Ralph Elliot Holcomb - 1898 -1919
The “Great War” officially ended on November 11, 1918. That was 94 years ago. As a kid I can still remember a few “old-timers” from that conflict at school Veteran’s Day ceremonies. By far, most of the vets at those programs were from World War II but there were enough WWI vets still alive then to make their presence known. Today, it is many years later and all of those veterans are gone. In fact, Americans who were alive at the time of the Armistice would make up a very small percentage of today’s population and few of them would have been old enough at that time to have any first-hand memory of the war.
This story is about the memorial service of one of those veterans. His name was Ralph Elliot Holcomb and he was my Dad’s uncle. I had never heard of him and knew nothing of his existence until our paths crossed while working on my genealogy.
The Uncle My Father Never Knew
Technically, Ralph Holcomb was a half-uncle to my father and their age differences were great. By the time my father was born, to his uncle's step-sister, Ralph had been dead for 17 years. Couple that with my dad’s estranged relationship with his mother and Ralph Holcomb fades into history, lost in a complicated and muddled fog of time. He would stay lost for almost 90 years until rediscovered by a self-appointed family historian (me). I have become the finder of the lost and forgotten ancestors. I give them a chance to shine once more, tell their story and to live again. They live through me and my writings.
When first uncovered, all I really had about Ralph Holcomb were some facts and figures, namely census pages and those things they call vital records. Then one day I came across a newspaper account of his death and funeral. It was a powerful article . . . it moved me like few accounts of my ancestors have. That was the day Ralph Holcomb came alive for me.
About Ralph Holcomb
Ralph Elliot Holcomb was born on October 9th, 1898. He was the second child of Ruben Holcomb and Amber Fessenden of Monroe, Wisconsin. Reuben was the elected clerk of court for Green County and also served as a county commissioner. The family lived on the northeast edge of town on Russell Street (now 10th Street). Not much is known about young Ralph’s childhood. It might be assumed that he did what most boys of the small, but bustling county seat of Monroe did - an existence somewhere between Tom Sawyer and Hucklberry Finn. There was plenty of country side for exploring, right near his house. It was also likely that he spent some time at his uncle’s farm in rural Green County where Ralph’s father had grown-up. It would be easy to construct a Norman Rockwell image of life there but Ralph would suffer some hardships as well. On December 26th, 1902 Amber Fessenden died at the age of 36. Would the four year old Ralph have many memories of his mother?
The Holcomb household was a busy place in those days. Both of Ralph’s grandmothers and one aunt would live in the house for a time. The larger extended family meant more helping hands before and after his mother’s death. His father, Reuben would remarry in 1906 and three more children would be added to the family. What effects would these trials and tribulations have on young Ralph? We can only speculate but he seems to have overcome them all and grown into a well-respected young man.
Ralph, along with a childhood friend, John Caradine, would enlist together, in the Army, in December of 1917. Ralph received his training in North Carolina, was assigned to the 4th Division, Battery C of the 13th Field Artillery and arrived at Brest in June of 1918. He was severely wounded on August 13th near Chateau Thierry. Just one day earlier, his friend John Caradine was killed in action. Somehow, Ralph would survive his wounds and begin to recover but he could not survive the bought of influenza and the pneumonia that would follow. He died in-route home on January 5th, 1919 on board the USS Kansas.
And so, I present the full article about the war funeral for Ralph Elliot Holcomb as published in the Monroe Evening Times on January 14, 1919.
The Monroe Evening Times, January 14, 1919
Funeral Services for Private Ralph Holcomb Held This Afternoon . . .
Funeral services with military honors were held this afternoon for the late Private Ralph Holcomb at the home of his parents on West Russell Street and the Universalist Church. Services at the house were private while those at the church were open to the public and were attended by many citizens, including the patriotic organizations of the city and twenty men who had been in service. It was the funeral of the first Monroe soldier who has been wounded overseas and whose body had been returned home. Three squads from Company I together with the men who had seen service acted as military escort.
As evidence of the strong bonds of sympathy and sentiment that prevail among men in service was a large floral piece in the form of an American flag furnished by the men aboard the battleship Kansas on which Private Holcomb expired on January 5 while en route home. Following his death, shortly before their arrival in New York, the men took a collection of $50 which was forwarded to the bereft family to be sent for a floral tribute from his brothers in arms. A letter from the chaplain aboard the ship sent to the family was also read at the services at the church by Reverend N.E. McLaughlin, who officiated.
Two Hences Were Boy Chums.
