CAPT. GEORGE A. CAMPBELL, “HUMBLE SOLDIER”
By Marie Coady, May 2008
“We dwell on the “pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war” overlooking the miseries of it. We read of the Generals who played so glorious a part and disregard with no small measure the condition of the patriots of the rank and file.”
Although these words appeared in the New York Times in 1902 under the headline “Humble Soldiers”, they are as true today as they were then, and no soldier fit that description better than Capt. George A. Campbell, the “Humble Soldier” to whom Woburn’s American Legion Post 101 is dedicated. Unfortunately, much time has passed since Capt. Campbell made the ultimate sacrifice for his country in World War I and his bravery and devotion to duty, as well as his stunning humility, has faded with time. But with Memorial Day upon us it’s time once again to tell the compelling story of Capt. Campbell.
George A. Campbell was born in Prince Edward Island, Canada on December 31, 1869, but sometime between 1877 and 1881, when George was still a young boy, his parents, Charles A. and Ann Campbell, moved to Woburn. So when young George Campbell enlisted with B Company, 12th U. S. Infantry in 1889 to fight out West in the Sioux Indian Campaign, he listed his place of residence as 38 Broad St, Woburn, MA. For the next 22 years he served in six wars and saw duty in as many countries. But it appears that his favorite duty was his time spent in the Philippines and he managed to stay there as long as he could by signing on with another Company each time his Company was to be evacuated. To achieve this feat, as soon as his hitch was up he signed on with F Co, G Co 8th Infantry and then C Co 15th Infantry.
That was only the beginning of a military career that included not only his early service out west but in Cuba, the Philippines, China, during the Boxer Rebellion, and along the Mexican Border fighting the armies of Pancho Villa. While in La Paz on the island of Leyte in the Philippines, he wrote a letter to his friend Henry L. Andrews, a well known alderman-at-large in Woburn. In his letter, dated March 18, 1907, he described one of his encounters with a band of outlaws that had killed nine men and an officer from the 8thInfantry. He had been on Leyte before in 1901-1902, but this time he was determined to capture the outlaw he described as combining “religion and rebellion” to form a cult of fighting men who were fearless and ferocious and attacked anyone who didn’t agree with them.
Campbell then went on to describe in detail the primitive conditions on the Island and the ingenuity of the native bearers the Army had hired to guide them through the jungle. According to the specific detail in his letter they could build an entire village out of whatever the jungle offered. In passing he also mentioned that he and his men had just returned from a 20 day trip out into the mountains and he described how hard that trip was on their clothes and shoes. But not once did he mention that during that 20 day mission into the mountains that he had been instrumental in capturing the notorious Moro leader Faustino Alben, the leader of the cult that Spanish and American troops had been searching for more than eleven years. He also failed to mention, that for his “single-handed” act of capturing Alban, he had been issued the Medal of Honor. To put it mildly, Campbell was not one to blow his own horn.
In April of 1908, Campbell sent another letter to Alderman Andrews in which he thanked him for the gift of an American flag and some cigars. He also wrote that since his time with the 8th Infantry was up he was transferring to the 29th. “I can get along in any company,” he wrote, “as I am generally known wherever I go in the Army”.
This transfer allowed him to stay in the Philippines and enjoy the city of Manila which was only a few miles from the newly established US Army base at Fort McKinley in Rizal. He then described all the modern improvements that had been made in Manila including “electric lights, a police and fire dept, sewerage, fine parks, band concerts, a theatre” plus a “mixture of every nation in the world”, which seemed to please Campbell very much.
In November of 1908, Campbell enlisted for a ninth time, this time with the 23rd Regiment, so he could continue to stay in the Philippines, and you could clearly tell from his letter that he loved it best of any place he had served in his almost 20 years of service. He also kept moving from Company to Company so he would not have to accept a promotion in rank as he loved being the “Humble Soldier” that he was. In keeping with that humble character, he also failed to mention that he had been awarded a “Certificate of Merit” for saving a Lieutenant from drowning in the Iloilo Straits off Panay Island in the Philippines.
At one point he attended officer training at Plattsburg, NY where he stood out for the number of service bars he had earned which as it turned out were more than any other candidate at the officer’s training camp. It was at Plattsburg that he got his captain’s bars, but declined a commission as a lieutenant. He was described by all who knew him as a “modest and retiring man” who accepted all honors quietly and made no conspicuous use of them. He was also rarely seen in uniform and when with friends reticent to tell what he termed “war stories”.
