By Jim Ignasher
First published in Your Smithfield Magazine, May, 2012.
On May 7, 1915, the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania, was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland with the loss of 1,198 lives, some of whom were Americans. Metaphorically speaking, the ripples from that sinking traveled a vast distance to reach America’s shores, and ultimately the Town of Smithfield, for the incident contributed to our nation’s involvement in World War I, said to be, “the war to end all wars.”
There are few in Smithfield today who would recognize the name of Private Alexander M. Balfour of Esmond, United States Army. If his name seems familiar, it’s because it appears on the American Legion Post located at 170 Pleasant View Avenue, as well as the World War I veteran’s memorial in Esmond. Private Balfour was but one of the many young men from Smithfield to answer his country’s call to arms, but his story begins across the Atlantic, not far, relatively speaking, from where the Lusitania went down.
Alexander was born in Bonhill, Scotland, on April 2, 1897, to David and Mary Balfour. Bonhill is a small village along the banks of the River Leven, near the larger town of Alexandria. Information about his early years has been lost to history, but at some point the family immigrated to America and settled in the Esmond section of Smithfield.
The United States entered the war in April of 1917. On October 6th of that year, Balfour enlisted in the army, and after basic training was sent overseas and assigned to a machine gun company attached to the 26th Infantry Division. Since most of the division’s soldiers consisted of men new to the military, the 26th was sent to Neufchateau, France, for further training with experienced French troops before being assigned to a quiet section of the front line trenches.
World War I was primarily a “trench war”, where each side dug miles of long zig-zagging trenches across the country side. The land between the trenches was called “no man’s land”, and from time to time one side or the other would leave their trenches in an attempt to conquer a few measly acres of “no man’s land” and drive the enemy from their trenches. If they were successful, the enemy would mount a counter attack and try to re-take the worthless real estate. This back and forth struggle for temporary land occupation led to millionsof casualties.
Life in the trenches was horrible even during lulls in the fighting. Sniper fire was an ever present danger. Soldiers sometimes stood for days in knee-deep putrid water and slept in mud. This often led to an ailment known as “trench foot”, a rotting of the feet which disabled more troops than enemy action. There are even tales where commanders threatened to court martial any man who contracted it!
Even relatively dry trenches were fraught with insects of all types, and after a few days every man found his uniform caked with mud and infested with lice. Rats, frogs, snails, and even snakes were constant companions that slithered and crawled among the soldiers of both sides. As one might expect, disease and sickness were rampant.
In spite of these miseries there were more horrible ways to die. Artillery bombardments that usually preceded an infantry attack could blast men to atoms in an instant, or lift huge amounts of earth that would then rain down and bury helpless men alive. If the enemy made it across “no man’s land” the fighting in the trenches would be hand-to-hand. If the attack was repulsed, soldiers would share their misery with the rotting corpses while waiting for the next wave to come.
In early April of 1918, the 26th Division was moved to a position near St. Mihiel. On April 20th, a German offensive began with a thirty-six hour artillery barrage giving the division its first taste of battle.
On July 18, 1918, the 26th Division took part in a major offensive operation to retake lost territory which was later to become known as the Battle of Soissons. Soissons is an ancient city located about sixty-two miles north of Paris. During the battle, both sides fired what seemed like an infinite amount of artillery shells at each other, blasting both bodies and positions to smithereens, and then pulverizing the same ground again and again with even more shells.
As part of the offensive, men of the 26th were ordered out of their trenches and told to advance into the hellfire. The battle dragged on until July 22, and when it was over the allies declared victory, but at a tremendous cost.
The allies had suffered 125,000 casualties, 12,000 of which were American. The Germans suffered168,000. Furthermore, the real estate that the Germans had fought so hard to keep, and the allies so hard to take, looked like a barren moonscape.
The final accounting of all American casualties from the Battle of Soissons took weeks, during which time the war ended on November 11th, 1918. For this reason it wasn’t until December 17, 1918, that the Balfour family in Smithfield received the dreaded Western Union telegram informing them that Private Balfour was reported “missing in action” as of July 18th. The telegram was short and to the point, ending with, “further information when received.”
The word “missing” in such a context can be both cruel, and comforting, for despite the uncertainty it implies, it also offers hope. Was Alexander dead, or was he taken prisoner, or perhaps lying sick or wounded in a hospital? In an era long before computers, and with great confusion and upheaval due to the war’s end, such questions could take months to answer. But the Balfour’s weren’t ones to sit back and wait for the army to get around to giving them further news, especially when thousands of other families were trying to learn the fate of their loved ones too.
Lillian M. Balfour, Alexander’s sister, worked in Washington, D.C., and began making inquiries as early as January of 1919. She quickly learned that her brother’s status had been changed to “killed in action”, reportedly from an artillery blast witnessed by the company sergeant. Although devastated by the news, the family made further inquiries as to the whereabouts of Alexander’s grave so the remains might be repatriated back to America, but this proved to be the beginning of a long process that would go on for years.
Written correspondence dating from 1919 to 1932 between the Balfour family and the Graves Registration Section of the U.S. Army have survived, copies of which are currently in the historical archives to the Balfour-Cole American Legion Post courtesy of the Balfour family. The documents reveal that the army didn’t have any burial records pertaining to a Private Balfour. The explanation likely lay in the way Private Balfour was reportedly killed. According to sources, shrapnel from the shell burst hit Balfour in the head causing massive damage and instant death. Such an injury likely dislodged his dog tags making identification impossible. Therefore, it was speculated that Private Balfour had been buried as an “unknown”.
The army investigated this possibility, and to its credit, exhumed several “unknown” bodies over the next few years in an attempt to solve the mystery. DNA testing didn’t exist in the early 1900s, so the only thing army doctors had to assist them in making a positive identification was some incomplete dental records, and a general description of Balfour’s physical characteristics.
Despite all that was done, Private Balfour’s remains were never identified, and to this day his final resting place is known but to God. The army officially closed its investigation in October of 1930, pending any new information.
Although he was never found, Alexander Balfour was not forgotten. In 1919, the American Legion was established by Congress as a veteran service organization, and within a short time grew to include one million members. American Legion posts were subsequently organized in communities all across America, including the Balfour-Cole Post #64 in Smithfield.
Private Balfour wasn’t the only serviceman from Smithfield to die in World War I, but he was the first from Esmond, which is the reason the Legion post is half-named in his honor. He shares the distinction with U.S. Army Private Fred C. Cole of Georgiaville. Private Cole served with the 310th Infantry Regiment of the 78th Division. He lost his life ten days before the war ended, and is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne, France. Unfortunately, research has been unable to locate any further details about Private Cole.
Besides the American Legion Post, both men also had squares named for them. Balfour Square is located at the intersection of Waterman Avenue and Esmond Street, and Cole Square can be found at Farnum Pike and Homestead Avenue.
According to the four World War I memorials situated in Smithfield, at least ninety three other local men and two women served in the military during the conflict. Eleven of them gave their lives for their country.
Besides Privates Balfour and Cole there were:
Manuel J. Arsenault – from Stillwater
Ernest E. Austin – from Greenville
James E. Brennan – from Georgiaville
Charles Ellison – from Esmond
Giovanni Gozzero – from Esmond
George Howarth – from Georgiaville
Frank G. Larame – from Greenville
John A. McGrory – from Stillwater
J. Earl White – from Greenville
Lest we forget the price for peace.