Driving by, or visiting St. Augustine’s cemetery, have you ever noticed this grave, this statue of a World War I doughboy?
This is one of those little local mysteries I’ve wondered about for years and have only just stumbled across enough information to inspire further research. So sit back, brew yourself a cup of tea, and let’s begin.
I happen to be a World War I history buff – “All Quiet on the Western Front” is seriously one of my favorite books. Plus, I had a great-Uncle who died in 1916 in the Battle of the Somme, so this grave has always intrigued me. All it says on it is “DeBarbiery” and it wasn’t until fairly recently that someone clued me in to the footnote at the base:
“Sergt. George De Barbiery, 1890 – 1918, Co. A, 305th Inf’y, Died in France”
So, who was George DeBarbiery? And why did he rate such an elaborate grave?
Well, he was one of Ossining’s own who heard the call and enlisted. A member of Company A of the 305th Infantry who died in France just six weeks before the Great War ended.
Joseph George De Barbiery was born on July 17, 1890 and, according to the 1915 census, George lived with his parents Lorenzo and Louisa at 21 North Highland Avenue. Both of his parents were born in Italy – his father in 1854 and his mother in 1860, and both came to the United States as teenagers. By 1915, they were naturalized US citizens. George was a “natural born citizen” and, it seems, their only child, still living at home at the age of 25 and working as a roofer. By the time he enlisted, in 1917, he’d changed jobs and was a “master doorhanger” for the Chevrolet Auto Works in Tarrytown.
According to his draft registration card (signed by Danbury Brandreth, for you Ossining historians!) he was of medium height and build with dark brown hair and eyes. He was not bald and his Army serial number was 1,696, 987.
(Have I mentioned how much I love the Internet??)
He enlisted as a private, was promoted to corporal two months later, shipped over to France in April of 1918, and was promoted to sergeant in August of 1918. He died in September from wounds received in action.
It’s often forgotten that WWI was not a popular war in the US. It began on July 28, 1914, a month after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary, was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist. Then all hell broke loose – the Russians mobilized, the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia, the Germans invaded Belgium and Luxembourg and started in on France, which caused Great Britain to get involved, the Ottomans jumped in and — No, wait, don’t doze off, it gets better!
Yet, while Europe was erupting in war of previously unseen scale, the US didn’t get involved until 1917. An attempt to raise a volunteer army was made, but it took the Selective Service Act of 1917, which instituted a draft for all able-bodied men between the ages of 21- 30, to amass enough men to fight.
Anyway, our man George was swept up in that draft, registering on June 5, 1917. I wonder how he felt about it – seems like he had a good job, though he was still living with his parents. His draft card notes that he had served as a “coal passer” in the US Navy for two months at some point, so this wasn’t his first experience with the military. (I just started going down an Internet hole to find more information on this previous service, but have restrained myself as I’d like to post this to the blog some time this year . . .)
On September 10, 1917, he got on a train heading to Camp Upton on Long Island for three months of basic training. (Today that’s the site of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.)
Now, all the rest of the information I’ve found comes from the difficult-to-read-but-fascinating-nonetheless “History of the 305th.” Take a gander here if you have the time.
Irvin Cobb, in the Saturday Evening Post, wrote of these recruits:
“I saw them when they first landed at Camp Upton, furtive, frightened, slow-footed, slack-shouldered, underfed, apprehensive — a huddle of unhappy aliens, speaking in alien tongues, and knowing little of the cause for which they must fight, and possibly caring less. I saw them again three months later, when the snow of the dreadful winter of 1917-1918 was piling high about their wooden barracks down there on wind-swept Long Island. The stoop was beginning to come out of their spines, the shamble out of their gait. They had learned to hold their heads up; had learned to look every man in the eye and tell him to go elsewhere, with a capital H. They knew now that discipline was not punishment, and that the salute was not a mark of servility, but an evidence of mutual self-respect between officer and man. They wore their uniforms with pride. The flag meant something to them and the war meant something to them. Three short, hard months of training had transformed them from a rabble into soldier stuff; from a street mob into the makings of an army; from strangers into Americans. After nine months I have seen them once more in France. For swagger, for snap, for smartness in the drill, for cockiness in the billet, for good-humor on the march, and for dash and spunk and deviltry in the fighting into which just lately they have been sent, our Army can show no better and no more gallant warriors than the lads who mainly make up the rank and file of this particular division.”
Our George was one of those cocky, good-humored men.
(An interesting tangent – Irving Berlin, who was gain later fame as a Broadway composer/lyricist, was a recruit there too, and wrote a revue in 1918 called “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” that featured this song:
Of course, George deBarbiery didn’t get to enjoy the pre-Broadway tryout that took place in Camp Upton in July 1918 because he was already in France at that point.)
