Commentary: In war, people marry in haste, leave behind in haste

The 1918 century-old newspaper headline ─ “Marry in Haste in War”─ jolted me out of the daze of a late night online genealogy research session. The article was about my great uncle Charles Alphonsus Duffy, a forgotten Irish-American hero from a forgotten American war.

The headline captured the tumultuous last year of his life. Charles was born in 1890 in New York City. His Catholic family was large, with nine siblings, including his sister (my grandmother) Florence Duffy O’Brien. His grandparents were poor immigrant laborers from Ireland, but Charles’ father and uncles significantly improved the family’s prospects with a successful building materials business. Eventually, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley would invest in it, and several of Charles’ other sisters would marry prominent New York businessmen, one a close friend of Babe Ruth.

Charles was tall with a medium build, gray eyes and dark hair. He graduated from Manhattan College and then worked as a clerk in the family business. Like the other young men of his era, the onset of World War I changed his life trajectory forever.

After America entered the war in the summer of 1917, Charles sought a U.S. Army commission at the Madison Barracks near Lake Ontario, an old base named after James Madison. He failed because of an injury, but afterwards was drafted and entered basic training at Camp Upton on Long Island. He quickly rose in the ranks.

In the spring of 1918, Charles received notice of his deployment to France. It was the eve of the Hundred Days Offensive, the decisive Allied maneuver designed to end the five-year bloody stalemate in Europe. Charles made his own decisive moves on the domestic front before he left.

Charles was dating Guenn McCarthy, the 23-year-old daughter of Thomas and Augusta “Gussie” McCarthy. Thomas was the treasurer of a large wholesale grocery business. Family lore says Gussie named Guenn after her favorite 1884 novel, “Guenn: A Wave on the Breton Coast” by New York writer Blanche Willis Howard.

Word of the pending deployment to Europe accelerated the young couple’s courtship. Charles proposed. Guenn accepted. The old newspaper article I found reported arrangements for the “war-hastened wedding” were made on a Friday and the ceremony held the next day, Saturday, March 16, 1918, at New York City’s Church of the Blessed Sacrament. Thanks to the invention and growing popularity of the telephone, “verbal invitations were extended to the relatives.”Soon after, Charles shipped out to Europe. Although Charles and Guenn were now separated by the Atlantic Ocean, their affection was infectious. Within a few months, Charles’ brother Richard, a Navy carpenters mate stationed in Brooklyn, married Guenn’s sister, Augusta Mona McCarthy. The future seemed bright for the newlyweds. Another newspaper reported Charles’ passion to serve despite having inherited “a fortune” from his recently-deceased father.

Charles was swept up into the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in northeastern France along with more than 1 million other Americans. Meuse-Argonne claimed 28,000 Germans, 26,277 Americans, and an unknown number of French lives. Led by legendary Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, it was one of the largest and deadliest campaigns in American military history. Ultimately, all history is personal. On Oct. 14, 1918, Lt. Charles Duffy was defending the Madeleine Farm near the front at Verdun, France. Just days before, American forces had captured the strategic site, but then endured withering machine gun and artillery fire as German forces tried to take it back. Uncle Charles was wounded in action at the farm and transported to an Army field hospital. He died there on the same day, 28 years old, with his whole life before him.

Just weeks later, the warring nations signed the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice ending the conflict.

Charles was buried, alongside 15,000 soldiers, in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France. They rest together beneath a blanket of soft green grass in eight large, carefully tended rectangular plots. Hundreds of sentinel trees stand eternal watch. The day after Christmas 1918, a newspaper article reported the sad news to Charles’ hometown. The grieving Duffy and McCarthy families held a memorial service in the same church that had hosted Charles’ and Guenn’s wedding just nine months earlier.

Because of war, Charles married Guenn in haste and left her behind in haste. In 1911 G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” It must have been quite a love. Guenn lived for another 50 years. She never remarried.

Michael Patrick O’Brien is a writer and lawyer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is writing a book about growing up at a rural Utah monastery. He blogs at https://theboymonk.com/.