(Originally Posted on July 26, 2018) “On August 9, the newspaper carried on its front page the news of the battlefield death of eighteen year old Private John Henry. He had been killed on July 19 and his parents had received the telegram informing them of their son’s death on August 8 – nearly three weeks later. John Henry was a friend of Eben Jr.’s, one year younger but captain of the football team that Eben had joined during his second senior year. He was also a Camp Burley boy and had grown up on Lime Street, just one block from the Federal Street house where Eben had lived most of his life. the article closed “Private Henry was the first Newburyport boy fighting with the United States troops to be killed in action in France.”
-A Newburyport Marine in World War I, page 127
I found this article soon after I met Eben, and its last line has always been a gut-punch for me. I imagine Eben’s parents reading this article, mourning for John Henry and his family, and in the swirl of magical thinking that surrounds all of us who so dearly love our children, taking some kind of comfort in the words on the page. The first Newburyport boy killed was not theirs, even though he had been silent since March, even though they knew, by then, of the thousands of marines killed in the Battle of Belleau Wood. On June 14, just two days after Eben was killed, a letter from him to his sister arrived. His father’s joy was desperate and palpable, the letter a great comfort even though it had been written months before (it does not survive, only Eben Sr.’s reaction is noted in a subsequent letter).
Less than two weeks later, another twist…
Despite the telegram, despite the high mass for the repose of his soul, despite it all, he was alive. John W. Henry of Lime Street came home in 1919. At the time of the erroneous report of John Henry’s death, Eben had been dead for over a month. When he was reported alive, Eben had been dead for two months. This is the gruesome mathematics of war. This is what runs through my head every day. They are still waiting at the pharmacy on State and Pleasant. They are waiting at 67 Bromfield. They have months to wait before they know the truth.
Last week, the family of Cornelius J. Doyle, along with public figures and dignitaries, gathered at his memorial stone near Atkinson Common, at the other end of Newburyport. Eben and Cornelius are forever linked, not only by their birthplace, but by their deaths (Doyle was killed in Chateau-Thierry, minutes from Belleau Wood), and by their memorials. Their stones were dedicated the same day, July 4, 1921, and the local VFW post is was named Bradbury-Doyle. Eben was slightly older, Cornelius definitely taller. They were both Newburyport natives, and they both left their families bereft. Since the exact circumstances surrounding Eben’s death are still somewhat mysterious, it is impossible to say who suffered more – my money is on Doyle, who lingered for three days, grievously wounded, before he died.
The publicity that surrounded this event identified Cornelius Doyle as the” first Newburyporter to die in France during the first world war”.
I was surprised at my own reaction to reading this. Cornelius Doyle died on July 20, 1918, of wounds received in Chateau-Thierry days earlier. By any calculation, he is NOT the first Newburyporter to die in France. Eben had been dead for over a month. I felt defensive of the poor forgotten lad – deprived of even this distinction. Almost immediately, the phone calls and emails began arriving from friends and family who questioned why Cornelius Doyle was being given this distinction. It sent me back to the record. Here’s the thing – Eben wasn’t the first either. Sure, he was the first young man born and raised in Newburyport to be killed while serving with American armed forces in France. Perhaps this is a worthwhile distinction, but let me tell you about a couple of other fellows…
This is Edward Hale Perry, who died on March 30, 1918, in battle, serving in American forces, in France. He was born in Boston, and his family purchased this grand house at 47 High Road in 1898, when he was 11.
He wasn’t born in Newburyport, but who am I to say whether he was a “Newburyporter”? It gets tricky, you see.
This sweet face belongs to Raymond Tenney Balch, born and raised in Newburyport. He died on May 25, 1918, in England, in a plane accident while serving with the Canadian Air Force. Was he a “Newburyporter”?
This is Frank Woodbury Brown, with arguably the best hair of them all. He died in battle, in France, on the first day of the Battle of Belleau Wood, June 6. He had enlisted in the marines in 1915, two full years before the outbreak of war and Eben’s enlistment. He was born in Salisbury, but seems to have lived in Newburyport with his grandmother and aunt after the death of his parents. He was living in Newburyport when he enlisted, though he gave a Boston address, and he had “intended to make (Newburyport) his home permanently”, had he lived. Was he a “Newburyporter”?
Perhaps you see where I’m headed with this. These young men all died before Eben, who died before Cornelius J. Doyle. At the end of the day, it matters not one whit whether they were the first casualty of the war or the last, but it may have mattered to Eben’s family that he was the first, by a strict set of criteria, and like it or not, I am now their advocate.
So if you felt a twinge of outrage when you heard Cornelius Doyle described as the “first Newburyporter”, first, thank you. It means you know Eben’s story and you are also an advocate for his memory. Second, move swiftly past it. It has no bearing on the nature or meaning of his death, or that of Cornelius or Frank or Ray or Teddy. We’re all in this together, and no superlative, however grim, captures the tragedy of the loss of any of them.
I leave you with this.
Frank Brown, an orphan, served in the marines two years longer than Eben, died six days before, and his body, which spent at least one of its burials near Eben’s in battlefield cemetery no. 1764, was shipped back to Salisbury in 1922. He spent a decade in an unmarked grave, until one was finally requested by a Newburyport relative in 1931.
There’s plenty of sorrow to go around. I’ll be visiting Frank and Cornelius this weekend, and adding them to the phalanx of young men who sit silently in my heart.