He retired from active service in August of 1911 and was given a reception by the Grand Army of the Republic at Woburn’s Post 33 G. A. R. Hall where he was praised for his 22 years of service which included 10 years of foreign duty. The following year, in August of 1912 he was appointed as military instructor at Notre Dame University in South Bend,Indiana, by the US War Department in Washington, DC. He started out as assistant instructor, but within a year he had some 1,200 cadets in his command. He remained at Notre Dame as their beloved military instructor who they loving named “The Sergeant”.
Every year he would return home to Woburn for summer vacation but that didn’t mean he took time off. In the summer of 1913 he worked at the Adjutant Generals’ Office at the State House in Boston and performed as Color Sergeant for the local G. A. R. In the summer of 1916 he returned to active duty along the Mexican Border with the Mass Calvary and when the summer was over he spent another year at Notre Dame as military instructor.
In June of 1917, the war in France had escalated and the US was sending its soldiers to fight on that front and Sgt. Campbell wanted to do his part. To that end he offered his services to the Army War Department and was accepted for active duty once again and sent to the front. In February of 1918, his father received a cable that read simply, “Safe in France”, but not for long.
Even a quick review of Capt. George A. Campbell’s stellar military career leaves you with no doubt that he loved everything about the military; the routine, the discipline, the travel to exotic lands, and especially the opportunity to fight for his country. That’s the reason why, in June of 1917, at the age of 48, after 22 years of active service and another 6 as military instructor at Notre Dame University, he applied to the War Department for reentry into the U. S. Army to do his part for his country in World War I.
Since Campbell was well over the age limit for recruits, it took the Army six months to reply, but when they did it was in the affirmative, and in keeping with his demeanor Campbell “quietly left the city” in January of 1918. A few weeks later he sent a cable to his parents notifying them that he had arrived “Safe in France”. Sadly, the next time that Charles and Anna Campbell received any news about their son it was not as comforting. On October 7, 1918, Capt. George A. Campbell was killed in action in France, but his parents weren’t notified of his death until November 18th a full week after Germany signed an Armistice to end the war.
World War I was one of the bloodiest wars in history and in the short time that the US was on the front, General Pershing reported that between May and November of 1918 he had lost some 120,000 men and Capt. George A. Campbell was one of them. In the months to come, the family received many tributes to their son as well as several letters describing how their son and brother died, but I’m sure, as comforting as they were, none filled the emptiness that his death left in their hearts.
One tribute came from Notre Dame when they featured the newly Capt. Campbell in their school paper the Notre Dame Scholastic, and as you would expect it was written in a scholarly manner that began: “When the world went wild with joy at the signing of the Armistice some, though glad it was over, couldn’t help feeling a tinge of sadness at so many dead on the fields of France.”
Then, on January 29, 1919, the first of several letters arrived from the Headquarters of the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry in Ziebach, Germany. It was signed by Capt. Cornwell and Lt. Buckman and was in response to a letter from his mother requesting information as to his personal effects. In it a Sgt. Cole, a member of Campbell’s burial detail, is quoted as saying that no personal effects were found on his body. But the letter did reveal for the first time that he was “killed by a machine gun bullet to the head“ while leading a charge of Hill 240” just outside the village of Entremont in eastern France.
It wasn’t until nine months later that a fuller explanation of Campbell’s death came in an eloquent letter from Supply Sgt. Isaac Hood addressed to his sister Margaret at 38 Broad Street:
“We went over the top a little after daybreak and fought all day. Our objective was a town named “Exermont” and the orders were to capture the heights of Hill 240 after taking the town and to hold it at all costs. Repeated attacks concentrated on the town failed time after time and finally, at about 4 pm, Captain Campbell with about 25 picked men attacked the town frontally, capturing it and advancing on up the hill beyond. He was advancing at the head of his men in the face of terrific machine gun fire and over terrain that was being swept with Artillery fire continuously. It seemed that nothing could live but still that little party advanced.
He sought a narrow path leading to the top of the hill and the minute he set foot on it he was seen to drop—he had been shot by enfilading fire that was sweeping the side of the hill from enemy machine guns. He received six machine gun bullets to the head and three in the chest. He never knew what hit him and t’was better so. He was buried on the spot he was killed. It was due to his bravery and fine example that his troops attacked the hill with renewed vigor and took it by storm.”
