The whine of the steel and the roar of the guns,From the song “Echoes of Heroes” by Gordon Lightfoot
And the tolling of the bell and the cries of the lame,
And the echoes of heroes roll down through the ages to remind us again.
The letter addressed to Mrs. Ellen Breen in Philadelphia arrived in early December of 1918, but it was very different than most of the letters the postmen had been delivering that bore U.S. Army postmarks.
The Great War in Europe had just ended a few weeks prior, and letters from American soldiers who were still overseas had been arriving in the U.S. by the thousands. The men were sending Christmas wishes to their families which brought great relief and comfort to their loved ones. Although they wouldn’t be home for Christmas, these soldiers were alive and the great anxiety their families had endured during the war had finally subsided.
Unfortunately, for many other families, this was a time of great sorrow as they continued to mourn the recent loss of a loved one in that war, and Christmas for them would never be the same again. So, when this letter arrived at the home of Mrs. Ellen Breen, she knew it couldn’t be from her son, Bernard. He was a sergeant in Company A of the 28th Division’s 108th Machine Gun Battalion, and Mrs. Breen had already been notified that he was killed in France on Sept. 27, 1918, at the start of the great Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
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She opened the letter and saw that it was from Captain Ralph C. Crow, her son Bernard’s commanding officer, and was dated Nov. 30, 1918. It was written in response to a letter she had written to the Army asking for more information regarding her son’s death. It read in part:
Your letter of the 27th reached me today, in reply I will say that it is with a feeling of sorrow that I answer your letter.
On September the 20th, my Company took over a position from the French in the Argonne Forest. Your son Sergeant Bernard F. Breen was in command of two guns in a very responsible position nearest the enemy. Five days later the drive in the Argonne Forest started. I was ordered to send two guns to report to a Battalion when the fight started. I selected Sergeant Bernard F. Breen and his gun crews for the reason that I considered him the best man in my Company…On the morning of Sept. 28th, one of the men who had been with Sergeant Breen reported to me that the section had been all shot up, that Sergeant Breen and another man had been killed, and that most of the men had been wounded…I sent a runner to that section of the field to see if he could locate the bodies, he returned later with the information that the bodies had been buried…I later got a chance to talk to Father Wolf [sic] and he told me himself that he had visited the grave of Sergeant Breen, and had performed the burial service.
Sergeant Bernard F. Breen was killed instantly by the bursting of a shell on a road leading from Monyblainville [sic] to Varennes, he was leading his section when it occurred, I was informed.
In conclusion I will say that I consider Sergeant Breen the best man in my Company, I had recommended him for a commission a short time before his death, he frequently spoke to me about his mother, and a brother who is a Captain in France. The men of my Company felt that they had lost a true comrade when he was killed. As I said in the beginning of this letter, it is with sorrow that I write this, as I had learned to love Sergeant Breen for the many brave deeds he had done on the field of battle.”
My subsequent search of World War I records has revealed that the “Father Wolf” referenced in Crow’s letter was the highly decorated 28th Division Reverend Lieutenant Joseph L. N. Wolfe. In a remarkable yet solemn coincidence, on Sept. 27, 1918, during the great Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, Joseph Wolfe from Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School Class of 1899 performed the burial service at the battlefield grave of Bernard Breen from Roman’s Class of 1902.
As I read Captain Crow’s letter, I wondered if it had brought any comfort to Ellen Breen to learn that her son was not only loved and respected by the men of his battalion, but that a fellow alumnus from Roman Catholic High School, a school whose alumni motto is “brothers for life,” had visited his grave. Was the anguish of her sorrow assuaged in knowing that, although Bernard died so far from home, one of his brothers was there and he wasn’t alone?
On May 24, I received an email from Bob Wagner, the former football coach of Roman Catholic High School and a graduate from the Class of 1963. He has been an enthusiastic supporter of my ongoing search for the alumni of Roman Catholic High School who gave their lives in World War I, and his email informed me that he had just arrived home from a trip to France where he had visited the gravesites of six Roman alumni who had given their lives in World War I. One of those gravesites was that of Bernard Breen in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Bob also found the exact spot along the road where Breen and his gunnery mate were killed, and he wrote: “It was, for sure, a very moving and surreal experience being at the graves of our brothers from RCHS who gave the ultimate gift for their country.”
I sent the photo that Bob took at Bernard Breen’s gravesite to Carol Breen, the great-niece of Bernard. She said in response: “It’s a blessing to know that someone cares to go visit the grave of a fallen soldier like this. Even though I never met him, we have shared DNA. Please express my gratitude to those who went. I’m very happy Bernard wasn’t forgotten.”
It is my sincere hope that on this Memorial Day weekend Carol and the Breen family took some small measure of comfort in knowing that a fellow alumnus from Roman Catholic High School had visited the spot where Bernard had fallen and then prayed at his grave. Although nearly 105 years had passed since Bernard Breen had been laid to rest, a brother was with him once again, and he wasn’t alone.
Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer. His book, “Soldiers, Space, and Stories of Life,” a compilation of 78 of his essays, is available at Amazon.