An Only Son Killed in World War I
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published 5/31/17 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL)
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of our nation’s entry into World War I, a conflict that began in 1914. The involvement of thirty-two nations as combatants and the utilization of airplanes, tanks, long-range artillery, poison gas and machine guns engendered a level of carnage unimaginable in previous wars. When the conflict ended in 1918, 10 million military personnel and seven million civilians had been killed.
Most area residents are familiar with the “doughboy” statue that stands outside VFW Post 1308. Erected to honor area men who served in the war, it includes a plaque that lists the names of 27 who lost their lives. One young man, whose name is included on this plaque, is also honored by an individual commemoration displayed in his family’s church. In the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alton is a wall-mounted memorial that reads, in part: “In loving memory of 1st Lieut. Elden Sprague Betts, my only son, killed in action in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, Oct. 9, 1918.”
Launched on Sept. 26, 1918, the objective of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was to deprive the German army of the Sedan-Mezières Railroad, which served as its main supply route. The offensive was the bloodiest engagement in World War I for the American Expeditionary Force: 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded.
Betts arrived in Europe on Sept. 11, 1917, just six months after the United States entered the war. He first experienced combat in January of 1918. The circumstances of Betts’ death were described in a letter dated Oct. 20, 1918 from Lt. Thomas Gibson to his mother, which is now posted on the web site of Illinois Genealogy. “About two weeks ago we went into the line again, relieving another division.” A short time later, Gibson wrote, these young men went “over the top,” which meant they charged from their trenches and began to advance toward the enemy. “We made great progress, and captured a famous hill where the French had lost so many men a couple of years back.” The Americans were then ordered “to take the hill around where the Boche (a derogatory term for Germans) were entrenched strongly.”
When the Americans launched an artillery barrage, Gibson wrote, “Fritz (the Germans) started one too, right on the woods with everything he had.” The Americans triumphed, however, “and the next morning went forward three miles without having anything more than a few shells hurled at us.” Elden Betts, however, “got his at the foot of the hill. Too bad. He was a fine fellow, and my best friend in France.” Betts was 25 at the time he was killed. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive played a vital role in the Allied victory. All hostilities ceased at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 — just 34 days after Betts’ death.
Betts’ sister sought information regarding her brother’s death and received a letter from General Frank Parker. Betts was killed, the letter stated, “just north of Hill 240, while commanding the machine gun company of the 16th Infantry, in the desperate fighting that took place that day.” Parker had earlier recommended Betts for promotion to captain and praised the fallen warrior as “a splendid type of our American manhood.”
Lt. Betts was buried in France. The April 12, 1919 edition of the Alton Evening Telegraph reported that Mrs. John Berg “planted a tree, adorned with an American flag, in front of her premises, 723 Alby street, in honor of Elden Sprague Betts, who was born in the house.” The memorial to Betts in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s was dedicated on the third anniversary of his death.
Betts and 116,515 other Americans lost their lives in a war that President Woodrow Wilson vowed would make the world “safe for democracy.” The hollowness of Wilson’s promise was underscored by the aggression of fascist Italy, imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, which culminated in another world conflict in 1939. When the United States entered the war in 1941, a new generation of Americans rose to answer their nation’s call to arms. Betts’ war had been called the Great War, the World War and the War To End All Wars. Just two decades after his death, it became World War I.
John J. Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers. He owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton.