Part of the USA Today Network

First York County WWI soldier dies in France

French Students, from the IME de l‘Omois school, place American and French flags at the graves of U.S. Veterans in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery just east of Fere-en-Tardenois in France (Photo from The American Battle Monuments Commission web site)

Walter L. Fitzgerald was the first York County WWI soldier to die on foreign soil, doing so on January 5, 1918. Private Fitzgerald is buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery just east of Fere-en-Tardenois in France; within Plot C, Row 9, Grave 1.

Every year French students place American and French flags at the graves of WWI U.S. Veterans in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. This photo is from The American Battle Monuments Commission web site about their WWI cemeteries in Europe.

Private Fitzgerald was the son of Mr. and Mrs. William D. Fitzgerald of 428 East Prospect Street in York. He was employed as a machinist at the York Safe and Lock Company prior to his enlistment. He served in the United States Air Service, 48th Aero Squadron, Aviation Signal Corps, 2nd Instruction Detachment. He was a member of the First Moravian Church, North Duke Street in York, which held special memorial services in memory of Walter on Sunday January 20, 1918. Part of that service is quoted at the end of this post.

The United States entered WWI on April 6, 1917. It took half-a-year to mobilize, train and transport troops to fight in Europe. On November 3, 1917, the first United States soldier was killed in action, near Verdun, France. By the Armistice of November 11, 1918, there were over 76,000 United States soldiers buried in temporary battlefield graves. No remains of fallen WWI soldiers were returned to America until well after the war ended.

General Pershing argued that burying servicemen in permanent American cemeteries, near the battlefields with their fallen comrades, offered the greater glory. Most Americans were not in agreement with such a plan; finally it was agreed to leave the decision up to the each individual fallen soldiers’ next of kin.

Nationwide, beginning in 1921, the remains of roughly 60% of the fallen WWI soldiers were returned to the United States. The number was higher in York County, with the remains of 78% of the 195 fallen soldiers returned to this country for burial near their hometowns. In the coming year, I plan on posting a scattering of stories focusing on the 42 York County WWI Veterans buried on foreign soil.

Private Walter L. Fitzgerald and his letters home

At the January 20th memorial service, Pastor Weber, of the First Moravian Church, relayed the contents of a letter, dated December 30, 1917, from Walter Fitzgerald, and received January 18, 1918. Quoting from the newspaper article “Pay Tribute To Soldier Hero,” in the January 21, 1918, issue of The York Daily:

In the letter Fitzgerald stated that he had spent a pleasant Christmas day. He had a turkey dinner and thanked the Sunday school for the box of sweets they had sent. He also, sent greetings to all his friends in the church and wished to be remembered to them.

The pastor said it was a peculiar service the congregation was called upon to hold, the first one of the character, which had been held in the memory of the present generation in this church.

“Perhaps such services were held during the dark days of 1861-1865.” said he, “but if so, we have no such record which could guide us and which we might follow. More than this it is the first service to be held in the city of York for a soldier boy who has given his life for his country on foreign soil in the great conflict that is being waged at this time between the central powers of Europe and the allied powers of the world.”

“Walter LeRoy Fitzgerald was born in Norristown, Pa., Feb. 27, 1896, the eldest son of William D. Fitzgerald. In early boyhood days he came to York, and spent the greater portion of his short life here, attending the public schools and graduating as a machinist in the industrial course of the York High school in 1914. He was, among others, a classmate of our son, Howard H. Weber, who with Walter Horstick are the only other men from this congregation in France.”

“He was baptized and confirmed on Sunday April 9, 1911, and was a communicant member of this church up to the time of his death, which occurred “Somewhere in France” from spinal meningitis on or about Jan. 9, 1918, and was a great shock to the members of his household, church and city, as no warning word had come preparing us for the news.”

“The Master has said ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,’ and this is what Walter Fitzgerald did for us his friends.”

“He was anxious to show his patriotism and volunteered at the first opportunity. He was a member of the 48th Aero Squadron and after some training in the States was sent over with his regiment during October to France, for active service on the western front.”

“His letter dated Dec. 9 was cheerful and full of enthusiasm for his country and the good treatment of the enlisted men of the United States. There was not an inkling of regret, nor a whine of complaint at the deprivations, which attend the boys who must endure the soldier’s hard life.”

“Some day, perhaps, the body will be brought home, and will be interred beside that of his father in our local cemetery, meanwhile it rests in foreign soil. And we are glad that we can honor him and the family from which he went out, for while he did not die in battle, he was willing and ready to do this, as soon as those in authority commanded him to do so. And after all it is the intent of the heart for which God gives us credit.”

Walter Fitzgerald’s death from disease was not all that uncommon for United States soldiers during WWI. In fact nearly 25,000 soldiers died, while still involved in their State-side training, from the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918.

The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery is located 1.5-miles east of Fere-en-Tardenois, and approximately 70-miles northeast of Paris, France. Besides Walter Fitzgerald, there are two other York County soldiers buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery; the final resting place for 6,012 War Dead:

  • Sherman W. Leifer, from York; a Private with Company A, 6th Engineer Regiment, 3rd Division, was killed on July 15, 1918, and is buried within Plot A, Row 24, Grave 35.
  • Charles Schroll, from Cly; a Cook with the 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, was killed on August 31, 1918, and is buried within Plot B, Row 17, Grave 13.

There is also one York County civilian buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery:

  • James W. Gailey, from New Park; was killed July 29, 1917, and is buried within Plot A, Row 11, Grave 25.

James Gailey was a York County civilian who was a volunteer Ambulance Driver in the American Ambulance Corps that served the French Army. Although not a soldier, he is actually the earliest resident from York County to be killed on foreign soil during WWI. James was from New Park in southern York County. James Gailey was killed on July 29, 1917, from the explosion of a German shell. There will be a follow-up post on James W. Gailey.

Links to related WWI posts:

Reading the Headlines: A Quick Index to All YorksPast Posts