minutes before the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918*

“WORCESTER – At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Allies and the Germans had agreed, the guns would fall silent and the most devastating war the world had yet known would come to a close.

Chaplain Davitt-WW1“At 9:45 Paris time that morning, Nov. 11, 1918, 1st Lt. William F. Davitt, 32, a Catholic chaplain with the American Expeditionary Force in France, knew the armistice was about to take effect. He was in a mood to celebrate.

“Rev. Davitt climbed a tree at his regimental headquarters near the Argonne Forest in France to hang a flag. The Stars & Stripes newspaper reported: ‘He climbed down, saluted and then gave a loud cheer for the end of the war.’

“That is when an artillery shell came whistling in from a German battery and exploded a few feet away, the paper wrote. The priest was killed instantly.

“Thus the Rev. William Francis Davitt, former captain of the College of the Holy Cross football team and former curate at St. John’s Church in Worcester, whose bravery under fire in saving the lives of 40 of his men had earned him the French Croix de Guerre, became the last American officer to die in the First World War.

“Rev. Davitt was killed an hour and 15 minutes before the armistice that ended the War to End All Wars. The regimental flag he had raised in elation was draped on his casket at his funeral on the first day of peace…

“His memorial in Calvary Cemetery in Holyoke, where he was born, describes how he came to be decorated for bravery on Aug. 6, 1918, during operations along the Vesle River in France:

“ ‘To rescue forty wounded soldiers, he led a party of volunteers through a hail of machine gun bullets. All were rescued without injury to the rescuers.’ For his actions that day he also was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross.

“He was, his epitaph concludes, ‘a lover of humanity./A brave soldier-priest./Beloved by all who knew him.’

“Nearly 100 years later, the story of Rev. Davitt is a faded memory, like a poppy pressed in the pages of a book.

“His great-niece, retired Air Force Col. Robin L. Davitt of Gulfport, Florida, says she is gathering documentation she hopes will result in his being awarded posthumously the Purple Heart.

“Historian Steve O’Brien of Ware, who has written extensively on the experiences of Catholic chaplains in wartime, describes reading accounts of Rev. Davitt’s courage under fire.

“ ‘It’s almost like an action movie at times,’ said Mr. O’Brien, who lectured on Rev. Davitt last month at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut.

“ ‘He had all these citations for bravery. You read the citations: He’s jumping from the trench into a hail of machine gun bullets to drag guys back who were wounded. This is something you see in a movie. It happened in real life.

“ ‘Burying people was very dangerous, because you had to be out there in the open, and the enemy didn’t acknowledge that, so there was still artillery coming over,’ Mr. O’Brien said. ‘He had several citations for burying individuals while shells were coming over.’ He was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in leading burial parties under fire.

“ ‘You don’t see people like this every day,’ Mr. O’Brien said. ‘There are risk takers and there are risk takers – and then there are guys who are beyond beyond.’…

“Rev. Davitt … entered the priesthood after having been captain and standout tackle of the Holy Cross football team. His first assignment as a priest was to St. John’s Church on Temple Street in Worcester, where he said Sunday Mass at 4 a.m. for the typesetters getting off work at the Telegram. He also served as chaplain at a reform school, the Lyman School for Boys in Westboro.

“When the United States entered the war in 1917, Rev. Davitt, then at St. Ann’s in Lenox, volunteered to serve as Knights of Columbus chaplain and was assigned to the 125th Regiment of the 32nd Division, composed mostly of recruits from Michigan and Wisconsin. As a chaplain ‘he went over the top on several occasions with machine-gun outfits,’ according to the 1919 history ‘Holyoke in the Great War” by Charles S. Zack. “He was beloved by his men from the first … He was with them always in the thick of the fight.’

“If Rev. Davitt was the last American officer – and the last American chaplain – to fall in the Great War, he was not the last soldier to die. Indeed, his death was among more than 2,700 others on the last morning of the war, putting a bloody final punctuation on a conflict noted for tragic waste of life.

“Though the terms of the armistice had been signed just after 5 a.m. on Nov. 11, setting the end of hostilities at 11 a.m., fighting continued that morning. In the last few hours, nearly 11,000 casualties were recorded on all sides, more than on D-Day in 1944, according to historian Joseph Persico, author of the 2004 book ’11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour.’

“Nineteen from the 32nd Division alone died that morning. The shell that killed Rev. Davitt was one of the last fired by the German battery on that section of the front. Rev. Davitt’s funeral Mass was conducted by his Holy Cross classmate, the Rev. George Connor, a fellow chaplain with the 32nd Division and close personal friend. They had been teammates on the Holy Cross football team.

“Rev. Davitt was ‘the pride of the family’ and his parents in Willimansett never got over his loss, according to his great-niece, Christina Davitt Dubis of Chatham. ‘I didn’t know my great-uncle but I’d like to have known him,’ Ms. Dubis said. ‘I feel sad that his number (was called) at that moment. He was a priest, so he knew his peace with God.’

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* This article (appearing here with only minor edits) was originally published 4 November 2017 on the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram and Gazette website.

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