A century ago, as World War I raged in Europe, the United States declared war on Germany April 6, 1917. When Americans joined the war effort and soldiers sailed overseas, the whole country was soon singing “Over There,” a hit song by George M. Cohan.
Among the U.S. servicemen shipping over to Europe were some 100,000 members of the Knights of Columbus, including hundreds of clergy and war relief workers. Many more Knights would assist in war relief in the states, keeping up morale at military camps and raising funds.
Knights from Canada already had been fighting in the trenches for more than two years. World War I officially began July 28, 1914, and Canada entered the war the following week, together with the United Kingdom.
To mark the centenary of the U.S. involvement in the war, a new major exhibit is now on display at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., and will be open through Dec. 30, 2018. The title of the exhibit, “World War I: Beyond the Front Lines,” speaks to soldiers’ lives during the long months of war, including how the Knights provided them major support.
The Order’s work had such an impact that Gen. John Joseph Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), stated that “of all the organizations that took part in the winning of the war, with the exception of the military itself, there was none so efficiently and ably administered as the Knights of Columbus.”
On April 14, eight days after the United States entered the war, the K of C Board of Directors passed a resolution, which was sent to President Woodrow Wilson. It assured the president that “the crisis confronting the nation hereby reaffirms the patriotic devotion of 400,000 members of this Order in this country to the Republic and its laws and pledges their unconditional support to the President and Congress.”
Soldiers needed a respite from the war; they needed Mass and the sacraments. The Knights of Columbus came to the rescue, providing a major service with recreation centers, which became known as huts. This initiative was inspired by 15 such centers that the Order had established the previous year for National Guardsmen serving along the Mexican border.
The Knights’ Committee on War Activities coordinated fundraisers and war relief efforts, and the Order soon financed huts both in the United States and around Europe. When the first goal of $1 million was raised in record time from the stateside councils, the goal was upped to $3 million. Catholics and non-Catholics alike donated, and the goal was raised again to $12 million. The final amount exceeded $14 million — at a time when bread was 7 cents a pound.
Similar efforts were already underway in Canada for war relief efforts. Canadian Knights at first helped by providing chaplains with portable altars and giving soldiers rosaries, medals and prayer books, as well as entertainment.
Because recreation huts in England were run by non- Catholics, Catholic chaplains from Canada eventually appealed for K of C help to establish huts for the Canadian camps in England and France.
In May 1917, plans to erect Catholic huts for Canadian soldiers were set in motion thanks to the efforts of Knights such as Major Rev. John J. O’Gorman, an Ottawa-based priest who spearheaded the Catholic Army Huts program in Canada. With the support of K of C state councils and the Canadian hierarchy, a series of fund drives were launched that raised more than $1.2 million for some 30 Canadian huts in France and 20 in England, all of which were run by Catholic chaplains.
Meanwhile, dozens of huts were built on or near U.S. military bases in the United States and Europe, offering soldiers an escape from the war. The spaces were versatile, and even the largest were designed to make the soldiers feel like they were at home, with tall windows and bright colors.
The K of C hut slogan was “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.” No soldier or sailor had to pay a cent for anything the Knights gave them, nor would any free-will offering on their part be accepted by the secretaries who ran the huts. They gave everything free to whomever walked in, with no questions about religion, race or rank. The uniform was all that mattered. In the huts, soldiers had the opportunity to attend Mass, go to confession, hear a music recital, see vaudeville entertainment or watch a movie. They could attend a dance, sit ringside at popular boxing competitions, write letters home (the Knights provided 1,800 tons of stationary), or read a book from the library.
The exhibit at the K of C Museum has a wonderful example of a typical hut, down to the player piano — around which soldiers would sing wartime favorites like “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”
They would also join in the chorus of the Knights’ official hut song, “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free!”: “Ev’rybody welcome, ev’rything free. That is the slogan of the K. of C. For all the boys here, and ‘Over There,’ The K. of C. is doing its share.”
By the summer of 1918, when the National Catholic War Council was created to coordinate Catholic works related to the U.S. war effort, the Knights of Columbus continued in its role as the Catholic agency providing recreational activities.
To run the huts, Knights of Columbus workers, known as secretaries, began arriving in France from the United States in March 1918. These men did not qualify for military service but still wanted to help as much as they could. Their uniforms were like the U.S. Army’s but with “KC” on their shoulder badge and buttons. Naturally, secretaries quickly got the nickname “Casey.”
One such Casey was Frank Large, later grand knight of Palos Council 35 in Bristol, Conn. His poor vision prevented him from enlisting, but he served as a secretary and chaplain’s assistant at southern U.S. camps. His uniform and several items from his work are displayed in the museum exhibit.