Two questions had been answered in that letter. One was as to how he died and the other told where he was buried: On the left side of Hill 240, about 200 yards from the village and west of the River Meuse. But only a few of his men could attend the service that day as most had been killed or severely wounded. The letter also added that there were “hardly any” personal effects belonging to him found that day and any that were found were forwarded to the “Central Records Office”. But Hood did explain that later a party was sent back to Hill 240 and Campbell’s body exhumed and searched for personal effects. That’s when a ring with his name engraved on it was found and Hood took personal responsibility for it. He then sent the ring to Margaret Campbell by registered mail.
Hood also added that he would “spare no effort to locate any other personal effects he may have had and send them to you” and he was as good as his word. On October 21, 1919, a report was filed that Capt Campbell’s trunk had been found in France and was being returned to his family. So it was that Sgt. Hood was as good as his word.
It wasn’t long before other letters began arriving at the Campbell home praising Capt. Campbell’s bravery and telling of how he was valued by both the ordinary soldiers and the men who commanded them. One of them was Major Charles S. Coulter of the 18th Infantry who detailed further proof of Campbell’s bravery and devotion to duty. These letters also told of his being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre. But it was the Campbell’s family that debunked an earlier report that he had received the Medal of Honor all of which proved that Capt. George A. Campbell came by his humility honestly.
The most important thing to take away from the lessons the life of Capt. Campbell have taught us is the fact that although he is one of the most honored soldiers of World War I his gravesite has never been definitively found and therefore his memory will fade unless that problem is solved. As it turns out in spite of enormous effort on the part of the leaders of this city in conjunction with the continued efforts of Campbell’s family to locate his grave, it appears that there is still no record of where Capt. George A. Campbell is buried.
The family began to hope that the mystery had been solved when a letter arrived from Lt. Colonel Charles C. Pierce in March of 1921 informing the family that their son’s grave had been located. The letter stated that an investigation made by the office of the Quartermaster General, Cemeterial Division in Washington had located their loved one in Grave No. 41, Section No 90, Plot No 1, Argonne American Cemetery No 1232 Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, Meuse. Pierce assured the family that they could be “rest assured that identification has been absolutely established” and they need “not fear as to the correctness” of their report. But a letter sent to Mrs. Campbell in care of Woburn’s Alderman Henry L. Andrews tears that promise to shreds.
The letter arrived little more than a year after Pierce’s assurance that Campbell’s grave had been located, but this time it revealed that “during a concentration of activities at the Cemetery it became necessary to exhume and move the body buried in Grave 41, Section 90, Plot 1 of the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery”. Now it was reported that in spite of the fact that the family had been previously assured that the grave contained the remains of Captain George A. Campbell, “upon exhumation” and a “check of dental charts” it had been determined that the body was “that of another officer-Lieut. Eldon S. Betts”.
The letter also explained that Mrs. Campbell had been notified and requested to furnish a “physical description” of her son so that their “operatives in Europe” could continue the investigation. As of that day one year later, they were waiting for her to reply as every other means of “identification had been exhausted”., but as you can imagine the Campbell family was exhausted as well and there is no record of them ever responding to that last communication from the War Department.
To this day, the body of Capt. George A. Campbell has not been located, nor is it known if he is indeed buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. A check of the burial listings at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery in Lorraine, France does list a Capt, George A. Campbell, but the information about him is scant. All it says is that he died on October 4, 1918 and that he is from Massachusetts. There is not even a birth date although a woman named Paula visited the site in June of 2005 and provided some information about his service with the US Army and his “extraordinary heroism”.
Beyond that noble effort in his memory there is no other information, nor is there any grave site dedicated to Capt, George A. Campbell in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery where he is supposed to be buried. My recommendation would be that the officers of American Legion Post 103 contact the American Battle Monuments Commission in Washington, DC, (http://www.ambc.gov) which is part of the Executive Office of the President and see if they can get some clarification. Better yet they should request a marker be put in place in Capt. Campbell’s memory. One of the Commissioners they should contact is General Frederick M. Franks, Jr., USA(Ret), Chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission (http://www.abmc.gov/commission/commissioners.php) so that the Campbell family will finally have some closure.