George would have trained at Camp Upton from September 1917 – April 1918, when he was shipped over to France. Apparently, that was one of the most brutal winters ever experienced on Long Island: “Many a day was spent indoors on account of the cold, the thermometer at times venturing to twenty below zero. The wind whistled through the chinks of the draughty barracks; the cannon stoves waxed red hot; the thud of rifle butts on the mess hall floor resounded early and late.”
So, the recruits spent much time indoors, singing company songs like these:
I took out ten thousand Insurance,
For bonds I gave fifteen bucks more,
To wifey and mother
I ‘lotted another
Ten dollars, and then furthermore.
I ran up big bills at the Laundromat
And finally payday was there.
I went up for my dough.
But the answer was “NO”
You’ve already drawn more than your share.
In April, the war began in earnest for George and the rest of the 305th:
“An ominous twenty-four-hour leave in which to attend to final business affairs was granted early in April. The advance party of the Division had sailed. On Palm Sunday, it seemed that every woman within a radius of a hundred miles came to see Johnny off; the camp never looked so decorative; tearful wives, mothers and sweethearts were there by the thousands to say “Good-by.” Yet the agony had all to be gone through with again, another week-end. At last, on Sunday morning, the fourteenth, we were told to line up and empty our bedsacks of straw and to pack the barrack bags— more fuss than a bride might have packing her trousseau. Repeated formations; repeated inspections, eliminating this and that. Yet some of the boys carried away enough to stock a country store. Then, in the night, barracks were policed for the last time ere the troops marched silently to the waiting trains — a secret troop movement which all the world could have known about. Not a man was absent from his place, a fact which speaks wonderfully for the spirit and discipline of these New York boys, about to leave home, the most wonderful city and the most wonderful people in the world— about to undertake the most difficult and heartbreaking job of their lives.”
I wonder if Lorenzo and Louisa, George’s parents, made the trip from Ossining to Yaphank to bid their only son goodbye. I know I would have.
Arriving at the docks in Manhattan, George and the rest of the 305th boarded two British troopships bound for Europe – the RMS Cedric and RMS Vauban. An account of that survives in the ever-helpful “History of the 305th”:
“Everybody gotta go below decks! Not to have one last, long, lingering look at the harbor — at Old Girl Liberty, whose shape adorns all our baggage? There was nothing secret about the way we boarded the Cedric and the Vauhan. Despite the fact that when our ferry-boats steamed from Long Island City around the Battery to the piers, the skyscrapers of lower New York waved countless handkerchiefs, and whistles tooted like mad, someone thinks that if we all keep below while the transport steams down the Harbor in broad daylight, no German Secret Service agent will suspect for a moment that American troops are crowded aboard! Oh, well, let’s try to get a thrill out of fooling ourselves even though we fool nobody else. And must even the port-holes be closed up tight? Phew! It’s stuffy enough below decks with ’em open. Just look at what we’ve got to sleep in, row upon row, double tier, scarcely room between those dividing boards for the shoulders to fit in, to say nothing of letting one roll over and be comfortable.
Perhaps it was just as well to preclude the heartaches which a free view of the receding coastline might have produced, to let the men focus at once all their attention upon the inconveniences and novelties of their life aboard ship. There were many of both. Though First Sergeants ate in the main dining-room of the Cedric, the messing accommodations for the men in general were awful — crowded, rushed, confused, smelly and disagreeable, two or three sittings necessary. The fish was particularly discouraging, and fish-day was by no means limited to Friday. Already there was ample proof of the food shortage in England, if the service aboard an English vessel could be accepted as evidence. Many were the arguments and the fist fights precipitated by the insolent little buss-boys and the stewards. Particularly grating were the attempts to sell privileges, extra portions or favors by the crews . . . Nobody was in very good humor those first days, anyhow. The Cedric was greatly overloaded, four thousand troops being jammed in where about eighteen hundred had previously been carried.”
Oh, I could just post the entire account but I will restrain myself. They had excitement but no damage when their convoy was attacked by German U-boats somewhere in the Atlantic. Also, there were a few civilians on the Cedric, the Archbishop of York and the famed explored Sir Ernest Shackleton. How’s that for random and strange facts?
The convoy landed at Dover and the US soldiers were transferred almost immediately across the Channel to Calais. In late April of 1918, the war was looking very grim indeed, and George and his regiment likely had very bad feelings about what was to come:
“Nor were hearts any less sober the next morning when we gathered on the quay for transportation across the Channel. A sentry striding the breakwater looked, oh, so realistic, in his full kit: helmet, gas mask, cartridge belt, rifle and fixed bayonet! He must have come right out of the trenches we had read so much about. Good old Chaplain Browne, too, had straight dope that morning, which he whispered in confidence to some of the officers; that the Germans were breaking through toward the coast; that before night we would be digging somewhere in the support trenches; that the British felt Calais to be doomed, and that we were simply being fed to the slaughter.