The Caseys dispensed items such as candy, gum, cigarettes, playing cards, sewing kits, razors, postcards and rosaries. The KC secretaries sometimes even went to the front lines and trenches to hand out items to soldiers. They also operated large mobile food trucks known as rolling kitchens — a Knights’ invention — to bring the men hot coffee, cocoa and other warm food.
The secretaries even provided tremendous quantities of sports gear and equipment, including baseball bats and gloves emblazoned with the Order’s emblem. During their first month overseas, 14,772 baseballs, 2,286 sets of boxing gloves, and 1,687 footballs were doled out. Doughboys played 5,000 games of baseball every day wearing uniforms also supplied by the Knights.
No doubt some got pointers from Hall of Fame infielder Johnny Evers, who played on the Boston Braves’ 1914 World Series winning team and was the league’s MVP. A member of Troy (N.Y.) Council 176, Evers joined the Caseys and served overseas from July-December 1918.
Caseys also helped the wounded in the field and hospitals, writing letters for men unable to do so themselves.
One KC secretary, Frank Larkin, a past grand knight of Mystical Rose Council 268 in New York, N.Y., remembered a badly wounded young soldier at a hospital in Neuilly, France, calling out to him: “Have you a minute to spare, Casey?” The young man first wanted to write a letter, but then said, “Casey, get a priest.” He had a smile on his face as a chaplain gave him the last rites.
Since more than a third of the soldiers were Catholic, chaplains were there to serve the men — and serve with them.
Among the first five K of C chaplains to arrive in France, for example, was 1st Lt. Chaplain John B. DeValles. Known as the Angel of the Trenches, Father DeValles never recovered from exposure to mustard gas while ministering on the front lines. He died shortly after the war, in 1920. His tunic, helmet, Distinguished Service Cross, Portuguese Military Order of Christ and French Croix de Guerre medals are on display in the K of C Museum exhibit.
The exhibit includes numerous other World War I artifacts as well, including a 13th-century altar stone from Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, which was bombed during the war; uniforms, helmets and hats from service members; a rosary and pocket shrine; the Catholic Prayer Book for the Army and Navy; and an autographed manuscript of “The Peacemaker” by famous poet and journalist Joyce Kilmer, a Knight from New York who died in the war.
The exhibit even includes a gallery simulating a trench and trench warfare, complete with lighting and special sound effects.
By the end of the war in November 1918, more than 116,000 American men and some 60,000 Canadians had died in the conflict. Among them were 1,500 members of the Knights of Columbus from the United States and approximately 120 Knights from Canada. Both the first and the last U.S. officers to die in the war were Knights.
“The first name on the casualty list of the American army in France is that of Dr. William T. Fitzsimmons of Kansas City, killed in a German air raid on our hospitals,” wrote former President Theodore Roosevelt in the fallen doctor’s hometown paper. “To the mother he leaves, the personal grief must in some degree be relieved by the pride in the fine and gallant life which has been crowned by the great sacrifice. We, his fellow countrymen, share this pride and sympathize with this sorrow.”
Lt. Fitzsimmons was a member of Kansas City Council 527. In 1914, before the United States entered the war, he had served as a volunteer with the Red Cross in France for four months, returned home, and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Medical Officers’ Reserve Corps. When the AEF was formed, he immediately volunteered and was with the first five physicians heading overseas in June 1917.
Fitzsimmons was waiting to help the wounded at Base Hospital 5 in Pas-de-Calais, France, on the afternoon of Sept. 4, when he was killed by a bomb from a German plane.
His memory wasn’t forgotten, nor was that of 1st Lt. Chaplain William F. Davitt, the last U.S. officer and chaplain to be killed in the war. A member of Holyoke (Mass.) Council 90, Father Davitt volunteered as a K of C chaplain and served with the 125th Infantry. He was killed by one of the last shells fired in the war, just over an hour before the ceasefire at 11 a.m. on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918.
The priest had already been awarded the Croix de Guerre and Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for organizing and leading the rescue of 40 wounded soldiers cut off from the troops. One soldier wrote that Father Davitt’s “DSC” should stand for “Died in the Service of Christ!”
Even though the war ended Nov. 11, 1918, a number of the recreation centers remained in full swing. Serving troops at a hut in Koblenz, Germany, Knights gave a new meaning to the nickname “doughboys,” producing more than 40,000 doughnuts a day in their large kitchen.
Overall, about 1,100 men and women served overseas to run nearly 150 K of C huts. Even more worked in a comparable number of huts stateside.
The war relief effort during World War I made such an impression that between 1917-1923, approximately 400,000 men joined the Knights, doubling the pre-war membership.
Through its war relief efforts, both on the battlefield and behind the lines, the Knights of Columbus earned international esteem and recognition. And it was through this work that the Knights brought the message of charity, care and Christ to countless servicemen.
JOSEPH PRONECHEN is a staff writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register.
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