After reading a sketch of Private Holcomb’s life, Reverend McLaughlin, in speaking of the military funeral, cited the coincidence that it was almost fifty-six years ago to the month since the first military funeral was held in the Universalist church of this city, the other being that of Captain O.F. Pinney, after whom the local G.A.R. post was named. He also called attention to the similarity of the lives of the deceased and the late Corporal John G. Caradine, who were intimate friends here during their boyhood. Born in the same month, boy chums, both volunteers in the service, both wounded in the same great battle and both made the last and supreme sacrifice, but in death they were not divided. He also spoke of the death of Mrs. Holcomb’s brother which occurred at Sergy.
[Editor's Note: Loren Hollister, the brother of Ralph's stepmother, Stella (Hollister) Holcomb, died at Sergy on July 26th, 1918].
The funeral brought home the war with its sadness, heroism and tragedy. Private Holcomb was wounded at Fismes, in the great battle of Chateau Thierry, one of the world’s most decisive battles, early in August and had recovered from his wound fairly well before starting home when he was taken ill with pneumonia and died aboard ship.
“It is fitting that citizens of Monroe should give public recognition to this world war hero.” Declared Reverend McLaughlin during his sermon. “He deserves every honor we can bestow upon him, for he died for us. He made the supreme sacrifice and what does that mean? He gave up everything dear in this world, the only things that he kept being an honorable name and hope of immortality.”
Died for the Most Sacred Cause.
“He was one of 100,000 Americans who paid with their lives that we might live in safety. He died in the cause more heroic than Tennyson’s ten thousand, more worthy than the 600 who died at Balaclava, greater than the one for which 300 died at Thermopylae. He died in the most heroic and sacred of all causes, that of the angel in man against the beast in man, henceforth he lives not in body but as one of the immortals. He lives in the memory and hearts of his countrymen.”
“Whether we live or die, the only life really worth while is the life given in some great cause. He was a volunteer in a great and sublime cause and is now one of the ‘Choir Invisible’ whose music is the gladness of the world.”
Taking for his text the thought from Paul, “I have fought the good fight,” Reverend McLaughlin said, “It is hard to give up those whom we have loved, it is hard for us all. We would have it otherwise if we could. There is some comfort, however, in the thought that he died in the great cause and that his name is inscribed with the imperishable ones of this republic who died for freedom and liberty.”
In closing, Reverend McLaughlin read Harry Lauder’s famous poem written in honor of his son, entitled “My One and Only Boy.”
During the services at the church, Mrs. Amelia Churchill rendered the “Death March” from Handel’s Saul and Mendelssohn’s “Consolation.” Reverend McLaughlin also sang “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.”
The following members of Company I acted as pall bearers: Alfred Baltzley, Walter Burgy, Harry Roth, Lawrence Stauffacher, Leland Lynch and Clarence Keel. Burial was made in Greenwood Cemetery where taps where sounded at the grave by Ralph Krueger.
Business Houses Closed.
As a mark of the respect for this war hero, most of the business places in the city where closed during the hours of the funeral. Among those from out of town for the funeral were Mr. and Mrs. E.H. Cole, Misses Lillian Focht, Charlotte Lyons, Mae Skinner and Florence Skinner, of Brodhead.
. . . end of article . . .
We Know Him Only in Death
The truth is I know very little about my great-uncle, Ralph Elliot Holcomb and his short 20 years on this earth. It is my hope that more information will surface someday. For now, however, there is no first hand account of his life from any living relative; no old journal, faded letters or even a photograph to remember him by. The records of his life are slim, at best. Yet in his death and through the writings about his memorial, we seem to gain a great sense of who he was.
The world has little time for one man's death and when that death was a century ago, it has even less time. But Veteran's Day is for rememberance and on this particular Veteran's Day, I will remember that long forgotten man. He will have his moment, once more.
Post Script - My One and Only Boy
Harry Lauder was a British entertainer, writer and poet. His son was killed in France in 1916. Later, he went there to enterain the troups and after visiting his son's grave, he wrote a short poem called "My One and Only Boy." This was the same poem read at the funeral of Ralph Holcomb (and probably many others as well).
Oh, there’s sometimes I am lonely and I’m weary a’ the day,
To see the face and clasp the hand of him who is away.
The only one God gave me, my one and only joy,
My life and love were centered on my one and only boy.
I saw him in his infant days, grow up from year to year
That he would some day be a man, I never had a fear.
His mother watched his every step, ‘twas our united joy
To think that he might be one day, my one and only boy.
When war broke out he buckled on, his sword and said “Good-bye,
For I must do my duty, Dad, tell mother not to cry,
Tell her that I’ll come back again.” What happiness and joy,
But no, he died for Liberty, my one and only boy.
The days are long, the nights are drear, the anguish breaks my heart,
But oh! I’m proud my one and only laddie played his part.
For God knows best, His will be done, his grace does me employ.
I do believe I’ll meet again, my one and only boy.