Through the rain and the confusion on shore, through a maze of ambulances, all driven by women, the Regiment found its way to Rest Camp No. 6, East, past swarm after swarm of tenacious urchins either selling their sandy chocolate, bitter candies and sugarless cakes, or screaming, “Souvenir Americaine; penny, penn-ee!”
The Regiment, it seems, spent the next couple of months marching around France, being shuffled around until a battle could be found. They finally ended up, it seems, in Lorraine, near the Vosges, where they fell into trenches and participated in a few skirmishes:
“Who will forget the first shell that came over, or the sudden barking of a battery of 75 ‘s seemingly right behind one’s left ear? Who will forget the Cierman aeroplane landing signal which, with indefatigable precision, mounted the sky at periodic intervals during the night? Who will ever forget the first ghostly flares rocketing skyward from numerous points of the German line or the fable of the old, one-legged German on the motorcycle dashing madly from one end of the sector to the other, setting off a bunch of sky-rockets now and then to fool us into thinking there were large bodies of troops opposed to us?”
Our George spent less than five months in France.
While I can’t be sure that the following is exactly how he perished, his regiment was involved in heavy battle on the date listed as his death, September 29, 1918. It seems likely, then, that the account below describes more or less when and where he met his end:
“The moon was rising when the Second Battalion, under command of Captain Eaton, filed out of Le Claon whither it had been withdrawn a few nights before into the woods, past the burning house and popping ammunition dump ignited by shell fire, through La Chalade, with its gaunt spectral church, through Xouveau Cottage, where the last hot meal was due and which was not forthcoming, through the winding bayous and up to the forward lines on the Route Marchand.
Here’s a map of France noting the area in which George was likely killed:
The Second Battalion was to lead the attack followed in close support by the First Battalion and then the Third. On our left was the 306th Infantry, in column of Battalions also. The Division was to attack in line of regiments.All night the men clung to that steep hillside, or herded into the dugouts awaiting the “zero” hour, while from their midst heavy mortars in the hands of the French played havoc with the German wire. Back on the roads, paralleling the front, the artillery was massed hub to hub. Shortly after midnight their pandemonium broke loose; the steady roar of great guns was deafening terrifying. Jerry must have thought a whole ammunition dump was coming at him.
The chill September air was blue with fog and smoke and powder, the dawn just breaking as the silent columns filed up through the steep hillside toward the jumping-off places, ready to go over the top with only raincoats and rations for baggage, armed to the teeth.
This was just what we had all read about long before America got into the war; this was just what the home folks doubtless imagined us to be doing every day. Could anyone who was there ever forget the earnest, picturesque figures with their grim-looking helmets, rifles and bayonets sharply silhouetted against the eastern sky; the anxious consultation of watches: the thrill of the take-off; the labored advance over a No Man’s Land so barren, churned, pitted and snarled as to defy description; the towering billows of rusty, clinging wire; the flaming signal rockets that sprayed the heavens; the choking, blinding smoke and fog and gas that drenched the valley.
Despite the intensity of the shelling, the maze of wire revealed no open avenues and there was difficulty in keeping up with our own rolling barrage as it swept over the ground before us at the rate of a hundred meters in five minutes. Pieces of cloth and flesh staked with the rusty, clinging barbs: a number of men were impaled on stakes cleverly set for that very purpose.
With difficulty, the leading and supporting waves were reformed in line of “gangs” or small combat groups before plunging on into the ravines, there to become lost or separated from their fellows until after climbing to some high point above the sea of fog they might determine again the direction of advance by a consultation of map and compass and a consideration of whatever landmarks rose above the clouds. No concerted resistance was met with until about noon, after three kilometers of wooded terrain had been covered. There, a stubborn machine gun resistance and a heavy shell fire persuaded the Second Battalion, reinforced by companies of the First, to dig in while they spread their panels on the ground to indicate to the Liberty planes overhead the point of farthest advance. At last we were to get some assistance from the air!
Casualties there had been in great numbers from enemy shelling and from lurking snipers; but like North American Indians, we continued to stalk our prey from tree to tree.”
I can only surmise that George deBarbiery met his end somewhere in this battle, perhaps “going over the top” and crossing No Man’s Land to be felled by a sniper’s bullet, or perhaps immolated by a German shell. I just hope he wasn’t one of those unfortunates impaled on a stake.
But this is not quite the end of George’s story – it took three years for his body to be transported back home and buried in St. Augustine’s cemetery. Remember, this was the first time American soldiers had been conscripted to serve in an overseas war, and Americans were not buying General Pershing’s argument that to bury a soldier alongside his comrades where they fell was the greatest glory and honor that the grateful country could bestow upon them. No, as one mother from Brooklyn wrote to the War Department, “My son sacrificed his life to America’s call, and now you must as a duty of yours bring my son back to me.”
Facing this outpouring of feeling, the War Department polled each soldier’s family to find out if they wanted their son’s remains transported home. Over 46,000 did, and it took over two years and $30 million to recover all the dead.
George deBarbiery was but one of them.